Ms Fashion Design ’16
By Lini S. Kadaba
Nancy Volpe Beringer, MS ’16, has long held tight to a secret fantasy.
Ever since she first saw the reality TV competition “Project Runway” 14 years ago, she dreamed about appearing as a contestant. “No one knew,” she says. At the time, Beringer was working at an education nonprofit. Sure, she sewed clothes for her Barbies as a child and even made her own prom dress, but the secretary turned educator turned director never considered studying fashion design. Until she did.
At 58 years old, Beringer gave up her job—and a chunk of her life savings—to enter Drexel University’s highly-ranked master’s in fashion design program at the Antoinette Westphal College of Media Arts & Design.
Now, the emerging designer under her eponymous label has captured her most sought-after prize: She will appear on “Project Runway’s” 18th season as the oldest ever contestant at age 64, vying against 15 others for more than $250,000 in prizes, including a mentorship with the Council of Fashion Designers of America, and other goodies. The show, taped this summer at iconic New York locales (such as the TWA Hotel at JFK airport, Bergdorf Goodman and The Vessel), starts airing Dec. 5 on Bravo.
“It’s too amazing,” Beringer says. “I’m so proud and so blessed that at my age this fantasy became a reality.”
Since graduation, her career has soared: She sells at Philly’s iconic concept shop Joan Shepp in Center City and on her e-commerce shop at nancyvolpeberinger.com and makes custom couture pieces for clients. At the Grammy’s this year [Feb. 2019], rapper Tierra Whack walked the red carpet in a Beringer creation, notable for its Mummers Parade worthy faux-fur coat. She also designed a three-piece ensemble for Drexel President John Fry’s wife, Cara, to wear to the 2018 Academy of Music Concert and Ball.
In a “Project Runway” promo, Beringer looks to favor comfortable workroom clothing, with her signature feather single earring along with her messy topknot as the only hint of her artistry. In contrast, her signature styles—androgynous, wearable art designed at her Philadelphia studio—turn heads.
“When I start out,” she says, “I see a fabric that I love, and then I see what it wants to become. It’s a collaboration with me and the fabric.”
Beringer developed her mojo at Drexel, choosing the program for its comprehensive curriculum and loving the Materials Exploration course.
“That opened a world to me,” she says. “That’s what I still do. I create textiles. I manipulate textiles.” Her graduate collection of shimmering eveningwear, which swept four awards, used malleable and luminescent silk materials in liquid organza and liquid satin.
“Nancy’s designs were beautiful,” says Lisa Hayes, Drexel’s fashion design program director. “She created her own textiles and materials, and it was this discovery that really made her collection a standout.”
Adds Joan Shepp: “Nancy has the ability to instantly connect with her fabric … She is one of the most talented designers I have met in my 48 years in this business.”
Beringer might never have pursued fashion but for a promotion. Her new management duties, she says, proved a poor outlet for creativity, her “oxygen.” “That’s what I needed to breathe and survive,” Beringer adds.
Her two sons’ professional happiness also got Beringer contemplating what if. “The moment when I allowed myself to not only have the guts to ask the question but to answer it,” she says, “that’s when I started living my authentic life.”
After failing to make “Project Runway’s” final cut soon after Drexel, Beringer kept at it, honing skills in couture, draping and experimental patternmaking. In fact, when the call came, she was studying a pattern-making book. “That’s the truth.” she says. “I wanted to be ready.”
Beringer can’t reveal how she fared, but she says her Drexel days gave her one leg up. “I was used to working these ridiculous hours, 15-, 18-hour days,” she says. “I knew I had the stamina.”
For now, Beringer feels she has already succeeded by reaching her goal to become a relevant Philly designer and is quickly becoming one of the premier Philly designers. “For me, this means being able to use my unique fashions to help support community organizations that empower women and help disadvantaged children.”