Wednesday, February 10, 2010

Pretty and Project Runway - Styrch Meets Althea Harper from Season 6!

As you may recall, as a small birthday present to myself I snagged a couple of tickets to the Althea Harper Meet and Greet at the Dayton Art Institute on January 30th. Due to a whole lot of stuff getting in the way of writing my recap of the event, I'm writing it now... so bare with me. I did voice record the session on my iPhone, but sometimes the crowd got in the way of getting a good recording. And what a crowd it was! I'd estimate probably around 75ish.

The tickets were $20 a piece. I was very fortunate to attend with my mother and a friend and former colleague Cat (that's her name - she's not a little ball of purring fur). The three of us got up very early and went to this gorgeous ball room in the DAI and snagged us a couple of seats.

DAI if you're reading this you should know that $20 a person should probably buy us more than a chair with crappy coffee and crappy danish. But given that I was so excited to hear this speaker, I'm not complaining too much.

How the Session Was Run
The first part was mostly Althea talking about her experience in school for fashion design, the road that lead her to Project Runway, and a little bit about what has happened since Project Runway. The moderators gave us little cards to write questions on for Althea to answer. They were then given to Althea, and she got a chance to answer most of them (see below).

Althea's Background
Althea credits the beginning of her design career with having an interest in drawing. While drawing she tended to draw people. The natural extension of drawing people is drawing what they wear. She went to University of Cincinnati for her degree mostly because of instate tuition, but she stated that they had great co-op programs. These co-op programs gave her the ability to travel to london and New York, working for Zac Posen, Anna Sui, and Alexander McQueen. She took on internships for zero pay- but she said it was worth it for the experience that it gave her.

Being able to go to London taught her about the difference between US fashion and European fashion. She says Europe is far more about art than it was about clothing, and she highlights McQueen's extravagant looks as an example. While he makes many designs, only a few ever go to market due to how over the top they can be. US design by contrast is more designing "in a box" because it has to sell. She recommends anyone here who is thinking about becoming a designer should go to Europe and get some experience just to have that different experience.

Althea took the experience she gained in her internships abroad and in New York and created her styles for her final thesis. She thinks due to her experience, she created a crazier collection than what her instructors expected the students to create. This taught her about how you can't expect a positive response every time. You can work your butt off and not get the response you want. But she says there is always going to be someone out there who appreciates your work, so don't get hung up on the criticism. This negative reaction actually propelled her to go on Project Runway, because she thought it would be the right audience for her work.

Project Runway Experience
Althea actually tried out for Project Runway Seasion 5 and didn't make it. However, they powers that be called her back for Season 6. It was only a short time after she graduated college, that she got the opportunity.

Of her experience on project runway she said this: The lack of family and friends she was the hardest thing to deal with, that she's usually used to bouncing ideas off of them. She calls the whole experience "Design Boot Camp". She talked about having to design without the support system, the difficulties of living with your competition, and the lack of sleep she was able to have during her time on the show.

She contrasted her Project Runway experience with her school experience. She says when you're in school it's all about yourself and that it should be. But Project Runway you have to design for someone else and see what they respond to. Because of this experience having to design to the tastes of others while incorporating her own design aesthetic she was able to decide where she wanted to go as a designer.

After Project Runway
After Project Runway Althea did what any sane person would do: She packed up and moved to New York and got the heck out of Dayton. She is currently living with Carol Hanna and Malvin (?!? OMG! Egg man!), though their lease is up soon. Althea is getting ready for her third time showing a collection at fashion week. The first was for Project Runway. The second was for the spring following her season on Project Runway - this was the first time she showed by herself. This February she will be showing again (this week???). However she stresses that even though she had the Project Runway experience, it hasn't been a walk in the park. While it may seem like she's been handed a lot of opportunities, she has had to work for them.

The Question and Answer Session
(I hope it's ok that I'm posting this).
As I mentioned before, I audio taped this using my iPhone so that I could give you the most accurate answers possible. Sometimes I couldn't hear. Sometimes Althea rambled. So what you see below is very condensed. I did my best. And yes, I noted which questions were mine.

