As a high school sophomore growing up in Samoa, Afa Ah Loo was late to register for classes. Hoping for an automotive or art course, he instead ended up in the only one with space remaining: home economics.
The teacher assigned him to the cooking section — until he inadvertently set the kitchen on fire, which ended up being the Utahn’s first step on his path to the TV show “Project Runway” (Thursdays, 9 p.m., Bravo).
“The very first week, we were cooking brownies, I believe,” he said. “Instead of baking something, I fried it and I almost burned down the kitchen. It went up in flames. And the teacher was like, ‘I think cooking is not your thing. I think maybe we should switch you over to sewing.’
“And then the next you know, I was so into it.”
Other than learning how to operate a sewing machine in class, he said, “all I know about fashion and sewing, I taught myself.” His “first and only” class project was a “hand mitten,” which was “was supposed to take us the entire semester, and I finished it in two days.”
The teacher told him to make another, “so I ended up with, like, 40 hand mittens because I was so fast at making them. … Even now, I’m still a very fast sewer.”
That comes in handy on “Project Runway,” which he said is “one of the hardest things I’ve done because it’s very demanding because of the turnaround.” And this is a guy who’s had one of his designs displayed at Buckingham Palace.
Ah Loo applied to be on the show three times without success; the show’s new producers reached out to him, encouraging him to make a fourth try. “I feel like it’s a whole new Bravo ‘Project Runway,’” he said.
The show originated on Bravo in 2004. After five seasons, it moved to Lifetime for Seasons 6-16. And now, in the wake of the bankruptcy of The Weinstein Company, which formerly owned the license to “Project Runway,” the show is back on Bravo and the original producers are back in charge.
There’s a new host (Karlie Kloss replaces Heidi Klum); a new mentor (Season 4 winner Christian Siriano replaces Tim Gunn); two new judges (Brandon Maxwell and Elaine Welteroth join Nina Garcia, replacing Zac Posen); and there’s both a new workroom and a new runway.
“There’s so many seasons on past ‘Project Runways’ where I watch and I’m thinking, ‘How did you end up on “Project Runway” when you can barely sew?’” Ah Loo said. ”I feel like this season people were cast for their talent, rather than drama.”
Which is not to say there’s no drama this time around. It was right there in the first episode, and Ah Loo played a part in it — albeit in a supporting and supportive role. He comforted fellow contestant Frankie Lewis, who struggled badly in the first challenge, with kind words, a hug and some help in the sewing room.
(Lewis ended up staying, though she was one of two up for elimination. First-episode villain Cavanaugh Baker went home.)
Each week, the contestants get maybe 30 minutes to sketch a design; 30 minutes to shop for fabric and supplies; and a matter of hours over one or two days to create their project.
“I know that I’m a fast sewer, but sewing is completely different from the actual sketching and designing and coming up with ideas,” Ah Loo said. “So I feel like being on ‘Project Runway,’ in a way, is more intimidating than showing in front of the world.”
And the 33-year-old doesn’t get intimidated by much.
“I’ve always stayed true to myself,” Ah Loo said. “When I went on ‘Project Runway,’ that was the one thing I had to constantly remind myself — to not lose myself in the show. So the island boy who left Samoa three years ago and moved to Salt Lake City is the same island boy you’ll see today.”
He moved to Utah when he got married; Ah Loo and his wife, Laura, are the parents of a young daughter.
That was actually his return to Utah — a mission call from The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints brought him to Salt Lake City the first time. He attended BYU-Hawaii, where he majored in political science and planned on a career as a lawyer or an FBI agent.
“But after my mission, I was like, ‘You know what? I’m going to do what makes me feel happy. And I knew for sure that sitting behind a desk was not going to make me happy,” Ah Loo said. “So I thought to myself, ‘Yeah, no, not going to do that. I’m going to be a designer.’”
He credits his mother, who died in 2014, with encouraging him to follow his dream.
“Growing up in Samoa with a Polynesian background, a man has a man’s job and a woman has a woman’s job,” Ah Loo said. “And that was the one thing that kind of held me back from designing and sewing, because a lot of people had misperceptions of me and who I was and my sexuality.
“But my mom was the one who really pushed me and said, ‘You know what? Who cares what anyone thinks? You know who you are. You are comfortable with who you are. Just do whatever.’”
You can see Ah Loo and his designs in person when he hosts a fashion show on April 13 at The Gateway in Salt Lake City. For more information, go to afaahloo.com.
Ah Loo said he is “very inclusive,” creating clothing for “any type of body, height, gender ... I design for anyone and everyone. It’s just who I am and I’m proud of it.”