You might recognize Ping Wu as one of the designers on this season of popular fashion design show "Project Runway."
But you might not realize that Wu lived in Champaign-Urbana for four years and got her start as a designer here.
Wu is one of 16 designers featured on "Project Runway," the reality show featuring fashion designers, their models and host/supermodel Heidi Klum. You can catch the show at 9 p.m. Thursday on Lifetime.
Wu earned her way into the top three designs on the show's first episode and the bottom three during the second episode. On Thursday night, she was eliminated.
Wu, 33, lived in Urbana from 2000 to 2004 and worked as a physical therapist at Carle Foundation Hospital. She effectively started her career as a designer here, when she took a ceramics class. She started making greeting cards, and a friend convinced her to sell them at Urbana's Market at the Square. She couldn't make enough and realized some of her buyers were professors who knew art well.
"I realized, if I can make greeting cards, I bet I can make clothes," Wu said in a phone interview last week. "It's just a different media. The goal is just to keep the body covered."
She didn't get a sewing machine, so she made garments by hand.
"Everybody loved my clothes, too," Wu said. "I was thinking, if I can make stuff without studying (fashion), then I bet I can do much better work if I go to study it professionally."
She researched schools all over the world and decided to apply to the Istituto Marangoni in Milan, Italy.
"I chose fashion design because it was the perfect combination between function and art," Wu said.
A teacher in Milan saw her affinity for working with three-dimensional objects and asked why she wasn't interested in industrial design.
"I want something you can touch, you can physically feel," Wu said. "(Fashion is) in much more direct contact with a human. And also because of my physical therapy background, I love the movement. I think I can make clothes in a more comfortable way."
So she quit her job at Carle, moved to Chicago for nine months to contract as a physical therapist (to save money) and then moved to Italy in September 2004.
She described her eight months in design school as a personal hell. Because she moved to the U.S. from China as a 17-year-old, Wu thought she'd be fine moving abroad – and specifically chose her school because it was the best. But it was a hard transition, and she dealt with roommates who stole her money and legal documents and teachers who demeaned her.
She didn't know much about fashion because she'd never much cared about it – even what designer labels meant – and she was so new to the industry.
But overall, she gained crucial training and experience in both fashion and how to run a fashion design business. She interned with Luisa Beccaria and at BLESS in Paris.
"I chose a very tough environment to begin with because I wanted to (achieve) the highest level of design," Wu said. "I wanted to see how far I am to the top level. In Milan, you meet a lot of incredible designers. It's the best design school in Italy."
She returned to Chicago in September 2006 to keep up on her physical therapist training. She found, though, that she wanted to work in fashion design but didn't have the credentials to work for anyone else. So she started her own design business, mostly concentrating on fashion accessories.
"I never thought I would do any garments," Wu said. "My colleagues in physical therapy were telling me, 'Ping, you should get on "Project Runway.'"
She never seriously considered the suggestion until 2009, when she saw an e-mail that applications were being accepted. She deleted a few, until she got one telling her it was one week until the deadline.
She likes to have a packed schedule, and she needed something to fill her time. She looked at the application and found it wasn't difficult.
"It (was) very easy, actually, to answer those questions," Wu said. "I was thinking, in the worst case, that they won't choose me."
She went through the process, including several interviews. When she got the call that she had been accepted, she was on her way to a concert in Millennium Park.
"Of course, I was shocked at first," Wu said. "Then after the phone call, I started to cry. I felt so sad because I had been working ... so hard, extremely hard, with no weekends or holidays for more than year."
With her collection finished, she was planning a vacation. Participating in "Project Runway" would mean canceling it.
But she told herself to cheer up – after all, hundreds of people applied for "Project Runway."
"No matter what, it's the opportunity of a lifetime," Wu said she told herself. Plus, she felt excited about the tools that would be offered to her.
"In my personal life, in reality, I didn't have that fancy sewing machine, a mannequin, the sewing table. For me, it was an incredible opportunity to make things I loved to make. It's an opportunity to dream."
And while it gave her opportunities, it was a harsh competition.
"It's very tough," Wu said. "When I watch the show as the audience, I think the camera did not even capture one tenth of the intensity and the stress that we had."
Kannie Yu LaPack of Lifetime said the show films designers completing 13 challenges in six weeks. The results are kept quiet during the season because everyone involved – down to the assistants – sign strict confidentiality agreements.
Wu said keeping quiet about the results is important.
"If you know the result already, you don't have to see it," Wu said. "The emotion would not build up as strongly."
And while conditions were rough, Wu said she's always been able to deal with solving problems and wanted to see how she'd react to the show's challenges.
"I did not go there thinking I would win," Wu said. "It was never in my head. I knew that I only studied fashion design for eight months (in Milan). ... I haven't made any more than eight garments in my entire life (because she's been focusing on fashion accessories). I wanted to push myself to the limit. I'm very curious to see what I could do on extreme stress."
Wu said life after filming "Project Runway" hasn't changed much for her.
"Well, personally speaking, I don't think it changes anything for me," Wu said. "I worked a long ways before the show and the journey will continue after the show."
But now, more people are following her on Twitter, friending her on Facebook and expressing interest in buying her designs. She's thinking about making custom garments for those who are interested.
"(It may) open small doors, maybe, for my little business," Wu said.
She enjoyed spending time with the other designers on "Project Runway."
"I really have to say that all 16 of us are extremely unique and ... talented in a really different way," Wu said. "In reality, I would never be able to meet them, never in my life. Because of the show I got to meet them. We are really at the same stage of life. There is something bonded between us."
And of course, she's proud to be one of the designers selected for the show.
"It's the kind of experience I would be proud to share with my grandchildren," she said.
And while Wu has landed in the national spotlight for her design work, she hasn't forgotten her time in C-U. Her four years here were the longest time she's lived anywhere since coming to the U.S. from China. "Champaign-Urbana is very important to me," Wu said. "I have traveled almost every month in different cities around the world. Sometimes I feel like I'm homeless. Champaign-Urbana is the only city in the whole world that gives me a sense of home."