This past March, clothing designer Amanda Valentine opened the first runway show of Nashville Fashion Week with her latest collection of her Valentine Valentine label, which she had playfully dubbed “French Medieval Fly Girl.” The collection featured a mélange of seemingly disparate pieces — tailored dresses made of a spellbinding hologram fabric, artfully screen-printed T-shirts paired with utilitarian leggings, and quilted separates that looked simultaneously futuristic and historic.
Valentine, a master at finding harmony in dissonant design elements, stole the show. Her collection also caught the attention of reality competition show Project Runway. Just days after Nashville Fashion Week, Valentine, now 31, was in Atlanta, auditioning for the popular television show. On Jan. 10, it was announced that Valentine was among the 16 contestants for season 11 of Project Runway, which premieres on Lifetime on Jan. 24.
Nashvillians are no strangers to reality TV, from “Dr. Bachelor” Travis Stork, or Arnold Myint’s stint on Top Chef, and the many hopefuls who have graced the stages of American Idol, The Voice or Nashville Star. But Valentine, already a darling of the local fashion community, is representing something that the outside world may not directly associate with Nashville: trendsetting style.
And following a year when all eyes have been on Nashville, we can expect the microscope to focus in closely on Ms. Valentine.
Lincoln, Neb., native Valentine studied clothing and textile design at the University of Nebraska, which she praises for their exceptional program, educating her a lot about textiles, quilting and many of the techniques that are apparent in her design today. After graduation, Valentine moved to Los Angeles, where her older brother James — she’s the youngest of five — lived. James, a musician, was getting off the ground with his band, Maroon 5, and Amanda figured it was the perfect time to try something new.
“Things were starting to happen for [James,] and he said, ‘Come out here,’ ” Valentine recalled. She moved into a tiny apartment with her brother and Maroon 5 front man Adam Levine. “It was on MTV Cribs, which is really funny,” she said, laughing. “I’d sleep on the couch — it was the most unglamorous thing ever. I was like the den mother for Maroon 5.”
In 2007, Valentine moved to Nashville with her boyfriend, who was transferred for work. Valentine was relieved for the change in scenery. “L.A. was just so big to me,” she explained. “When I came [to Nashville], I fell in love with the city, as I’m sure a lot of people say. It just felt like home, and I’ve loved it ever since.”
Valentine broke up with the boyfriend but decided to stay here. She found work doing wardrobe styling, which she had also done in L.A. — she styled Maroon 5’s video “Harder to Breathe” — but clothing design was always something she pursued on the side.
“Styling was a nice way for me to sometimes do design for certain jobs,” Valentine said. “But [design] has always been on the backburner, it’s always been what I do.”
Valentine found other fashion-related work in Nashville. For a year she ran vintage and local fashion shop Local Honey with Shea Steele, and then managed local boutique Two Elle and retailer American Apparel. She then focused on styling, finding work in Nashville’s ever-growing entertainment industry.
Valentine first auditioned for Project Runway in 2009 but didn’t make the cut. “I didn’t feel quite prepared for it, but I just had to do it,” Valentine recalled. “I felt good about how far I got, but I wasn’t shocked when I didn’t make it.” She tried again the following year, but wasn’t selected to compete. “I kind of got over it,” she admitted.
The following year, the Runway producers called her back to audition again, but she was in the process of planning her wedding to photographer Will Holland so she bowed out.
“I thought that was kind of it, that I wasn’t going to do it again,” Valentine said. “My husband and I were out playing darts one night at Edgefield, and out of the blue, he said, ‘You know what? I just have a feeling about it, I think you should go for Project Runway again.’ So I went for it. He was totally right. Now I think he’s psychic.”
Valentine, energized and excited about her new collection, aced the audition. “Amanda has a super, edgy, hipster style,” said Sara Rea, executive producer of Runway. “She’s very unique, she’s very Amanda — her design aesthetic is very much her. She knows who she is and she’s confident about what she does. She really caught our eye; it was a no-brainer to put her on the show.”
