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The Bucket Interview

Finale, but not Final

Nancy Volpe Beringer

By Amy Barnes

As I prepare to interview season 18’s Project Runway contestant Nancy Volpe Beringer, I’m hemming my daughter’s mall-purchased formal dress. It’s a connecting thread as Volpe Beringer creates runway-ready garments requiring far more than hems. There is a larger tie as we have watched Project Runway from its beginning. I think back to a 2010 mall fashion show narrated by early host and sometimes-mentor, Tim Gunn. He asks my then-five-year-old daughter to audition for Project Runway, Jr. Our souvenir picture features silver-haired Gunn on his knees next to my beaming kindergartener.

Ten years later, I’ve watched the show through different networks, hosts, versions (Junior, All-Stars and regular seasons), meeting contestants Mondo and Emily Valentine as well as Gunn. The basic format never changes; contestants create themed garments each week: sustainable, swimwear, men’s’ wear, avant-garde, unconventional materials, always with an encouraging “pack your supplies” elimination. Volper Beringer is billed as the show’s oldest contestant at age 64. Project Runway viewers see only edited footage and in the same way, I find Volpe Beringer’s life is far more than press releases or an age number.

As the seventh Philadelphian on the show, Volpe Beringer can see the “Rocky steps” from her design studio. During her hometown visit with mentor Christian Siriano, she has him run the iconic, life-representing steps with her. That energy is apparent as we cover nearly 65 years of her life in a half-hour phone call. 

***

AB: What was the defining moment that moved you toward Project Runway? 

NVB: It was 3 am on a sleepless night. I did not truly understand why creativity felt like oxygen to me but it was always something I integrated full scale into whatever job I’ve had. So when I received a much sought after promotion and discovered that my ability to create was being diminished, I felt like I was suffocating. 

On that sleepless night, I actually got envious as I thought about how my son who had a degree in music was teaching himself new skills in photography and videography as a way to earn a living. I asked myself, “If I was young again, what would I want to study?” As soon as I answered this profound question, there was no turning back. When I gave the executive director my termination letter, he asked me if this was something I had always wanted to do. I can remember answering him that it was something I never dared to dream. But once I did, this force took over me and I knew I had to find the courage to do it. Within months I left my job at the pinnacle of my success and enrolled in Drexel University’s graduate 3-year fashion design program at age 58.

AB: What obstacles have you faced? Were finances an aspect of your decision to make the leap from the corporate world to Project Runway? 

NVB: Around age 30 and while a single parent, I earned my bachelors in science in business education.  I quickly found out that a teacher’s salary did not provide sufficient income so I ended up also working 3-5 small part-time jobs.  So my journey to walk away from financial security was a very courageous decision for me. 

Fortunately, I have always been cautious with money and saved consistently throughout my life. My first job was at age 13 to save up money to accept my uncle’s invitation to visit him in Germany (a very unrealistic invite at the time) when I put an ad in the weekly paper to iron shirts and mend clothes. When I got my first job after high school, even though it was only about $100 a week, I took money out of each paycheck to buy a $25 savings bond. When I had a chance to contribute to a 401K, I deducted the maximum amount. 

So when I decided to quit my job, my conservative financial lifestyle paid off. I was able to take from my life savings to pay for my education. While in the program, I also took advantage of the offer to work as a graduate assistant 20 hours a week for a few semesters. Even though I was already putting in an average of 80 hours a week at school, I knew I could not turn down the offer. It offset some of my tuition and then the stipends I received enabled me to purchase my industrial sewing equipment upon graduation. 

AB: You remarried several years before making the jump from corporate America to fashion design. Did your new husband support you in your path to Project Runway? 

NVB: The most important support I received from my husband has been the emotional and unconditional encouragement he has given me. I remember when I got so excited after finding a one-year associates program at one of the world’s top fashion schools in New York, he calmly said: “Calm down fireball (one of his many nicknames). I thought you were doing this for the love of learning so why are you rushing the learning?” As someone who is very goal-oriented, this was one of the most important pieces of advice I have ever received. There was no way a one-year program would have been sufficient to enter the world of fashion designing. 

His support and encouragement have been everything despite me dedicating 80-100 a week throughout my journey to fashion designing. He shed a tear when he saw my first design walk down the runway while at school. He called me “superstar” when I started getting accolades.” He called me “Hollywood” when I went to LA to dress Grammy-nominated rapper Tierra Whack for the red carpet.  

But on a realistic side, I married him a few years before quitting my job. Shortly before enrolling in school, I had sold my house where I raised my sons and put the proceeds into savings. Even though I walked away with a small pension and health benefits, I don’t know if I would have had the guts to leave my job security and sell my house without also having the security of having moved into my husband’s house. 

AB: After graduating at age 58, what was your next step? How did you keep learning?

NVB: After graduation, I created a blog site age59.com with fellow classmates. The first revealing entry was about my fashion school enrollment: “59 and a freshman.” When the Project Runway dream became a reality, I was very aware of having only three years of fashion design experience.  I countered that by taking on the best experiences I could find: a Parisian draping course, pattern-making classes in London, and couture fashion in Baltimore. My first application to Project Runway wasn’t successful but that didn’t stop me from continuing to learn. 

