Jhoan “Sebastian” Grey still remembers the design advice he got from one of his favorite teachers at Miami’s Istituto Marangoni.
“She told me, ‘Why do you always do these shapes, these flowy skirts and flowy arms?’ She was always pushing me to learn new things and get out of my comfort zone,” he says.
Though she was tough — Grey would sometimes leave her class in tears — he was grateful she challenged him. And he’s certainly taken her advice: Earlier this month, Grey became the winner of season 17 of Project Runway, rising to the top of a group of 16 contestants and earning the largest prize in the show’s history.
When his win was announced, judge Nina Garcia told him, “I am so proud of the story that you have told. You are the personification of the American Dream.”
Born in Cali, Colombia, Grey got his start working in his family’s leather business. At age 8 he enrolled in Incolballet, a fine arts school, and was inspired by his time studying ballet and observing the way costumes were constructed to handle movement. Their push and pull between softness and strength became a major influence for the budding designer. Grey went on to study fashion design at the Academy of Professional Drawing in Colombia, then earned a scholarship to the Istituto Marangoni. After a company he was working for in Ecuador sent him to New York to do research, he knew he wanted to move to the U.S., and ended up settling in Fort Lauderdale.
“I think the most important thing I learned from the show is I discovered who I am as a fashion designer,” Grey says of Project Runway. He also learned how to trust his instincts — a crucial skill for keeping up with the fast-paced challenges each week. The designers often had only 30 minutes to sketch out their ideas, and 30 minutes to buy fabric. “That’s really crazy because sometimes you want to touch the fabric, you want to see how it moves, you want to see how it drapes, before you buy it,” says Grey. “But you don’t have time to play with the fabric; you just have to grab it, cut it, start working.”
During the season, Grey designed a look for a video game character of his invention, an Elton John-inspired ensemble, and an evening gown made only of duct tape and autumn leaves. In one of his favorite episodes, dedicated to hard-working New York women, he made an elegant, peach-colored “dream dress” for a worker from the New York Department of Sanitation.
Another favorite moment came “when I was finally able to express feeling through my clothes,” he says. Asked to create a look inspired by a cause he cares about, Grey thought about his experiences as an immigrant in the United States and designed a dress representing racial equality.
“I want to talk about that because everybody in this country came from a different background, even people that are born here,” he says.
To send his message, he used organza, which gets increasingly darker the more you layer it. “I tried to use the light brown color and layer it more and more, so it was giving me all the tints of the skin tones that I wanted to represent,” he says.
That level of thoughtfulness, care, and attention to detail was present in Grey’s final collection as well, which brought together many facets of his identity. Titled “Reminiscence,” it’s full of bright blues and oranges, those long, flowy ballerina skirts, and powerful silhouettes. It’s the kind of clothing that somehow manages to be both romantic and edgy, bringing to mind laid-back beach vibes and working women on city streets, without the two contradicting each other.
When planning the designs, Grey thought about how happy he’d been as a child, going on road trips with his parents to visit coastal areas of Colombia like Cartagena and Barranquilla. He also wanted to honor the artisans and traditional crafts of his native country, and combine that with his personal experiences. The colors he chose came from the sunny streets and beautiful beaches, the blues of the ocean, and the vibrant, burnt-orange plant used by local artisans to dye fabric.
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That combination of influences is also evident in the leather mesh that runs through his collection. “Leather is the legacy of my family, and I mixed it with the work of the artisans,” Grey says. “I created this leather mesh which was all woven by hand, representing the baskets and all the hard work of the artisans.”
Making the mesh was painstaking — it took nearly a month to craft the sandy brown dress that closed his runway show — but the effect is remarkable, giving leather a softness and breeziness it doesn’t often have, while still retaining the strength of the material. Another dress, all white with lines running from top to bottom, was a fabric Grey made by hand, sewing each piece into place to create the pattern. It was “a representation of how the indigenous in my country paint their bodies,” he says. “I tried to re-create that with the fabric.”
When Grey was announced as the winner, “I felt I was dreaming,” he says. “It was unbelievable. I just started crying of happiness because all this hard work finally paid off. It’s funny because sometimes when I see the video, I cry watching myself.”
These days, Grey is working on his capsule collection and making plans to fulfill his dream of opening his own store. Aside from that, “My goal as a designer is to be able to dress all the beautiful women in this world,” he says, “to make them feel happy and comfortable and secure, and that they are able to do everything they imagine with my clothes.”