Star of ‘Project Runway’ hits Dallas

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When Shirin Askari walked into a Starbucks near her home in Richardson to meet with me, the first thing I noticed, other than her artsy black jacket, was her huge sincere smile and arms outstretched for a hug.

I nearly had to sit down to give her a warm embrace, but when I did I immediately felt the larger-than-life presence that took up all of her five-foot-one petite frame.

What Askari lacks in height she makes up with the experience, maturity and celebrity status that she has gained from working in the cutthroat fashion industry and from the “Lifetime” hit show, “Project Runway.”

A contestant on season six, Askari made it to the ninth episode of the show before host Heidi Klum uttered her famous line, “You’re out.”

The 24-year-old Persian fashion designer from the University of North Texas has exhibited endless drive and motivation, catapulting Askari out of Richardson and into success in New York and Los Angeles.

 When a knee injury put her post-graduation trip to Europe on hold in 2008, one of her professors from UNT suggested she audition for “Project Runway.”

With nothing else to do and her knee in a large, bulky cast, Askari set up a tri-pod at home and hobbled around, filming her creations from college.

Askari joked, “I thought ‘I’m a gimp right now, why would they want me?'” But her act took her from UNT to reality television in just a few short weeks. By that time, her knee was all healed and the real work began.

“I never thought I would be on the show. That stuff doesn’t happen to people I know, or me,” Askari said.

From the moment the 16 contestants arrived in Los Angeles for the five weeks of filming that lay ahead of them, their belongings such as cell phones, iPods, sketch books, newspapers and anything that could be used to communicate with the outside world or to work with were taken from them.

They were welcomed into closed-quarters, with sewing machines and fabric. If one of the contestants had to go to the bathroom, one of the production assistants had to go with them. They were on a strict schedule and told when they were allowed to eat, sleep, work and even talk to one another.

“We didn’t have any connection to the outside world. That was when the banks had crashed and we didn’t even know about it. We couldn’t go outside by ourselves; we couldn’t go to the bathroom by ourselves. [We were] in some concentration camp it felt like,” Askari said.

However stressful and unsatisfying the show was (Askari thought she should not have gotten the boot so early on), Askari took the experience on the show in stride and used the criticisms and tips to debut her very first clothing line here in Dallas a few weeks ago.

Askarai said her mother is her biggest fan. She was going places at an early age and her mother could see the drive and sparkle in her daughter’s eye when she sewed her very first dress at age seven, her mother said.

Askari holds her roots very close to her heart. Still living in her mom’s house, her older brother’s old room now has several hanging racks and mannequins scattered everywhere with pieces of fall-colored fabrics and wedding dresses cluttering the room.

Though she has looked at other spaces to relocate, her family and friends are so important that Askari does not plan on leaving the studio in her mother’s house anytime soon.

“I wouldn’t have gotten into this collection if my family and friends hadn’t have been, ‘you’re going to be fine,'” she said.

At lot like Carrie Underwood’s country lyrics, Shirin Askari is a small-town, down-to-Earth girl at heart.

But, the public still seems to notice her. And with 400 people at her fashion show in Dallas and 30 million viewers of her season on “Project Runway,” it’s no wonder Askari is on her way to becoming the next Diane von Furstenburg.

“One of the main things that’s changed is people recognize me. So I can’t dress like a scrub when I leave the house…my mother would kill me,” Askari said. It is nice to be loved, though.

Askari has been bombarded with e-mails, messages and phone calls informing her how she is a huge star in Switzerland and Mumbai, India to name a few.

But all the fame and popularity certainly hasn’t gone to her head. Askari is more concerned and preoccupied with her multiple tasks at hand. Between four orders of custom wedding dresses and custom orders for her collection, Askari is still just focused on creating wearable clothes for everyone.

She said, “I’d rather see my clothing on real people rather than just models…I want people to wear it.”

And wear it they will. Like the jacket she wore to the interview (and even let me try on), Askari’s debut clothing line will most likely be mass produced and available to Americans across the country in stores like Neiman Marcus or Barney’s New York.Right now, she is producing custom orders from her recent show for fall and holiday 2010.

Once she receives an offer from the more mainstream companies like Neiman’s, they will then purchase all of the line or select pieces that they want in their stores that will then be mass-produced for retail.

Dallas boutiques, like Melanie Gayle in Snider Plaza, Assembly in West Village and Elements on West Lovers Lane already carried Askari’s designs. The price points will aim to be around $200 to $400, perfect in these high-end stores and will be especially popular with Dallas fashionistas and New Yorkers as well.

Though she has come so far already and reached millions across the globe, Askari’s long-term goal in the fashion business is for the masses to be able to purchase her clothing and dress in her label.

For custom order items and wedding dresses, visit her Web site at www.shirinaskaristore.com.

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