Rea explained that it’s common for participants to audition more than once for the show, noting that former Runway winners Seth Aaron Henderson (season 7) and Irina Shabayeva (season 6) both auditioned multiple times before they were selected to compete. “We watch them grow year after year in the audition process, and then we know when they’re cooked and ready to be on the show,” Rea said.
Just like Holland, Rea and the Runway producers knew that Valentine was cooked and ready. But another curveball soon came Valentine’s way.
Project Runway, which first aired in 2004, pits contestants against each other in a variety of clothes-making challenges, which have ranged from constructing garments out of items found in a grocery store or creating clothing for models on stilts. The show features as judges supermodel Heidi Klum, Marie Claire creative director Nina Garcia and renowned designer Michael Kors, who has been replaced with wunderkind designer Zac Posen for the upcoming season.
The show also features a rotating cast of guest judges — which has included fashionable celebrities such as Victoria Beckham, Sarah Jessica Parker and Natalie Portman — and Runway mentor Tim Gunn. Gunn, Liz Claiborne chief creative officer and former Parsons School of Design faculty member, is perhaps the most well known personality from the show with his “make it work” attitude and penchant for delivering honest, constructive criticism, guiding participants through some of their darker, stressful moments throughout the competition.
The producers try to keep the show interesting with inventive challenges and unconventional work arrangements, such as the team challenges, in which the designers have to work in groups to execute a look or even a small collection. This is where the creative headbutting happens, where true personalities are revealed. It’s when the gloves come off, and it’s usually not pretty.
So, imagine the season 11 participants’ surprise when they were informed that the entire competition would be team challenges. The teaser that circulated a few weeks ago showed the designers’ initial reaction to the news: horror, dismay and shock. Valentine’s introduction to TV land was the deadpan, “I’m not really a team player,” featured prominently in the commercial.
“We really had no idea that it was a team season,” Valentine explained. “When they announced that, I felt everybody’s shoulders droop. Nobody was excited about it, everybody was terrified. I was especially terrified because I’m used to working alone.”
Rea said that while the producers knew that the team challenges would showcase plenty of conflicts, it was also meant to reflect the collaborative process that is key to a profession within the fashion industry.
“In the real world of fashion, no one sits and sews alone, or comes up with an idea and sews alone,” Rea explained. “Every successful designer has a team. Being able to communicate and work with other people is imperative to being successful in the fashion world. So we thought we’d bring that element of reality into the workroom and see how the designers did.”
As Rea noted, in the fashion industry, many fledgling designers work with or under other designers. But for Valentine, a self-described “loner” who prefers to work by herself, the idea of forced collaboration was initially intimidating.
“I’ve never worked for someone else, designing, that just didn’t make sense to me,” Valentine said. “I knew it would be extremely challenging for me, and it was. I think I was a little more eager to please than I was expecting. I’m the youngest of five children and I totally became the youngest sister that was like, ‘I’ll help! Is everybody OK?’ which totally surprised me. Sometimes it worked and it was awesome. And sometimes it was just a disaster.”
Valentine said she wanted to do Project Runway because she strives to design full time, and she knew the experience would push her past her comfort zone and sharpen her skills. “Project Runway felt like a chance to jump start what I really want to do, as far as getting press or money, or even getting some confidence back,” she said. “It totally is fashion boot camp. It shows you what you’re good at and what you’re bad at.”
And while everyone is on the show because of the desire to further their individual careers, this is television, and producers are going to take some liberties in the way they edit the hours spent in the workroom. The preview on the Runway website shows another contestant singling Valentine and two other women out as “bitches.”
Valentine sighed, then laughed, when this was brought up. “I think I’ve mentally prepared myself for the worst,” she said. “I’m trying to decide how much to read and watch. I mean, it’s going to be impossible not to read and watch everything!”
Rea acknowledged that conflicts were common — and anyone who watches reality TV knows that more drama often equals more viewers — but that they aren’t showing arguments simply for ratings. “That collaboration, obviously it brought conflict — everyone’s expecting that — but it also brought an elevated sense of design,” Rea said. “In a way, [the contestants] were judged by one another before they were presented to the judges. Your teammates were very invested in how you were doing because they’re on your team. So you push yourself.”
