The hands behind the seams of the gravity-defying swimwear on ABC’s new celebrity diving show Splash? They belong to none other than Project Runway season one runner-up Kara Saun. And Splash isn’t her first TV credit — in fact, Saun began her career as a costume designer before Runway was even a twinkle in Heidi Klum’s eye.
EW caught up with Saun to talk about how she got her start as a costume designer, how she helps the Splash contestants swimsuit-up, and whether she’s been watching Project Runway.
EW: Viewers got to know you on season one of Project Runway, how did you go from that to designing swimsuits for Splash?
Kara Saun: I had been costume designing before Runway. I’ve done a lot of various shows, and I had worked with Josh Greenberg — who’s the executive producer [of Splash] — on five seasons of MTV’s America’s Best Dance Crew and three seasons of NBC’s The Sing Off. He called me for Splash, and I was very excited to have the opportunity to design and create swimwear. It’s so much fun! I had done swimwear before in the past, for my own line. I like to call [the swimsuits on Splash] eveningwear for swimwear. My line of clothing was very red carpet, so that’s what I’ve been known for.
What made you want to get into costume design and how did you get your foot in the door?
When I was first starting out, I was designing all these really crazy things. I thought my clothes really needed to be ‘in entertainment.’ My first job as an actual costume designer was in 1999 for Queen Latifah’s talk show. She has a long time hairstylist, Julie Taylor, who said ‘Hey I’m doing Latifah’s hair, you’d be great designing some pieces for her!’ I [started] designing pieces for her and the producers liked the work, so they asked me to be the costume designer [for her show]. I came in at the middle of season one because they wanted to give her a new look. I also did her for the Oscars and a lot of her red carpet appearances around that time.
Were you working on any shows when you decided to apply for Project Runway?
I worked on a show called Eve [with the rapper] for a year, and the timing worked out perfectly because that segued right into Project Runway. I was on hiatus from Eve and someone showed me an article in Elle magazine that said ‘Are you the next Donna Karan or Calvin Klein?’ and there was a picture of Heidi Klum. Back then, there weren’t a lot of reality shows like that; talent driven reality shows. I just knew when I saw that ad, it was for me. I just knew that it was what I was supposed to do, but I had missed all the auditions! I literally found out about it and there was only one audition left in South Beach, Florida, so I hopped a plane, got my samples together and auditioned. It was pretty amazing. Coming from being behind the scenes and then being in front of the cameras, I’d keep talking to the crew and [saying things like] ‘I’m just like you, don’t treat me like talent!’ I loved the experience of being on Project Runway, but I love being behind the scenes too. When Runway first came out and everybody started recognizing me, it was a really fun experience and it led to a lot of the work that came after.
What kind of work?
Immediately after Project Runway there was a windfall of projects. I did a campaign for America’s Next Top Model, there was a show called R U the Girl with TLC where they were looking for a new band mate for the group. Drew Brown, the producer of What I Like About You, had seen me on Project Runway and he tracked me down and said ‘I loved your personality on Project Runway and I know you’re a costume designer, I think you’d really work well with the cast.’ That was a really fun show to work with — Amanda and Jenny Garth were great. For that show, it was really about changing the direction of the show for the last seasons to give them a different direction. I did a lot of other things, like being a spokesperson and making appearances. Then I started costume designing for a lot of different reality shows. The type of shows that I do are all talent driven, and the thing I like about that is that you’re really helping that dancer or that artist find their direction. A lot of them are just starting out, so they don’t come to the show with a persona, per se. It’s something that I help create, and a lot of them end up using that when they go forward. So it’s been really fun to give all these aspiring talent what they need to go out and give their best performance. If they look great and feel like they look great, the really do perform their best.
What are the differences between designing costumes and designing for the runway?
It’s very different! When I’m designing for the runway, I do what I want. I base my line off my inspiration, what I feel for that season, and what I want for my client. When you’re costume designing, you have a lot of people to think about. First and foremost, I want to make sure the talent feels comfortable so that they can give their best performance. If someone doesn’t like what they wear they don’t perform as well. Then you have producers…It is very different from fashion design. A lot of the time, I have to break down a script, I listen to music, I pay attention to the theme. There are so many different elements that you’re working with.
On the third season of The Sing-Off, I had 150 contestants to dress. And people don’t understand, every week, head-to-toe, we design the looks for the talent that comes on these shows. A lot of people think they dress themselves, but they don’t have time to go shopping to do color-coordinated outfits every week, you know? It’s not just designing the wardrobe, but I also have a huge crew to manage and a budget. There are a lot of things that go into costume design besides designing.
[There's always] a very short turn-around. Even when I was on Project Runway, we had to turn looks around in 2 or 3 days. Reality shows are fast and furious — with America’s Best Dance Crew, I had 70-80 contestants every week. Splash [has fewer contestants], but it’s more intense because designing swimwear is very different from other types of wardrobe. It’s a different type of fabric and a different skill set.
Do you still create designs for your own fashion line?
I do. I’ve been fortunate in that people contact me when they have an event to go to or a red carpet that they have to walk. My collections are more custom-created. I did a lot of red carpet looks for Heidi Klum during her pregnancy, and I’ve done red carpet looks for Queen Latifah, Vanessa Minnillo Lachey, and Joy Bryant, who starred in a movie I worked on called Baadasssss! I’ve also done things for Zoe Saldana for a few magazine [editorials].
Do you still watch Project Runway?
People always ask me that! I don’t really have a lot of time for TV because I’m working, but I do keep up with some of the producers and I kind of know what’s going on. But I haven’t been able to watch other episodes. I do love the franchise and it was amazing being a part of it. People always remember [the first] season which is great. Even what I’m doing now, people always remember: ‘You’re Kara Saun from Project Runway!’ It’s really fun to be a part of a show that caught on like it did.
See the colorful swimsuits Kara Saun has created for the celebrity divers on ABC’s Splash.