Former TV contestant Althea Harper shows off her favorite looks for motherhood
By Val Beerbower
What do you do when everything seems like it’s falling apart faster than a hastily tailored hoops skirt during Fashion Week? As one local designer and mom found out, you roll with it.
Oakwood native Althea Harper, 33, had a solid trajectory for her career since childhood. She knew she wanted to make a career out of her passion for art. She was accepted into early admission to her first (and only) choice—University of Cincinnati College of Design, Architecture, Art, and Planning.
Plucky Harper tested her mod mettle further when she sought a spot on the reality television program Project Runway, which pitted up-and-coming fashion designers against one another for prizes and industry clout. She was cast in season six of Project Runway right after graduating and made it through weeks of grueling challenges to finish as runner up.
Although she didn’t take home the top prize she gained invaluable skills and public exposure. Harper moved to New York City where she started her design career with Tory Burch and quickly had to find her footing in a fast-paced, competitive field. “Everyone thinks fashion design is such a glamorous job, but as an assistant you spend most of your days running around,” Harper says.
Some of the challenges her job offered revolved around commercial distribution. She routinely had to measure the value of design against its ability to sell. Could a different type of fabric make the garment more affordable? If the design were tweaked would it appear flattering on more body types? These puzzles were part of Harper’s role she relished. “I like that fashion has a business side to it,” she says. “You use both sides of your brain.”
New York not only offered Harper a network dense with career opportunity it offered proximity to her boyfriend, fellow Daytonian Stewart Adam, who was not far away attending medical school at Yale. The couple eventually married and settled in Connecticut where they lived with their three rescue dogs and where the couple’s first daughter, Lilias, was born.
Becoming a mother signaled a change for Harper. Like most of her life ambitions she wanted to dive into motherhood, devoting her full attention to raising her baby and looking forward to having more kids.
The pull of the Gem City was strong for both Harper and her husband since they both had family here and Dayton gave the opportunity to cherry-pick the lifestyle they sought. “(Dayton) is big enough to have that city feel and amenities and it’s small enough to be convenient,” says Harper, who recalled “quick trips” to the vet taking more than an hour via highways in Connecticut. “If you (live in) other places you see how good life actually is in Dayton!”
But plans to grow their family hit a snag. Harper and Adam took a devastating hit not once but twice through two miscarriages. Harper says her sense of loss was not just with her unborn children but her career. “That was hard,” she says. “I felt like I gave up fashion to have a family and now I found myself questioning whether I had made the right choice.”
Determined, Harper and Adam decided to try a surrogate. Months into the successful pregnancy the couple soon learned their gestational carrier had twins. Another shock—three months later Harper became pregnant. Suddenly, the couple that longed to have more children found their household doubled and Harper and her husband were delighted.
The wild swing from loss to abundance gave Harper unique perspective: “I’m thankful I struggled with infertility issues,” she says. “It forced me to confront what was most important.” Prioritizing her family over her career became Harper’s ultimate goal and the birth of “practically triplets” seemed to Harper to validate her decision.
Working in the fashion industry lent skills and pragmatism for Harper, raising four children under the age of 4. Staying cool under pressure and being agile transferred from her past roles to her new one. “You start with a sketch, but then maybe something changes from the sketch to the render and you shift. Then from the render to the model,” Harper says. “If there’s one thing I learned from the fashion world that prepared me for motherhood it’s how to go with the flow. I learned so much about fixing something on the fly and that makes me feel like I can enjoy motherhood more since I’m not freaking out all the time.”
For Harper, the decision to focus on her family was her choice and she says she knows not everyone would elect to do the same. “I grew up wanting to be the woman who runs her own business and has a family and travels glamorous places,” she says. “As I get older, I realize being successful is defined differently. Having as many kids as I have and there are only so many hours in a day—I have to make choices about how I’m going to spend those hours. I define success as feeling satisfied that I dedicate those hours to the most important things in my life.”
Harper was raised in a household where her mother worked and she understands the pressure modern women face with whether to stay home and raise a family, work full time, or some combination of both. Harper says it’s the choice itself that becomes crucial. “You have to have confidence in yourself to know you are making the decision that works best for you and your family,” she says. “Maybe that questioning is where insecurity comes from and that breeds judgmental thinking. If we feel confident in our decision we can respect other women’s decisions.”
That’s not to say Harper completely walked away from fashion. The entrepreneur maintains her children’s clothing line, Lilias & Love, and is head designer of the athletic-wear brand, Mira Rae. She started blogging about contemporary fashion and culture. Thanks to her experience as a mom she scours the web for great deals on clothes and accessories. “I like to write about ways to update great looks to be more functional and affordable,” she says.
Harper’s future plans include returning to fashion and blogging more, particularly when her children start preschool and she finds herself with more time. One might think days spent running after eight little feet would turn her off adding to the household, but Harper smiles when she says having more kids “isn’t 100 percent out of the question.”
“You can never say never.”