Creative leaders: a Conversation with Designer Kate Pankoke

Posted September 1, 2014 at 1:13 pm in Fashion, Features, Interviews
  • Gwen dress, Romance in Bloom collection, Elaya Vaughn by Kate Pankoke

IN THE world of fashion where trends seem to change by the minute, the key to success is knowing your point of view and owning it. Happily, for young designer Kate Pankoke, a veteran of US reality TV programme “Project Runway,” this sense of brand identity comes naturally. Her bridal line, Elaya Vaughn, launched in 2010 and has been steadily growing ever since, including a recent expansion into bridal accessories.

As any viewer of Project Runway can vouch, Kate has an identifiably feminine but creative approach to design with incredibly detailed and immaculate workmanship. Her attention to fit, silhouette, and detail lends itself perfectly to the world of bridal, where individualization is everything, even off the rack. In spite of the national attention from “Project Runway” that turned her into a minor celebrity, Kate is humble and smart about building her brand, assessing stockists carefully and listening and learning from her market consumers rather than preaching to them.

We sat down with Kate to discuss her forthcoming collection and to learn more about her vision for her own brand and the future of fashion.

In spite of appearances, your fashion career most certainly did not begin with Project Runway, as you began designing bridal wear long before the show. How did you get your start in fashion? What inspired you to become a designer?
I began designing clothing at the age of 14, that is when I started shopping for my own clothes. I couldn’t find anything at the mall that was exactly what I wanted, so I decided I would make it myself. People started complimenting me on the garments that I made for myself, and I realized that I could make a living doing what I love.

In turn, what is the fashion scene like in Chicago?
There is definitely a budding fashion scene in Chicago. There are many emerging designers here that come from one of the many design schools.  The people of Chicago are very warm and welcome new designers. My first week in town, I received a phone call from a woman who heard there was a new designer in town and was asking me to do a wedding gown for her daughter. It truly helps to have a city that is receptive to something/someone new.

New York is the Mecca for fashion design, but it has always been intimidating for me. Chicago has allowed me to grow in a supportive environment, and now when I visit New York, I am not so intimidated.

Your work first came to national prominence on the show, Project Runway. How did being on the show affect your career? Are you still in touch with anyone you met on the show? What was it like to work with Tim Gunn?
Being on Project Runway was such an amazing opportunity. The publicity definitely contributes to the success of my brand, Elaya Vaughn Bridal. It also helped me re-discover who I am as a designer. I keep in touch with a lot of my friends from the show like Patricia, Helen, Tu, Miranda, and Sam. It was so crazy to finally meet Tim Gunn after watching him on TV all those years.

Your work is beautifully intricate and identifiably pretty and feminine. How do you define your design aesthetic?
I always define my design aesthetic as artful femininity. I love to highlight a woman’s figure and truly bring her personality out through her clothing. I believe that being a woman is one of the most powerful things in the world, why not show it off?

What inspires you to design bridal wear?
I started designing bridal during my sophomore year of college. Like most designers, I love using luxurious materials and going over the top; bridal allows me to do that. I also love my job because I get to be part of such a special day in a woman’s life and it is such an honor to dress my brides.

When it comes to bridal wear, what do most women look for? Is it challenging to work with brides, particularly ones who have a very specific idea of what they want?
Shopping for a wedding gown can be one of the most difficult purchases of a woman’s life. Have you ever been shopping for jeans and got exhausted?… like that times 10. In our modern world, women are used to buying garments off the rack. When you buy a wedding gown, most times you are trying on a size that is too big or too small for you and you have to imagine what it will look like.

I always recommend that brides keep an open mind and try on absolutely ever silhouette because in most cases modern women may have never even worn a gown, so it is almost impossible to know what you like.  I never find it challenging to work with brides, it is my job as a designer to help shoulder some of the stress that comes along with shopping for a gown, it should be fun for them…and my job is already fun for me. I find it easiest to work with brides who know exactly what they want because I can rule out all of the options that don’t fit into their dream gown.

You are a newlywed. How are you finding married life? Was it difficult to come up with a design for your own wedding dress (assuming you designed your own)?
Married life is wonderful! I am so lucky to have found my soul mate at such a young age. We actually met in preschool! It is not much different from our life before, but there is something so exciting about calling him my “husband”. It was so difficult to come up with my wedding gown! I couldn’t decide on what silhouette I wanted or what colour.

I made my gown seven days before my wedding! My family was freaking out just a little … but it came together and it was my dream gown. I am introducing the “Kate” gown as part of my upcoming collection that is going to show at Bridal Fashion Week in October.

How do you use social media to communicate your brand?
I am always using social media to communicate my brand to brides. I love giving updates on developing designs through twitter, instagram, and facebook. My favorite way to use social media is Pinterest. When I have an appointment with a  bride, I always ask her for her wedding board link. Seeing a bride’s vision for her wedding really helps me visualize what her gown should look like.

How important do you feel good content is to a fashion brand? What do you think consumers want from digital these days, given the glut of e-commerce sites?
I think feel good content is important for fashion brands. With all of the different e-commerce sites, I think that consumers are becoming much more visual and craving interaction with sites. Consumers are getting more and more creative and need an outlet to express themselves.

Where do you go to relax? Do you ever just need to take a time out from designing? Or is it hard to turn your brain off?
I am trying to learn how to relax. My relaxation time usually consists of a 30-minute coffee break around two with some Downton Abbey in the background. It is so hard to have a work-life balance as a designer. I truly love my job, sometimes too much. I really think I need to find a hobby.  It is so hard to turn my brain off! I see designs in my head all the time. I am already designing next season and this one isn’t even finished! It is a good problem to have. I don’t think my brain would be happy if it weren’t firing at full speed all the time.

by Jessica Quillin

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