AB: You are billed as the oldest Project Runway contestant ever at age 64 and are twice the age of many of your competitors. How has your age been a challenge or a positive? 

Nancy making masks for hospitals

NVB: While it is easy for me to say age is just a number, my body does not always agree. While in my fashion program, I developed arthritis in my neck. By the time I graduated, I had very limited mobility in my neck. Even though I began physical therapy during school, I continued for an additional two years after graduation. The hardest part at school would be looking up such as at PowerPoint presentations. I remember I would slip out during class in pain and walk down to the elevators. I would stare out the windows and could see CHOP (Children’s Hospital) and everything came into perspective. While I might be hurting a bit, the real pain and anguish was going on just a few blocks away.  

Despite these minor physical challenges, I knew I would have the stamina and energy to survive the rigorous schedule of Project Runway as long as my body did not let me down. While I might not have had their years of design experience, I probably had the most energy of any of the other designers.

AB: Project Runway is a typical reality show with harsh criticism every week and competitor drama. How did you deal with the show’s often stressful environment?

NVB: I stayed focused on my own challenge tasks and avoided negativity between the other contestants as much as I could. My son had asked me not to be on the show; he was concerned my previous experiences with adult bullying would make the environment difficult. 

AB: Many Project Runway challenges focus on charities and activism. How do you give back? 

NVB: I want to be a relevant designer with a focus on sustainable and adaptive designs. I also want to help fulfill other people’s dreams by teaching refugee women sewing skills through Mural Arts Philadelphia, participating in the “Women Organized Against Rape” and “Salvation Army Garbage Bag Gala” events. I’ve been a mentor in the Refugee Women’s Textile Cooperative (RWTC), a program that empowers refugee women with sewing and textile skills. 

AB: What is your design aesthetic? Design icons? 

NVB: On my website, I sum up how I design: pushing the boundaries of wearable art through unique silhouettes and fabrications. Never tried. Never done. I am a designer with my own label that is wearable, all-inclusive, androgynous art that accommodates all sizes, shapes and genders. You can see that approach in my show designs but also in my own life as I strive to be inclusive. I have many design icons including my fellow designers, but Iris Apfel is a big one! 

AB: The Bucket is dedicated to helping people lead more fulfilling lives by acknowledging their own mortality. How have you done that through Project Runway? 

NVB: I saw the show as a way to find out how I was part of something bigger, finding my place in the universe. I was able to fulfill my dreams and goals but still support and be part of the Project Runway community. My hope is that my competing on the show helps others (young and old) to be inspired to follow their own passions; without thinking about or letting their life circumstances keep them from their dreams.  

AB: How do you express yourself on the show? 

NVB: My designs are all-inclusive, but also watch for my black leather bracelet reading “No H8”. I wear it every day and in reverse before Project Runway got a copyright release. The bracelet represents my support of the LBGTQ community but also, my life’s philosophy: I won’t live my life with hate. Instead, I seek inclusivity in every aspect of my life.

AB: Why the dream of Project Runway? 

NVB: Even though I still don’t have the answer to, “Why me? Why do I get to live this dream?”, the questions motivate me to continue to give this opportunity my all and to pay it forward. And I believe my experience on Project Runway will enable me to do this at an even higher level.

I have received the most inspirational messages and support from around the world. And the Project Runway challenge to design for Paralympian Tatyana McFadden changed my life forever as a person and as a designer.  I have always been interested in adaptive design but never found the time to do more on a larger scale. I don’t know what my future holds, but with the encouragement and interest I have received, I know it is something I must pursue. Winning that episode meant everything and if I had the chance to win every other challenge, I would give it up for that win.

AB: Who was favorite/least favorite contestant? 

NVB: I wanted everyone to get the Siriano Save and stay on the show with me forever. 

AB: What advice would you give to someone looking to take a similar life leap? 

NVB: Life is so hard. Find your joy. 

***

I watch the cliffhanger episode before the finale as Volpe Beringer sends three designs down the runway including her “victory dress” adaptive design. The four designers wait for the judges to choose who gets to showcase their designs at New York Fashion Week. But the episode ends in true reality-show fashion: “To be continued” flashes across the screen and all four contestants move on to the finale with guest judge Serena Williams. A week later, flanked by her family, friends and designers, she sends her models down the runway one last time. Ultimately she is not declared the winner. But in true Volpe Beringer fashion, she is undeterred. 

***

NVB: I might have been the oldest ever contestant but I know that I belong. There is a place for a designer like me on the runway and I belonged there.

AB: Your runway show was entitled “Sustain our Ability” promoting inclusivity. What are your next steps? What have you been working on since the show filmed?

NVB: I’ve kept busy since the show wrapped by preparing for Philadelphia Fashion week, working on my own collection and creating a line of evening wear for Van Cleve Bridal. I’ve been gathering research from many wheelchair users who have contacted me from around the world to help me adapt future collections. I’m also quite excited about a collaboration that is in the early stages with Project Runway Season 17 Philly contestant Renee Hill.

AB: How did you feel standing on the finale runway with your three fellow contestants?

NVB: I truly believe that on the finale, one of us wins the Season 18 title, but all four of us walk away as winners.

***Just as in the Rocky movies, I know there are many more sequels for Nancy Volpe Beringer. Project Runway may be over. But I can’t help feel that her journey is just beginning. 

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