By Rya Backer
Stella Zotis had long been a fan favorite on “Project Runway,” what with her declarations of living and dying rock and roll, incorporating leather and grommets to toughen up an otherwise-mundane design for the show’s challenges and her big, inviting personality.
“I’m living my proudest moment right now,” Stella said of being on the show and the opportunities that have been presented since. “I’m putting pressure on myself to cultivate new ideas,” namely, preparing a line to coincide with the opening of her store next month on the Lower East Side. Flanked by her boyfriend, Ratbones (yes, just Ratbones), and legendary photographer and close friend Mick Rock, Stella sat down in the Chelsea apartment she shares with Rat to talk “Runway” and how her lifestyle has affected her work.
Rock was quick to point out that the living room’s decor — replete with portraits (mostly by Rock, naturally) of rock luminaries such as Ozzy Osbourne, Iggy Pop, David Bowie and the Rolling Stones and an original screen print from a T-shirt sold at Vivienne Westwood’s legendary boutique, Sex — is an ideal reflection of Zotis’ aesthetic, a look she refers to as “pure style.” “The thing about Stella,” Rock said, “is she’s pure New York rock and roll.” To her, heavy denim and leather aren’t trend pieces, they fit a lifestyle she and her peers have long been a part of. Though she’s even declared that she “doesn’t like” the way most clothing looks when not constructed from said materials, Stella does have a softer side. “I love Sade,” she admitted. “She’s just a beautiful songwriter.”
“I didn’t have to look at magazines,” she said when describing how she first took to her look in her late teens. “I wanted to look like Iggy, wearing leather pants. … I liked the way the New York Dolls looked; I wanted to look like that.” And so, with the help of her mother and a family steeped in the fur and leather industries in their native Greece, she made the garments of the subculture. It remained a hobby, and she instead spent her years working as a makeup artist in the music industry.
A fateful photo shoot of Blondie’s Debbie Harry with Rock behind the lens, however, offered an awakening. “[Stella] would get a bit bored,” Rock laughed about their years of working together on photo shoots. Not one for sitting idle, Stella would “physically adjust clothes and add pieces of my wardrobe” to the subjects she made up. The orders for her custom designs came in, and she soon made a living exclusively from it. The rocker she’d most like to dress? Iggy Pop.
Like many designers who go on the Bravo show, Stella used “Project Runway” to garner greater exposure. It didn’t occur to her, however, that many of the season’s challenges wouldn’t be centered on her forte. She went to button stores instead of hardware stores, Mood instead of her leather supplier, and worked with sewing machines unlike the sturdier machines used for sewing leather (and her trusty Ratbones couldn’t play DJ as he often does when Stella works at home, playing tracks from Bad Brains and Bob Marley). In retrospect, she appreciated designing out of her comfort zone, and in true rock-and-roll fashion, she wasn’t that bothered about being kicked off. When asked about it, she proudly gushed, “Honey, I went out in style!”