By Vanessa Bisetti
Many know Althea Harper as one of the two finalists on Project Runway Season 6, but now the 28-year-old is the creator of her own line and the style ambassador for the world’s finest high-performance iron and garment steamer brand, Rowenta. Her before-and-after the show story only proves the determination, confidence and optimism of this young designer.
Althea’s love for fashion began at a young age. When it was time for the Ohio-native to go to college, there was no question what she wanted to study. Althea moved from her hometown of Dayton, Ohio to Cincinnati to attend the University of Cincinnati—more specifically to be a part of the five year program known as DAAP, the College of Design, Architecture, Art and Planning. “The first two years were like normal college, then after that you go to school for a quarter and then you get work experience for a quarter,” Harper describes of the program’s cycle. Through DAAP Althea had the opportunity to study abroad in London for a year and took classes at Central Saint Martins. Her experience in London was far from ordinary, as she interned for major names in the industry such as Vivienne Westwood and Alexander McQueen. Once she arrived back in the States, she took on the standard three-month long internships, relocating to New York for most. Not falling short of her experiences abroad, she interned for designers like Zac Posen and Victoria’s Secret.
So what led to Project Runway? Well, the eager designer graduated right around the time the market was crashing. She had just moved out of her own apartment in Cincinnati and was staying at home with plans to save up money and eventually relocate back to New York. When the chance came to apply for Project Runway, she figured that it might be the best timing since she was in a transitioning phase—a time where she had few bills to worry about, making the non-paying gig do-able. “It was actually just really perfect timing, and that’s kind of what made me do it…I went directly after college.” Harper was ecstatic to be part of the cast for the new season, and was not shy about her confidence in her own skills. “I was really confident. It’s actually funny ’cause you look back now and you’re like, ‘Wow, you really have to go out there and have this confidence because if you don’t do well, it can definitely hurt you.’” Althea believes that her faith in herself was a key component in landing her a top spot. She continued to say that an aspect to consider about the success of the contestants is that ultimately the judges choose whether or not they like your pieces. “Being naïve [on the show] was actually really helpful…you have that ‘yeah, let’s go for it!’ confidence.” Yet, she made a point to say that even with her aplomb, she felt lucky that the judges liked her work.
Since Project Runway Harper’s career has been on the fast track in the fashion world. After the show she worked for a year under designer Tory Burch, where she continued to expand her knowledge of the fashion industry. This was the perfect prologue leading to the creation of her own line, labeled ALTHEA HARPER. The line had its first debut at New York Fashion Week in 2009, introducing the fall/winter collection. However, this wasn’t the first time Harper had put her work down a runway; her last task on Project Runway was to present her final collection through a runway show. When comparing the two runway events, Harper says that the two scenarios were totally different. “It doesn’t feel like your own on Project Runway because it’s ‘now you go here’ and everything is on a timed schedule for you, there are guidelines…but when you do it yourself it’s all you and that’s when you realize that creating the clothes is about 20% of it.” She continued to say that the other 80 percent is comprised of the production of the show, worrying about guests, dealing directly with models, making sure that buyers attend, etc.
Harper’s line has become well established with seven collections in total, and will only continue to grow because of both her values and beliefs in enhancing the beautiful assets of a woman’s body. She aims to reflect the woman’s figure in her clothes instead of just the garment itself. “I want, when a woman wears [a garment] for everyone to look at her and be like ‘Wow! She looks great!’ I think that’s a better compliment than ‘OMG I love your dress!’” Harper says of her aspirations with her designs. Her intent to draw attention to the fit on the woman’s body as opposed to the physical piece of clothing has been supported by what she has observed through her time living in New York, further proving her focus on finding beauty in the fit. “You see real women, you work and then you have to go out. There’s just not enough time for glamour.”
Though she has already made a name for herself, Harper is continually surprised by the industry. One of the biggest obstacles that she has had to face so far is being compared to leading designers. She speaks of working with the “big boys” in the industry as somewhat frustrating when it comes to comparisons, yet an exciting challenge. “When someone looks at my collection, they see pictures just like they do for Alexander Wang or Louis Vuitton, but those collections have millions of dollars behind them,” she says. “Then you have to produce your [collection] at a much more limited budget.” Yet, Harper’s drive is undeniably inspiring. She’s never quite satisfied with her work. Harper provides the example of when a woman saves up to buy an expensive new dress. She’s excited about it, “but now you don’t have cute wedges to go with it!” Harper laughs. Once one goal is met, another is created, keeping Althea always moving toward that next big thing.
Such drive has landed Harper on the radar of many celebs, including Eva Longoria, Heidi Klum, the Kardashians and Kerry Washington, whose attention meant a lot to the blossoming designer. “I’m not someone [to] have idols, but as far as respecting someone and looking up to someone, [Kerry Washington]’s definitely of all the actresses [very important].” Harper also voiced her appreciation to the Kardashians and their stylist for their ongoing support of her designs. Though she’s a respected designer by top celebrities, Harper is not wary to talk about the difficulties of inconsistency in the fashion industry. “It’s a lot of making a whole town out of a piece of Play-Doh,” she says of the business. Over time, she has learned to strategize during stressful times, such as when an order can’t be filled.
When she is not crazy busy, Harper—who had a hard time describing her average day because of her frenzied schedule— spends time with her dogs and husband, who is currently doing his medical residency and lives a hectic schedule as well. Still, the two find time to catch up on episodes through Netflix and enjoy being couch potatoes because of their continuous time away from home. As for the future of ALTHEA HARPER, get ready to see a lot more. The line, which has previously produced two collections a year, fall/winter and spring/summer, will now be releasing four collections a year, one per season. This means more designs, more clothing, and more Althea. Part of the change includes a new athletic line, which Harper is currently in the process of designing. Her most immediate goal is to move from boutiques to department stores, though she’d ultimately like to open her own store. From there, who knows—anything is possible for Harper.
To view all of Althea’s collections from her line, visit AltheaHarper.com.