Before She Appears On NBC's Fashion Star, We Catch Up With Dallas Fashion Designer Amber Perley
Strict deadlines, lace patterns, leather trims, tight budgets and the scrutinizing eyes of fashion industry professionals all weigh heavily on the shoulders of Amber Perley these days.
That's because the 30-year-old Dallas native was recently confirmed as a cast member for the upcoming, second season of NBC's fashion competition show, Fashion Star, which will premiere on Friday, March 8, at 7 p.m. CST.
As part of the cast, the 30-year-old, free-spirited, classic rock-listening Dallas designer will have her designs critiqued and judged by the likes of Jessica Simpson, John Varvatos, Nicole Richie and buyers from Macy's, Saks Fifth Avenue and Express.
Perley's no newcomer to the fashion world, though. She runs her own southern-inspired fashion line, Pearl Southern Couture, and currently has her clothes up for sale in 50 boutiques. Her aim with her clothes? To blend classic yet contemporary fashion with sporty and bohemian undertones for a relaxed and sophisticated look.
Still, despite her successes on her own, Perley was encouraged by her friends and family to throw her hat into the Fashion Star competition ring. And, now, after grueling application process, she'll appear as one of 13 fashion designers participating in the show.
With the show's launch about a month off, we caught up with Perley near her old stomping grounds in Uptown to discuss her career path and her life as Dallas' newest reality TV star.
You were born and raised in Dallas. What part?
I was born and raised in North Dallas, in Preston Hollow. I went to Saint Rita Catholic School, and then I went to Ursuline, the all-girls private, Catholic school.
When did you really decide that you wanted to go into fashion?
I kind of just always was into creating things from a young age. I used to [play with] fabric that my mom used to get to design the house with — interior fabrics. I would staple them together and make clothes. I didn't have a sewing machine, so I did everything by hand. I got a sewing machine when I was eight. And I just started sewing. Gradually, with time, [I got into it]. I got to college [at LSU] and started taking all those classes and got a nice sewing machine and started doing projects and making stuff on the side and making stuff for my friends.
Do you remember any interesting memories that went along with getting that sewing machine when you were young?
I took classes to learn how to use it, and I thought, “This is great! I can make anything!” But it was at Highland Park Presbyterian Day School. They had this thing called “creative free time.” You're in this room with a bunch of arts and crafts [for you to] make whatever you want. I think that really helped me develop my creative skills. I always was very hands-on, so it as always either fashion or photography for me.
So, when you were a kid, you also took a lot of photos in addition to sewing?
It wasn't until like disposable cameras [were available]. I was taking pictures of my sister and her friends, and I'd dress them up in costumes to take their pictures. She is my model [on my website] now.
I imagine your whole family's supportive of all this, then?
My mom — or Santa Claus — gave me that sewing machine. She wanted me to learn how to sew and do all that. But when I got to school it was more about learning how to construct a garment and take that knowledge and be able to run a company and know all the work and the steps that go into creating a well-made garments so you can show people how to construct something while you're running the business. You can't be doing it all. You have to know all the different departments and work your way up.
What is it about the South that really inspires your collections?
After I graduated I left LSU, I lived in New Orleans for a little bit, too, and then I moved to New York. And I really missed the south. I missed the whole state of mind, the people and people's attitudes. It was totally different out there. I could never find what I was looking for when I went shopping, and I thought, “Why don't I just start my own line?” There is no market for this Southern clothing line. There is no Southern clothing line out there. There's Ralph Lauren, there's Vineyard Lines, which is more like East Coast prep. There is this missing part or segment of the market, and I really wanted to show the public what the South was about through a clothing line. That's when I came up with the whole idea and my inspiration, just trying to get a line that represents the Southern lifestyle. So, each collection, I try to draw inspiration from a different Southern city. We also do our photo shoots on location in that city. I like having my models shot in the city and not on a white backdrop. I want [the photographs] to tell a story.
How did you get involved with Fashion Star?
