Photos by Heather Chavez
A brightly decorated mannequin stands outside a warehouse in Artists Alley, the creative block of Delray Beach home to galleries, boutiques and studios. It’s a fitting preview of the cheerful, print-driven fashions Amanda Perna (right) creates under the label House of Perna.
“I believe clothing is the best way to express yourself,” the 28-year-old says. “Whether good or bad, it’s how people judge you. When they see me, I want people to automatically be happy.”
It’s impossible not to be in a good mood in Perna’s studio and showroom, just north of Atlantic Avenue, which stores her collections of women’s ready-to-wear and couture designs. Her garments, all made in Miami and New York, feature bright colors, silk and organic cotton fabrics, French seaming and prints she draws herself. The former psychology major designs using the ethos that color brightens mood, and her free-spirited collection is appreciated most in South Florida, she says, where color is more engrained into looks.
House of Perna is “whimsical and sophisticated yet playful,” she says. “I try to make sure every piece has something different about it that you don’t see everywhere.”
She adds, “Women should be comfortable but look fabulous. You can sleep in most of these pieces”—like her jetsetter pants, created for clients who travel. Made of silk, the drawstring pants are difficult to wrinkle, which makes them ideal for wearing on a plane, then stepping into heels upon landing.
The line is very client-driven. When a shopper once told Perna she’d wear a particular top if it were a dress, Perna turned it into one—and named the garment after her. In fact, she names all her pieces after significant women in her life. Friends jokingly try to outsell each other, but her best seller is her LeeAnn dress, named for her mother.
“You know you matter when you’re hanging in the showroom,” she laughs.
Perna’s showroom also stores creations from friends, including T-shirts, tote bags and hand-painted wine glasses. For sale near the entrance is her cousin’s artwork; also on display is jewelry Perna says she made one day when she was bored.
One noticeable rack of clothes holds garments shoppers might recognize from Project Runway, on which Perna was a contestant in 2011. The competition-based reality show challenges designers to create different types of garments for a panel of judges, who eliminate at least one contestant each episode. The finalists produce a collection for Mercedes-Benz Fashion Week in New York, and the winner receives a large amount of cash and other prizes.
Although Perna had only watched a few episodes, she auditioned for the show at the urging of a friend who recognized how quickly she could design—a skill that works to a contestant’s advantage while completing challenges.
At the time, Perna was living in New York working for Calvin Klein and had just finished her first collection for Couture Chaos, a personal line she started at 19. Those designs were sold in a boutique in Coral Springs and at private events throughout Florida, and Perna knew going on the show could help her expand her line.
After Perna was told she was cast on Project Runway, filming started two weeks later. The designer says she began the competition not caring if she won and, as things would turn out, she and three other designers were eliminated in the first episode.
Although she was only “along for the ride,” Perna says she was blindsided by her elimination and cried hysterically. “I didn’t think I would cry, but it’s so much more intense in the moment,” she says. Because of immediate on-camera interviews, “you don’t get to have a private meltdown,” she points out.
Perna believes she was cut because her drama-free personality wasn’t what the producers wanted. Still, she says she’s grateful for an experience that taught her valuable lessons, including how to accept feedback, work with multiple personalities and defend her aesthetic. “No matter what was happening, you knew you were one of thousands who applied,” she says.
What’s more, she left Project Runway with what she’d hoped for: publicity. In fact, Perna gained so much exposure from the show that following filming, she was inundated with orders for Couture Chaos she wasn’t prepared for and ended up shutting down the line because she was so overwhelmed. She took a year off, relaunched her label in 2012 as House of Perna and opened her Delray showroom this summer.
Perna says she’s been called back to compete on Project Runway but has turned down the opportunities, remaining focused on building a brand. Out now, House of Perna’s fall collection, called Elements, consists of prints inspired by earth, wind and fire. In November, Perna will introduce a holiday collection as well as a studio collection, which features beachy, Florida-driven prints. Spring/summer 2015 will be her take on 1960s mod.
“Winning [Project Runway] would’ve helped make starting a brand a lot easier,” Perna acknowledges. “But everything in life, you go through for a reason. It gave me a backbone. It was exactly what I wanted.”