Designed to Shine

090709FEATURE.jpg Designed to Shine
DAAP grad stars on "Project Runway"

She went from studying at UC to starring on the arguably most prominent fashion show in America. She has fashioned her way to the top three in one "Project Runway" challenge so far. Read on to hear how this Midwest girl holds her own in the fashion world.

Right after her graduation from the College of Design, Architecture, Art and Planning (DAAP) at the University of Cincinnati, designer Althea Harper found herself as a contestant on the sixth season of "Project Runway," the show's first season to be aired on Lifetime. While she couldn't reveal much about the show, Harper talked with Cincy Chic to help fill readers in on who she is, what she does and where she's going.

Before the Big Break

Hailing from Dayton, Ohio, and attending college in Cincinnati has impacted the person Harper has become. "Being from that area has really just given me core strong values not only how to treat other people and how to live my life, but at the same time be driven," she says.

090709FEATURE1.jpgThat drive came into play during Harper's college career when she went to fulfill her cooperative education (co-op) program requirement, which was the greatest impact at UC, she says. Designed to encourage students to gain professional experience during their college career, the co-op program allowed Harper to learn from fashion greats during fall and spring quarters when most students spent their time in the classroom.

"Normally they [the co-op directors] only like you to take paid internships and they have a whole program set up, but I went ahead and did unpaid internships at higher names just because that was the sort of job I wanted when I graduated," Harper says. So in sacrificing her salary for more prestigious positions combined with the flexibility of the co-op to work during less-competitive times of the year, Harper worked with six major companies in the fashion industry before she ever even graduated. These companies include Garen Inc, Anna Sui, Zac Posen, Victoria's Secret, Alexander McQueen and Vivienne Westwood.

Her co-op with Alexander McQueen serves as a stand-out experience that nurtured Harper's talents as a designer. "I just learned so much about design as far as how to get inspiration, that everything should have a meaning behind it," Harper says. "It's very much like don't just put a flower there so that the garment looks pretty. There has to be a meaning behind it."

Beyond Alexander McQueen, Harper found inspiration in her work with Zac Posen. "At Zac Posen, I learned pattern making, which was like essential.… Especially for a show like 'Project Runway,' it was really great to be able to have that sort of background," Harper says.


Making it to the "Runway"


Before applying to "Project Runway," Harper only had seen a couple episodes of the prominent reality show. Putting all of her funds into her future, Harper couldn't afford cable. "I was always so broke," she says.


But not knowing about Rami Kashou's obsession with draping or Stella Zotis' love for leather didn't seem to matter for Harper. After applying and making it through a couple interviews in Chicago, she heard some life-changing news. Harper would be one of the 16 contestants vying to show a collection in the Mercedes-Benz Fashion Week and, ultimately, to win a fashion spread in Marie Claire magazine, a Paris vacation, $100,000 to start her own line and the title as the winner of "Project Runway."

Just three days after getting the official phone call, she made her escape to the catwalk after telling only her parents and boyfriend about the good news. "I couldn't tell anyone. It was so awful," Harper says. "I like disappeared."


Living the Reality of Reality TV


Without even having watched the show, Harper looked to Christian Siriano, designer and past winner of "Project Runway," as an inspiration. "I just knew he had this aura of confidence, which to me I think is invaluable," Harper says, and she adopted that confidence for herself. "I think as a designer you need to stand 100 percent behind what you do, and I definitely feel that way about my designs," she says. "I'm very proud of them, and I love them. And I felt confidence in myself going into it [the show]."


With that confidence and her experience, Harper faced the reality of "Project Runway." But how does that reality stack up to the edited version viewers see? "It was definitely crazy," Harper says. "There's no sugar coating.… Everyone always asks me: 'Is it that intense?' I'm like yes. It really is."


Despite the intensity, Heidi Klum, supermodel and host of the show, maintains a light-hearted manner. "She's very quirky. I think that's the funniest part about her," Harper says. "She would just be on stage and do a little dance. She was funny, and she definitely has a unique

Quirky or not, Klum is the one to tell designers whether they're in or they're out. So far, Harper has been "in" after three challenges and even made it to the top two in the second challenge.

As far as her style goes, viewers can expect Harper to draw on inspirations from everything from her work at Vivienne Westwood and Zac Posen to the shapes of the female body portrayed in art history books, she says. "There's a unique mix that I think I bring to the table," she says, but you will see "more sensual" and form-fitting pieces instead of "girly" or loose pieces.

Follow Harper on her journey down the "Runway" at 10 p.m. Thursdays on Lifetime. She's carried on for three episodes, but you have to stay tuned to know whether she'll make it to Fashion Week or whether Klum will tell her "Auf Wiedersehen."

Photos courtesy of Mike Yarish/Lifetime Netoworks 2009

Linda Palacios -

Linda Palacios is the editor of Cincy Chic. Send her an e-mail at This e-mail address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it .Read More >>

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