There’s a dichotomy between Hudson County and the city that lies just across its eponymous river. It’s easy to find people that call themselves “New Yorkers at Heart.”
But while some may try to hide their Hudson County roots in search of big fame under the bright lights, Helen Castillo displays hers on sleeve like her characteristic tattoos.
And how could she not? The contestant on Project Runway’s 12th season has made her mark all over the county.
The show which airs at 9:00 pm on Thursdays on Lifetime, revolves around 16 fashion designers competing in various competitions to receive a $100,000 prize to start their own design line.
Born in Weehawken before later moving to Union City, Castillo grew up with a preternatural interest in the fine arts.
It wasn’t until the age of 13 that she found the spark that set off her designer’s flame.
While taking a class at New York’s Fashion Institute of Technology thanks to a relative that worked at the school, Castillo found herself hooked on fashion design.
“I didn’t know I wanted to do it,” she said. “But once I started, I couldn’t start.”
“Design-wise, I don’t think I have a weakness.”-- Helen Castillo
Castillo recalls with a laugh the first piece of clothing she ever designed, a knee-length dress with a “Peter Pan collar” for a sewing class that now lies hidden in the back of a closet somewhere, like a photo album of an ex-lover.
FIT became a home away from home for Castillo, even during her high school education at Hoboken’s now-defunct Academy of the Sacred Heart. She’s taken classes in some form or another there since age 13, earning a Bachelor’s in Special Occasion Design from the institution.
The look that Castillo has developed for herself over the years would likely shock her Catholic school classmates. Vibrant tattoos emblazon Castillo’s chest, arms, and right leg.
When prodded, she counts the pair of scissors that enter one side of her neck and exit out the other as her favorite, a somewhat morbid homage to her life’s passion.
And while Castillo is confident in her talents — “Design-wise, I don’t think I have a weakness,” she says — she has some apprehension as to how her tattoos are received.
“People have a tendency of judging my work by its cover,” she admits.
A different direction
Ironically enough, Castillo now has the chance of a lifetime in the world of fashion, albeit at the cost of being judged on a platform by Tim Gunn and Heidi Klum to a nationwide TV Audience.
And while being around fashion big shots is nothing new to Castillo, who interned at Vera Wang while studying at FIT, Project Runway is an entirely different animal.
“You have to turn off certain parts of yourself when you’re around people with such reputations,” she says.
Though reality TV fame may be new to Castillo (isn’t it to everyone?), working in the show’s high-pressure New York environment isn’t.
Castillo has thrived in New York all her life. It’s her playground. But it isn’t her home.
She’s not afraid to say that she longed to be back in Hudson County — “It kind of sucked being away from home, “ she says — but in a way, long periods of filming may have made coming back to Union City that much sweeter.
“It’s always so humbling to be back in Jersey,” she says.
There may be a great big world out there in fashion design, but for Helen Castillo, there’s no place like home.