Philly underdog makes it to the ‘Project Runway’ finale

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Nancy Volpe-Beringer wraps herself in an Eagles' inspired faux fur coat in her studio. (Kimberly Paynter/WHYY)

Nancy Volpe-Beringer wraps herself in an Eagles' inspired faux fur coat in her studio. (Kimberly Paynter/WHYY)

When Nancy Volpe-Beringer started the 18th season of “Project Runway,” she was considered the long shot. Not only was she, at 64, the oldest contestant on the show, but she also had the least amount of experience: She came to fashion design late in life and only had a few years of work under her belt.

“I was considered the underdog with my limited experience,” she said.

Having persevered through 13 episodes of the elimination competition, Volpe-Beringer is now one of four contestants in the season finale, to be broadcasted Thursday night on the Bravo TV network.

“This is what it means to be from Philly: You gotta trust the process,” said Volpe-Beringer.

The bulk of the show was shot last summer. The final four designers who emerged from that run of challenges were sent home for five months to develop 10-piece collections that would be shown during New York Fashion Week and then judged to determine the ultimate winner.

During that five-month period, the show’s fashion mentor, Christian Siriano, visited Volpe-Beringer in her studio in an apartment overlooking Benjamin Franklin Parkway. She showed him the bay window where her sewing machine is set up and the view of the Art Museum.

“Look over here. This is what I get inspired by,” Volpe-Beringer said as she led Siriano through her cramped design space. “As I’m sewing, if you look right out here … those are the ‘Rocky’ steps.”

“Wait,” Siriano said incredulously. “Are those really the ‘Rocky’ steps?”

“Those are the `Rocky’ steps.”

“C’mon!”

Then the camera cuts to the two of them, outside, dutifully jogging up the famous steps.

That Philly grit has carried this underdog to the final four. Volpe-Beringer, like the rest of the cast, is sworn to secrecy about the outcome of the pre-taped show: She would not say if she had won or lost. You have to watch to find out.

The lesson for both Rocky and Volpe-Beringer was the same: Win or lose, the fight was worth it.

“From what I saw and experienced, we all gave it everything we had,” said Volpe-Beringer. “It might sound cliche, but four people are going to win, and one person will get the title.”

Volpe-Beringer is a slow designer, preferring to get ideas through “playing with fabric” rather than making sketches. That takes time. That process was put to the test in the early episodes of “Project Runway,” which were all about making fast, seat-of-the-pants decisions to accommodate artificially imposed design challenges.

She survived those challenges to graduate to the five-month collection design period when she was able to work her slower, more intuitive process. The collection to be revealed in the final episode takes cues from those earlier challenges, in particular when she was asked to design for the Paralympics wheelchair athlete Tatyana McFadden.

That experience changed the way Volpe-Beringer thought about design.

“First thing I decided with my collection is that it would be as inclusive as possible,” she said.

Her collection is also zero-waste, meaning no fabric scraps were thrown away. All cuttings were incorporated into the final piece.

“My collection represents what the future of fashion should be,” said Volpe-Beringer. “With sustainability and inclusivity.”

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