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Rising Star: NPRPA's Samantha Sleeper

Hitting the cover of fashion industry must-read Women’s Wear Daily when your company is nary a month old and you’re only 23 is not the usual path for an up-and-coming designer, most of whom struggle for years before receiving that kind of recognition. But ordinary is not in the vocabulary of Brooklyn-based Samantha Sleeper, who’s in town this week as part of the Bryant Park West Heels and Wheels fashion show taking place in Sonoma on Friday evening.

In the year since the young talent graduated from Parsons, Sleeper has turned down a gig with the late Alexander McQueen, launched ready-to-wear women’s line NPRPA with business partner Nicolette Prpa and learned to play the drums. During a recent chat with Sleeper at Blue Bottle, she gave us the lowdown on her new line, turning down McQueen and the best advice she’s gotten from Kelly Cutrone.

How did you end up launching NPRPA with Nicolette Prpa less than a year out of design school?

She is the founder of a very successful store in Chicago called She Boutique. She had picked up pieces from my thesis collection in college, and then we decided to do a line together.

What made you decide to go out on your own instead of taking a more traditional route?

People weren’t really launching at the time, and there was sort of a lack of exciting of exciting things going on in fashion. People were either getting into really cheap mass market clothing, everyone was doing diffusion lines, and the designer level lines were sort of uninspired in a way. Everyone was really playing it safe in a way. It seemed like there would be an opening for a young designer with a point of view.

And then also, just knowing how much I love to work and how much drive I do have, the opportunities to work in the recession were geared toward really big mainstream, mass market companies, and I guess I was just in the mindset to take a risk in September, when I graduated, thinking that if it didn’t work out, I could always go work in an office.

I just think at the end of the day, if you’re going to work the hours that it takes to work at a small company, you really have to want to do it and you’re always more motivated when it’s your line. Plus I think there was a gap for career women’s work wear. Like poised, elegant women. It was really hard for me to find clothes when I was going through that for that career woman in her mid-20’s and up, trying to find pieces that are beautiful and ladylike without being much more mature .

We’ve read that you knew you wanted to be a fashion designer by the time you were eight. How did you discover fashion at such a young age?

Vogue at the hair salon introduced me to fashion. My mom was getting her roots done, and they had the September issue, which is like magnificent for an eight-year-old because you don’t really read anyway. You’re like flipping through, and everything’s an ad. And I was flipping through, tearing them out and plagiarizing designs and re-sketching them in my little book and showing them to my mom and pretending that they were my own. I was like, this is great, I love it.

You once interned for Rodarte. What was it like working with the Mulleavy sisters?

I interned for them in New York before Fashion Week in February 2006…, and I had no idea who they were at the time. It was a sort of mishap-via-Craigslist, basically intern volunteers to come and help out during Fashion Week to help out during their show and getting everything organized. Beyond being like the nicest people, their clothing was so exquisite. It was the first time I had been up close and personal with hand-detailed work in that capacity. It was a very brief encounter, but I think it was what made me even more motivated to do detail-oriented work and not just streamlined sportswear, which is where a lot of the more prevalent young designers go.

What made you turn down a gig with Alexander McQueen?

Alexander McQueen is one of my biggest influences. I had gone to London to interview with them before I launched the company, and I got offered an internship for three months, but part of their program is that you work five days a week in London for three months and there’s no pay. And just getting out of school and there’s student loans and London being exorbitantly expensive, it was a heartbreaking decision to not do it.

You’re represented by People’s Revolution, the fashion public relations firm featured in MTV show Kell on Earth. What’s it been like to work with Kelly Cutrone?

Well, I don’t have a TV, so I haven’t seen the show. But I have nothing but glowing things to say about them. They’re very honest with their clients, and I really trust their judgment.

What’s the best piece of advice they’ve given you thus far?

The idea that patience is more than a virtue, that it’s necessary when you’re starting a business. That and the importance of a consistent message.

And what is the consistent message you’re trying to communicate with your clothes?

Ladylike elegance with edge.

So you don’t own a television. When you’re not working on your line, what would we find you doing?

I recently learned to play the drums. And I bartend at The Dressing Room, a designer co-op on the Lower East Side. It’s a community place. It’s like a Cheers for me.

See Samantha Sleeper’s collection in person on Friday at Bryant Park West. Tickets, $75 and up, www.bryantparkwestsonoma.com.