TORONTO — Hamilton fashion designer Charles Lu spent most of the past decade building his career abroad.
First came school in London, then a job as creative director for a Dubai fashion house, and then he headed to Los Angeles, where he taped a whirlwind appearance on Netflix’s new competitive series “Next In Fashion.”
Now that Lu is poised to gain a global streaming audience with the show’s launch this week, the self-described “smalltown boy” is back home where it all started, living with his parents and plotting his next steps.
“That was a giant period of growth for me and it made me realize a lot about myself, about my design, about what I wanted in my life and the validation I receive from others,” Lu says of the reality series.
“It was one of the most difficult things that I’d ever done in my life. It asks everything of you.”
The Canadian is stereotypically self-effacing in his appraisal of how he fared against the competition — this show distinguishes itself from Bravo’s long running “Project Runway” by recruiting seasoned professionals who have already worked for major brands and dressed A-listers.
“It’s not like fresh-out-of-university or anything, just people who have been in the industry for a while without recognition,” Lu says in advance of Wednesday’s premiere.
“Other designers work for way more established people so I kind of felt like the underdog the entire time. I also have impostor syndrome so I’m like, ‘Why am I here?’”
Tan France, the style guru of Netflix’s “Queer Eye,” and British designer and model Alexa Chung serve as co-hosts and judges, while a rotating list of fashion bigwigs make guest appearances to also weigh in on each garment and whittle contenders down to the winner of a $250,000 grand prize.
Lu says he grew up watching “Project Runway” and admits to being “starstruck” by France. But the whole process of shooting “Next In Fashion” was “rigorous” and “surreal,” says the 28-year-old, noting each episode demands contestants design and create a complete look in just a day and a half.
Another twist is that contenders are paired and must work together on a cohesive look. In some cases their fate is tied to someone they know, but in other cases like Lu, with someone they’d never met before.
The meticulous, technically minded Lu couldn’t be more different from his partner, Italian designer Angelo Cruciani who is depicted as a whimsical artist who frets over his lack of sewing skills but injects a lighthearted playfulness to the proceedings.
Lu says he and Cruciani began communicating online before the show to build rapport. Lu admits he can be high-strung, but was lucky to have a supportive partner.
“There would be moments where I had — and I think it’s clear — where I have anxiety and I get stressed,” says Lu, a fitness nut who relieves stress by going to the gym. “It’s very emotional when I work.”
Lu has other quirks — for one thing he’s always seen in shorts, a habit he says he picked up after living in hot Dubai: “That’s my thing. After living in hot weather, I hate trousers.”
And he describes himself as a “black sheep” in the family, since his parents are Vietnamese refugees who didn’t always understand his career choice. They’re very supportive now, he adds, and he admits that his experiences on “Next In Fashion” helped him hone his big-picture ambitions.
“When I was younger, I was a smalltown boy getting made fun of all the time, I didn’t fit in. So I went to London and all of a sudden I wanted to be that London boy, and that was for five years…. And then going to Dubai (I learned) to embrace my past,” he says.
“I spent so much of my time in my life investing in and infusing my own work into others people’s brands, making their brands be the best I could provide. And I always neglected my own design, and it’s always something I wanted to venture into.”
Now, he says he’s “more tenacious.”
“Who knows where I’ll end up?” says Lu.
This report by The Canadian Press was first published Jan. 29, 2020.
Cassandra Szklarski, The Canadian Press