image: Jayme Thornton
The first time I met Katie Ermilio, she greeted me with such spunk and I was blown away by her tailoring and craftmanship. It's very rare to see a young designer with such a fine tuned aesthetic. I was instantly drawn in. I love her dresses and collection — it is modern, classic, and retro all at the same time.
Cannon: The impression that I got when I first saw your collection was of a modern Grace Kelly before I read your bio…
Katie Ermilio: Well, I grew up with pictures of her on the piano when I was practicing and they were all over the house. It was osmosis, maybe. I was influenced by them before I even knew that my grandfather designed clothes for her.
C: Tell me about the how you were influenced by your grandfather.
KE: My grandfather [Anthony Ermilio] died when I was super young. The main influence he has on my clothes now is basically the traditions that my dad carried on. My family has been super strong in the tailoring tradition. My dad [Bob Ermilio] keeps everything by the books. I’m doing this wild and crazy thing by doing womens ready to wear. The company is still heavily rooted in custom clothing. My grandfather's company Ermilio Clothier & Specialty Shop was founded in 1897 in Philadelphia and it started in menswear, bespoke suits, and military uniforms. There was a huge cult following, practically from day one, and I think my familiy's business projected and mirrored what was going on in Philadelphia at the time. Even today, the men are in blue blazers and Stubbs & Wootton flat shoes, there’s this certain type of style that comes out of Philadelphia. I think my grandfather designing Grace Kelly’s clothes was just an extension of that.
C: Does your family still use the same factories? Did you visit the factory growing up?
KE: No, you should listen to my dad talk about the union. But we did have a huge industrial space underneath the store in Philadelphia and there were literally 20 cutting tables. When he pared down, my dad moved the shop to Haverford, Pennsylvania, that’s by appointment only. I grew up going to the store. On Saturdays after my soccer games I would go to the store and work. I would tear out old styles in the swatch books and watch the seamstresses hemming dresses and the coat maker making jackets and sit in on fittings.
I guess the design bug just crept up and got me.
C: There’s something so great about bespoke and having something custom made for you. So many designers are doing fittings, it’s a more personal experience. Tell us about what inspired your personal collection.
KE: That’s the only reason I have one. I started 100% in custom, I started designing things for myself. My dad would take them back to his store in Philadelphia and women would buy them. He is a very traditional Italian man. He would tell me I have to come back on Saturday, that I had appointments. I would be the obliging daughter and get on the bus and meet with these women and it was very organic. That’s how I developed my process with a custom clientele. It got so big that I decided that going into ready to wear was the next step because stores could reach so many more women than I ever could on my own. So that’s how I began.
C: When I see your collection, I see pieces of Caroline or pieces of Oscar and Jason Wu. Your design aesthetic is very neat and modern.
KE: OMG, thank you! It is. I think that’s a marriage of my heritage and my background and this custom clothing style that is the 1930s and 40s, that’s something that my grandfather used to do, married with my personal aesthetic. People look at the collection and they can’t figure out if it's designed for a younger girl or an older girl and I take it as a compliment. I believe it’s in the way you wear it and style it. I just kind of go with it, its not premeditated.
C: When was you’re aha moment, this is really happening?!
KE: I’m still there. I think any designer will tell you it never really ends because you can't shut your brain off. So your always thinking and coming up with new ideas. But the first moment that I knew, I was working at Teen Vogue and I had found my dream job before I graduated from college. One of my jobs in the PR department was going through the tabloids and I was going through Us Weekly and there was a picture of Julianne Hough in one of my dresses on a trend page. I had a client who gave the dress to a stylist in LA and it was this convoluted, serendipitous thing. I thought, OK, this is getting bigger, for me it was just a passion project and a hobby and I loved designing clothes. I didn’t think it would turn into anything, but now maybe this is something I can support myself with.
C: How integrated is your family in your business now? Does your dad give you tips, is he your assistant pattern maker (laughing)?
KE: That’s the big joke — he says, “I’m working for Katie now!”
I always go to my dad when I need a real structure in the classics. Any painter will tell you that in order to paint the abstract you have to be able to paint like DaVinci. When I need to get back to my roots, I’ll sit in on a fitting like I did when I was home over Christmas. I sort of get back to the craft. Which is why I am a designer today. I get the understanding of how to build clothing from the inside out just being in his tailor shop. Just seeing my clothes that I reference and the techniques that I use to make dresses, he’s very helpful in that way.
C: There are a lot of designers that don’t know how to build clothing from the inside out. It's such a gift in itself.
KE: Definitely. Because I didn’t graduate from fashion school, I couldn’t do it if I didn’t grow up with it. You can't just walk into anyplace on 7th Avenue with a drawing and get a garment back in a week and have it be exactly how you imagined. For me, every designer's process is different, I do start with construction techniques and I don’t just think of the style, but how is it physically going to be made? Where am I going to put the zipper, how is she going to get into this? I take it all into account. Just yesterday after you left, I went to one of my factories and the pattern maker yelled at me, "You are too detailed Katie, I’m always going to disappoint you!”
C: So it is like you were going to Fashion college after school….How is it now when you visit your dad’s shop?
KE: It's fun, he has the same seamstress and coat maker from when I was a little. It’s a funny dynamic, they have known me since I was this big, coming into the store moaning that I didn’t want to be there, I wanted to play with my friends. It's really nice to go in there, there are my first pieces and my prom dresses and it's good to see them and see how I started and it reminds me of how much bigger it has gotten in such a short period of time than I could have imagined. Even though we are still pretty small, it's come a long way.
C: If you had a dream celebrity that you wanted to dress, who would it be?
