Ben Chmura: A Cut Above The Rest

Tampa Bay fashion designer Ben Chmura admits he wasn't always a fan of the reality TV show Project Runway. "I'd heard about it but wasn't sold on the concept," says the 30-year-old. "Then mid-season, I caught an episode and immediately became a fan of the show."

Chmura's been showcasing his fashions in the Bay area for the past six years, participating last fall in his first official Fashion Week at the second annual Fashion Week Tampa Bay.

"It was a great experience for me because not only did I get to connect with other designers in the area, it gave me a sense that there are people here that appreciate what we do," he says.

Now Chmura will get an opportunity to display his talents to a much wider audience as part of the new cast for Season 7 of Project Runway, premiering Thursday, Jan. 14, at 10 p.m. on Lifetime. After auditioning twice previously, Chmura says too many signs compelled him to try one more time.

"Everyone was commenting on MySpace telling me to go for Season 7, so finally my husband Bobby and I thought 'what do I have to lose?' Maybe third time's a charm," he says.

Artist in the Making

Chmura hails originally from Connecticut but in 1990, his family moved to Dunedin FL where he and his younger sister grew up. Drawing served as a natural outlet throughout childhood for a quiet, shy boy to channel his creative energy. And then Tim Burton's cinematic take on Batman was released, and comic books quickly became the next object of his affection. For eight years, he honed his illustration skills, until he realized he was more interested in developing characters than storyline and soon interest shifted from illustration to costume design.

Chmura left Florida to attend the fashion program at the Savannah College of Art and Design, where his future was unexpectedly revealed after his first class. His professor asked students to pick a name out of a hat and design an entire collection based on the artist listed. Chmura picked Henri Matisse and says being able to fuse his interests in character and costume into original designs left a powerful impression. "Ever since that moment I was sold. I wanted to do fashion design," he says.

For Chmura, the college experience opened his eyes not only to fashion but to himself. "When I was younger, I kept to myself and was totally okay with staying inside and drawing all day. Once I went to college, I became more extroverted and interested in finding out who I am and becoming comfortable in my skin," he says.

From Concepts to Collections

After earning his B.F.A. in Fashion Design in 2001, Chmura moved to New York City for a few years where he worked at Fishman and Tobin and freelanced for such companies as Ralph Lauren, American Eagle and Men's Express. He returned to Tampa two years later to become a full-time designer and has been garnering attention for his unique conceptual designs ever since.

Many of his early works are tied to literary themes including collections inspired by Wizard of Oz and Little Red Riding Hood, such as his Red Hood collection, a menswear line with a semi-autobiographical spin of the tale about a young gay man heading out into the world to discover himself. But one of his most talked-about collections is Venom, Chmura's most recent cocktail dress collection.

"I had been invited to take part in a Super Bowl pre-party fashion show. While Bobby and I were driving home from Daytona, we were trying to figure out what work I should show and listening to a Japanese pop singer BoA and a song called 'Eat You Up.' I started thinking about a dress with a diamond cutout on the back and just kept going on until finally I said, 'That's it, I'm doing a collection based on venomous snakes,' " he says.

But Chmura didn't simply envision dresses inspired by snakes. He researched to the most minute detail every bit of anatomy and musculature for each snake featured as one of the dresses, so much that even the seams and linings resembled the very snake that inspired the dress.

"You wouldn't think about it when you see someone wearing it, but when you hear the name of the dress and look at the detail, the elements pop out, whether it's the coloring, the seamwork or the lining. I like to push the envelope further when it comes to the story behind a garment," he says. "That's what I've been trying to do while I've been here, put a little more thought behind the work but still make it accessible and fun."

Capturing A New Audience

For Chmura, being an independent fashion designer in the Bay area has allowed him to grow and try new things. He's been an active member of the community and co-founded an annual art, music and fashion event, Sweatshop, which celebrates the relationship between music and fashion and how they've inspired each other.

Thursday night (Jan. 14), Chmura will be joined by local friends and fans at a favorite downtown Sushi bar to view the premiere of Project Runway. While he knows his appearance will expose his fashions to a whole new audience, his hope is to broaden people's perception of design.

"Fashion is an art form. I want to convey through the show that there are ideas and concepts behind it. It's not just something you throw on your back and go," he says.

Chmura says that Project Runway was a great learning experience and validated what he had thought all along: that he can handle just about anything. "I do well under pressure. I've always thought that I was that type of person, and this is an experience that's very demanding and you have to learn to adapt," he says. "But it helped me learn the direction that I want to go as a designer and the kinds of things I want to do in my life and through my work."

Chris Kuhn is a freelance writer who lives and works in the 'burbs of Tampa with her husband and 11-year-old dachshund-Chihuahua (a/k/a her assistant). Comments? Contact 83 Degrees.
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