“Project Runway,” the reality TV show in which fashion designers struggle weekly to stay in the elimination competition, will debut the eighth episode of the current season Thursday night.
The oldest designer on the show is Philadelphia’s Nancy Volpe Beringer, who has survived to this halfway point, staying in the game with designers literally half her age.
“Project Runway” works like this: Each episode, a (progressively shrinking) group of designers is given a concept — like making a dress out of Christmas decorations or animal prints inspired by the Broadway show “Cats” — and then very quickly is asked to create something to present to a panel of judges.
The breakneck process is not how Beringer usually works.
“I don’t design through sketching,” Beringer said in her sunlit studio overlooking Benjamin Franklin Parkway. “I design by playing with fabric and seeing what it wants to become. We go on this journey together.”
The journey Beringer is on actually began about six years ago, when she decided to quit her job of 18 years at the New Jersey Education Association (the teachers union) to chase a dream of becoming a fashion designer.
“Every job I had, I was always creating. It could have been a spreadsheet, it could have been a business plan, an event. I had this drive to create. I told people it was my oxygen,” she said.
Beringer had just gotten a coveted and hard-won promotion into management when she realized she didn’t want to manage people.
“When I got this promotion, I didn’t have this ability to be creative,” she said. “I was suffocating.”
So in 2013, at 59 years old with two adult sons, she enrolled as a freshman at Drexel University. After graduating in 2016, she started her own custom-design label, and things ramped up fast: Last year, a dress and coat by Beringer were worn by Tierra Whack on the red carpet of the Grammy Awards.
Now, on “Project Runway,” Beringer is literally twice the age of her competitors — she just turned 65. Ironically, she has the least amount of design experience, being just a few years out of school.
She makes up for it with patience, maturity, and energy to burn. So she said while waving around her “Italian hands.”
“I had the most energy of anyone in there. I may have had the most aches and pains, but I have that every day,” Beringer said. “I wake up every morning in pain. I have arthritis in my neck, but as soon as I come to my studio and move around, I come to life.”
The current season of “Project Runway” was shot last summer in its entirety. The cast and crew are contractually sworn to secrecy about how it will play out. Beringer has so far lasted to the eighth episode, but she won’t admit to anything beyond that.
In a reality show driven by criticism and drama among its competitors, Beringer has held on this long by keeping her head down, focusing on the work, and staying away from infighting.
“That was a big concern for my son. He begged me not to be on the show,” she said. “He knows I’ve been a victim of bullying in my adult life. He has seen the pain that has caused me.”
Beringer pushes up her sleeve to reveal a black rubber bracelet around her wrist, printed with “No H8.” She wears it every day.
“It’s part of getting dressed in the morning. It’s to support the LBGT community, and it’s my motto for life,” she said. “I don’t want to live my life with hate.”
You won’t catch Beringer bad-mouthing the other contestants. If she makes a face at somebody’s design, it was probably a trick in post-production editing.
“We all dress differently. We all look different. That’s to be celebrated. I shouldn’t want to wear every designer’s aesthetics, but that doesn’t mean they’re bad,” she said.
Life after “Runway” has not slowed down. Beringer is preparing a show for the upcoming Philadelphia Fashion Week and creating a line of evening wear for Van Cleve Bridal.
Earlier this week, while browsing a fabric store, she bumped into Renee Hill, a Philadelphia designer from last season’s “Project Runway.”
“We immediately hugged,” Beringer said. “You have this bond. You’re now part of this family.”
Now, they’re talking about collaborating.