Costumer extraordinaire, Chris March died Thursday, September 5, 2019 from a heart attack. We first met Chris in San Francisco in the 1990s and immediately fell in love with his sense of humor and over-the-top fashion designs and costumes. When asked about his work he said: “I try to make big and bright things that make me and other people happy. It doesn’t matter what you are in life as long as you are good. If you are going to be conservative about your goals then why bother. I don’t think about things too much, I just dive in and do them.”
Here’s is a profile we did of Chris in our September 2012 Fashion Issue
THE MAESTRO OF MAD FASHION
by Lawrence Ferber
If laughter is the best medicine, Chris March is like a pharmacist with a bottomless dispensary. Infectiously joyous and upbeat, even when dishing out sass, the Project Runway fan favorite’s conversations are rife with effervescent laughs and giggles. This bubbly nature combined with his design talent has earned him loyal fans and clients like Meryl Streep (he designed her 2010 Oscar and Golden Globe dresses).
He’s just as bubbly and refreshingly open during a conversation about his career and life. The San Francisco area-born theatrical costume designer has seemingly done it all—from Runway’s runaway success and landing his own Bravo reality series, Mad Fashion to working with A-listers like Beyonce and Lady Gaga (his celebrity wish list, though, still includes idol/muse Stevie Nicks, whose name he stitches inside everything he makes).
“Anybody who is really going to wear something kind of crazy,” he laughingly shares
“Obviously Nicki Minaj. She seems like she’ll wear just about anything. They cover her in glue and roll her in stuffed animals, and it’s an outfit!”
Indeed, the designer’s over-the-top creations are what helped him not only stand out on that fateful fourth season of Project Runway, but led to being cast in the first place. In NYC, where he heads up Chris March Design , March first met Project Runway mentor Tim Gunn while working on a fashion show for Wish-Bone salad dressing at Grand Central Station, constructing outfits and accessories from real, fresh salad ingredients.
“We had a refrigerated truck we were working in,” he amusingly recalls. “And they hired Tim to be the emcee of the show, so when I met him there, he was like, ‘I saw your portfolio and sketches, and you need to come audition.’ He gave me his card and told me to give it to the guy at the front of the [audition] line so I didn’t have to wait. I did, and they took me right away, and, all of a sudden, before I knew it, ten days later I was on the show.”
Being on Runway changed March’s life and not just professionally. He also met his boyfriend via fan e-mail while the show aired. “I started getting all these requests for dates and obviously more lurid things than that,” he laughs. “Literally, I would get like 500 requests a week. I didn’t answer any of these for months and months, on Valentine’s Day I got this e-mail from this guy, it was kind of funny, and there was something about it. I Googled him, and he sounded interesting. I told him I would meet, and we did, and we’ve practically been together every minute since, and it’s been four years.” We’ll get back to the boyfriend and Runway later.
March’s story actually begins on Alameda, an island in San Francisco Bay. He regards his childhood as idyllic, thanks to the Bay Area’s relaxed, fun-loving, “outwardly expressive” setting, and a family that encouraged and enabled his creativity and personality. He learned to sew from his mother, herself an artistic soul (and “Lucille Ball type,” March adds). At school he was encouraged by teachers to express himself through colorful costume creations.
“The first time I ever did drag in public was at our 6th-grade talent show,” he laughs. “As Phyllis Diller! I made my own outfit, sewed a dress from one of my mother’s patterns, made a wig, and copied Diller’s act off of TV. I never learned to have limitations in that kind of world. I was encouraged to do everything I wanted.”
Old movies, Dior, and TV’s wacky game show Let’s Make a Deal numerate among his earliest influences. “When I was a kid, my mother was on Deal,” he shares. “She took a trip to LA with a friend, and they ended up on the show. It was always fascinating to see my mother on TV and the whole costume thing—the more outrageous your costume the better your chances of being on the show.”
After spending his junior high school years in Washington D.C., while his father was stationed at the Pentagon, March and family returned to the Bay Area. He opted for a general education at college, but fashion and costume design remained his dream career. He eventually landed a costuming gig at the long-running theatrical production, Beach Blanket Bingo, where he worked for ten years.
“Their whole aesthetic is everything is outrageous and oversized,” he explains. “But even my fashion stuff seems to lend itself more to the theatrical side because it’s more fun. Architects don’t want to build tract housing— they want to build big, beautiful museums and things. I love couture stuff, I love red carpet stuff, but it’s much more fun to work on [something theatrical].”
Realizing that in order to branch out beyond theater, the fashion epicenter of New York City would need to be his base of operations. March headed East in 2001, bringing us to Project Runway. While winning was his ultimate goal, he recalls that a more immediate concern reared its head once on set. “Reality TV had been on for a while, and I watched some of those shows, and I thought, I do not want to be the villain!” he chuckles. “I looked around and thought they already have a couple of potential villains, so maybe if I just be myself and have fun and make jokes, it could only help. So I went in without many expectations. I just wanted to make sure I wasn’t the villain!”