Why do you think fashion is important?
"I think fashion is important because I think it's how you express yourself every day... For example when you get dressed up and feel good about yourself no one can take that away from you. You're taking this fabric and draping it and creating an art form, yet it's functional and you can wear it every day. It's very accessible, and it's art that you see every day."

How can the choice of materials positively or negatively impact the environment?
"I think that's great and there are a lot of things being pushed right now, for example like the shows and you want to get a grant that will take money off if you use natural fibers or fabrics that can be recycled, then you can get more. I try to use them because they look better. Natural fibers I think are a better quality and to me it is worth investing a little more money in something that is natural because it's better for the environment of course and it's also just the look and feel. It's a better quality garment." She goes on to talk about polyester melting under the iron - I think we've all had that happen at least once to us, right? She also talks about being a positive force in the industry.

Do you prefer socks or stockings?
"I would say I think, you know it depends on the shoe. But especially right now it's socks of course because it's freezing in New York." She rambles on about socks being more comfortable and the weather.

What are you currently working on?
"I'm currently working on my own line. I am 100% into that." And by the way, she mentions that her collection will be available on her website!

"What's my favorite type of music?
"I think it's all about the mood, really."

Are you watching this season of Project Runway and who's your favorite?
"I've been so busy I'm never ever home and I don't have a tv in my apartment."

Is Tim Gunn actually as awesome as he is on the show?
"I think Tim's a good guy. He gives good advice." She goes on to talk about him being impartial and having a lot of good things to say and that he's definitely a "good guy". She does stop short of saying he's the God on Earth many of us think him to be.

If you weren't a designer what would you be?
Althea gives a very vague answer here about being in business but she doesn't really know what she would do.

Do you still stay in touch with anyone from Project Runway?
"I'm living with Malvin and Carol Hannah so I obviously still stay in touch with them." She also mentions Logan, Ra'mon and "people in New York".

What was my favorite design I made on the show?
"I really like my suiting look." Then she talks about really being into separates.

If you could invent your own Project Runway Challenge what would it be?
"I can't think off the top of my head! I think maybe a swimwear would be kind of cool." She talks about the beach challenge they had a no one had any idea was going on, and talks about some of the design ideas she would have for such a challenge.

(my question) Why did you choose to return to Dayton to design your collection and what effect did that have on the outcome?
"You're given a certain amount of money so for me it wasn't realistic to move to New York, and pay rent when you're not really being paid. It's just the support, I have family here and friends here. It was great to have that support... And I got this huge studio - I would have never been able to get that size in New York. And in New York it's so easy to get inspired by other things." She talks about how too much inspiration can be a bad thing. She credits the effect of having so many separates on being in her location in Dayton. And she talks about how "crazy" the prices are that people pay in New York for a garment. "Dayton is a very creative place. There's so much going on."

(my question) "I keep reading your Tweets. Can you give us details on your upcoming show?
"It's going to be in New York for Fashion Week. I have a really great gallery space. I was really inspired by the futurism movement. My clothes are very contoured. I always pay attention to the body. It's always something I'm thinking about. So this collection is all about the seaming. The seams are all flattering for how they would look on a woman. So I sort of got this whole Femme Fatale Robot meets the future and it's really cool and very modern. It's a strong collection of separates." Follow Althea Harper on Twitter!

(my question) Any advice for us in Dayton on how to be fashion forward?
"I would say like... I think it's important to keep up on trends." She talks about having "awareness" but not buying something because it's the big thing. "look at who you are as a person, what things do you want to show off about yourself, what things do you want to downplay, then taking what's trendy and what's now and incorporating it into you. I think that's fashion forward.

(my question) How do you keep handmade designs from becoming kitchy? -
"I can totally understand the problem. Don't do top stitching unless it's really essential to a design. As far as prints sometimes... they have to be wearable. Just pay attention to little details. Make it something very simple." She talks about how the little details you wouldn't really even notice can make a difference.