The team challenges also give viewers the ability to see the dialogue between the designers, watching them articulate their ideas in a way that isn’t always available when one is working alone. “We get to hear every thought that they have as they’re conceptualizing, as they’re executing,” Rea said. “We hear what’s working and what’s not working, because they’re talking to someone else. It’s not as insular. It’s nice to hear that progress in a step-by-step process.”
Rea also says that Valentine, in particular, was challenged in a positive way through the team setup, which differed each week (although Valentine admitted that they were “always in a form of a team”). “I think she benefited from it,” Rea said. “Honestly, I think everyone benefited in some way. There were moments when Amanda was pushed and had to have thick skin to survive.”
As for the “bitches” comment, Valentine let it roll off her back. “The thing is, I get it. I’m not mad,” she explained. “There was three of us that were very close, the three that were called out. We thought we’d be singled out as the mean girls, and we totally were. I mean, I said things, other people said things, it is what it is. I maybe deserved it sometimes.”
Catfights aside, Valentine — who legally cannot reveal any outcomes to the show — says that participating on the show accomplished what she hoped it would.
“I was afraid I’d feel burnt out on design, but it’s fired me up — I feel like I’m a teenager again,” she said, laughing. “I have the real passion for it back, and now I’m more confident and more excited.”
After the original cast of 16 is whittled down, finalists are selected to execute a full collection at New York Fashion Week, where the winner will be selected. The contestants are competing for a $100,000 cash prize to fund their collection; the grand prize winner also gets a fashion spread in Marie Claire magazine, a 2013 Lexus GS 350, the opportunity to design and sell an exclusive collection at Lord & Taylor, and a $50,000 technology suite from HP and Intel to help run their business.
Regardless of whether or not Valentine wins the competition, she says she’s relatively flexible as to what happens next in her career. “I’ve stayed pretty open-minded to what could happen, but I really want to ride the wave of all this momentum and do this full-time,” Valentine said. “I’m hoping by the end of the year that I’ve got some wholesale out to boutiques all across the United States. I hope that I can keep doing exactly what I want to do. I’m closer already, I can feel it.”
Last fall, in a Nashville Scene cover story about fashion that featured Valentine’s designs, she was vocal about the lack of resources for a designer working in Nashville. She maintains that one of her biggest struggles is finding supplies and the infrastructure to support her production.
“I can’t get my fabric here, but that’s OK. There’s a lot of designers that have to travel for that, but it really comes down to production,” Valentine explained. “I can’t keep making everything by myself. I’m trying to figure out if there are enough skilled textile workers around to build a team. I’ve met with a bunch of other designers in town, and we’ve been brainstorming over the last several months to find a way to make this happen, to have a co-op factory. It’s just really tricky and really expensive.”
Valentine says that while she loves visiting New York City, where Project Runway films, she hopes she can continue to build her career in Nashville. “I don’t want to leave. I fall in love with [New York City] a little more every time I visit, but I can’t live there,” she said. “I’m from Nebraska, I’m not built for it.”
Valentine praised Florence, Ala., designer Natalie Chanin of Alabama Chanin, who employs local women in her community to sew her designs. “I love what Alabama Chanin is doing, I love the idea of paying people a really fair wage,” she said. “Textile wages are not typically thought of as the highest, and I love that she’s paying fair wages to people who need jobs in certain areas.”
However, higher operating costs mean that Chanin’s clothing is also sold at much higher price points than Valentine’s, which range from $40 T-shirts to $300 coats. “It may be idealistic for me to say. ‘I’m going to keep these price points really low,’ ” Valentine admitted. “My whole thing is, if I can’t buy it myself, if I can’t afford it, what am I doing? I design for myself, I design for my friends, so if my friends can’t buy it, I feel like a joke. I’m hoping I can hang onto that, but it’s really tough. It means that I eat a lot of costs.”
While producing clothing that she and her friends could afford is important to Valentine, creating styles that they’d want to wear is essential. Valentine achieves this by drawing from a myriad of inspirations when designing, resulting in the unique sense of style that Rea and the other Project Runway decision makers found so appealing. As anyone with a rudimentary knowledge in fashion knows, this a critical skill for a designer, or else each piece is mere mimicry.
