With the seventh season of Project Runway nearing its end, take a look back to see where the silk road has led ousted Season One contestant, Robert Plotkin

By Samantha Tilipman

Robert Plotkin; courtesy of The Project Runway Fansite, theprojectrunway.com

New York Fashion Week extends from Midtown’s Bryant Park down to the showrooms of SoHo where leggy models strut designers’ collections. Between casting calls and runway shows they scurry in five-inch heels to the Spring Street Starbucks where they order skinny lattes.

Front row at this impromptu fashion show sits Robert Plotkin, fashion designer and ousted contestant of Project Runway. “Are you kidding me, its 25 degrees outside and that girl is wearing shorts,” he says, inhaling a grande coffee. Plotkin, 36, was the fourth-runner up in 2005 on Bravo TV’s first season of Project Runway, a reality show based on a fashion competition.

Dressed in a black jacket with the hood lined in fur and a nectarine v-neck t-shirt, Plotkin admits he hasn’t been sleeping much. He pulls out a picture of his one-month old son and points to his blood shot eyes behind a pair of black rimmed glasses as explanation. From 14-hour days in the fashion industry to sleepless nights as a father, Plotkin has changed his lifestyle, but not his sleeping habits. Watching models break for coffee and cigarettes is as close as he gets to fashion these days. Today, he works in finance, managing his own stock portfolio, with a group of longtime friends.

But one summer afternoon in 2005, Plotkin stood in a two-hour casting line outside the SoHo Grand Hotel. He auditioned for Project Runway on a whim, spontaneity typical of his “happy-go-lucky” personality. To him, the show was simply a project, a test to see how far he could get.

At the end of the initial audition, producers asked Plotkin to continue onto the next step of auditioning by introducing himself via video-biography. Emigrating from Russia, Plotkin’s parents came to America with two suitcases and $300 cash, all spent on baby girl clothes in the hopes that Robert would be born Roberta. Perhaps the unintentional spark that attracted Plotkin to women’s clothing were the pink overalls he sported for the first three months of life. Plotkin wanted to find a unique way to explain similar signs which brought him to his calling.

Beginning with his elementary school where he first dressed paper dolls, Plotkin drove around his hometown of Rockland County with a camera velcroed to his dashboard. Presenting the places that inadvertently inspired his fashion career, Plotkin passed his mother’s beauty salon where he’d skim issues of Harper’s Bazaar and Vogue after school. Then he headed into New York City and filmed his alma mater, The Fashion Institute of Technology. The final scene captured Plotkin at a friend’s apartment with half a bottle of Jack Daniels. “That’s what makes your personality really shine,” he says.

Soon after, Plotkin received a phone call from a psychiatrist while he was celebrating a friend’s bachelor party in Montreal. Drunk and sleep deprived, Plotkin had a casual “interview” with him. A week later Plotkin received another call: He made the show. The shrink told the producer that Plotkin was out of his mind and he would make for great T.V.

Producers liked the potential for an explosive personality, but it was also Plotkin’s background in fashion that snared him a spot among the first 12 contestants. After graduating F.I.T. in 2002, Plotkin worked at Polo for a year before he moved to St. Petersburg, Russia to set up his own line, Robert Trebor (Robert spelled backwards). By age 24, Plotkin put together his own company, reeling in investors and eventually selling his collection internationally to 30 boutiques.

Plotkin showed his collection in the St. Petersburg Fashion Week winning Best New Show for two years. But, in 2004 when shops began cutting back orders due to the post-9/11 economy, Plotkin folded his line and moved back to the States. Jobless and with a chance to jump back into the industry, he auditioned for Project Runway.

For 25 days and with cameras everywhere, Plotkin and the other contestants tackled back-to-back challenges. Waking at 7 a.m. to leave for the Parson School of Design workroom, the designers made it work until midnight.

While Plotkin was sequestered in Midtown he was unable to speak with his family, including his grandmother, whom he had previously called daily, and his girlfriend, now wife, Natalia Plotkin. “We got a chance to realize that we can’t be apart for long periods of time,” says Natalia.

After days of nonstop competition, Plotkin lost the eighth challenge, in which contestants had to re-design the Postal Service uniform. Plotkin’s outfit was too casual and looked unfinished. After his elimination, he was driven to the Hudson Hotel.

“I was like ‘holy shit, now I’m in real reality’,” says Plotkin. “After I checked into my room, I went down and sat in the lobby for hours and absorbed everything, I probably looked like I was high on crack.

Despite all the headaches and stress triggered by the show, Plotkin isn’t disappointed with the experience.

“I definitely don’t regret it. There were perks, I used to get free coffee, but now I have to pay for it,” he says laughing. “The weirdest thing was that people used to ask me for autographs.”

After the show, Plotkin dabbled in interior design before he returned to fashion. For a short period Plotkin worked for Laundry by Design by Shelly Siegel before helping one of the department heads launch her own line, Haute Hippie. Traveling internationally once again, Plotkin was away from his now wife and infant son. Rearranging priorities, Plotkin changed his profession.

For almost a year, Plotkin has been working in portfolio management with friends who have been in finance for years. Now, he is home on time to pick his older son up from school. Will he remain in finance? “Talk to me six months later and I might be back into design,” he says. “Anything that you’re not doing, that you’re born to do, you’re always missing it because it’s in your blood.”

Does gazing at the models from behind the Starbucks window make Plotkin wish he would have had the chance to be in the show’s top three to show his collection at Fashion Week?

“Back then it might have been a dream to show at Fashion Week, but that dream costs a lot of money,” says Plotkin. “I’m a lot more mature knowledge-wise now, and if I were to ever start a line again I’d do it smaller with more on the mass appeal. This isn’t a fantasy, this is a business.”