Lincoln native becomes 'Project Runway' contestant

Amanda Valentine

At a bar one night last winter, over a game of darts, Amanda Valentine's husband convinced her to try out for “Project Runway” for the third time.

The 31-year-old Lincoln native had initially tried out a few years ago for the show that features budding fashion designers in a series of design challenges with critiques from supermodel Heidi Klum and other fashion insiders. One contestant is eliminated each week, until a handful of finalists remain — and get to show their collections at New York Fashion Week. The winner receives a spread in Marie Claire magazine and $100,000 to start a fashion label.

Valentine hadn't prepared especially well that first year, but still advanced through several rounds of casting before being cut. Buoyed by the experience, she tried again the next year. She was more prepared and made it further — only to be cut in the last round.

That stung, and the next year Valentine opted to plan her wedding (and design and sew her wedding dress) instead of prepare for a casting call.

A year later, her husband said he had a good feeling about the show's 11th season.

He was right.

Valentine, a wardrobe stylist and costume designer now living in Nashville, is one of 16 contestants vying for this season's top prize. Season 11 of “Project Runway” premieres Thursday at 7 p.m. on cable's Lifetime network.

And this season has a twist.

For every challenge, the designers will work in teams.

That news briefly made Valentine consider leaving the show.

“I am a really solitary person, and I need a lot of alone time, and I love to work alone, and I love my little sewing cave,” she said. “That's a big part of why I want to be a designer.”

But she stuck it out, and while she can't reveal how she did on the show, she said the experience left her with a renewed passion for design, and a renewed determination to make it as a fashion designer.

“It really pumped me up,” she said. “It really made me realize that this is what I want to do. It's time to take some concrete steps.”

Valentine has known for most of her life that fashion was her calling. The youngest of five children, she grew up watching her mother sew — something Mom did as much for budget reasons as for a creative outlet.

“I just latched onto it at a really young age for some reason,” Valentine said.

In junior high, when her friends and classmates were taking dance classes, Valentine was taking private sewing lessons. After graduating from Lincoln Southeast High School, she headed to college at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln, where she immediately declared a major in clothing and textile design.

“I remember her as a student who really understood that you had to be a both a good designer and you had to know how to promote your work,” said Barbara Trout, a professor of textiles, merchandising and fashion design at UNL. “She did that, even as an undergraduate student.”

Valentine recruited friends to photograph her work. She teamed up with local hairstylists and makeup artists to organize what she described as “renegade” fashion shows.

And she also had talent, Trout said. She remembers in particular a collar that Valentine designed. It was hand-painted in bright colors and serrated in a way that looked almost Egyptian.

“Growing up in Nebraska, I think I kind of looked at the rest of the world with these huge eyes.” Valentine said. “I've always been really fascinated by African textiles or South American fabric.”

Valentine still draws inspiration from around the world, as well as from history, which she mixes with more contemporary themes. She described one recent collection as “Tibetan punk,” another as “French Medieval fly girl.”

She was doing that even with the Egyptian-inspired collar, Trout said.

“It was very innovative at the time,” she said. “She was able to put together a complete ensemble to show it off, but that piece would have also worked well with jeans.”

Valentine's ability to put a look together led her to a career as a stylist — which actually started with a call from her brother, James Valentine.

During spring break one year, his band, Maroon Five, was shooting its first music video in Los Angeles. He asked his little sister if she'd like to assist the stylist working on the video.

This was in the early 2000s, long before stylist Rachel Zoe was dressing celebrities on her reality television show and drawing mainstream attention to her profession. Valentine wasn't entirely sure what a stylist was. Still, she agreed.

James Valentine, who had met a few stylists in Los Angeles, knew she would do a great job.

“I think from about junior high on, she just started coming up with these bizarre combinations,” he said. “She always stuck out.”

But she stuck out in a good way.

“She's always had a great sense of style, and it goes beyond fashion, too,” he said. “She's always turned me on to new music. She's always hip to all sorts of different things.”

That spring break, Amanda Valentine helped pull clothing for the band's members to wear in the video — mostly blazers, T-shirts, jeans and hoodies.

She loved it.

After graduating from college in 2004, Valentine decided to move to Los Angeles, where she lived with her brother and his bandmate, Adam Levine. She learned a bit about the fashion industry just by watching them, she said.

“The truth is that trying to be a fashion designer is a lot like being to be a rock star, because there isn't a clear career path,” she said.

After two years in Los Angeles, Valentine moved to Nashville and has been there since. She works as a stylist and costume designer, mostly for commercials and awards shows and the occasional music video. She's also shown collections at fashion weeks in Cincinnati and Nashville.

“I've always tried to show a collection once or twice a year, just to keep myself sewing,” she said.

Valentine designs for herself, and as a piece is coming together, she constantly asks herself, “Would I actually wear that?”

On “Project Runway,” she was worried about taking a back seat to more stubborn personalities during the team challenges and working to create garments that she would not actually wear. As it turned out, all of the garments she collaborated on passed her test.

“I think I remained as true to myself as I could,” she said. “That's the toughest part. It really is.”

Throughout the team challenges, she often found herself playing the role of peacemaker — her youngest child tendencies coming through. The process could be frustrating, she said, but she learned a lot about working with others.

“It was sometimes really cool and sometimes really surprising and just felt great that we pushed through,” she said. “And sometimes it was the biggest train wreck.”

Frustrating or not, it was inspiring.

She's figuring out the logistics of running her own business, hiring a team, finding a manufacturer.

“I can't keep sewing everything myself in our spare bedroom,” she said.

And she's excited to see what sort of opportunities the show brings.

“This year will be very hectic, but I'm really looking forward to it,” she said. “I don't mind not sleeping when I'm doing what I want to do.”

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