Philadelphia designers are no stranger to the Project Runway experience.
This season, however, two of Runway’s 16 contestants have Philadelphia roots.
Asma Bibi 31, of West Philadelphia, is well known within Philadelphia’s Muslim community for her clothing label, Hijabi Pop. Nancy Volpe-Beringer, who at 64 is Runway’s oldest competitor, sells her eponymous fashion collection at Joan Shepp. (In February, another famous Philadelphian, singer/rapper Tierra Whack, walked the Grammy red carpet in one of Volpe-Beringer’s outrageous coats — as cute as it was multicolored.)
We will meet both of them during Thursday night’s Season 18 premiere, starring hosts Karlie Kloss and Christian Siriano and judges Elaine Welteroth, a former Teen Vogue editor-in-chief, as well as designer Brandon Maxwell and Elle editor-in-chief Nina Garcia.
Runway debuted on Bravo in 2004 when then-Philadelphia University (now Jefferson University) student and professor Jay McCarroll took first prize — and there have been many Philadelphians since: Kristin Haskins Simms was on season 8. Dom Streater won Runway’s 12th season in 2013 (and went on to win Project Runway All Stars). Mah-Jing Wong was on Season 16. Renee Hill, founder of Harx 4 and another modest-fashion designer, competed in February during Runway’s 17th season.
Bibi and Volpe-Beringer — who will become the show’s sixth and seventh Philadelphians — became fast friends during the filming of the show. They took the time to chat with me Tuesday.
Volpe-Beringer: I was in Florida studying a book on pattern-making. I knew I was in the final selection and I was waiting to hear if I would make it. The first time I applied, it was after I completed my [master’s] program in [fashion design] at Drexel. I made it pretty far, but I didn’t get on the show. I just kept preparing. I was preparing when they called me.
Bibi: It was on Friday and I was in prayer [at United Muslim Masjid]. When I got the call, I had to step outside. I was really, really, really shocked. I was surprised they were interested in a Muslim woman. … I didn’t actually attend fashion school. I was self-taught. I began making clothing for myself as a young woman because it was so challenging for me to find modest clothing.
Volpe-Beringer: It was such a blur, I don’t remember a lot of the experiences. I just reacted. I learned that I work really well under pressure. I learned I can perform. I mean, I had an affirmation. I’m going to be 65 in January. I’m going to be a real senior citizen.
Bibi: Wait a minute? You are going to be 65? Are you serious, Nancy? How did I not know that?
Volpe-Beringer: Yes. I guess that’s why I wasn’t worried about lack of sleep or anything. I wasn’t about wasting time. I didn’t take anything for granted. I jumped right into it. In the process, though, I guess I learned that we were all different, but we were all great. We [designers] are such a passionate group of people and we all have so many different aesthetics. I learned to love the process.
Bibi: Oh my! I learned that Nancy was 64. But what I really learned is that you can’t judge a book by its cover. You have to get to know people and not be so closed-minded. I appreciate the fact that we were all different. ... I learned to be more stern, though. I tend to be more soft-hearted when I’m with people. I learned that I could be stern, believe in myself, and still have that soft heart.
Volpe-Beringer: For me, it’s about the fabric. Manipulating fabric. I enjoy felting. I like creating different shapes and textures. Shredding, I like to shred fabric. I really have no fear. I just go with what my gut tells me.
Bibi: I have to work within a definition of what is modest: Only hands and feet and face can show. Everything else has to be covered. But I enjoy playing around with that. There is a very common silhouette now in the [Muslim] community that is a circle skirt. It adds a serious swing and flow. I don’t limit myself when it comes to fabric. But I do like to figure out what a young Muslim woman would like to wear and go to that. Everything I did for the show was ankle-length. I made sure of that. Nothing was overly form-fitting, but nothing was too big and billowy, either.
Bibi: I did. I had to be very strategic in the living space. During the day when I was working and covered up, I had no problem. I could be in the room with men. But at the end of the day, when it was time to wind down, when we were more relaxed, when perhaps I took my scarf off, I had to make sure I was in a room with all women.
Volpe-Beringer: Asma: I thought your designs were beautiful and I wanted to wear them. But this makes me think, is it OK if a woman who is not Muslim wears your clothes?
Bibi: So Nancy, think about it. How many times do you see a woman who does not identify as Muslim wear a flowy dress. It’s still super-chic, super-feminine, super-cute, and it reflects her being strong. So my clothes are for all women.
Bibi: Of course there were tears. ... But you have to watch the show for details.
Volpe-Beringer: I won’t speak to that. But I get teary-eyed watching the trailer on the show. The other night a Runway promo came on. Tears everywhere.
Bibi: Figure out your strengths and make sure you understand your weaknesses. Know what you bring to the table. How do you define fashion? If you know these answers, they can’t tear you down.
Volpe-Beringer: Being on Runway takes everything you have. You need to prepare. I didn’t take this for granted. Prepare like you are an athlete.