Sure, the Chicago-based designer got screwed in a surprise double elimination—twice. But the support she received afterward was its own victory, and besides, she’s got dresses to psychoanalyze.
Many women celebrate their 24th birthday in the company of family and friends. Kate Pankoke spent hers under the glaring spotlights of the Project Runway set, being critiqued by fashion-industry heavyweights Heidi Klum, Zac Posen, and Nina Garcia during last season’s inaugural challenge.
Though it was the first challenge of the season, it wasn’t Pankoke’s first time on that iconic runway. She had also competed in the previous season and was sent home in a surprise double elimination. But the Chicago-based designer was given a second chance by fans, after she won an online vote that allowed her to return.
After two stints on the show, it would seem Pankoke picked up a habit of designing garments under the wire. As the founder and creative director of bridal line Elaya Vaughn, she often spends up to 12 weeks creating a single couture gown. But days before her own nuptials this past November, she was still without a wedding dress.
“I literally made my gown the week before my wedding,” Pankoke said. “I was freaking out up until the last minute … my mom was really concerned.”
Below, Pankoke talked to the Groupon Guide about her bridal collections, Chicago’s underrated fashion scene, and whether Nina Garcia is really that intimidating.
GROUPON: Bridal design seems like a strange market to get into right out of school. What made you choose it as a specialty?
KATE PANKOKE: When I graduated, I was like, “Who’s going to want to spend $300 on a top from me when they could buy Chanel?” With bridal it’s not so label-sensitive. It’s more like creating a work of art, and people just fall in love with [a dress] regardless of who made it.
G: All of your gowns are named after women. Are they inspired by real or fictional people?
KP: It’s actually a little bit of both … basically I make a psychological profile for each gown. That’s what I really enjoy doing—if I wasn’t a designer I was going to be a criminal psychologist. So I think about the girl [who would wear this dress], and I think, “What would this girl be named?” It’s quirky and weird, but I never forget the name of a gown because it’s almost like a person.
G: You have colorful designs like the blue and lavender Aurelia and the silver Akiana. Are you pretty open to creating nontraditional gowns?
KP: I feel bridal was a very stagnant industry for awhile through the '90s, and everybody kind of wore the same thing. But now, brides are more media-conscious. Every bride doesn’t just want to be beautiful on her wedding day, she wants to be blog-worthy. And what’s more blog-worthy than wearing something a little bit nontraditional?
G: You have said that the Chicago fashion scene is underrated. What do you think Chicago fashion has going for it?
KP: There’s so much undiscovered talent here. Just being part of the [nonprofit organization] Chicago Fashion Incubator, I’ve seen so many designers that have such potential ... it’s almost like the Chicago customers don’t quite know about [them]. I feel like that’s why so many [designers] move to New York, because they feel like they have more visibility and exposure to potential clients. But there’s so many potential clients here.
G: So what were you doing when you got the call that you made it on Project Runway?
KP: I was home alone, napping. I got the phone call, and I freaked out. But I ended up going back to sleep because I had just pulled an all-nighter. Then I woke up and I was like, “Was that a dream? Did that happen?”
G: And then you ended up being on the show two seasons in a row. How different was it the second time?
KP: It was almost a completely different thing for so many different reasons. Yes, I had an advantage … not so much about the challenges, but [because] it’s a completely different lifestyle. You’re completely locked down, you’re cut off from communication with your family or friends, you’re forced to live with these people that you’re competing with that you don’t know. You don’t have TV, you don’t have music. It’s this really weird psychological mind trip … . It takes you a good two weeks to get used to it, but the second time, I knew what I was going into.
For me, the scarier thing was the other designers weren’t gonna be happy to see me because I have this clear advantage. I’m gonna be locked in a room with all these people that hate my guts.
G: So on the show, when they say that it’s a “one-day challenge,” how much time do you actually get?
KP: A one-day challenge is so deceiving. You would think that one day equals 24 hours, but that’s not the case. It actually can be anywhere from 8 to 11 hours. And that’s for everything: sketching, sewing, patterning, and fitting. It’s literally insane.
G: Both Tim Gunn and Zac Posen were excited about your return in season 12 and had very kind things to say about you. How does it feel to have people of their stature in the fashion industry be so complimentary of you?
KP: It feels amazing. I’ve looked up to them and really admired them both for what they’ve done in the field. To have them even know what my name is, is an honor in itself.
G: Even as a viewer, Nina Garcia makes me nervous. Is she really that intense?
KP: She is so intense. But that’s why I love her. She was my favorite judge to try and impress because it was so hard. My goal for season 12 was to get Nina to say something nice about one of my designs. Normally she hates uber-femme designs and I’m such a feminine designer … . She really pushed me to discover deeper meaning to my feminine designs, and I really appreciate her for that.
G: In both your seasons on the show, you were sent home during surprise double eliminations. What did it feel like to go through that experience again?
KP: I was so taken off guard…I don’t believe that [design] was my best look at all. But I also don’t believe it was the worst thing on the runway. And to double-eliminate me for the second time … I didn’t quite understand. I’d been in the top every episode … you don’t need to eliminate two people today, [so] why are you gonna eliminate me right before the Fashion Week [finale]? It just didn’t seem right.
G: A lot of viewers were clearly shocked and became very outspoken about it on social media. Did that make you feel better?
KP: That’s the thing, it was so empowering because [I felt like] America felt the way I did. Everybody was like, “What just happened?” The tweets that people sent out [after the elimination], I felt like I had won Project Runway … if I have America standing up and defending me, then that’s more than I could have ever asked for.