UPDATE: Attention engaged ladies! Katelyn's new bridal line is now officially available for purchase. This story was originally published on April 1.
Every time we watch an episode of Project Runway, we find ourselves feeling truly inspired. How do they do it? While we'll never be skilled as someone who can design a frock in the time it takes us to eat dinner, we can't help but be curious about what really goes on behind the show. So, we were feelin' pretty lucky when season 11 contestant and local gal Katelyn Pankoke invited us into the studio for a super-exclusive look at her new 2013 bridal collection.
Despite acquiring newfound fame, pulling weekly all-nighters, and planning her own wedding, this bright 23-year-old still manages to stay grounded and look gorgeous no matter what is thrown her way — like a possible partnership with Swarovski, for example. Who needs reality TV? This go-getter is living the dream.
Photographed by Heather Talbert
What was the process like to get on Project Runway?
"It takes a lot to get onto Project Runway. This was actually my third time auditioning. You need to fill out a very long questionnaire, submit your portfolio, make an audition tape, and get invited to an in-person interview. It is quite the production."
Katelyn is wearing a Katelyn Pankoke top, Gap pants, and BCBG shoes.
Was the experience really as terrifying as it looks?
"It was much more terrifying from afar. When I finally arrived in New York for filming, I was in the zone. It was like I completely forgot that this was going to be on national television. I was just fighting to stay in the competition, so fear was never really an option. It was very draining physically and mentally. We didn’t get much sleep and had absolutely no contact with our loved ones for over a month."
Tell us about your new bridal line you’re working on?
"I am working on the 2013 collection for Elaya Vaughn
. We actually just wrapped on the shoot for the catalog and the campaign this Tuesday. This collection is more ethereal and vintage inspired than last year’s collection, and as always, there is an element of whimsy and just a touch of color."
"The collection debuts on April 7 at the National Bridal Market in Chicago. Illinois brides can expect to see it in the windows of the boutique Fiancee Couture
How did you get involved with the Macy’s Fashion Incubator?
"The Chicago Fashion Incubator takes young designers/design companies and teaches them about business in their specific market. I enjoy designing, but I normally leave most of the business part of things to my fiancé’ — but I know that it is something that I should know more about."
"I found out about the Chicago Fashion Incubator online last year, but it was already too late to apply. It seemed like the perfect place for me to grow my company. So, I decided that I would apply this year. I filled out an application and came to an in-person interview with their board of directors. The director of the CFI, Amy Olsen, called me the day of the premiere of Project Runway to tell me that I was accepted into the class of 2013."
How has it helped your career thus far?
"This is only my second week at the incubator (Ed note: at the time of the interview), but I have already learned so much. We have been discussing time management and social-media marketing — two areas that I am excited to improve in."
Tell us about your childhood. Was it all about designing clothes for your Barbie dolls or was this a passion found later in life?
"As a young child, I was super girly — daddy’s little princess. I used to wear floor-length gowns to my doctor’s appointments. Then, I went through a small period of denial during my adolescence where I thought I was a tomboy. I seriously would only shop in the boys department. Then, one day it just clicked; I realized I was a girl (and not just any girl, I was a girly-girl!)."
"I did design clothing for my Barbies as a child, and come to think of it, I would use toilet paper to make them dresses, so that might be where my passion for white gowns came from! I started designing and making clothing for myself when I was 14. People would ask me where I got my outfit and when I told them I made it, they would say things like 'Can I order one?' It was then that I realized I could do what I love and get paid to do it!"
You’re from Florida, so how did Chicago become your design home?
"I grew up in Florida, but I have never considered myself to be a 'Florida' girl. I hate the hot weather. When my fiancé was offered a job in Chicago, I just got a feeling that I would like it there. I had never actually been to Chicago, so it was a bit scary to just pick up and move. I used to do custom designing, so leaving Florida meant leaving all of my clients behind. But that was just the push I needed to launch my line, Elaya Vaughn Bridal."
"It has turned out to be the perfect city for me and my line. The fashion scene in Chicago is so much more inclusive than the one in New York. People in Chicago are so excited to see what is next. I literally received a call within weeks of moving to Chicago from a woman who said, 'Word on the street is you are the new bridal designer in town!'"
What’s a typical day in the studio like?
"A typical day differs for me by season. You actually happen to be coming at a really fun time. We just had the photo shoot, so now we are designing the new catalog and marketing materials to debut at National Bridal Market in April. In the studio, I do everything from draping, patterning, sketching, and business calls."
So, why bridal? Was that always your passion?
"I have always known that I wanted to have a career in design, but I didn’t find my niche in bridal until my sophomore year in college. For the yearly fashion show, I decided to make three bridal gowns, and I enjoyed designing them so much that I knew I would be happy doing that forever. Seriously, what could be more fun? You get to use luxurious fabrics, precious and semi-precious gemstones, and there is never too much fabric. To me, bridal is the dream design job."
Congrats on being a bride-to-be yourself! What was your thought process when designing your own gown? Does your gown personify you, your brand, both?
