CARLSBAD — For fashion designers in America, there is no greater dream than showing a collection at New York Fashion Week. For Peytie Slater, that dream came true at the age of 15.
Peytie was able to showcase her internationally inspired collection in New York last fall as a finalist on Lifetime Network's competition series "Project Runway: Junior." Slater earned third place in the finale, which wrapped up its first season on Feb. 4. But the Carlsbad High sophomore said just making it to Fashion Week was a victory.
"When I got there, my goal was to make it to Fashion Week, so when we finally got to the runway show on that last day, I had no stress. I got the chance to show the world who I was as a designer, so I already felt like a winner," she said.
Peytie is a champion surfer who competes in tournaments statewide every weekend, but her true passion is fashion. Since seventh grade, she has been designing and selling bathing suits and clothing to friends and family through her own label, True Violette. Now she hopes the exposure from "Project Runway" will take her fashion line to the next level.
I've always liked the idea of making something unique ... something that's special and completely my own," she said.
Peytie, whose nickname is short for Peyton, grew up in Vista, where she said she started hand-sewing outfits for her Barbies and stuffed animals when she was 6 years old.
"I would take random scraps of fabric and create these little sock-like tubes that I would sew buttons on. I didn't know what I was doing but it was fun," she said.
Her mother, Jennifer, a former reading teacher at Carrillo Elementary in Carlsbad, said Peytie could sit for hours piecing together her doll clothes, first with a needle and thread and then a glue gun. Finally, when she was in sixth grade, she got some sewing instruction from close family friend Janet McClean, board president for the San Marcos Unified School District. Jennifer said she was amazed how quickly her daughter picked up design and sewing skills.
But the big turning point in Peytie's life came in seventh grade, when she was struggling to find her place at a middle school in San Marcos.
"That was a hard time for me. I was super shy and I didn't have a lot of friends. I was just trying to blend in and not be noticed," she said.
That year, a novelty T-shirt sporting a line from the movie "Mean Girls," "You Can't Sit with Us," was being worn by many girls on campus and Peytie was hurt by its cruel message. So she bought a T-shirt and created her own printed design that said "You Can Sit With Us." When she wore it to school the next day, she was overwhelmed with requests from fellow students who wanted one and her fledgling fashion career was born.
Jennifer said the response Peytie got from kids at school not only made her feel accepted, it also motivated her to use her skills to make change.
"She is just a positive person who wants to save the world, a little at a time. This motivated and empowered her and she blossomed into a fashion designer," Jennifer said.
With the sewing machine she got for her 13th birthday, Peytie launched True Violette — the color is one of her two middle names — specializing in the kind of clothes she loved to wear: swimsuits, beachy attire and casual bohemian dresses, tops and shorts.
Two years ago, the Slater family moved to a home in Carlsbad that's just a few hundred yards from the beach. Peytie kept sewing but she threw much of her free time into surfing once or twice a day and competing on four different youth surfing circuits. She comes from a line of surfing royalty. She's distantly related to surfing icon Kelly Slater and her dad, Evan, is a big-wave rider and former editor of "Surfer" and "Surfing" magazines. Today, he's brand marketing manager for the beachwear company Hurley.
Early last year, Peytie learned that her favorite TV show, "Project Runway," was launching a competition series for designers ages 13 to 17. She and her mom spent a weekend filling out the questionnaire and creating an audition video and within a few days of submitting the application, the producers called. After several months of interviews, she was invited to compete, and she and her mom moved to New York last July for the shoot, which wrapped in September.
Peytie describes the filming process as grueling, with 60-hour workweeks and a roller coaster of emotions. The high point was the fourth challenge, when she won the contest to design a backpack for Lands End to benefit First Lady Michelle Obama's Peace Corps initiative. The backpacks promote global education, something very dear to Peytie, a straight-A student now in her fourth year of studying Mandarin Chinese.
The low point was when Peytie felt she let her fellow designers down in a team challenge. And saying goodbye each week to the other competitors was heartbreaking, particularly the two fellow Southern California contestants, Matt Sarafa and Ysabel Hilado, who are now her close friends.
Unlike the often-catty adult competitors on "Project Runway," Peytie said the teen designers were very supportive of each other and still chat daily via group text message. "I wasn't expecting to make friends because the adults are so horrible to each other, but from the first day when we met, everyone was so kind. For most of us, we don't know anybody like us who sews so we loved being together and we weren't ready to say goodbye."
Her favorite adult on the set was mentor Tim Gunn, who she said treated the contestants like professionals.
"He's the kindest, most caring person in every way," she said. "I wish he was my uncle so I could see him every day. He was so honest in his critiques and he saved me so many times. He treated us like adult designers, which we all appreciated."
Although Peytie entered the contest as a beachwear designer, her style evolved during the competition. By the time she reached Fashion Week, she was praised for her mature skills with prints. Her final collection was inspired by her family's extensive international travels (last year they visited Indonesia and the Maldives and this year they're going to American Samoa). Some of her collection featured embossed mandalas designed by her 14-year-old sister, Zoe, an 8th grader at Aviara Oaks Middle School.
She said the final runway show was a blur.
"It felt like a dream," she said. "It was so incredibly exciting. I couldn't believe it."
Now that she's home again, Peytie is working on new designs that she hopes to promote on her website in three to four months. She's also creating a line of yoga wear for Jaysea DeVoe, the 14-year-old Encinitas girl who is one of the country's youngest certified yoga instructors.
Peytie said she'd like to attend a university in California, so she can continue surfing daily, and then eventually study fashion in New York.
"I'm very excited about the future," she said. "A lot of opportunities have come my way and I'm just going to see where it takes me."