Katie Ermilio: Style Space

Kerry Pieri
Katie Ermilio: Style Space
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There are many young designers with talent and certainly ambition, but a truly, fully formed aesthetic and vision are harder to come by. Consider Katie Ermilio a bit of a wunderkind then, because the Main Line raised, current Upper West Side inhabitant already has a definitive signature of demure, well-tailored, perfectly constructed, endearingly pretty pieces. I’ve called her the best candidate for secret love child of Oscar de la Renta and Carolina Herrera before, and I’m sticking by it.

StyleCaster stopped by the designer’s apartment near the park with its lovely array of art, Jonathan Adler pieces, vintage decor, Louis Ghost armchairs by Philippe Starck, and fashion coffeetable books (not to mention covetable Fall 2011 samples) to find out about her start at Vogue, what she wore to prom, her designer DNA and Phoebe Philo.

All photos: Joseph D’Arco

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Tell me a little about your background...
I grew up outside of Philadelphia in the Main Line area right near Villanova University and my dad is currently at the helm at our family business. My great grandfather founded Ermilio Clothiers and Specialty in 1897, and it became an LLC in 1904 so it’s a very old story Philadelphia brand.

What was it like growing up in that kind of bespoke fashion environment?
I was an only child for eight years, until my sister was born, so everywhere my parents went I went too. My dad traveled the country meeting with clients, going to equestrian events and he used to fit a lot of riders, he still fits riders on their horses so I’d have to go to those fittings and watching him, you know, do arm hold positions on a rider on the horse. It really gave me an idea of how to create motion with clothing.

 Tell me about your design process…  
We start with one piece from the collection then sort of build this wardrobe around it. I really became a designer doing costume work, so you know in my mind, a collection is all about a wardrobe for a woman. You know I don’t really sit down and say now I’m going to design, it’s kind of something that comes to me. I have scrap pieces of fabric that I’ll drape with and you know just try and basically get ideas just playing around on the dress form and sometimes I’ll sort of hit the jackpot and be like ‘Oh, I love this!’ and draw it out and do the tech design and make the garment. Sometimes I just literally throw something on and it’s perfect right off the bat, sometimes I start with a sketch, but really the initial jumping off point for me is always a color and that one piece.

What is your background in terms of school and getting into design?
I went to NYU and I wanted to have a job quite like yours, I wanted to be a fashion editor, tunnel vision, and had no idea that I was good at designing. When I was younger, my dad, would make me go to the basement of the store and pick a bulk of fabric if I had a special occasion where I needed a dress or something. I’d be like ‘Dad can we please just go to like Bloomingdales, mom I want to go to Gap and they’d be like go to the basement, those were my shopping trips (laughing) – go to the basement. I used to use a lot of menswear fabric because my dad primarily does menswear and I started creating these little dresses and things for proms, all that kind of stuff.
Your friends were probably obsessed.
For them it was so cool... So I guess I just sort of picked up a knack for designing and growing up around tailors and seamstresses and patternmakers my whole life it sort of just became part of my world and I developed a taste for it and got the language down and all the nomenclature and what have you.

Katie in a dress from her Fall 2011 collection.

Lanvin shoes.

So how did the business come about?
So I went to NYU studying visual culture, Gallatin school, I designed my own major and I interned at all these different places, Tracy Reese, Women’s Wear Daily, and I was at Vogue for quite a while in the fashion department and then features. And then I was hired at Teen Vogue and all the while, I had sort of started a little custom clothing business of my own for women’s wear by accident.   

I designed a dress for my internship interview with Vogue and when I was done, I gave it to my dad and he took it and put it in his storefront in Haverford and men would come in for suit fittings with their wives and people started to buy it, so my dad was just like, 'Katy just come home and meet with these clients.' And I’m like ‘I have clients?’ So I’m coming home on weekends and after class... so I was like, you know, intern by day, designer by night, part-time student and then I was at Teen Vogue. I was just spread very thin so I just decided to do this full time.

On far left: Celine bag.

Has it felt like it's been a whirlwind?  
It has. It’s gone very fast. I never anticipated how quickly it would go just snowballing as far as clients and I just really try and take everything one day at a time. Because you never know where each day is going to lead you. I really had a very, sort of a Cliff's Notes understanding of the entire industry with all the internships that I had, so I had an idea of sort of how to get things going but you don’t really know until you’re in it.

What kind of girl do you have in mind when you’re designing, or do you?  
I do have a certain girl in mind and it's really my customer and it's kind of a tricky thing because I have such a broad audience, some of my clients are young, some of them are in their seventies and they’ll both wear the same dress, so it's the formula that I like to stick to because I want to create designs that are wearable for a lot of different ages. The clothes are all made in America, I’m really passionate about using great fabrics and having great fit and I want them to be quality heirloom pieces, I don’t want them to be throw-aways so that's sort of the nucleus for me.

Who are some of the designers that you personally look up to?  
I love Phoebe Philo, I think she’s a brilliant genius, I’d love to work with her, I love everything Celine, I love Alber Elbaz, Cristobal Balenciaga, I love this new designer, Thomas Tate, I think he’s incredible. There’s so many, I could go on all day, Georgina Chapman, I was at dinner at Kenmare the other night and she was sitting a few table over and my friends were like, “Do you have a staring problem?” I was like, she’s so beautiful and gifted and I think that’s one of the coolest things about this industry is there’s so many careers to look up to. And Jason Wu, I love Jason Wu.

What are the goals that you’re setting for yourself now?  Well my first major goal, which we just achieved, was to start getting into wholesale. This is my first wholesale season and next season I’d just like to see it grow a little more, you know eventually, I would love to have a show at Lincoln Center. I try to set small, achievable goals for myself, and, of course, there’s always the larger picture about things I want to do down the line, I would love to maybe have a small line of handbags or do menswear blazers – I mean I don’t know, the possibilities are endless – even bridal, but, you know, for now its sort of just like, check each little baby box (laughs) as you go along.

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