A former member of the Murray High hockey team is the odds-on favorite to win the current season of “Project Runway.”
Brandon Kee is certainly a favorite of the judges on the Emmy-winning fashion design competition series — the show that made Tim Gunn a pop-culture icon. Kee has been showered with praise by Heidi Klum, Nina Garcia and Zac Posen.
He’s not the only finalist with Utah ties. If Kee is the favorite, then his next top competitor has to be Ayana Ife, a Salt Lake City woman who defied expectations with her modest designs inspired by her Islamic faith.
They were the first two who advanced to New York Fashion Week in the penultimate episode. A winner will be declared in the “Project Runway” season finale on Thursday at 7 p.m. on Lifetime.
Kee, who just turned 25, quietly stood out when he was growing up in Murray.
“All throughout junior high and high school I was taking all the sewing classes I could,” he said. “It was definitely only me and the girls. There was no one else really into fashion. And it kind of worked out for me. Being that nobody else was into it, it was my own thing.”
Not that that was his only interest.
“I was into sports and I played on the Murray High hockey team,” he said. “And on the weekends, I would have all the jocks over — all the hockey kids — and they’d all bring their pants and I’d be tailoring all these big, buff guys’ pants. My dad thought that was the funniest thing in the world.”
Kee just might get the last laugh. As Season 16 of “Project Runway” heads toward a conclusion, he has won more challenges (three) than any other contestant; he’s been among those getting the highest scores more times (eight) than any other contestant; he’s never been in danger of elimination; and he’s gotten arguably the most praise from the judges.
Not bad for a guy who had never made a dress before he went on the show. Kee is a menswear designer, with a degree from The Academy of Arts in San Francisco.
“No, I had never made women’s clothes,” he said. “But the way the market is going right now, it really worked to my advantage.”
His designs are decidedly androgynous, with menswear elements.
“It’s very now and very in. And I kind of knew my style would translate,” Kee said. “Obviously, I was concerned — never making womenswear before. But I don’t really sculpt to the body. I don’t do super-fitted pieces. So I didn’t have to really worry about that kind of fit issue. It was more about tastefulness and proportion and layering and how it all comes together.”
It’s come together amazingly well for a guy who auditioned for the show “on a whim.” Who set his phone on his kitchen counter, recorded himself in one take and sent the video off to “Project Runway” producers.
“I was surprised when they called me back and wanted me to come audition,” said Kee, who had watched “a few episodes here and there” but had never watched a season of the show from beginning to end.
“And I was very hesitant to even do it,” he said. “Coming from the Academy of Arts, ‘Project Runway’ wasn’t necessarily the step you take to be a successful designer. It’s a platform, more than anything, to get exposure.”
It’s working. He’s getting recognized in public.
“Yeah, a little more than I like,” he said with a laugh. Recently, he was walking in San Francisco when a low-rider pulled up next to him and the driver “stuck his head out and said, ’Heeeey, “Project Runway”!’ That just blew my mind.”
Viewers have seen a calm, cool Kee who rarely seems rattled. This season, the 16th, has had its share of reality-show drama — including one contestant who was disqualified for cheating — but Kee has managed to avoid it.
“It’s just my nature. My personality,” he said. “For me, more than anything, it was just awkward. It was like — this doesn’t have to happen.”
For Kee, winning a design challenge was the easy part— talking about it afterward was hard.
“That’s not my style,” he said. “But I figured out how the system works. And I did slowly kind of warm up to the whole situation.”
But he does admit he was somewhat put off by “so many cameras around and so many strong personalities.” After production began, he was still questioning his decision to go on the show.
“But I know that those are the kind of pivotal moments that you grow from,” he said. “And thank God I stayed.”
After watching his episodes on TV, Kee somewhat reluctantly admits “I did all right. And that’s surprising to me. I look a lot better on TV than I thought.”
Coincidentally, he already knew his other competitor with Utah ties. Kee returned home this past March for Utah Fashion Week — again, “on a whim” — and met Ife.
“I got to see her stuff and meet her. And then to just randomly show up, get taken to a warehouse and there she is” when “Project Runway” began, “It was kind of surreal. But it was definitely comforting for me in a way, feeling like there someone else that I could relate to. And we did chat a little bit about what it’s like to live in Salt Lake. It was cool to have two people from the valley on the show.”