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Middleburg Woman Pursues Fashionable Ambitions

Designer Makes It to Finals of TV Reality Show

By Julie Feldmeier
Special to The Washington Post
Sunday, February 13, 2005; Page PW14

When Middleburg resident Wendy Pepper left for New York City to take part in "Project Runway," Bravo TV's reality show for the fashion savvy, she considered herself primarily a mother, wife and businesswoman.

But the show's producers, she said, ascribed her a different role: "the villain."

Designer Wendy Pepper, left, greets family friend Virginia Matsumoto at a fundraiser Wednesday. Model Audrey Chihocky, standing, wears one of Pepper's designs. (Photos Larry Morris -- The Washington Post)

The show's premise: Twelve amateur fashion designers compete under the tutelage of such fashion luminaries as Michael Kors for a chance to make it big and win $100,000 and an Elle magazine photo spread of their designs.

Design challenges are thrown at them every three days. Often, the contestants have less than 24 hours to design, execute and deliver on the runway. After each challenge, one contestant is eliminated.

The contestants, who live together and share a workspace, are as colorful as their creations: There's Robert, the lothario; Jay, the wise-cracking hipster; Austin, the sensitive artist; Kara, the cool, apparent favorite. Although Pepper has been designing dresses in Middleburg for 15 years, she is dubbed "the long shot" on the show's Bravo Web site.

Technically, none of the show is scripted. Much like the designers' creations -- the challenges have included concocting an outfit from materials bought at a grocery store -- sound bites from the contestants and judges are stitched together to create episodes that are smart, sassy and fluid. And at times, downright ugly.

To some viewers, it could appear that Pepper -- who has narrowly skirted elimination in five of the nine challenges broadcast so far -- is kept on hand to spice up the drama. By far the oldest contestant, Pepper, 40, might have been the residential cool aunt, with her skunk-streaked hair and black, thick-rimmed glasses. Instead, her fellow designers have maligned her as "a cockroach," "backstabbing" and "cunning" -- none of which jibe with Pepper's vision of herself as nurturing.

But on an elimination show such as "Project Runway," competitiveness trumps nurturing, Pepper conceded. "On the one hand, it's my instinct to take care of them," she said. "But is that in my best interest as a competitor?"

In one of the show's more snarky sound bites, she confessed: "Exploiting my role as a mother is kind of evil . . . but if it's going to help me get to the end, you can bet I'm going to do it."

There's no clear evidence of any wrongdoing. "I never do anything bad," Pepper said. "The other designers turned against me because I didn't pander to them." She said her crime was speaking her mind. When asked by the judges to assess the leadership group project, Pepper was especially vocal. "I pride myself on being upfront and clear. It's not always the popular position to take, but at least you know where I stand."

Pepper is one of three contestants still standing. As part of the final round, she presented her designs on New York's Fashion Week runways earlier this month.

Her two biggest accomplishments on the show -- winning two weekly challenges with her designs of a limited-edition dress for Banana Republic and a dress for Nancy O'Dell, host of "Access Hollywood," to wear to tonight's Grammy Awards -- attest to her talent. "The things I won show that I'm good at anticipating what the market wants," she said.

Pepper said that, unlike her competition, she isn't into fleeting trends. The judges have critiqued her work as dowdy and matronly, but Pepper sees her designs as sensible.

"I'm designing things that I know will sell," she said. All 200 copies of the cocktail dress she designed for Banana Republic -- an empire waist dress in silk charmeuse that invokes an Audrey Hepburn elegance -- sold out online and in select stores within two days. Those available online were snapped up within three hours.

She donated one of the cocktail dresses to an auction Wednesday night at the Middleburg Community Center to raise money for Project HOPE's tsunami relief fund. Anita Baldock-Bryant of The Plains had the winning bid of $1,750 for the dress, which retails for $150. The dress was modeled by Audrey Chihocky, 17, of Gainesville, who modeled it on "Project Runway."

Even if she wins on the show, Pepper said she has no plans to abandon Middleburg for the bright lights of New York or Los Angeles.

"I'm going to live here, work here, employ local people and really make high fashion accessible here," she said. "I'm about building a business in a small town."

Pepper's family has deep roots in the area -- her great-grandmother Edith Eustis lived at Oatlands Plantation for more than 60 years. Eustis's children gave the house and 261 acres to the National Trust for Historic Preservation in 1965.

For 15 years, the Wendy Pepper line has been a one-woman operation. Now, thanks to the show's exposure -- her motivation for taking part -- she is gearing up to hire assistants.

"It's reality TV. If you take anybody and film them for three and a half weeks, you can make them into anything you want," Pepper said. "You've got to take it with a grain of salt and realize that it's a wonderful vehicle to gain national attention" -- even if the attention is negative.

"Any press is good," she said. "There's no question that I'm one of the most memorable characters on the show. Now it's my job to take my character and reframe it so that people get to know the real me."

But who is the real Wendy Pepper?

"She's not an evil person," said her husband, Robert Downing, a carpenter who specializes in historic renovation. Watching the show is painful, he said, but it showcases her talent well.

"When it was reality -- Banana Republic and Nancy O'Dell -- she was the money girl. The rest of it, that's all fantasy. She's the reality," Downing said.

Baldock-Bryant, whose son is in kindergarten with Pepper's daughter, praised Pepper's dress -- and her character. "Wendy's wonderful," she said.

That her fellow TV contestants don't agree doesn't seem to faze Pepper. "I wasn't up there to be friends," she said. "I was up there to cut my teeth in the professional world."

She's prohibited by contract from revealing her fate in the final two episodes of the show, to be broadcast Wednesday and Feb. 23, but her appearance at Fashion Week as one of the final three suggests that the teeth grinding paid off.

"How else can you describe something in your life that comes at you and just throws everything upside down?" Pepper said. It was the "experience of a lifetime," she said, a chance to learn firsthand how the fashion business works.

And, she joked, "a chance to explore my inner villain."

© 2005 The Washington Post Company