Kentucky fashion designer plans Derby homecoming, reflects on Bluegrass roots

by Leah Bomar

If you’re from Kentucky, you recognize those curtains. The same intricate lace patterns that hung over the window in your Grandma’s front room or the kitchen window where she cooked the kind of comfort food you can only get in one place… home.

Fashion designer and Project Runway alum Gunnar Deatherage, whose videos have almost 48 million likes on TikTok, salvaged those same style curtains from a thrift store and turned the material into a vintage ‘Cottage Core Wedding Gown’.  

He speaks in soft, soothing, southern twang over footage of the transformation.  

He places huge, honking crystals on the fabric to hold down the edges. His cat sashays toward the camera wearing a matching lace collar, reminiscent of the doilies lovingly placed under fresh cut flowers in foyers or under pitchers of water on coffee tables in country homes. 

His steady hands hypnotically cut and sew.  

Glittery nails showcase the statement ring on his index finger, which reads “MOM”.  

He tries on the skirt, twirling, before assembling the finished deep v-cut dress on a mannequin.  

“I started my TikTok journey with DIY flips and making something from nothing because that’s what I knew growing up.”  Gunnar narrates.  “We were a hardworking family that got by.  One thing we did have though was creativity and the craftiness to bring our ideas to life.”

The vulnerable video garners over half a million likes and gains him over 70,000 followers on Instagram.    

His grandmother, who recently passed, was a seamstress and his grandfather was a carpenter.  His mom remains a central supporting  figure in his success story.  

“There’s something to be said about growing up in a creative environment where you are supported and encouraged.  Everything I do reminds me of them.”

Born in LaGrange, Kentucky, Gunnar continues to make a big name for himself living in  L.A. after his appearance on Project Runway almost ten years ago.  

“When I went on Project Runway, I’d only been out of high school three years.  I was so young!”

He describes the experience of watching his younger self on screen in the presence of his current boyfriend who has never seen the show. 

“We are rewatching all the episodes and all of it makes me cringe.”

Gunnar’s beau will get a first glance at all the glitz and glamor of the dialed up Kentucky charm on display during the Kentucky Derby as he accompanies the hometown hero to Louisville the first week in May. 

In a homecoming fit for a fashion king, Deatherage will do Derby 2022 with a line up of events including an art installation at Churchill Downs.  You can find Gunnar judging the pink carpet on Oaks Day and his installation will be on display starting opening night at the track.

“I am creating a social media moment… an immersive experience where people will be able to take a little piece home with them.  I’m sure I’ll be walking around with a julep in one hand and my boyfriend on the other on Derby Day!”  

His boyish good looks smolder as an adult, but growing up with a flair for fashion as a young kid and teen in small town America was not easy.    

“Where I grew up, I was told my dreams were too large, that I could never make them happen.”

He lived in Louisville for about eight years total, but attended Southwestern High School in Hanover, Indiana. 

“In middle school and high school, I wanted to be a fashion designer.  Then Project Runway came out and captivated me and I wanted to do that.”

On a classic episode of Project Runway, Gunnar was visited in the workroom by Tim Gunn during a challenge to create a design based on cultural heritage.  

His first instinct was to address the bullying he had endured by simply being himself. 

“Everyone else was talking about their heritage and nationalities.  Being from Kentucky was not something we ever celebrated.”  

For the challenge, he chose a pattern that portrayed a pair of  hands reaching out in peace towards a bird because during the worst of his times as an adolescent, he told his mom he wished he was a bird so he could fly away.  

“Being bullied is very formative and the experience shaped me.  After speaking about being bullied on Project Runway, a lot of people reached out who were awful to me and apologized.  I thought that was really big of them.  There are definitely still internet trolls out there, but most people are really supportive.” 

His encouragement to youth still living in a small town or small minded environment is to get out and discover the world. 

“So many kids reach out to me and tell me their stories.  I don’t mind being a beacon but it’s hard because it’s also a reminder that the same bullying and struggles still exist. There’s a huge world outside of your bubble!  Hang in there!  The world is huge, and even if it feels smothering now, you will 100% find moments to catch a breath and spread your wings later on.  You can do it!”

His life is an example of what happens when a kid with a dream keeps pressing forward through the growing pains.  

Gunnar  is currently creating and releasing gender neutral sewing patterns so all genders can alter the clothes to their natural bustlines and body types.  

“Every pattern I create comes in a size 00-32, which is like a 6X, because I want everything I do to be size inclusive.  The size problem in fashion is ridiculous and I’m more than happy to lead the way.”

Louisville’s crown jewel event of the year may be what’s temporarily leading him back, but even the sparkling lights of the big city in the golden state can’t hold a candle to home.

“Living in L.A., lately I have been just walking around and saying to myself  ‘This is my life’.  I am just coming to terms that things are actually happening now.  I struggled for so long, it’s like the fruits of my labor are starting to prosper.  But Kentucky will always have a place in my heart.”