It’s a bright and humid Sunday afternoon and Michael leans against his workstation as guests help themselves to a voyeur’s brunch around the studio. They browse through sample racks and run their fingers across hand-dyed silk dresses and coral knit scarves. Mr. Drummond greets his new friends with warm smiles and soft hellos.
Guests become immediately captivated by a huge collage of Hans Levi photographs covering the entire front door wall.
“I’m always surprised when people come in and they’re NOT amazed by his photos,” he says bewildered.
Drummond acquired the photos in a box from the St. Louis photographer and knew he had to use them. A quick glance across the wall brings into focus black and white and faded color images of early 70s Acid hippies and street prophets in Berkeley, California…giggling kids splashing on top of the St. Louis Zoo’s elephant fountain…a woman’s naked, nappy bush….a weary, pissed off newspaper editor sitting at a desk.
The studio has a casual, disco-punk chic visual style: Animal skulls, an abandoned disco ball on the rug, Saint Harvey Milk iconography in a red bathroom, a queer shrine to Tara (Buddhist goddess of liberation), his roommate’s giant Nemo plushie and cactus plants lining his bedroom.
Drummond has been in his Art Loft studio for two years and looking out of his view gets a candid view of other tourists playing at City Museum.
“It’s like watching gerbils crawl around a cage,” he says. “Everybody always does the same thing.”
Well not everybody. Particularly, not Drummond.
Like a photo of him wrapped in bandages as a mummy back from the dead on a grainy television screen.
“Its from a home movie I did when I was a teenager.”
Or abstaining from denim.
“I did not want to wear denim,” he says. “I hated it! I went to a Catholic high school so I got to wear my black Dockers and white button up and blazer uniform all the time. I was really, really particular about my clothes and I would always button the top button because I thought I showed too much skin. [he laughs] I think I had a side-spike”
Drummond was born in St. Louis and grew up in North County where he realized he was gay around third grade. His parents divorced around the same time.
“My family life was a little dysfunctional to say the least so for their sake I won‘t get into that. It was definitely not a June Cleaver house.”
Drummond graduated high school and moved to San Francisco to study design at Academy of Art University. He says it was there that he began to experience a real sense of freedom and fashion.
“When we were kids we were so busy raising ourselves that I don’t think I really knew how to take care of myself. I lived in a dorm and had to get a job and support myself in this new city so I worked and went out with my friends and we were educating ourselves in fashion. I was hanging out with creative people who were really attempting to be apart of what was avant garde. It was like a game: Who knows the most about that designer or how much do you know about what fashion was trending. We played it so much I think I still play it today.”
He says he eventually dropped out of school after an instructor told him, “We don’t experiment,” and he realized it was a “racket“. He left with a new curiosity in knitwear and design but that he didn’t fully focus his energy into his work until after he was back in St. Louis having daily panic attacks in his basement.
“I was 22 and looking at myself in the mirror and everything would shut down. I was partying too much and I had panic attacks where I felt like I wasn’t doing anything with my life. Eventually I said fuck this and I went back to school, got a job and started working on my line. I channeled all that energy from the panic attacks and put it into my work. I would spend hours in my basement learning how to knit, drinking coffee and listening to Tori Amos.”
The work paid off. Drummond received an offer to write a book on knit work patterns and decides to write it while living in a remote cabin in the woods of Olympia, Washington. “One of the most important things I’ve ever done and the best time of my life,” he says about being submerged in the wilderness knitting by candlelight, chopping firewood for warmth and using an outhouse for six months.
The book deal fell threw and Michael was ready to return to St. Louis to work on costume design for a Washington University opera in production in Germany. When that ended he picked up a random job and was laid off and began to realize that it was time to launch his fashion line. Four months later he wins Project Design and less than a year and a half after that is chosen as one of 17 designers for Season 8 of Project Runway.
“They [producers] had said they liked my line and originally wanted me to try out for Season 6. I said thank you but my stuff is knit and I couldn’t do that on the show…I didn’t even know how to construct a pair of pants but when they called me again I had some more experience under my belt. I just remember thinking: I’m 31 and I’d like some new furniture [laughs]…and I knew it would launch my career so what did I have to lose?”
Drummond didn’t win but his line, The Exquisite Corpse, and his unique construction with knitwear are being watched by fashion designers, writers and bloggers as he begins new steps toward production and retail buyers. Building a brand isn’t easy and life after the runway still requires Drummond to take on styling gigs with advertisers as he’s works on designs for clients and growing his line.
“The new fears are now: Am I going to be able to get this into production, are people going to believe me or is this going to crash and burn? Can I use this momentum and utilize all this hard work to its fullest potential? But everything that I have ever visualized has come true and I can see it and I can taste it and I can see it manifest in a very cool fucking way. I’m feeling very positive but I think I’ll be very hungry for a while and that‘s fine.”
The open studio tour is winding down and the final guests are an older couple. They immediately start talking Project Runway.
“We loved you on the show! Did the show help your career?” asks the wife.
“It opened up a lot of doors and I feel like that I got a lot of respect and credibility from it…I know it did I just have a hard time looking backwards.”
The husband adds, “We hear the judges can be bitchy.”
“Oh that Michael Kors is the worrssst,” the wife replies.
Michael smiles. “Well it is a producer driven TV show.”
The couple smile and nod and Michael shuts the door behind them.
“I hear same questions over and over that I can almost predict them: Has it helped your career? Is Heidi really that beautiful? Is Gretchen a bitch? Poor Mondo.”
He laughs and begins another look at his photo wall. He remembers how amazing he felt to watch his collection walk down the runway in Bryant Park during New York Fashion Week. How he cried while listening to praises and compliments. He says it was so much of what he has always wanted to do that he could have walked away from it all, “and teach French in New Orleans…try that one out for a while.”
He’s always liked those people who live different lives and do different things but he says he can’t quit designing.
“Fashion is a tough business but if you love it you just can’t walk away from it. When you see your vision come to life and see it produced and on a runway then it’s rewarding. What are you going to do? Your only other option is regret and who the fuck wants that? Not me.”
BY: JOSHUA BARTON