Oakwood native Althea Harper at New York Fashion Week 2011
By Sara McKinniss
In the city that never sleeps, fashion designer and Oakwood native Althea Harper was doing anything but that less than a month before New York Fashion Week (NYFW). The former Project Runway contestant was prepping for her own self-titled Spring/Summer 2012 collection debut. Though in the midst of what could be dubbed as chaos in a chaotic industry, Harper’s current and previous collections at NYFW show that being the calm in a fashion storm pays off. Structured statement jackets in soft neutrals, silk-draped patterned dresses and modern resort wear separates dominated her Spring/Summer 2012 collection.
“This show is definitely our biggest show yet,” said Harper in an interview before NYFW. “Our brand has really elevated this past season. The inspiration for this year’s show comes from a book [I read] about the supernatural. I took these old photos that were [thought to have ghosts in them], transferred the photos into Adobe Illustrator and developed really these cool prints that almost look like ghosts. You can see ‘ghosts’ in some of the patterns if you look carefully. We’ve taken the concept that people have powerful minds and [transferred] that to the collection.”
Though this is Harper’s biggest show to date, she is an industry veteran. She graduated from the University of Cincinnati with a degree in fashion design. As a student, she interned at major fashion powerhouses including Anna Sui, Zac Posen, Alexander McQueen, Vivienne Westwood and Victoria’s Secret. Upon graduation, Harper worked at Tory Burch following her participation on Bravo’s Project Runway.
“[Project Runway] was a great experience,” said Harper. “It’s so hard to get publicity and support in this industry when you’re new, and the experience opened up so many doors for me. The show gets you in magazines and gets you on television every week so that it helps you build your brand. It’s a great name to help you get your name established. It opened up so many doors for me. My participation in the show helped me fund my business.”
As a former Dayton-area resident, growing up in the Miami Valley had a positive impact on Harper.
“When I was living in Dayton when I was younger, I took art classes at the Dayton Art Institute, which gave me an introduction and appreciation of art and design,” explained Harper. “That was where I really got started. As I grew up, I knew I wanted to have a creative career because it’s what I was really passionate about and still am. When I was looking at colleges, I decided to go to the University of Cincinnati because it was in-state and would permit me the same opportunities as some of the [more competitive] art schools.”
For many who are familiar with the fashion industry, the stereotype that the fashion industry is a competitive and cold place is unfortunately true for many ambitious designers.
Many hope to become the next Christian Dior or Marc Jacobs, but they often fall short of their dreams when young designers learn the realities of the ever-changing complex world of fashion. It is estimated that for about every 150,000 designers that emerge from the industry, only one will become internationally known. Harper notes that those who are entering the industry understand the realities of the business.
“The biggest thing that an emerging designer can do is be willing to learn,” said Harper. “Be willing to take on apprenticeships or internships. Take advantage of the opportunities presented to you because in this industry, [they] don’t always come around twice. Take on an internship with a great designer instead of expecting a job. It’s a lot easier to get the experience you need when you’re willing to work for credit as an undergraduate rather than leaving college and expecting a job instantly. I don’t think people really want to take the time to learn everything there is to know about the industry that needs to be known and this puts them at a disadvantage. You’ll have a lot better chance of finding a paid job when you leave school if you have the experience and understanding of what a designer expects. Learning is career-long.”
It is this understanding of career-long learning that helped Harper land the opportunity to compete on Project Runway. Although she finished as runner-up in the show’s sixth season, it still served as the launch pad for what has been a successful start to her own self-titled clothing label.
Harper’s experience on the show led to new career insights that, without the show, might not have helped her get to where she is today with her own label.
“Even though I had completed all of those internships in school, I was still coming to the industry directly out of school,” explained Harper. “So, I was used to designing for my teachers and getting their opinion. On the show, you’re judged by other designers, so you had to take into consideration what they liked as well. I think that forces you to look beyond what you like to design, but more importantly, whether what you design is well-liked and received positively by others. In the end, you not only end up designing for yourself, but it makes you think that people someday might wear your work. It changes your perspective on things and how you approach your work.”
Despite the challenges the industry can bring to new and seasoned designers, Harper encourages them to understand one thing remains constant in an ever-changing industry.
“You have to have confidence in yourself and your abilities if you want to succeed in this industry,” said Harper. “If you don’t believe in yourself, no one else will.”
To learn more about Althea Harper and the Althea Harper collection, visit altheaharper.com. Project Runway airs Thursdays at 9 p.m. EST on Lifetime.
Reach DCP freelance writer Sara McKinniss at SaraMcKinniss@DaytonCityPaper.com.