"Thank you! My gown was by far the hardest gown to design. I am such a quirky person in the way that I dress — at least for special occasions. There is really no field of design that I don’t find appealing. For a while, I wanted a silk-chiffon tent dress, then a super-fitted gigantic ballgown. Then I thought about my brand. Everyone is going to be so interested to see what I (a bridal designer) will be wearing to my own wedding."
"So, while it should be a personal decision about what would make me feel the best, I would be lying if I told you that I didn’t think about how it would affect business if I wore a tent dress to my wedding. I think I have finally come up with the best of both worlds, but who knows, I will probably end up changing it five more times."
Katelyn is wearing a vintage dress and belt, Guess shoes, and bracelets from a vintage boutique in Florida.
Are there any no-nos a bride should be aware of when choosing her wedding dress?
"This is one of those 'do as I say not as I do moments.' A bride should only think of what gown will make her feel the best, not what she thinks everyone else will want to see her in. If you are one of those girls that doesn’t like to be laced into a corset, then don’t even try one on. Go with something more earthy and flowing."
"Another no-no: Don’t fall in love with a silhouette that you saw in a photo. So many brides look through blogs and magazines to find a style they like before they go to try on gowns. This should make sense because most women don’t wear floor-length gowns on a regular basis. The bad thing is all of the gowns you see in photos are most likely shot on models who are six-feet tall and have zero body fat.
"For example, I love the way mermaid gowns look — I even thought that I wanted to wear a mermaid silhouette for a while. I tried on one of the mermaid gowns in the collection and realized that I am just too short for that silhouette. Long story short...figure out what silhouette looks best on your body before you even start looking for your gown."
Who or what inspires your designs and why?
"I am inspired by my brides. Each of my gowns has a distinct personality for which they are named. I think about that girl, and then I ask myself, 'What would TK wear?' In my designs, there will always be some vintage influence, whether it is a silhouette or a color. I like to say my line is vintage-inspired but never old fashioned."
How long does it take to create a single gown — from concept to completion?
"If you watched Project Runway, then you know I can physically do it in seven hours. However, in the real world, I like to take a lot more time than that. Normally, it takes me about two weeks to come up with a completely new piece. I normally sketch for a few days, but a lot changes during the sketch-completion process. Sometimes, silhouettes or colors completely change."
What are some of your favorite places near the studio?
"I just moved into the CFI at the Macy’s on State Street, so I am still getting to know the area, but I do already have some favorites. I am always at the Starbucks inside Macy’s getting my 2 p.m. coffee. For lunch, my fiancé just showed me Roti Mediterranean Grill
. It's fast food — but it's healthy — what more could a girl ask for?"
"For dinner, I really like Mercadito
. It was really hard to find a go-to Mexican restaurant in Chicago, but its margaritas and mole sauce are spot-on."
So, what’s a typical work outfit for you versus when you’re out on the town?
"I have so many different hats at work, so my attire usually depends on the job of the day. If I am sewing and patterning, I usually come to work in active wear. I’m not going to lie; sometimes, I wear my yoga clothes if I know I’m going to be climbing on tables and such. If I am just doing office work, I usually wear a shift dress and a few accessories. When I am out on the town, I love to dress up. Even if we are just doing dinner, I love to put on my highest heels and a fun cocktail dress."
Are all of your dresses handmade?
"All of my gowns are handmade. I personally make all of the patterns and the sample gowns. I need to be the one creating these pieces because if something is not looking how it should, I want to be able to change it. Once the samples are made and a boutique places an order for a gown, those gowns are made by hand by my talented team of seamstresses right here in Chicago. I oversee the production of each gown and am always the last one to touch each gown before it is delivered."
Who are some of your favorite designers to wear?
"Some of my favorite designers to wear are Lazy Bones, Theory, and BCBG. Lazy Bones is an Australian-based company who makes vintage-inspired sundresses for when I feel like showing a little print. Theory and BCBG make great basics for the everyday business woman who wants to be comfortable and still look good."
Katelyn is wearing a Katelyn Pankoke dress and BCBG shoes.
What’s one trend you’re most excited about this spring?
"The bridal trend that I am most excited about for this spring is print and color! Bridal is finally feeling the trends from the rest of the fashion world. Brides are becoming more and more adventurous. I have one printed gown in this collection and one gown in a color that I am calling Lavender Fog."
Do you have anyone assisting you in the creative/design/construction process for your upcoming bridal collection?
"This past week was crazy trying to complete all of the new gowns for the photo shoot. I was pulling consecutive all-nighters. I have two design interns that helped me get through the whole thing, and my mom even flew out to Chicago from Florida to help me. I have such a supportive base of friends and family who are always helping me, whether it is reaching a deadline or helping with a creative decision."
What advice do you have for any aspiring designers out there?
"I give the same advice to every designer I meet. If you enjoy designing and have a talent/eye for it, then major in business. Fashion is an art, but at the end of the day, it is a business, and no one can sell you like you."
What’s next for Katelyn Pankoke?
"I am so excited about this year. So much is happening and so many doors are opening. I am showcasing my new bridal collection at National Bridal Market in Chicago, and possibly New York in the fall. And….I am hopefully getting married! We have a date and a gown design, we just need to figure out the rest…."