Education is key but there are some important traits that can’t be taught and are just as valuable such as flexibility and a sense of humor are priceless assets. The pandemic proved the need to be flexible and pivot to respond to consumer needs. Personally, my sense of humor and positive outlet served as lifelines during the pandemic. As an example, I personally had to create a very tight safety pod. And therefore, as a 66-year-old who had not been to a hair salon for over a year, I decided that I might as well keep growing my hair and will donate it once I return to my regular salon appointments. FYI: Because I opted not to go to a salon, I still supported the salon and pre-paid for appointments I would normally have kept.
As a part of this interview series, I had the pleasure of interviewing Nancy Volpe Beringer.
At age 64, Nancy Volpe Beringer, a Philadelphia fashion designer, made history as the oldest ever contestant on Project Runway. She left her corporate type job at the pinnacle of success and enrolled in the three-year Drexel University’s graduate fashion design program and graduated at the top of her class at age 61. As one of the final four in Season 18 Project Runway, her finale collection reflected her brand’s mission of inclusivity, adaptive design, and sustainability. Her designs of wearable art and PPE sustainable fashion are available online at nancyvolpeberinger.com
Thank you so much for doing this with us! Before we start, our readers would love to “get to know you” a bit better. Can you tell us a bit about your childhood backstory?
I grew up in a traditional middle-class family as the middle child of five girls and one boy who was the youngest. I lived in Levittown, PA, a new concept of a suburban planned community with mostly one-income households and where families had one car.
Can you please give us your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Can you share how that was relevant to you in your life?
Without realizing it, I have lived my life by “making fear my friend,” a quote I recently heard shared by Project Runway judge Elaine Welteroth. I have so many examples how I quietly but determinedly have lived my life fearlessly. An early memory dates back to when I was 11 years old and had to select two courses for a summer enrichment program. As fate would have it, I signed up for a sewing class. But quite surprisingly, as an extremely shy child, I also enrolled in public speaking for my second class. It seems that by “making fear my friend” and never letting a challenge stand in my way of pursuing a dream ultimately led me to become a fashion designer at age 61.
You have been blessed with much success. In your opinion, what are the top three qualities that you possess that have helped you accomplish so much? If you can, please share a story or example for each.
Fearlessness: It seems I thrive when I start a project, job, or task that I simply don’t know how to do. For me, the opportunity provides a chance to learn and create my own vision. I find this ironic since I never really enjoyed going to school. Sending in my application to be a contestant on Project Runway the year I graduated from fashion school exemplifies total fearlessness. I knew I would be competing against much more established and younger designers, but I also believed that my fearlessness would be my compass for survival.
Creativity: Creativity has always been my oxygen. Without it, I simply don’t thrive. Managing a five-year project to celebrate our education association’s 150th anniversary (where I worked) provided the most varied and comprehensive creative opportunities. Besides the expected grand party, my endless creative process leading multiple teams resulted in a documentary on New Jersey public education, our first permanent historical archives and museum display; multiple publications, programs and events commemorating our history, an original theatrical production in collaboration with the Trenton Symphony and American Historical Theater, and of course, a culminating grand ball celebration.
Fantastical imagination: I remember was I was about to turn 50 and Season 1 of Project Runway aired. I thought, “What would have happened if I turned my love of sewing when I was a young teenager and studied fashion design?” I fantastically imagined that I could have been a contestant on Project Runway. The fantasy apparently never left my imagination. I not only became a fashion designer, but on Season 18, I became the oldest ever competitor on the show at age 64 where I finished as runner-up.
Let’s now shift to the main part of our discussion about ‘Second Chapters’. Can you tell our readers about your career experience before your Second Chapter?
Based on my resume, some may say that I’ve had many “Second Chapters.” However, I consider my life as a fashion design as my real “Second Chapter” as I am finally living a truthful and authentic life. Prior to designing, my fearless philosophy and the varied skills I accumulated along my journey provided the strong foundation I need to achieve a successful “Second Chapter” as a fashion designer.
I began my entree into the business sector right out of high school as a secretary and steadily advanced to administrative management level. Following the birth of my first child, I entered the world of entrepreneurship and became a restaurant/bar owner with my former husband. I thrived in the start-up phase as turning a shot and beer establishment into a happening art gallery restaurant proved exhilarating.
Sadly, the business ended after a few years when I expectedly found myself a single parent of a two- and a four-year old. At this point, I decided to earn a bachelors in business education so that I could blend single parenting with earning a full-time income. Unfortunately, I found I had to supplement the inadequate income of a teacher with multiple part-time positions and/or freelance projects.
