Althea Harper Goes Nuts With the Dye
All this color-treating is done by hand…in the designer’s tub.
It wasn’t long after Althea Harper launched her first line that she realized she was ignoring an entire subset of women: those who weren’t quite as statuesque as she is. “I think I went about it in reverse,” she explains. “Eventually, I started designing more for what other women needed.” For her diffusion line, not only does the Project Runway alum insist on hand-dyeing each piece in her New Haven, Connecticut, bathtub, but she also runs the entire organic bamboo collection through her washer and dryer to avoid bleeding or shrinkage down the road. Check out how Althea stamps each piece—including her way-cool Of a Kind edition—with her signature marbled effect. —lauren caruso
“Once we have the mock up, we sort through the skirts to make sure everything is exactly how it should be. The organic bamboo jersey is ten times softer than a regular jersey, and it has a lot more retention to help it hold its shape. It’s also quite a bit heavier.”
“I really like to fit this line on an intern—she’s only 5’2”—because it’s about bringing great pieces to real women. We keep all the extra material at the bottom raw-edged so people can hem it to whatever length works best for them. People don’t want to go to the tailor to get a jersey piece hemmed. A lightweight jersey would unravel, but something like this is thick enough that you’ll get a nice finish. That’s right: I’m encouraging you to take a pair of scissors to my skirts!”
“I’ve been yelled at for getting dye in other people’s drains, so the only way to do it without any complaints is to hand-dye everything in my bathtub. Besides, if I take my pieces to a production place, they wouldn’t come out as unique.”
“Instead of laying the skirt perfectly flat and dipping it in, I put it in a ball to get some color variance and stir it.”
“I just let it take its own shape and then I kind of twist it a little bit, so instead of getting the tie-dyed look, it gets marbleized. It’ll stay in there for 30 to 40 minutes. The bamboo jersey really holds water, so it’s a really long drying process.”
“The maxi skirt is everywhere, but I haven’t really seen it in this silhouette. It’s super feminine and great for a woman that wants to wear a more streamlined maxi.”
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Althea Harper and Alexander McQueen
Get inside the internship that really shaped her approach to design.
Cincinnati isn’t quite a sartorial epicenter, so as soon as she could, Althea Harper (an Ohio native and University of Cincinnati graduate), flew across the pond to intern with some of Britain’s most venerable designers. “European fashion is very different from American fashion,” she explains. “People are willing to take more risks and, as both a student and an artist, there’s so much inspiration.” Once in London, Althea spent six months studying under Alexander McQueen, where she helped prep for his spring 2009 show and learned so much. “I left with a lot of respect for that company— I think that’s very rare,” she adds. Here, Althea talks us through what’s stuck with her. —lauren caruso
Althea (right) and a fellow intern in front of a mood board at McQueen HQ.
“In the studio at McQueen, hours were crazy! We’d be there until like two in the morning and were expected to be back there at 9 A.M. It gets really intense for sure.”
Backstage at the McQueen spring 2009 runway show.
“Backstage at McQueen was also really crazy! We were hot-gluing feathers on the model just moments before she got on the runway, so I picked up a few bad habits as far as working so last-minute.”
Interns on the runway!
“I was out and about all the time with fellow interns. It was really important for me to spend some time outside the studio while in Europe. We went to the Boom Boom Room, which is a place where all the designers would go. And we went to these roller discos. It’s like a club on roller skates. It’s so hilarious and fun.”
A look from the McQueen collection Althea experienced firsthand.
“One of the things I learned at McQueen is that you just don’t want to adorn something for the sake of adornment. There has to be a reason. I think I took that really literally. I like to take some of the elements that I learned from McQueen and incorporate them into pieces that are wearable. That’s where my American fashion background comes in. At the end of the day, I want to be able to wear my designs.”