Rather than citing specific designers as influences, Valentine, like many inventive artists, looks outside of her field in order to stoke the creative fire. “It’s always music, and it’s always different parts of the world, art history, culture, weird pockets in history. I get really into research, and I love splicing all of those things together,” Valentine said. “I’ll get hippy dippy. But I’m a Gemini, and I really think that I’m constantly thinking about dichotomies and the two sides of things — I love the idea of putting those together. I’m fascinated finding the line where those two ideas can somehow intersect, that interests me intellectually.”
The “French Medieval Fly Girl” line she showed at 2012 Nashville Fashion Week exemplified this ethos perfectly. A standout top — which was featured on the Sept. 27 cover of the Scene — was on trend with a timely peplum shape, yet the hunter green, sueded accented with a black quilted bodice called to mind a sexy Joan of Arc.
Valentine also excels at creating interesting, luxe looks out of inexpensive materials, a skill that will come in handy on a television show that has had designers create outfits out of garbage bags or live flowers. She uses her shredded dresses as an example, recalling how she first started shredding fabric in college.
“In college, I was a janitor and I didn’t have a lot of money,” Valentine recalled. “I’d have these advanced textile projects, and I just couldn’t spend $400 on silk. And also because I’m a little bit of a punk, I was being a little rebellious, and I thought, ‘I’m going to take the cheapest, silliest fabric and try to make it cool.’ So I started shredding it. I’ve tried to avoid it over the last few years because it’s been done, but I always end up coming back to it. It’s fun; nothing falls like that or moves like that.”
Valentine’s distinct point of view distinguishes her from what is currently viewed as “Southern fashion” by the masses. The widespread popularity of regional brands like Billy Reid (who was designated Menswear Designer of the Year by the Council of Fashion Designers of America in 2012) and local clothing and accessory designers like Imogene + Willie, Peter Nappi, Emil Erwin and Otis James carry a similar aesthetic. This upscale, Americana look — classic, timeless shapes, artisan leather goods and bespoke clothing that would all be at home in the pages of Garden & Gun magazine — is indeed a beautiful picture of the South, but it’s not the whole picture.
“There definitely is a look that we’re seeing everywhere — that Americana, rustic, bowties and denim,” Valentine said. “That’s just never been my look. I never really even entertained the idea of being a ‘Southern designer’ or a ‘Nashville designer.’ Although, I do have to say, the community here of designers — Otis [James], Emil [Congdon, of Emil Erwin], Jamie and the Jones — we’re all friends, we’re all super supportive, and I love that. We can be a community in that way, even if aesthetically, we’re totally on different planets, which we are.”
Along with her short-term goal of distributing her Valentine Valentine line — she’s currently working on a collection she’s calling “Tibetan Punk” — in boutiques nationwide by the end of 2013, Valentine has a big picture goal to effectively produce her line and pay fair wages to skilled laborers who need jobs.
“I’ve had a dream for a while of someday employing stay-at-home mothers who can work on their own schedules and have their lives set up the way they want to,” Valentine said. “I think that’s from growing up Mormon. A lot of the women I was surrounded by were stay-at-home moms who had these side businesses or projects that they were able to grow over the years. I love that. I admire that. I want to help support that, but I’ve got to figure that out.
“Down the line, I would love to be in a better position to facilitate that, but right now I just have to figure out how to make my next season. As long as I can keep it in the United States, I feel successful.”
With her forward-thinking mindset in the Nashville fashion community, could the former den mother of Maroon 5 become the future den mother of Nashville designers? Regardless of how she fares on Runway, her participation in the competition only brought her closer to her personal and professional goals.
“It’s been pretty extraordinary,” Valentine enthused. “And, I’ll get hippy dippy again, it does have more to do with learning about myself and learning how I work. All of that is probably the best outcome of everything, figuring out what I need to do mentally and professionally. I learned a lot about myself, which is such a cheesy, reality television answer! But now I know why everybody says that — it’s totally true.”