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A 'Runway' Success
Designer Laura Bennett on Ponytails, Motherhood and Staying Simply Chic

By Jill Hudson Neal
Special to washingtonpost.com
Tuesday, October 31, 2006 5:50 PM

If you didn't watch the third season of Bravo TV's hugely successful reality show "Project Runway," contestant Laura Bennett's name may draw a blank. The 43-year-old architect quickly established herself on the series as a bit of a tough, sexy cookie, the kind of woman who wears a pair of $600 shoes and a black cocktail dress to the office because it makes her feel better. Pin-thin, husky-voiced, hyper-focused and immaculately turned out at all times, Bennett created terrific-looking ensembles for nearly every fashion challenge, outfits that a real woman might wear if she had the budget and the occasion.

And although she was an early fan favorite, Bennett's name didn't really get thrown into heavy watercooler rotation until she confessed that she was pregnant with her sixth child. I don't actually know anyone who has six children -- well, anyone my age, anyway -- but I started hoping that she'd win for real just because I could see in her eyes how tired and determined she was. The one-time single mom didn't win "Project Runway," (Jeffrey Sebalia did), but she came away with a sizable, empathetic following.

I reached the designer in her Manhattan apartment last week just before her children (who range in age from 18 to three) came home from school. Two weeks out from her due date, Bennett was, not surprisingly, chatty and self-assured.

So Laura, this baby is number six for you. Does pregnancy get any easier?

I don't know about the pregnancy, but the delivery gets quicker. The last labor was only two hours. I went to the hospital and husband almost missed the whole thing.

You were my favorite contestant on the show this year, especially after I found out that you had all those kids! And you were so focused, even when you were in your first trimester.

Well, that's what mothers have to do. We learn that you have no time to whine and complain because you have people depending on you. You have to get things done; that's how you move through life. Being a mother has given me time management skills and discipline. You get done what you need to do. Motherhood has absolutely made me stronger and able to handle the whole thing

Yet you manage to look so pulled together.

Mothers don't usually put themselves first, but I do a little bit. My whole dressing up thing is my way of taking time for myself within the chaos of it all. But I didn't expect to go so far in the competition.

You sure seemed confident on the show.

Well, I thought it would be fun for my friends and family to know someone on the show.

Seriously, that was your motivation?

I enjoyed watching the show for two seasons and I live three blocks from Macy's where the audition took place. So I just did it.

Your design aesthetic seems very grown-up, and I mean that in a complimentary way. Have you found that women are responding to that?

Yeah, and it's very surprising. And I know exactly what you mean by very grown-up. I was making clothes that were right for a woman of my age. For women who want to look great and elegant, and who need things to be easy and simple. A lot of mothers need that.

Have you always had such a strong signature look?

I've always been drawn to simplicity, but I've developed a sense of style that's come with maturity and age. I used to be more of a follower when I was younger. My daughter is 18 now and in the last couple of years we'd be out walking on the street and she'd say, "Mom, everyone's staring at you!" Like that was bad! I'd tell her, "I think they're staring because I look great!" That's the difference between a girl and a woman. You have to be comfortable in your own skin and know who you are.

Well, maybe that's why I thought you were very hip. I mean, I don't know you, obviously, but your attitude about taking the time to put yourself together every day made sense.

You can't have this many children in an apartment in New York if you're not going to learn to let go of some things.

The fact that I get really dressed up is a conscious decision for me to hold my own in this chaos and caregiving that I have to do every day.

How long does it take you to get ready in the morning?

Oh, you'd be so shocked how little time it takes.

Please don't tell me something silly like ten minutes. That's absurd.

Absolutely! I can wash my hair and comb it into a ponytail. I'd probably be better off with a little bit of softness around my face, but I go for that look because even if it's dirty, it looks good. I wear dresses every day because they're so simple. I'm not a flats gal, but that's just my choice. I wear one of those long-lasting lipsticks and I wear false eyelashes and I leave them on. I wake up with eyes. It's so low maintenance and easy for me.