How does it feel to be famous?
"Well I wouldn't really know. I do feel very fortunate for all the support I've gotten."

What advice do you have for a 10 year old interested in fashion?
"I think that's great and you should feel very fortunate that you have such a strong interest in something at such a young age. I would say it's necessary that you learn how to sew." She talks about how Carol Hanna loves to sew and she (Althea) loves to design and doesn't like to sew. She emphasizes taking "actual classes" in sewing and "getting the basics out of the way". She says you need to do that before you can get creative. She also emphasizes learning different languages because "Fashion is SO international."

What advice would you have for someone who only wants to design one of a kind pieces and not mass market?
"The first thing you've done is that will make you successful is that you realize what you want to do. So now you have to think about how you're going to brand yourself and advertise yourself." She talks about setting up a website, getting to know the individual person you're designing for.

(then there was a question I couldn't hear so I'm skipping it)

If you didn't get the response you wanted, how did you respond to it?
"Well first of course you're going to be a little dissapointed. The thing is everything happens for a reason and when one door closes it opens up so many more.... Take a step back and realize the good things that are going to come of this."

How many years did you study fashion?
"Well, my school at UC was 5 years because it was a co-op program."

How would I explain your fashion?
"It's very sportswear. It's not necessarily evening. Separates. Laid back. Sometimes it can be a little androgynous..." Then she talked about how sometimes that doesn't look good on everyone, taking the idea of mens tailoring and turning it int a woman's pattern. She admires Stella McCartney (she mentions).

What's your favorite thing about fashion designing
"It's being creative, express myself."

What questions do you ask when you meet another designer?
She talks about how she talks about how they run their business. She's confident in her design skills, so she asks about how they got their business going.

(another question I couldn't hear, but the answer was much the same as some of the other ones so I'm skipping it again).

What other cities in the US are good for fashion design?
"There are opportunities everywhere." She talks about New York and L.A. because they have fashion factories, but that you can run a business from everywhere, and emphasizes online sales.

Is Irena really as mean as she seems?
(lots of laughter) "I'm not going to say too much. I hear her saying 'Oh it's just the editing'. Actually I think they gave her a nice edit." (more laughter). I totally wanted to ask this question but felt it wasn't a good direction to go in. I was happy someone else asked it. To whoever you are out there who did ask this question THANK YOU!

(couldn't hear the next question because people were still laughing over the Irina question but it definitely had something to do about models and body image)
Her answer to the question talks about having curvy models because it emphasizes her shape. She wants to change the image with models. "in order to make a difference you have to have enough people who are interested in you to make a difference." Basically, her answer talks about using real women but not being able to do that until you actually can because no one will take you seriously if you're not a big name. But she emphasizes she is not going to hire a super skinny unhealthy model. She's not established enough for people to listen to her on this topic. "I have to get to a certain point where I'm respected and my business is respected and the buyers respect me so I can make that difference. That is something I really feel strongly about."

Who was your favorite teacher at Oakwood High School?
"Mrs. Murphy was my favorite teacher." (obviously, the teacher asked this question). She goes on to talk about how there were many teachers that were inspiring.

What are your favorite bargain brands?
"I really like H &M, but they aren't really here." She talks about how she used to go to Forever 21 but she doesn't have anything from there anymore. She talks about going to thrift stores to find real treasures that sometimes haven't even been warn before for super cheap. She also talks about using the Gap for basics like t-shirts. She thinks the Gap t-shirts are expensive, but they last. And then buy things that are special from places like BCBG. "Invest in a nice jacket and then boots." (I like her!)

That was it really. Afterward I charged up to get my picture taken with her and to get the hell out of the way of everyone else. But I wasn't going to let her escape before I got my chance to get my pic snapped with her! Really, I found the whole experience to be very inspiring.

The only question I really didn't get an answer to was my mother's question: "Did Althea ever think about becoming a model herself?" The woman is truly gorgeous!

Me (left), Althea Harper aka Tall Blonde Amazon Goddess (Right)
Notice how totally star struck I am. :)