Ari South, Project Runway: All Stars designer, on her art, her transition, and her faith

Ari South, whose fashion line uses her former name, Andy South, was a top three finalist on season eight of Project Runway. Since her success on the show, she has been designing for Neiman Marcus in Hawaii and has opened her own store in Honolulu.  After transitioning from Andy to Ari, she now returns for a brand new season of Project Runway: All Stars. We conducted an interview with Ari about the changes in her life and the goals she has for this competition.  

You competed on Project Runway before your transition, but now you will be competing as Ari. In what ways do you think this change will affect your journey on Project Runway: All Stars?

I know that I can focus on the task at hand.  I don't have all the struggles with identity lingering over my head and heart while competing.  In many ways, I feel whole and fulfilled with myself and that allows me to go about my life happily and without all the weight or shame holding me down.

Has your design aesthetic evolved since you were last on the show?

It has.  I would hope that everyone has progressed as designers.  Being very young on season 8, I was seen as someone still finding myself as a designer, and it makes sense now that that was the final critique I received from the judges.  I always knew that my work is rooted in my soul -- when I feel like I have to protect myself, the designs are harder with a lot of bite.  When I finally found a place where I could feel comfortable with my own identity, I was able to balance that hard, protective aesthetic with my femininity and softness.  Many people noticed that even as male, I was very soft and quiet in demeanor, while my designs were severe a lot of the time.  You could see glimpses of my own internal struggles when I would design something so fragile and light, got reamed for it, and then came back with a hard ass, warrior woman design to win that next challenge.  

Today, Andy South represents the classic, yet forward-thinking woman who lives today.  A modern trendsetter without even knowing it.  My muse is someone who truly expresses her life seasons through the clothing she wears and is a woman who is in tune with the universal language of balance and consequence.  She is soft yet unrelenting, sweet with a bite.  In essence, I realized that she is me.  Perhaps the reason my work directly relates to my stages in life and my personal journey, which is also a journey that everyone can find ways to connect with.  

My line is carried at Neiman Marcus, in the contemporary, CUSP department among Alexander Wang and Philip Lim.  I have developed my creative ideas and deep back stories to  communicate through clothing that real women love and adore.  

What are your biggest influencers as a designer? What other designers do you find inspiring?

Current events often trigger my imagination while history and the people I meet every day continue to inspire me.  I am an old soul, so I connect with people who are older than myself and I find treasures in their stories, their memories.  I like the engineering of clothing.  Construction methods that are no longer used today, I seek to learn and apply them to my work. I still love Yohji Yamamoto, Junya Watanabe, Comme des Garcons, and Givenchy.  

There are several prominent transgender models and designers like Nina Poon, Lea T, Andrej Pejic, and Cy Lauz. What do you think this says about the fashion industry being accepting of transgender people?

The fashion and beauty industries have always embraced the ideas of androgyny and it made it very easy to embrace the trans community.  I would love to see more trans models on the runway, and I think it is a matter of time.  The real struggle is the rest of the world accepting us as human beings and not a gimmick.  Realizing that there is an equal place for us among our male and female counterparts, that there is a place in the middle.  Our battle is a matter of gender identity, and not sexual orientation.  We are making great moves in the right direction, but I would love to see more of an impression made on communities to finally understand what this all means.  I guess you could say that I have a dream... many dreams that I hope to see come true for the world.  

Are there transgender people who have shared their stories in the media that inspired you?

Janet Mock.  Janet shared her story when she really did not have to.  She did so in Marie Claire when suicides related to bullying and LGBT fatalities were becoming prevalent in the news and media.  That was when I learned how courage can inspire courage.  How one woman's story and fight could instill a similar fire within me to do my part and share myself with the world in hopes that it will lead to better days.  I began to see trans women who were accomplishing many things in the realms of politics, literature, and business.  It was then that I felt the courage to live my life the way I needed to.  I saw that I could be everything I ever wanted to be, because I would be whole.  

As a designer, is there any advice you would offer to a young transgender woman just starting her transition?

Know that you are not alone.  Surround yourself with people who truly care for your best interests and never be scared to do what you feel is best.  We have to all learn to listen to that gut feeling.  A place that is referred to as your na`au in Hawaiian.  It is where your instincts, your soul, and your life source is.  What feels right, you must do; and what is right, you must fight for.  This road is not an easy one.  A lot of the time you have to search within yourself to find the strength and courage to move forward while on this path.  

A lot of times, I wish I could be right alongside every girl going through their doubts and battling their demons, but something I can do is inspire hope.  The women who have come before me have shown such strength to go through far more difficult times than I ever will.  

Be courageous for yourself and for your family and friends because when it begins with you, your support will find strength in your perseverance.  In many ways, we have to be the strong ones, helping people to understand our place and moving on from there.  This should not be your entire life, but a part of your journey.  You have many dreams to accomplish and boundaries to break where being transgender should not be the only thing that describes you.  Go for every dream you ever imagined... they might indeed all come true!

In your interview with PBS in Hawaii, you mentioned that you center yourself in the word of God. How were you able to reconcile your transition with your faith, and do you have any words of encouragement for people struggling with the same issue?

I don't mind sharing about my faith.  I wish more individuals did.  My walk with God is between He and I.  LGBT issues are not in opposition of religion if that religion is based on the Spirit and the foundation of Love and non-judgement.  I used to struggle a lot with questions of myself being deserving of God's love and time and time again, He has shown me that I am who I am because the purpose He has for my life is much greater than my own understanding.  Remembering that my faith is based in an ongoing relationship with God and rooted in unconditional love, I was able to find peace with myself and my faith.  

My God teaches to love all people, including enemies.  He teaches to not pass judgment.  I will never be perfect, but I strive to love like God.  I don't have the answers that would make everyone satisfied with my explanation of my spiritual connection, but what I can offer as encouragement in finding the answers is to always ask yourself if your intent is right.  If you are living in truth or hypocritically saying one thing while thinking another.  

I know that God hears everything I think and everything I feel.  Knowing that keeps me accountable for my actions, and my actions toward others are based on what I think God would want me to do.  I have gotten rid of the idea that we are deserving of an eye for an eye a long time ago.  It has allowed me to accept those that oppose me and to not let them kick me as I take the high road to love on them anyway.  Hopefully one day we will all learn to live in harmony with one another.  Where our intent is based in greater good and community.

Take a look below at Ari in action on the new season of Project Runway: All Stars which premieres this Thursday, October 24 at 9/8c on Lifetime.