Brian Burkhardt has always been creative and outgoing.
One day, when he was 3 years old, his mother found a strange woman at the front door of their home.
“Hi,” the woman said. “Your son just invited me in for tea.”
Now, more than 35 years later, the same sort of outside-the-box thinking that led young Brian to invite a stranger in for tea has earned him notoriety in the design world.
The 40-year-old former Greenporter beat out 11 other designers to win the top prize on the Lifetime network series “Project Accessory.” The “Project Runway” spinoff, which focuses on the designing of jewelry and other accessories, notched Mr. Burkhardt $100,000.
So how did a guy who once played the local bar scene with his reggae, funk, ska fusion band The Golden Fist of Fury become a top designer? It’s a journey that takes the current Miami resident back to his time on the North Fork.
A major turning point for him as an artist came when one of his professors at Suffolk County Community College told him he could go anywhere if he just focused.
At the time, Mr. Burkhardt spent his summers on a flower farm he owned in Cutchogue, while working winters making silk. Taking his teacher’s advice, he began to focus on being as creative as possible in his work.
“I started working really, really hard,” he said. “I went from laboring in the fields to suddenly being able to express my creativity. I realized I can actually making a living from this.”
He got a scholarship to the School of the Museum of Fine Art in Boston, where he attended an intensive five-year studio-focused program.
“What’s great about that school is that it’s conceptually based,” he said. “So I could take sculpture, photography, video, painting … For me as an artist, the more tools you can use at your disposal the better. I really have no limitations.”
Mr. Burkhardt used those tools to design pieces that stood out on “Project Accessory,” which was taped over seven weeks in New York City.
The show’s judges often praised him for his unique approach.
“You took risks with your collection,” host Molly Sims said in the show’s finale. “Some of your accessories were hits. Others were misses, but like all of the work we’ve seen from you so far, there was a surprise factor and we love that.”
One off-the-cuff design that surprised judges was Mr. Burkhardt’s unicorn horn clutch.
But his victory doesn’t mean his work was universally admired by fans of the show.
On one “Entertainment Weekly” blog, a reader called Mr. Burkhardt’s work “PURE CRAP!”
“What women are going to buy Brian’s junk?” the commenter said. “The shoes and matching bag? Are you kidding me? What a waste of time. Brian was scrambling around, making tons of pieces, planning on throwing something on the models at the last minute … Apparently the judges think that is genius.”
But in an interview this week, Mr. Burkhardt defended his approach, saying his reluctance to compromise his artistic vision made him a polarizing figure on the show.
“It’s when you start to compromise your work that you start to change who you are,” he said. “So I wasn’t focused on whether or not I was going to win.
“Did I think I had the skills and the talent necessary to win? Absolutely. But I honestly didn’t think they’d pick a short Italian guy as the face of ‘Project Accessory.’ ”
As the last man standing of the original 12 designers, the $100,000 grand prize from eBay FASHION will go toward his own line.
Mr. Burkhardt and his wife, Trisha Brookbank, who delivered the couple’s first child last year, have been designing jewelry for about three years. They are currently working on an exotic leather line that will launch in late January or early February.
“A lot of what I design is not commercial,” Mr. Burkhardt said. “My job is to find my audience in those who are a little more adventurous in their style.”