Church of Santino

The man who stole Project Runway discusses fabulous fashion in film
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johnny@sfbg.com

It's no surprise that Santino Rice knows how to serve up a good quote. Five minutes into a phone conversation, the biggest antihero to emerge from TV's Project Runway has already likened Nina Garcia, Heidi Klum, and Michael Kors to a "three-headed monster." Before the interview's over, he'll have quipped, "My everyday life and how it plays out is all the fictional stimulation I need." Since his everyday life includes an appearance at "Bad Boys of Runway" — a Castro Theatre event also featuring recent Runway winner Jeffrey Sebelia, a fashion show, and a screening of The Women (1939) he isn't exaggerating.

But what might surprise people who think they know Rice (though really, let's just call him Santino) is how uninterested he is in playing up to his semivillainous, semiheroic, and oft-bitchy or cantankerous image from Project Runway's second and almost inarguably most dynamic season. Two years on from the experience, he's easygoing — his baritone voice often giving way to a warm laugh — and quicker to praise than criticize. Make no mistake, this is still the same Mississippian who knew he loved Los Angeles when the Rodney King riots began the day of his first visit. "Everything clicked," he remembers. "I realized [L.A.] figured in so many things I loved, from old Hollywood films to gangsta rap, from [fashion designer] Adrian's films and MGM to Ice-T and Ice Cube and NWA." But Santino's days of doing free design gigs for "great exposure" are over.

"Now I don't need any more exposure," he says, chuckling at the understatement.

Yes, the Santino of today is a sunnier Santino — though it helps that our major topic of discussion is movies. Santino knows and loves his cinema. He has a passion for some of the films that follow The Women in Marc Huestis's Fabulous Fashion in Film Festival, such as 1946's Gilda, in which (as he says) the undergarments worn and silhouette created by Rita Hayworth add to her "amazingly sexy" image. Even when discussing a selection he doesn't care for, such as that of last year's Dreamgirls, he's diplomatic, observing that it "gets a free pass" yet doesn't match the fabulous quality of 1975's Mahogany, a different festival film he prefers.

A glance at Santino's MiEspacia page reveals the importance of movies within his aesthetic. When I mention that I share his love for 1964's The Umbrellas of Cherbourg, he enthuses that "in her heyday, Catherine Denueve is the most beautiful woman ever" and proceeds to throw down for the lesser-known 1970 Demy-Denueve collaboration Donkey Skin. One mention of the flimsy yet highly imaginative fashions sported by Bobby Kendall in James Bidgood's 1971 Pink Narcissus, and he's ready with comments that could school critics. "[Pink Narcissus is] colorful, it's erotic, it has surreal visuals," he observes. "The way it treats the subject matter of a male prostitute conjures up a lot of feelings. It kind of reminded me of some [Rainer Werner] Fassbinder films in the way that he can linger on certain details too long for comfort. The most recent film that's given me that same sort of overwhelmed feeling is [Alejandro Jodorowsky's 1973] Holy Mountain."

It's a long road from Holy Mountain to Project Runway, and it ain't yellow brick, but Santino has trekked it. And Project Runway may have scooped up three Emmy nominations, but Santino has already won a few Tonys — Tony Ward and Tony Duquette. In fact, the latter, who often collaborated with Adrian, is a major mentor, which makes Santino's appearance at an event featuring a screening of The Women even more apt.

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