Heather Culp, junior fashion design major, was Valerie Mayen’s only intern last summer.
But this summer Mayen had 15, including five from Kent State.
And that was before the Cleveland-based designer was selected to compete on season eight of “Project Runway.”
What began as an internship in Cleveland for three Kent State fashion design majors — Culp, Jacqui Spilar and Natalie Stanley — ended up being the step each needed to move forward in the industry they love.
It started with IKEA
More than a year before Mayen and “Project Runway’s” top 10 were creating collections for Mercedes-Benz Fashion Week, Culp met Mayen at Fashion Week Cleveland, where Mayen was showing her line, Yellowcake.
After seeing Mayen’s line for, as Culp said, “girls who aren’t afraid to stand out,” Culp asked her for an internship.
Mayen agreed, and from that point on, Culp spent almost every day with Mayen for nearly four solid months and said it was easy to bond with her.
Culp recalled an “epic three-hour drive to IKEA,” that included plenty of laughter.
“She has this small Scion car. We filled it so much that I had to lift up something so that she could stick shift,” she said with a laugh.
On typical days, Mayen would have her draw figures over and over again, as well as make patterns, which are skills fashion students don’t learn until their second year.
Mayen also has a fondness for her first real intern experience, not because it affirmed her teaching capabilities, but also because of what she learned from Culp.
“It wasn’t just physical or labor-intensive help she was giving me,” Mayen said. “It was also emotional and kind of constructive, and it was also just kind of a confidence building thing for both of us.”
By the end of the summer, Culp said she found a good friend in the 29-year-old designer.
So, when Mayen found out early this summer she had made it on the eighth season of “Project Runway,” Culp’s reaction was as strong as Mayen’s — she started crying.
“I was just so happy for her,” she said. “She just really deserves it, because she’s such a great person and she has such a great design aesthetic. I just really think she could be something.”
‘What pencil do I give her?’
Fresh out of her senior year of high school, Jacqui Spilar got an internship with Mayen after shadowing her for a high school project. She was thrown into a real world fashion experience before her first college classes even started.
Spilar started out tracing patterns onto fabric and cutting them out, but Mayen said the freshman with “great initiative” did a little bit of everything, including running a lot of errands.
“I sent her all over creation and back,” she said with a laugh.
Finding her way around Cleveland was one of Spilar’s biggest challenges.
“I got lost a lot,” she laughed.
Even with her experience level and easy-going demeanor, Spilar still found it terrifying to help with the pieces for Mayen’s line, including putting snaps on a hat that just wouldn’t stick.
“If it had anything to do with her line, even if it was like, giving her a pencil,” she said in reference to the pressure of helping Mayen. “‘What pencil do I give her?’ This is her line that’s showing in New York fashion week or this is like a product she’s selling to people. You don’t want to mess up.”
‘It was actually because of ‘Project Runway’ that I’m here.’
After finishing her junior year of fashion school, Natalie Stanley was in a mad rush to find an internship. And while staying in Cleveland was not her first choice, it turned out to be her best.
While trying to find an internship in New York, Stanley’s mother read an article about Mayen in The Plain Dealer.
“This was basically a blessing in disguise, because I didn’t have the money to go (to New York), but I needed an internship and I didn’t know any place around here,” she said.
The internship with Mayen was much better than the high-stress, high fashion internship she was expecting in New York.
For one, she did a lot of hands-on work, including pattern making, which was not her strong suit, she said.
“That’s the more technical side and I’m more visual. I want to see what it’s going to look like and I don’t understand how all those manipulations work,” Stanley said.
At 23, Stanley was a lot older than most of the other interns, making her a font of advice with an unusual appreciation for fashion design.
Starting out at Bowling Green State University, Stanley got the nerve to transfer to Kent State’s Fashion School.
“It was actually because of ‘Project Runway’ that I’m here,” she said.
While watching an episode of the reality show with her mother, Stanley realized that fashion was her future.
Stanley said she plans to head to New York after graduating but wants to work in other cities and not become a “lifer” and stay in New York.
“Having Valerie (Mayen) has definitely made me realize that Cleveland is a place you can definitely be a designer in and thrive and do well in the business,” she said.
The Runway effect
Shortly after Mayen began orientation with her 15 interns, she found out she’d be competing on “Project Runway.”
With only two weeks to spend with her girls before filming started, Mayen was conflicted.
“They were all very accommodating,” she said. “They were all understanding, and, they were like, ‘Are you crazy? You have to go!’”
While she was gone, there wasn’t much to do in the studio. Culp said she was left in charge of Mayen’s computer and kept up with her e-mail, Facebook and Twitter.
When she returned, Mayen had a month to prepare for fashion week, and the stress level increased.
“It was literally 9 a.m. to 2 a.m. every day,” Mayen said.
Though the interns were unable to help Mayen with the line she was creating for fashion week, their work wasn’t done.
Mayen said the interns helped her with everything from answering e-mails and phone calls to making her lunch.
Culp, who was Mayen’s lead intern this summer, said the interns did the best they could to keep Mayen’s environment relaxed.
“As soon as we started realizing she was getting really stressed out, we, like, went into hyper-mode and worked things out for her,” she said.
Outside of the everyday errands, Mayen’s interns also helped her research accessories for her collection, including finding shoes and wigs. Spilar had the task of picking up 13 pairs of the same shoes from the Beachwood Mall.
For the August premiere of “ Project Runway,” Culp went to New York with Mayen to shop for fabric for Mayen’s fashion week collection and for Yellowcake.
Mayen recalled the moment as a great opportunity to give Culp a professional experience, especially because Culp plans to spend this spring semester in New York.
“It gave her a little bit of insight into what she needs to be able to live in the city,” Mayen said.
This included introducing Culp to the people at Mood Fabrics, a store “Project Runway’s” designers frequent.
After making it to the show’s top seven designers, Mayen was voted off Sept. 30.
But she said she believes she’s already achieved a lot of what she wanted to through the show.
“I think it’s the matter of moving forward and capitalizing what I’ve achieved,” she said.
In the next few months, Mayen said she plans to open a “sewing co-op” for local design students and professionals and begin working with the nonprofit The Reckoning International, which gives loans to people in under-developed countries to start small businesses.
She also plans to do a line of clothing for the nonprofit that could include intern work.
As Culp readies to begin her career in the fashion world, she remains grateful to Mayen.
“She’s just a really great person to learn from,” she said. “Especially when she’s growing as fast as she is in the recognition she’s been getting lately. Things are going to start picking up for her really quickly. I’m really interested to see what happens from it.”
Contact Meghan Bogardus at [email protected]