I watched a couple of episodes of the first season. I thought this was a really good concept. Project Runway just kind of threw me off. You don”t ever hear about people that were on Project Runway ever again. They're making these awesome things, but they are not sellable. You're not going to see the general public go out and buy this garment because it's not going to look good on everybody. So I liked the whole concept of Fashion Star, where you're creating something that stores want to buy and that people can buy that night. It's about making money, it's about running a business. This is the real world and this is what it's about. You can't just design. You need to know “What's my target market?” “What's going to work?” and “What's not going to work?” It is a hard industry. So I contacted them, I emailed the producers and never heard back from them. Then, when the auditions started, they posted [on their website] and I emailed them again. I sent them my application, and they emailed me back. I went in and made the first round, and that was at Macy's at North Park. I was with a big group, waiting outside the Macy's doors. They called me back, and I had another audition, and I had to fill out essays. They asked a lot of questions. It was a lot of work and a lot of time. I think they tried to weed out people that are serious and people that aren't. This season is going to be all designers that have their own businesses — not just aspiring designers. We all have our own companies. Then they flew me out to L.A., and, after that, I got a call saying that I was on the show.
Take my through your emotions when you got that call.
I was just really like, “Oh my god! This is so crazy!” It's kind of scary, though, because I'm not a reality TV kind of person. I always think that reality TV is, like, cheesy. But this show is not like that. It is really legit, and people like watching it, and it would be such an awesome opportunity for my company and for everyone to get my name, my brand and my story out there. When I got the call, I thought, “Oh my gosh, I can't believe this. This is scary! I am so excited and scared to be on TV. My life is about to change!”
I know that the show is about to premiere on March 8 and that filming is done. Is there anything you can tell us about it?
There's not too much that I can say. It's going to be a really good show. It was a really great learning experience. It was just a really cool experience, and people are going to enjoy it. Everybody that was on it has a real company, so the competition has increased big time.
What was it like meeting your competitors for the first time?
It was fine. I really enjoyed meeting everyone. Everyone is really nice, really friendly. It's cool to meet people in the industry that are doing the same thing as you, who took the risk to be on the show. So we're all kind of in the same boat.
What did you hope to accomplish while on Fashion Star?
I just really wanted to get bought by the stores, and I wanted to get my story out there to the public and share the story of my brand and what it's about. Get my name out there as a designer and just to learn. To get in front of Saks Fifth Avenue, Macy's and Express is huge. Opportunities like that donâ€™t come around, like, ever. To get in the door to see people like that takes years. Sometimes, it never happens for people. So that was like what drove it home for me to go on the show. This is my opportunity to show Saks Fifth Avenue my collection.
Fashion Star held auditions in L.A., New York and Dallas. Why Dallas, do you think?
Dallas has always been such a fashion hub, and I think that it just keeps growing. The industry keeps growing. And Dallas was a huge manufacturing fashion spot in the '80s, but it kind of died down in the '90s and 2000s. But it's starting to come back. I think that there are a lot of talented fashion designers here.
You've lived in New York and Louisiana. What is it about Dallas that keeps bringing you back here?
It's home. Well. I live in Austin right now; I moved to Austin last January. I come back to Dallas once a month, though. Dallas is where I manufacture, so I take pride in manufacturing in the US and having people here in Dallas make my clothing. Everything is very well made. You get what you paid for. Dallas is great. I love Dallas.
So it's important to you to produce locally?
Yeah, you want to see the industry stay here in Dallas. You want to see your product getting made. I like having that hands-on approach with my company.
What are your hopes for the future of your company, Pearl Southern Couture?
Just to keep the company growing and expanding. I would like to see the line in more retail stores, and I think that the exposure from the show will expedite that process. I just want to continue to see the line grow, and maybe one day open up a flagship store wherever I settle down, whether that be Austin or Dallas.
You have an upcoming spring collection that launches in March, too. What inspired that line?
I really took a lot of inspiration from Georgia. But also I really wanted to tie in trends that were covered on the show and for spring that have been getting a lot of coverage by the fashion industry. I just kind of combined the spring 2013 trends and tied in some things that are talked about on the show and have that southern influence. I'm doing a lot more looser-fitting garments, easy breezy throw-on pieces in addition to the dresses that I do. It's a casual dressy combo.
