McCarthy shows that it takes lots of talent and endless hard work, not TV cameras, to make it as a designer

By Julianne Mosoff

Bravo TV’s Project Runway cameras focus on Emmett McCarthy as he stands alongside Santino Rice on a full-length runway. The designers are wearing skating costumes given to them at the start of the challenge—McCarthy’s consists of a fluorescent pink shirt complete with a sequined cursive “E”—and have just shown their own ice skating costumes to guest star and Olympic medalist Sasha Cohen. The judges have deliberated, and one of the two contestants left is about to be kicked off.

“Santino, you are in,” says supermodel Heidi Klum. “That means Emmett, you are out.” She gives McCarthy her signature ‘auf wiedersehen’ with a kiss on both cheeks. He gracefully walks off the set.

“My most memorable experience of the show,” says McCarthy, “was being handed a box with a hot pink skating top with big puffy sleeves and a pair of double knit skating pants. It had a feeling of foreboding doom!”

Now the owner of chic womenswear boutique EMc2 at 240 Elizabeth Street in Nolita, Emmett McCarthy has come a long way from his elimination in the seventh challenge of Project Runway season 2, aired in 2005. His dedication and attention to detail led him to open the store. He has also presented a collection for QVC, debuted a line of handbags, and is currently working on a line of shoes for Zappos. And though he credits Project Runway with helping him gain recognition, it is clear that McCarthy’s dedication is what really allowed him to succeed in the fashion industry.

McCarthy had never even heard of the show until hours before tryouts. “On a whim, I went,” he says. “10 days later I was a contestant being filmed for Project Runway season 2.”

Project Runway is a reality show where 16 aspiring fashion designers compete in a series of challenges for the chance to show their collection at New York Fashion Week. Contestants are given limited time and money for each design, and every episode ends with a runway show and elimination.

Aptly described in a profile on fan blog Project Rungay as a “big, aristocratic giraffe,” McCarthy is nothing like the quiet and reserved character he appears to be on the show. Like many other reality shows, the Project Runway script often calls for theatricality and drama, but McCarthy’s long term goal was to maintain his professional image. Knowing that the show would be replayed on TV for years, he wanted to make sure to preserve his reputation as a serious designer.

Five years later, McCarthy plans to continue filling EMc2 with the beautiful designs he’s become known for, such as his popular classic belted dress he calls the Audrey. “My customer is sophisticated and elegant, but also feminine,” he says.

“EMc2 is an absolute gem of a boutique, and Emmett’s designs are worn by women of all ages,” says Susan Scafidi, McCarthy’s lawyer and personal friend. “His clothes are timeless with a twist, and I get as many compliments wearing items from his very first season as from his most recent.”

Emmett McCarthy, 47, was born in North Haven, Connecticut, the sixth of eight children to an Irish Catholic family, and began to attend art and music school at the early age of 5.

He learned how to stitch on a 1940’s sewing machine in the basement of his family home. “It had a nice slow tempo in stitching,” he says, “a wonderful advantage for a novice. I started early and loved the process of cutting and sewing and creating clothing.”

School at the Education Center for the Arts in New Haven inspired McCarthy to pursue fashion design as a career, especially after former Parson’s fashion chair Tim Gunn, who he still remains friends with, came to speak. McCarthy moved to New York City and received his BFA from Parson’s School of Design, later getting a masters degree from NYU. He interviewed with the major couturiers in Paris and London, then returned to New York to design for a series of menswear corporations such as Ralph Lauren and Wrangler.

McCarthy was starting to delve into womenswear when he was told about Project Runway, which offers prizes like a spread in Elle magazine and $100,000 to launch a line, and the audition happening just hours later. Then 42, he impressed the judges with his lifetime of experience and was chosen to be a contestant. The challenges were tough, and the 16 hopefuls were given little time to design and construct their garments. Being very detail oriented, McCarthy often had difficulty conceptualizing designs with a limited time period and was kicked off during the seventh challenge while wearing that shamefully pink skating shirt.

McCarthy has achieved everything he’s set out to do after being eliminated on the show. He’s transitioned to womenswear and opened the boutique. He’s worked on collections of handbags and shoes. He’s created the popular Tim Gunn Bobblehead and used the profits to build his backyard design studio. And he’s managed to keep his boutique in business during an economic recession.

His marketing strategy puts his clients’ needs first, which has kept the business profitable. He compares fashion to cable TV—with 93 channels to choose from, it’s very important to pay attention to the intended audience.

McCarthy maintains a dual focus on business strategy and creative design. “Emmett wears two hats—the artist’s beret and the businessman’s bowler—quite naturally,” says Susan Scafidi.

McCarthy’s attention to detail and calculating wit has helped maintain the 750-square-foot Nolita boutique that sells his collections as well as some designs by Project Runway costars Kara Janx, Nick Verreos, Alison Kelly, and season 2 winner Chloe Dao.

Right now, McCarthy is excited to pick out the new color palette for his spring collection. “Butter yellow, pale turquoise, light pink, seafoam green, warm grey—all cotton,” he says. He’s planning on continuing to build the EMc2 brand, continuing to present beautiful collections along with working on his side projects like his upcoming shoe line.

McCarthy is certainly not a reality TV has-been, nor the quiet character he appeared to be on the show. He’s been enormously successful in the past five years, and he did it all without the $100,000 prize.

“In person,” says Scafidi, “Emmett has a great sense of humor, is an avid conversationalist—and wouldn’t be caught dead in a hot pink skating costume.”