Q&A: CMH Fashion Week Headliner Althea Harper on 'Project Runway,' Swimwear

Staff Writer
Columbus Monthly
Althea Harper

Althea Harper is in the midst of a transformation.

The 29-year-old Dayton-born designer, who was a contestant on Season 6 of Project Runway and Season 2 of Project Runway All Stars, has spent the past six years focused on sportswear. She was making body-hugging dresses, tailored trousers and colorful separates. Her designs have appeared on the Kardashians and in the pages of Elle and Women's Wear Daily.

But now, just three months after welcoming a daughter into the world, Harper is ready for a change. She's shifting to resort and swimwear, turning out tropical-inspired, flowing pieces for the girl on the beach (or the girl who just wishes she was).

"I would love to become like a Mara Hoffman or a really staple name in that division," she says. "I think when people think of me, they don't think of me in that range, and I'd love to change that."

Harper, who recently moved back to Dayton after spending six years in the New York City area, is headlining this year's CMH Fashion Week Finale Runway Show, where she'll showcase her newfound love for warm-weather staples.

We talked with her about her evolution, her inspiration and why she preferred Project Runway to All Stars.

What lead you to fashion design?

I was always interested in art, and one of the things that I really liked about design is the way it kind of merges art and also business, so it's kind of form-meets-function. I applied early admissions to the University of Cincinnati, to the DAAP program and was accepted and took that as a sign. I graduated in 2008 and did Project Runway in 2008. It was literally a one-month difference.

Which show challenge was your favorite?

I really liked the design-for-the-model challenge because it's kind of what you are as a designer. You have a client or a specific person you're looking to design for. It wasn't for some major event. It was just what she would want to wear every day, which as a ready-to-wear designer, that's really what the aim would be-that your clothes would be something that would fit a woman in everyday life while still looking stylish and standing out. I did actually happen to win that one, so maybe that has something to do with me liking it the most. [laughing].

What was Tim Gunn like?

I really admire Tim, because in dealing with these shows, you have a lot of, you know-what part of it is entertainment and what part of it is about actually being talented? Was this person picked just because they're crazy or they have this big personality or they fit this stereotype? I think because Tim came from a design background, when you have his support it's really nice, because he's not looking at everything else that the viewer might look at or someone who's trying to get ratings. He's just really on there as a design professional giving advice, and I think it really makes it a little more legit.

You didn't enjoyAll Stars as much asProject Runway. Why?

As much as I respect Joanna Coles, who was the mentor, she came in and she wasn't in there as much as Tim was. She had a headpiece on, kind of like the producers were telling her what to say. I definitely think that that show was more about personalities. I'm not coming on as a personality, I'm coming on as a designer, and I just think that concept was a little bit lost on All Stars.

What inspired you for this collection?

I had gone to St. John. I had never been snorkeling before, and I did it. And I was just so amazed that it looked like a drawing, and all these fish were all these bright colors and interesting textures. It was just really, really beautiful.