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Q&A: Eric Steele, director, Project OR

The man behind Project OR at Outdoor Retailer tells SNEWS a bit of the history behind the student design competition at the trade show.

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Throughout the next month, SNEWS will recap its coverage of Outdoor Retailer Summer Market 2012 with select stories from the O.R. Daily we published at the show Aug. 2-5. It’s an opportunity for you to catch up on stories you might have missed in O.R.D., and for us to update and upload the articles to our searchable archives.

This SNEWS Outdoor Retailer Summer Market recap is brought to you by Cordura:

Usually it takes weeks, perhaps even months, for companies to go from concept to prototype, said the man behind Project OR, Eric Steele.

But Project OR, the “show within the show” design competition, demystifies the design process by allowing attendees to see it in action. Plus, it jumpstarts careers of aspiring designers. Steele tells SNEWS a bit of the history behind Project OR, and describes how he got involved.

Tell us about the history of the project.

Project OR started as the brainchild the show director, Kenji Haroutunian. Kenji envisioned a contest like “Iron Chef,” but for the outdoor industry. I worked with Kenji and his team to make Project OR a reality. There haven’t been many changes to the format since the first Project OR at the 2008 Summer Market. While the format of Project OR hasn’t changed, just about everything else has: judges, emcees, sponsors, location, materials and the design brief.

Have any past participants gone on to do design work for any outdoor companies? Can you give us an example?

Lauren Price worked with Cotton Inc. on behalf of Polarmax to develop a new cotton blend called TransDRY. Lauren’s name was on a patent application before she graduated college. Lauren then landed a job at Polarmax. I even have a couple pair of Polarmax’s award-winning undies thanks to Lauren!

If not in outdoor companies, what fashion design work have previous contestants gone on to?

Ryan Ocampo won the first Project OR and now works for Ralph Lauren. Other companies include Michael Kors, Nike, Nathan Performance Gear and Carole Hochman Design Group, to name a few.

How has the project changed since its inception?

The brass ring has always been to deliver Project OR to a broader audience. We’re still working on that. Project OR has evolved into a fraternity of sorts. Former contestants are always dropping by to check in. I didn’t see that coming.

What do you always look forward to about Project OR?

I look forward to meeting the designers and catching the look on their faces when they get their first peek of the show floor. It’s a little like FAO Schwartz for designers.

What are some of the most innovative designs you’ve seen come out of the project?

Ron Rod’s “The Rocker” jacket was really innovative. He integrated an iPhone controller that he sourced at the show into the sleeve of his jacket. The Rocker had speakers in the collar. The whole thing worked flawlessly. It was one of the best presentations I’ve ever seen. It floored the judges. Ron won Cycle 2 with ease. There’s also Shannon Smith’s Jacket for “Becky,” the urban cruiser/commuter cyclist. Shannon now works for Cabela’s. Shannon’s jacket made use of used reflective fabric for the pleats. The pleats are only seen when riding. Margaret Mussman delivered an out-of-the-box women’s backcountry ski bib that won Cycle 8.

How did you get involved with Project OR?

I asked. I was covering the textile side of Outdoor Retailer for the OR Show Dailies and I took interest in the emerging Design Center. I approached Kenji and expressed an interest in helping show management design the Design Center. Thing was, I was too late. There were already qualified people in place to plan and deliver the Design Center. Kenji was intrigued enough by my pitch to ask if I would be interested in directing Project OR. It has been a tremendous learning experience.

How has the reality of the program differed from the dream of it?

Minus fame, fortune and a distribution contract with a big studio, very little. Those things are important, but are not the only measure of Project OR’s success.

What is different about this Project OR versus others in the past?

Thanks to Kathy Swantko and FabricLink, we had a mixer in the Design Center on Day 1 that coincided with the judging of the Design Brief. I also expect to see some changes with the judging process. Nothing major, just some refinements.

What do you foresee will be the future of Project OR?

It’s the designers. Based on their reactions during the post-show tapings, Project OR is a life-changing experience for most of the designers. They will continue to make their mark on the industry. It will be hard to find a soft goods brand at Outdoor Retailer that has not been affected by Project OR in the not-too-distant future.

–Ana Trujillo