Fate intervened and I found myself once again with the opportunity to accept a job in an area where I had absolutely no formal training or experience. I began working in the field of communications for a leading education advocacy association. I initially worked as an editor of their monthly publication but moved into media relations and speech writing. Eventually, I transferred into community organizing and leadership training culminating in a management position after 18 years.
And how did you “reinvent yourself” in your Second Chapter?
I became a fashion designer at age 61. I accomplished this by leaving my job at the pinnacle of success and using my life savings to earn a master’s of science in fashion design from Drexel University.
Can you tell us about the specific trigger that made you decide that you were going to “take the plunge” and make your huge transition?
I so clearly remember the exact hour that my life forever changed. It was 3 am on another sleepless night. Instead of rejoicing in getting a much sought-after promotion, I found myself slowly suffocating as my new managerial position did not provide my much-needed opportunities to create. At 3 am, thoughts about my sons and their successes consumed me. I actually felt envy towards my younger son as I observed him using the Internet to study photography and videography to supplement his income as a struggling musician.
It was at that moment that I asked myself, “If I was young again, what would I want to learn?” My life changed forever when I had the courage to not only honestly answer the question but immediately take action. I wanted to study fashion design. Within months, I left my job at the pinnacle of success and used my life savings to enroll in the three-year master’s program in fashion design at Drexel University.
What did you do to discover that you had a new skillset inside of you that you haven’t been maximizing? How did you find that and how did you ultimately overcome the barriers to help manifest those powers?
From the moment I walked into my first class at Drexel University, I knew I found my home. I finally accepted my destiny. I quickly understood that fashion design could provide my inexplicable need to create. Initially, I thought that my lack of illustration skills could impact my success as a designer. I even signed up for a set of intense illustration classes prior to the start of the graduate master’s program.
I discovered I could learn these skills, but that they did not come to me naturally. I overcame this barrier by accepting that the traditional design method of illustrating did not suit my skills or process. I did not let this awareness deter me. But rather I embraced my process of using the fabric to lead me. By playing (aka draping) the fabric, I could discover what the fabric wanted to be. My process became my strength rather than a weak link.
How are things going with this new initiative? We would love to hear some specific examples or stories.
I hit the ground running as soon as I graduated. In addition to my many successes, I felt so fortunate that I had countless opportunities to achieve my never-ending goal of using my fashion to support organizations that help disadvantaged children and empower women.
Philadelphia’s iconic fashion concept store, Joan Shepp, showcased my graduate collection in their holiday window the same year I graduated. Philadelphia rapper and Grammy nominee selected me to design her premier Grammy Red Carpet look just a year after graduation. Philadelphia Fashion Week invited me to kick off their fashion week. “Philadelphia” magazine honored me with a “Best in Philly” fashion design award. I made history as the oldest ever designer on Project Runway. As a final four, I showed the most inclusive and sustainable collection ever to walk in a Project Runway finale.
And then the pandemic hit and just like so many other countless businesses, I had to rework my goals, cancel events, and realize that I would not be able to continue in-person custom designing. Mere survival became the immediate goal.
Is there a particular person who you are grateful towards who helped get you to where you are? Can you share a story about that?
Reflecting on my journey to my “Second Chapter,” I appreciate that many of my strengths can be reflected in the unique traits of both my mother and father. I am also eternally grateful for the unconditional support and encouragement shown by my husband of 10 years.
My husband has steadfastly cheered me on from the beginning. I remember when I returned from New York after touring one of the top fashion schools, and I exuberantly told him about a one-year associate degree program. He smiled and then pulled out one of his many nicknames for me. He said, “Calm down, fireball.” And then the advice he shared changed my life. He said, “I thought you were doing this for the love of learning so why are you rushing the learning?” My extreme goal-oriented persona took a deep breath and absorbed these wise words. I soon after enrolled in the three-year graduate fashion design program right in my back yard at Drexel University in Philadelphia.
Can you share the most interesting story that happened to you since you started in this new direction?
One of the most exciting and proudest moments happened on Project Runway when I got to design the winning red carpet look for Para-Olympiad Tatyana McFadden. It’s as if the Universe reached into my soul and my desire to use my fashion to make a difference. Creating the adaptive design look for this inspirational wheelchair user inspired my Project Runway finale collection at New York Fashion Week and has been the motivating force behind my goal to enter the adaptive design market.
Did you ever struggle with believing in yourself? If so, how did you overcome that limiting belief about yourself? Can you share a story or example?
Yes, I have struggled with believing in myself. I lived a secret life as a victim of adult bullying, Not once. Not twice. But multiples times. And I felt shame. I felt there had to be something wrong with me to allow myself to be bullied.