I also have a very edited closet. There's barely anything in there. Everything in there I've actually sewn and wear. I have three things that I didn't make. In the last five years, I've purchased only three things that I didn't make.

I noticed that you rocked a full-on equestrian look for one of the challenges. I didn't see that coming.

I know it seems wacky, but to me that's my version of jeans and sneakers.

Yeah, okay, that's a little off-the-wall.

I'm mean, if I'm going to be in the country, where I have to walk on grass -- and I can't walk on grass in my Manolos -- I'll wear those riding pants and boots. I probably do have a pair of Levi's 501 jeans somewhere in the house but I'm just not a jeans person. I'm not against jeans for other people, but I do expect women to take time for themselves and not put themselves completely last behind their families and children. To try taking care of yourself and see if that makes you feel better and see if that benefits your family.

I don't expect women to do it exactly the way that I do it; that's not what I'm suggesting. If your upgrade in your clothing is a nice pair of trousers and loafers, then my advice is to try it for a week. Get dressed every day a little bit nicer than you would've and see if it makes a difference in your day. See if you feel better. See if people treat you better. I guarantee that it'll happen.

When you were growing up, was your mom always very pulled together?

Not on a day-to-day basis like I do it, but when she did get dressed, it was always effortless. She had the pieces nearby that she needed and it wasn't fussy. But she has a lot of dogs, so she doesn't wear cocktail dresses all day like I do.

You were born and raised in New Orleans. Your look, though, is very Manhattan, very Upper East Side. Have you always had this Audrey Hepburn thing?

I've always been drawn to simplicity, but I've definitely cultivated my style over the years. I'm going for a very simple, elegant and classic and easy style. It's also very consistent. My friends are never shocked by what I wear when I walk into a room. I'd suggest to women, especially ones with children, that you develop a uniform for yourself and your lifestyle. Make it easy to look great.

How do you go about doing that?

Edit your closet. Know what looks good on you.

I'm also into quality as opposed to quantity. I'd rather wear four dresses over and over again than to have ten dresses that aren't made as nicely and don't fit as well. Don't worry that someone's going to say, "Didn't you wear that last week?" Well, yeah, I did actually. What's the big deal?

Shopping isn't a sport for me... but I do buy a lot of shoes.

How many do you own? Is this a Carrie Bradshaw kind of thing?

I know I have at least 40 pairs of really nice shoes. Sometimes I'll stand in front of my shoes and I have so many choices that'll look great with the simple thing that I have on that it can be difficult for me to choose.

This is how Laura Bennett becomes overwhelmed. It's not the five kids; it's in the shoe closet.

(Laughs). Yeah. But editing is really key to making it easy.

My rules are: Go for quality. Edit your choices. Develop your own style and uniform. And look hard at yourself. Know what works on you. If you need to wear an A-line skirt because you're a pear shape, don't buy the pencil skirt. No matter how many pencil skirts you see in Vogue that month, just don't go there.

After all of these children, how are you so thin? I'm not hating on you, understand, but what are you doing to make that happen?

I swear, I think staying busy keeps people thin. Also, I usually start out my morning by running on the track at the YMCA. I run around in circles for 5 or 6 miles every morning and it gives me time to organize my day, put it all in order. I'll go over conversations that I need to have, make lists. It helps me stay thin. And I really feel the endorphin rush from exercise.

Is that your only time to yourself?

I have a half-day to myself for just a couple more weeks because my three-year-old started preschool in September. But when I'm standing in my apartment and I'm the only one here, it's a very bizarre feeling. I've grown to learn how to function in chaos.

What's next for you?

I'm putting together a maternity line, which was a no-brainer. I'd made all these maternity dresses for myself and I thought, "Damn, I've just designed a collection." I'd like to find someone to manufacture and license that. I also want to do a line of daywear for women, a line of simple dresses that'd offer all women an alternative to sweat pants. A black jersey T-shirt dress or a simple gabardine pleated piece.

I want to keep encouraging women to take the time to take care of themselves and spend a few extra minutes on themselves in the mornings and see if it doesn't benefit their families by boosting their own self-esteem and nourishing their own souls.

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