After he won Project Runway: Threads in 2014, Tieler James' life became a balancing act. The 15-year-old designer wakes up at 6 a.m. to take an hourlong bus ride from Abita Springs to New Orleans Center for Creative Arts, where he studies a standard curriculum and theater design. When he gets home, he designs and sews clothing until 10 p.m., when his mother Tahmi Hawsey insists on lights out.
"After I've spent 14 hours at school, I come home and start sewing, sketching, draping," James says. "I like to do two looks a day. I thrive on creative energy."
James says he's always had a flair for acting, dancing and other arts, but he showed the most aptitude for sketching. When he came out as gay, he used art as an outlet for his feelings.
"I came out when I was 9 and got bullied really badly," James says. "I sketched to get out a lot of emotions."
In 2012, when he was 12 years old, James testified at the Louisiana House of Representatives, urging lawmakers to pass an anti-bullying law. "[The school administration] was saying he was too openly gay and trying to recruit people," Hawsey says. "He testified to tell the story that it's not OK to call me a fag. I thought it was pretty brave." That bill and similar ones faced strong opposition by conservative lawmakers, but James continued to fight.
James also overcame his fears when he was tapped by Tracee Dundas to audition for Project Runway: Threads after attending one of New Orleans Fashion Week's fashion camps at the Ogden Museum of Southern Art. "At first I didn't want to do it because I had a fear of being put down or of failure," James says. "But my mom was like, 'No, you're going to do this. Let's get you ready.'"
James won the competition. He was featured in Vogue UK, Glamour UK and Seventeen and named emerging designer of the year at South Walton Fashion Week. James' first trunk show opened at Peony NOLA last month, and at 7 p.m. Jan. 13 he will show his designs at Eiffel Society as part of Coastal Fashion Week.
James plans to attend college and establish himself in the New York and London fashion industries. He credits New Orleans for nurturing his talent.
"The New Orleans fashion industry has cradled me as their baby," he says. "We are a tight-knit family. If one person succeeds, the others will as well. We are all building each other up."
Special thanks to makeup artist Midori Tajiri-Byrd, hairstylist Roxy Diaz and Peony NOLA for hosting the shoot.