KE: I have a couple. I would love to dress Meryl Streep, I adore her, she’s genius, and she’s so funny and beautiful from the inside out. Emma Stone, Carey Mulligan.
C: Personally, you have a little bit of an 80s quirky style that’s intriguing. You give me a Claire Danes feeling. Tell us about the first things you remember about fashion.
KE: I don’t remember a time when I was not aware of fashion, what I was wearing and what the people around me were wearing. When I would shop with my mother I would grab all the fashion magazines, not the little Disney magazine. My mom was like, “I don’t understand you!” I was always super hyper aware about what people were wearing on the street, how my parents dressed or what I wore. It sounds exhausting.
C: Clothes give you a flashback.
KE: Absolutely, it's like smelling a certain scent or perfume your mom wears and it takes you back to the moment. So yes, I have a very hard time letting some pieces in my closet go.
C: If you describe your fashion sense growing up and how it's evolved now, name an actor or celebrity that describes yourself, who would that be?
KE: I’d say that in my life I’ve incorporated trends, but I’ve always been a clean, classic dresser, like Jackie Kennedy with the jeans and the flats and the blazer and the glasses. I’m a clean and minimal dresser.
C: Jackie O is the person the paparazzi started with. She was extremely well dressed head to toe.
KE: I think of her as the kind of woman I’d like to one day be, she embodied this sense of dignity and grace. I think it was very much reflected in her style. She was a really great poster child for anyone, man or woman, to have in their life, to aspire to be like. You can’t go wrong with the Jackie O look.
C: I feel like there are few women that have the class and grace that Jackie O had. She leaves us so much more to envision her as, she was so put together and wasn’t in the tabloids. I feel this is the woman you design for, the woman who is dignified and classy.
KE: From the beginning of starting a clothing line, those were my clients. They carry themselves in a specific way and commanded a room that you just knew they had the utmost self respect. That’s the sort of woman that comes to me because my clothes reflect an element of that personality.
C:Tell us about your first orders.
KE: One of my first orders I did was a gown for a lovely woman, the most beautiful lady you could ever have to dress and she was so sweet and patient with me. It was my first real custom piece, drawing the whole thing out, and it turned out to be an intricate black beaded gown. It was an amazing experience and it got my legs under me to understand how important it is for a custom client to be 100% engaged with the process. A custom client is very different from any other client. I’m the first to admit that I’m not a custom clothing kind of girl. It takes a certain kind of person and someone who loves the process. I’ve moved into bridal so seamlessly because I’ve been working with women from the very beginning.
C: Tell us about the favorite piece you’ve designed thus far.
KE: Oh my gosh, that’s really hard for me because…
C: They are all your children??
KE: No actually, it’s quite the opposite. As soon as I design something, I put it out of my head. I’m always onto the next with everything I do.
It’s kind of a good thing and kind of a bad thing because sometimes, maybe I don’t appreciate moments of amazingness. I guess with that being said, my favorite piece would be the blue and white that I wore today. I always pick one of the pieces from the collection and wear it to death and from this collection it was that blazer. It’s always a blazer from one of my lines that I’m always stealing. So yeah, blue and white blazer.
C: How do you find your inspiration for each collection?
KE: This is always the hardest question. I could literally design all day long, all night long. The problem with me isn’t so much having the ideas, it’s editing them. I sort of work backwards, I’m always thinking of things, it never stops. I keep a sketchbook next to my bed, in my purse, in my Jason Wu clutch.
It’s interesting to go from designing specifically for the women that you are dressing to creating collections that, for me, is where the editing becomes really important. I create guidelines for myself, those usually start with color. I already have my colors picked up for Spring 2012. I always know the colors I want to work with. And then I just start drawing. Things come into your head. I’ll envision a jacket and think this would be amazing in black and this would be great in that. I do it in here (my head) and then I make a board and then it comes to life. It’s not a direct source of inspiration, it's more about curating the ideas.
C: Who is your favorite designer?
KE: I have so many. I love Oscar de la Renta, so much, I think he’s just brilliant.
Obviously, I worked for Cristobal Balenciaga, another favorite, I just love that he is still creating clothes today and he’s come from that school. All of the houses have been taken over from LVMH, new designers and new blood which is so cool, but I just love that Oscar is so old school and still dressing women, I love that about him.
C: And it’s still his personal company, his family is still the primary shareholder.
KE: Yes! It’s amazing! I love Marc Jacobs for Louis Vuitton. A young designer Thomas Tate, he’s so cool and good. Jason Wu obviously, he’s brilliant. Scott Sternberg, Band of Outsiders, love that. Donna Karan, her dad was a tailor so I have special love for her. I love Ralph Rucci, so gorgeous, he’s like the last of his kind, no one does it like he does. Phoebe Philo! I love Celine so much.
C: Unfortunately we are coming out of a horrible recession. What advice do you give young struggling designers coming forward? There are handbooks but no handbooks that tell you everything that needs to be done.
KE: Even if you do read it, everyone’s experience is different. I have a really good piece of advice which I tell a lot of interns when they come to interview with me: if you want to be a designer, if you really want to design clothes, work at a label where you can just design. Because if you want to have your own business, you have to be so much more than that. I also tell them that if you are not willing to give up your life, you have to live fashion, eat it, sleep it, breathe it, everything gets put on hold for your business. If you are not willing to give it everything you have, because once you do that you are still going to have to give it more, maybe it's not the right career for you. That sounds really harsh and bold.
C: I think it’s true, people come in and think its just going to happen and it doesn’t. It's drive, determination, willpower, endurance.
KE: What’s that tagline? Luck is when preparation meets opportunity, like that’s literally how fashion is in a nutshell.
lookbook Images: Jamie Beck; portrait: Jayme Thornton