March was, however, “auf wiedersen”-ed on the fourth episode, yet, in a last-minute surprise, returned on the following episode when contestant Jack left the show due to a nasty MRSA infection that required hospitalization. Despite having made peace with his elimination, March was forced back on and made it as far as the first finale (he also went on to appear in Project Runway All-Star Challenge).
When asked how the show most immediately changed his life, March says that he received complimentary and positive feedback both through email and on the street. “I got this overwhelming positive response all day long,” he recalls. “And you get treated better! I forget what it’s like to go to a restaurant and not have someone give you a table because they recognize you. I don’t remember what it’s like to not be treated this way. But that’s not why I did it. It’s just one of the nice things about it.”
One of those people who saw the show and adored March was Meryl Streep, who was filming Doubt at the time. Streep’s longtime makeup artist, J. Roy Helland, was friends with March, and Helland mentioned this to Streep while on set one day. Pleasantly surprised, Streep told Helland that she wanted to attend the season finale at Bryant Park and meet him. Streep’s request was fulfilled, and she hit it off with March. When Meryl was later nominated for a Golden Globe for her performance as Julia Child in Julie & Julia, she rang him up.
“She said she was tired of all these designers making her stuff she doesn’t look good in,” March recalls, “and that she hates going on the red carpet and getting crucified for being on the worst dressed list so would I fit her. I was like, ‘let me think for a second. What’s your name again?’ ”
March’s dress, a black gown with oversized leather belt and brass buckle, hit the mark, earning accolades by fashion pundits and commentators (and more than a few surprised, incredulous reactions from those used to his wackier concoctions, he admits: “I got calls from all over the world to confirm I made the dress”). Streep engaged him again for the Oscars, this time a slinky and classy white dress, which scored even higher marks and plaudits. “It changed everything,” he says. “I don’t know how to explain it, but all of a sudden having that kind of attachment to Meryl, she was on every ‘best dressed’ list after the Academy Awards, and everyone was tuned in and heard her say my name. It was like my phone exploded. I mean four billion people watch the Oscars. It gave me and my career this legitimacy it didn’t have before.”
The calls and clients came fast and furious, and often, as with Project Runway, with short-notice deadlines. He says that many commissions were for Lady Gaga-style garments, so when the real Lady Gaga contacted him last September to make her an outfit, he didn’t realize it was the genuine article. “I woke up one morning and my eyes were blurry and my e-mail said ‘Gaga Outfit,’” he recalls. “I looked at it like, oh, another one. And then I thought, wait a minute, this is really from Lady Gaga and they want me to make them something!” With less than a week to delivery, March managed to create Lady Gaga a The Matrix-meets-Thunderdome motorcycle jacket for the Las Vegas iHeartRadio concert.
In 2010, March published a coffee table book, I Heart Chris March, compiling 25 years’ worth of photos of his designs, including plenty of himself in elaborate drag ensembles like Wonder Woman and Divine. Also that year, a development executive from the office of reality TV guru Mark Burnett (Survivor, The Apprentice) called March to propose a show, Mad Fashion, that would follow him and his team as they whip up creations (often against those insanely tight, great-for-TV-drama deadlines) for clients. A production company was secured and Bravo signed on for a season that aired in late 2011.
“I was a little bit shocked that Bravo TV was willing to put someone like me on TV,” March confesses. “I’m not your typical gay guy, I’m not a muscle queen or young. I just happen to be funny and quote-unquote lovable. We were told not to censor one thing we said on the set, and we really appreciated it and it made the show so much more fun.”
The jury is still out regarding whether there will be a second season, but March keeps more than busy with his commissions, plus dedication to Broadway Cares/Equity Fight AIDS.
When March and his life partner travel for leisure, they prefer extended stays to really decompress, disconnect, and get away from New York’s high-pressure, fast-paced day-to-day life. They spent all of October 2010 in upstate New York’s peaceful Woodstock, made even more special by the fall’s changing colors and a Halloween celebration.
However, March also chooses sunny Florida and Hawaii as favorite vacation destinations for their tropical atmosphere. “Hawaii has its own everything,” he says. “Culture, food, it smells different, the light is different, you’re on an island. It’s such a laid-back way of living. I really did love Roseanne Barr’s latest reality show. She moved to Hawaii to get away from LA and has a macadamia farm. I wanted to be beamed into that show. But from New York, Hawaii is 12 hours away. It’s just too far. I’ll suffice with Florida.”
As for fashion, he says that New York is the capital of ready-to-wear, while London and Paris are home to some of the most creative designers today. No matter where you go, however, March’s fashion tips apply universally. “Always dress for the type of body you have,” he says. “You can’t dress according to trends because they don’t work on anybody. And spend money on quality items and get fewer things rather than buy a whole bunch of junk. I spent $400 on a pair of shoes and I love them, and they still look brand new. People think they are the most beautiful shoes. It’s worth it to spend money on things that are nice and classic and you can wear a while.”