I am a reality star and a fashion designer. I never in a million years thought I would say either of those phrases, much less together! Yet, here I am: Bravo’s Project Runway season 19 designer, Katie Kortman. But how did I get here?
Sewing, Dancing and Instagram
When I was in my 20’s I’d dreamed of being a fashion designer, but they didn’t have that major at my university, so I decided to major in painting. My paintings were often inspired by dresses I was designing in my head. Some of my work even had tiny dresses that I’d made hanging in front of them like an installation piece.
By 2018 my life had taken a different direction, and I had pretty much given up on my dreams of becoming a fashion designer. However, I could at least make colorful clothes for myself. I always viewed what I wore as another visual/artistic expression of my inner self, and I wanted that to be a more accurate representation, so I had to make it myself.
In January of 2018 I decided to stop buying clothes, so that I could learn how to really sew everything I wanted to wear. I’d spent years fooling around on my sewing machine, but I wanted to really focus on making my own clothes. I started posting photos of the clothes I was making to my Instagram account just for for fun, along with videos of myself dancing and called it the #handmadehustle. As others joined in with me, we danced while wearing the clothes that we had sewn ourselves and started a movement.
That year I also entered a contest called Sew Frosting hosted by two sewing pattern companies that I admired, called True Bias and Closet Core Patterns. I sewed a dress and then hand-painted it all over in my own colorful design. They picked my dress as the winner! That contest brought me a lot of attention on Instagram and soon I was being asked to design fabric. This was another long lost goal from my 20’s. At one point, I had almost sent applications to a masters programs in textile design, but life took me in another direction and I got a masters in teaching art instead.
Textile Designer Dreams Come True
Spoonflower saw my winning Sew Frosting dress and invited me to become their first ever brand ambassador, which meant I was able to design a fabric collection every quarter for them. I had never designed textile patterns before, so I took a very deep dive into fabric design, often pulling my designs from the artwork I’d been creating over the years. In fact, I still use many of those original paintings today in my designs and can be seen wearing them in my outfits on Project Runway.
As I gained skills and collaborated with different companies designing fabric (such as Nerida Hansen and Fabric.com), my audience on Instagram grew even larger.
Project Runway Comes Calling
My rising popularity on Instagram brought me to the attention of one of the casting agents of Bravo’s Project Runway, who reached out and asked if I was interested in auditioning for the show. I am never one to pass up an opportunity, so instead of telling them “I don’t know how to design clothing patterns, I only know how to sew existing patterns….” I sent in my audition video, got online, and ordered all the supplies and textbooks to learn how to design my own clothes. I know that sewing all my own clothes for the past 2 years really helped me to improve my technical skills, and I knew what pattern pieces should look like, I just needed to create my own designs from scratch. I put myself through fashion boot camp and taught myself to pattern with text books, YouTube, Craftsy online classes and some private lessons from Creative Costume Academy.
I had made it through many rounds of interviewing as I learned my new skills, but then the 2020 pandemic hit and the show was put on hold. In late 2020 Project Runway reached back out to me, but I had already moved across the world to Japan. Despite the distance, they were still interested in having my on the show. It was a miracle!
I wasn’t sure how I’d be able to make it happen because with 4 kids at home, an international pandemic, and closed borders in Japan meant that no one in my family was allowed to come and help with childcare while I was away filming the show. I still said “YES” and knew I would have to figure it out somehow.
My new friends in Japan rallied to help me make this dream come true. Another miracle! The day I received that call that I was on Project Runway, I screamed at the top of my lungs and jumped up and down and screamed some more, and then I called my mom so she could scream with me. It had been a dream of mine to be a contestant since I first saw the show way back in season 1. I never thought I’d have the skills, much less have Project Runway recruit me. WHAT?? I still can’t believe it!
I had no idea what I was about to get into, or what the outcome would be. I had my eye on that prize, because I really thought there was no other way for me to become a fashion designer if I didn’t win. I thought that I needed that mentorship and money to make my dreams happen. Well, I was wrong.
Life On the Runway
When Bravo’s Project Runway season 19 started filming, I realize I was more of a runway novice than I’d anticipated. Sure, in my own studio, with my own fabrics I could make magic for the every day woman or man who wanted bright comfy clothes. But I had not been making fancy dresses or worrying about hairstyles and major accessories, or runway “effects” of the clothes. These nuances of runway vs. ready-to-wear or even “editorial” are something I had to learn on the job. While filming the show, I may have been on the bottom a few too many times, but I was learning so much that the experience was invaluable to me. I learned that I really loved designing for other people. I loved having my looks go down a runway. I had many conversations with the other designers and I learned different ways to run your own fashion line. There wasn’t just one way, and that was one of the greatest things I learned. That experience on Project Runway was a crash course in the fashion world, and showed me how I could make this a career in my own way.