I found out I was not alone. Adult bullying is much more prevalent than you might think. In fact, I imagine many have experienced it without understanding it. Actions of adult passive aggressive bullying can seem rather insignificant. It can be covert. It can be subtle. It happens in the workplace. It happens in families. It happens in schools. It happens everywhere. But just because it is commonplace and appears to be only minor incidents doesn’t mean it isn’t harmful. I have felt the pain and humiliation. I have felt isolated. I have had my work sabotaged. I have been ridiculed behind my back. I have been gossiped about. I have been given the silent treatment and ignored.
But it wasn’t until that I accepted fear could be my friend that I could also become honest with myself. Once I acknowledged that I was being bullied, I began to stop the cycle. When I stopped being afraid and confronted a bully, I began my road to recovery and became a survivor of bullying.
In my own work I usually encourage my clients to ask for support before they embark on something new. How did you create your support system before you moved to your new chapter?
I learned to share my dreams with my husband instead of internalizing them. From that moment, there hasn’t been a time where my husband has not selflessly supported and encouraged me to be my authentic self.
Starting a new chapter usually means getting out of your comfort zone, how did you do that? Can you share a story or example of that?
Once I accepted my destiny as a fashion designer, it meant leaving my comfort zone of financial security. I had survived single parenting when I worked 3–5 jobs at a time. So, resigning from my new executive position and walking away from a stable income frightened me. But once again, I made “fear my friend.” Single parenting also necessitated a conservative financial lifestyle and savings plan. I decided to use my life savings to pay for my education. Despite the already intensive 80+ hour weekly school schedule, I also accepted a graduate assistant position during the program. The 20-hour weekly position offset my tuition and provided stipends that enabled me to purchase my industrial equipment after graduation
Fantastic. Here is the main question of our interview. What are your “5 things I wish someone told me before I started leading my organization” and why? Please share a story or example for each.
- Fashion designing is an extremely physically demanding. I wish I had been better prepared physically. I believe my onset of chronic arthritis in my neck while at school is a result of not only my age but also the physical demands of designing.
- Be prepared to share your life on social media. Social media, especially Instagram, plays an important role in my business. I have learned that while I might appreciate the professional photos of models showcasing my designs, my followers actually want to see more of me behind the scenes.
- Fashion designing requires life-long learning. I remember fitting one of my first clients and realized that I needed to learn much more about fitting the unique body of individual clients. Fortunately, I presented a confident front and my client left feeling empowered and beautiful.
- You don’t need to do it alone. While I started my eponymous brand directly out of fashion school and worked solo for the first couple of years, there is so much more to success than just designing and constructing a garment. I feel fortunate that I’ve had the support of student interns, fashion influencers and Philadelphia industry leaders, public support of my brand, and perhaps most importantly of all, a young, talented and passionate assistant.
- Education is key but there are some important traits that can’t be taught and are just as valuable such as flexibility and a sense of humor are priceless assets. The pandemic proved the need to be flexible and pivot to respond to consumer needs. Personally, my sense of humor and positive outlet served as lifelines during the pandemic. As an example, I personally had to create a very tight safety pod. And therefore, as a 66-year-old who had not been to a hair salon for over a year, I decided that I might as well keep growing my hair and will donate it once I return to my regular salon appointments. FYI: Because I opted not to go to a salon, I still supported the salon and pre-paid for appointments I would normally have kept.
You are a person of great influence. If you could inspire a movement that would bring the most amount of good to the most amount of people, what would that be?
As a survivor of decades of adult passive aggressive bullying, I would like to continue to use my voice to educate others about the harm caused by adult bullying — a much too commonly accepted behavior.
We are very blessed that some very prominent names in Business, VC funding, Sports, and Entertainment read this column. Is there a person in the world, or in the US with whom you would love to have a private breakfast or lunch with, and why? He or she might just see this if we tag them. 🙂
Without a doubt, I would love to formally meet and design for First Lady Dr. Jill Biden. I have so many things in common with First Lady Dr. Jill Biden that I believe it is my fate to formally meet and design for her. We both consider ourselves Philly girls. We are both educators. We are advocates for refugees and immigrants. And neither one of us has let our age deter us from doing what we were meant to do. For me, being a relevant fashion designer and for Dr. Jill Biden, fearlessly taking on the role of the First Lady of the United States.
How can our readers further follow your work online?
A collection of my wearable art and sustainable designs, and PPE equipment and fashions can be found on Nancyvolpeberinger.com. My Instagram page @nancyvolpeberinger also provides updates and a behind-the-scenes look at my activities.
Thank you so much for sharing these important insights. We wish you continued success and good health!