It is a reality TV phenomenon, watched by audiences from Los Angeles to Qatar, but for Philip Sauma, 33, watching on the flat screen in his brother’s living room in Hell’s Kitchen, it is the family business. “Those are our feathers,” he said Thursday night, pointing to black plumes. “Those are ours!”
The Sauma family had gathered for the season premiere of “Project Runway,” the show that challenges aspiring fashion designers to weekly contests. Contestants surrender, judges quit, and shoulder pads pop in and out of style, but the Sauma family business — Mood Designer Fabrics on West 37th Street — is a constant.
On most episodes, contestants storm through the garment district shop, which the family has owned since 1993, a warren of aisles holding bolts of silk, wool and crepe. On others, like Thursday’s episode, in which contestants spun outfits from their own bedsheets, Mood supplies trimmings and dye.
Mood was also responsible for a zipper that swerved inelegantly toward a crotch. “I’m sorry, zipper,” Mr. Sauma said, speaking to his wares.
What began as a family store has become an empire with a wholesale division, a home décor wing and a Web site started last year to supply internationally. The expansion is partly helped by the show, which does not pay to film in the store in exchange for mentioning Mood on air. (Yes, designers do pay for the goods they carry out.)
Now, customers unload from buses promoting “Project Runway”-themed tours, little girls hold weekend birthday parties there, and this week the Gentry family from Norman, Okla., came in with cameras. “We went to Tom’s Restaurant from ‘Seinfeld,’ the Empire State building,” Rhonda Gentry, 44, said. “This is the last place.”
When the show began, Mr. Sauma said, it was “a bit weird” to see the workplace onscreen. Now he just notices things to improve: shelves to be moved, bolts to reorganize. Still, it is always strange to see the host, Tim Gunn, petting his brother’s dog, Swatch.
“Sometimes he sees himself on television,” Jack Sauma, the store’s founder and Philip’s father, said of the Boston terrier. “And he moves his head like, ‘Who was that?’”
Jack Sauma, 60, did not grow up thinking that someday he would have a family dog who would recognize himself on television.
Born in Syria to Aramaic Christian parents who had emigrated from Turkey, he was educated in a monastery in Lebanon. He wanted to be a monk. But in 1967, war forced his family — which included 13 children — to relocate to Sweden. His brothers started a clothing factory, and Jack Sauma made a sample for a plaid shirt that imitated what a Texas Ranger might wear. The design sold out, and he threw off monastic robes to study fashion, eventually founding his own line.
In 1976, he came to New York with his wife to work as a contractor — sewing for designers like Michael Kors, now a judge on the show. He moved quickly into dealing fabric wholesale, and, in the 1980s when domestic manufacturing dropped, selling retail. His wife, Janet, now 57, ran the register.
Jack Sauma watched the stores around him close while Mood stayed afloat, in part because they relied on student designers — a burgeoning population that, partly because of the show, has only grown.
Today, he has passed his duties on. “He’s kind of taking it in from the backseat,” Philip said. Philip runs the business day to day, while his younger brother, Eric Sauma, 29, is the creative, design-minded in-store operator. A daughter, Amy Altunis, 32, lives in London with her two young children. Recently, her nanny learned of the family business. “She screamed,” Ms. Altunis said.
“To some people it’s a big deal,” Philip Sauma said. “To us it’s work.”
“It’s not work,” Jack Sauma said. “It’s social.”
They quibbled over that, but it was not important; the show was back on. The family tucked into take-out Thai food and white wine. Swatch slept through the show’s final minutes, burrowing deeper into a couch. When a contestant was voted off, Jack Sauma exhaled sadly. “Oh my God,” he said. “It’s bad to go out first.”