I Have a Unique Voice
During my time on Project Runway, both on and off camera, I learned that my point of view is recognizable and unique. Nina Garcia often told me this in my runway critiques, and Christian Siriano would echo this remark it in our one-on-one time together. Despite their encouragement, I did begin to lack confidence each time I was on the bottom of the competition. I felt a little like the odd duck out, but I regained my confidence in the 6th challenge which ironically was my last. I went home knowing that my voice needed to be heard. Women and men that wanted to wear bright, colorful, comfortable clothes needed me! The timing was perfect because now the biggest fashion trend of 2022 is… dopamine dressing. Or as I say, Wear Happy Color! Too bad the judges didn’t know that 😉
My Project Runway Family
I never really expected to become friends with the other contestants. I pictured the other designers as unapproachable people who were really just my competition. I had not plans to befriend them. And yet—— I DID! We became very close throughout the weeks of filming. We would spend 24 hours a day together (and very little of that sleeping!) and go through some stressful situations, but we also had the joy of creating together in the same space. I found a friend in everyone. It reminded me of art school, and I loved working on creative projects with other creatives in the same room. I didn’t realize how much I missed that until we filmed this show. I wish I could go back and do the same thing all over again with them — just minus the hard parts! Haha!
I had no idea what the judges would think of my work, and one of my biggest cheerleaders on the runway was always Nina Garcia. Often she’d point out what I was wearing and asked why didn’t I just make that (since I had in fact made it). I had convinced myself that I had to create new things that I hadn’t made before, but she and the other judges loved what I wore. When I was ultimately voted off she told me not to change what I am doing. Elaine said that she knew she’d see someone walking down the streets of NYC one day wearing my clothing and recognize that it was mine. And in the wide wide world of fashion—- that is the most important thing!
I took this advice when I came home and created my first collection. I focused on the things I WORE on the show, more than what I made!
I also learned so much from the other designers while I was there. I asked them myriad questions about how they ran their fashion lines, did runways, found models, did photos. I asked about pricing, manufacturing…. I probably drove them all crazy!
Brandon Maxwell also told all of us designers and to me in a separate conversations, that its not about winning the show, it’s about what you do after that counts…..
Creating My Own Collection
After Project Runway ended, I came home to Japan and I got to work on building my business. I learned how to source manufacturing, garment tags, and all the elements to assembled my brand. I created my own Hand-Painted Collection line of dresses, tops and skirts, made ethically from organic material in Los Angeles. I continued to hand-sew some things myself in my studio like collars and headbands, vests, sweaters and dresses. All throughout this process, I am still continuing to learn what works best for me and my business.
It has been a lot of hard work, but worth every effort when my clothing line launched on my website in October of 2021. Since then, I’ve been literally living the dream of becoming a fashion designer. Life has moved quickly ever since and I’m working happily in my studio every day, making beautiful and colorful pieces for people to wear.
I am eternally grateful to the producers and entire cast and crew of Project Runway, and everyone at Bravo, for their support and belief in my unique voice. My life has changed forever and I am living my dream, finally, of being a fashion designer.
Three Final Thoughts
When I was kicked off Project Runway, I was devastated. I felt like I’d completely failed. I felt like everything I’d dreamed of was not going to happening. But then, I chose to find the good in the situation. Here are the 3 main thoughts I took away from the experience:
- I was on the bottom many times, which meant I was going to get lots of stage and screen time, which also meant that more people would see the fashions that I was wearing. My own designs and prints, which was fantastic publicity.
- I made it through 6 episodes. That’s pretty good for someone with no clothing line (at the time), no fashion school, no real world experience.
- I learned that I wanted this as a career. I never would have known how badly I wanted this, had I not been given that chance to try.
After the show ended and I came home, I immediately got to work finding pattern-makers and manufacturers for my own clothing line…and I did The Dang Thang!
I got a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to be on Project Runway, and I learned that I’m capable of doing something extraordinary such an opportunity. The best thing I learn is that I’m JUST GETTING STARTED! Here are some of my favorite photos from my time on the show.
You can also continue to follow along with my adventures here:
Instagram: @katiekortmanart and @katiekortmanclothing