Are you hoping to expand your collection to include menswear?
I have men's ties right now and it seems easy to do men's clothes. Actually, I'd probably be better at selling men's than women's! Men are easy, but you want to create something that is simple yet classic that all guys are going to like the fit and way it looks. But you have to put a lot of thought into it. Eventually, I do want to get into men's shirts and pants and all that. Men are easy; they just want something simple.
So how are you going to deal with your newfound fame?
[Laughs.] I don't know! Honestly, the scary part about being on a show like this is you don't know how theyâ€™re going to portray you. So, I took it as a very positive approach and I walked away learning so much. So, hopefully, people will see me as such a hard worker and want to meet me and check out my line, because that is what it's about, the company. I'd love to meet people who are aspiring fashion designers and give them any advice that I can. It's a lot of work; people are going into it not knowing how much work it is, and your line is always changing.
Are you nervous to see yourself on TV?
I think it's always scary to see yourself on TV. I kind of don't want see it. I don't want to see my face on TV! So awkward! You know how you see yourself on camera and you think, “Oh my god! Do I look like that or do I sound like that?” Yeah, I'm definitely nervous.
Have you ever participated in a fashion competition before?
I did competitions at LSU, and that was fun. I did Texas' Next Top Designer, and that was cool, I learned a lot from that. I have been approached before about some reality TV shows before, but it didn't seem legit. You never know. There's some shady stuff out there. People said I should do Project Runway. But with Project Runway you are literally sewing the stuff yourself. On Fashion Star, you have a team of people — a sewer, a cutter and a pattern maker — which is how it is in real life. You have to manage a team, so I was like “I can do this!”
Was there anything you did to prepare for Fashion Star?
I went back through all my college books — apparel design, pattern making and all of that — because I manage a team, so I haven't really been doing the art of pattern making in a long time. I just give my pattern maker my pattern sketch. So I wanted to refresh myself and just prepare myself as much as possible. I studied the buyers; I did all of my background research on Macy's and Saks and Express and their buyers, and I looked at their websites to see what they are currently selling and what their best sellers were and the fits and cuts of the garments, who their customer was. And I studied what were the trends for spring. You got to make sure you're in-the-know with all of the trends.
Were there any personal struggles or obstacles you had to overcome to get to where you are now?
Financially, I've never taken out a small business loan. I never had an investor. So money was always a big deal. Every cent I made went back into the business. I moved back into my parents' house when I was 27, which, personally, I did not want to do. But you just do what you go to do if you want it bad enough. Also, managing a team, managing a company and learning new things everyday is always a struggle, and you're trying to stay up-to-date with technology. There is just so much I had to learn. I had to learn how to do my Texas sales tax returns, my federal tax returns, quick books, manage a website. There is just a lot that goes into it.
What inspires your personal style?
I wear my line a lot — like 90 percent of the time! When you're a designer, you don't shop as much. Well, that's not true for everybody, but you know how much stuff really costs. So when you go into a store, you're going to want it at wholesale value not retail. But, personally, I have the same style as my line, with classic cuts and classic pieces, but I have kind of a bohemian feel. Kind of like Ralph Lauren meets Free People. For my line, I wanted a something that is going to have looks that are original and are going to be in style forever that are made well and also new and fresh — new takes on classic cuts and classic styles.
Did the celebrity mentors give you any especially good advice?
Yes, they had a lot of really good advice. You get some really good advice that you would otherwise never get. You walk away and think, “That was great advice from someone who is in the industry!” John Varvatos, Jessica Simpson and Nichole Richie — you're never going to meet those people [in real life[. Just to work with those people and get feedback is priceless.
Would you ever consider participating in another reality TV competition?
Yeah, totally! It was really fun. I would definitely love to do something like this again. As crazy as it was, it is such a great experience, a once-in-a_lifetime opportunity that doesn't come around everyday. So any new opportunities that arise from being on the show, I would be very open to and willing to get involved with.
Fashion Star premieres on Friday, March 8, on NBC at 7 p.m. CST. You can check out more of Perley's designs on her Pearl Southern Couture site.