Kathryn Sterner Creates Dresses we want to live in
We discovered Kathryn Sterner creates dresses we want to live in
When we think of fashion we still think of the big cities as the place to be. In this country that’s definitely New York followed (and how far behind is up for debate) Los Angeles. Others might argue the relevancy of say…Atlanta or Chicago. So it might surprise you that it’s in Minneapolis where we found Kathryn Sterner living a life that might make some of our NYC designer friends rethink their locale. Not only has she successfully built up her own brand which is created in a beautiful light filled atelier but she did it after graduating from college without a mountain of debt. How did she do it? read on…
You have a gorgeous space that serves as both your studio and a boutique and an amazing team. How long did it take to get here?
Winsome has been in existence for 5 and a half years. The first year and a half I was actually a designer at Target
Yes, I read that! How did you go from Target to owning your own label? Did you go to school for fashion design?
I went to the University of Minnesota for apparel design and my dad is a scientist, my mom is an artist and I feel like design is a combination of the two. And my dad is actually an environmental scientist, so sustainability and the environment have always been at the forefront of my mind and it’s what I grew up being educated about, talking about – so it's always been of high importance to me.
And it’s amazing how far sustainable fashion has come and sustainability in general. I was in school 10 years ago and we had only 3 weeks in one class to talk about sustainability in fashion and now you can major in it! But I remember learning the little bit I did in school and being fascinated by it but also being young and inexperienced. So when an opportunity to work at Target arose I took it. And I'm glad I did. I learned a lot.
Part of what I learned is that a place like Target was ultimately not for me. I didn't feel I was contributing to the world in a meaningful way, I didn't like what I was creating and how it was being created and what it meant and what the purpose of all of it was. I needed a creative outlet and honestly Winsome started from that.
My role as a designer at Target was wonderful in that I learned a lot about strategy, about partnering with vendors, about communication and managing and basically all of the business side. But I wasn’t learning a lot about design and art and creativity and so my reasons for starting Winsome were twofold: One was to have that tactile experience of working with fabric and making something with my own hands. But the other thing was I had friends who were all artists and they were getting a joint studio space and I wanted to be with them in the studio –part of that community! So whenever I had the time and energy, I would go in and just make a few pieces. They were more exclusive then and that's right about the time when Instagram was starting to take hold and e-commerce was more available to anybody. So after about a year and a half I balanced my time as best I could and eventually it was time for me to say goodbye to that large scale industry job and just pursue this full time. So Winsome has been around for about 5 and a half years so four years in earnest.
I think that community aspect is so major for creativity! Now, of course, you have it with your own team in your own space. As an independent designer working out of her own atelier how do people find out about you? Is it more word of mouth or?
If you could find out please let me know because that's like the million dollar question, right? J But I’d say Instagram is a big one, social media, our on-line presence in general. We wholesale to shops all over the country and even in Japan.
We also, host workshops in the space - everything from intro to sewing to patterning courses, and so people find out about us because they're interested in taking a workshop. We do very little paid advertising which is pretty cool, because we'd rather put our money elsewhere. But it's a challenge, the biggest challenge of running a business, right? Getting the word out.
When I go to the website, it says modern, zero and vintage. Can you break down what that means?
Totally. Modern collection is what Winsome was built on. Our modern design produced garments, made both ethically and sustainably. So ethical has always been our number one priority and sustainability has always been number 2. We own all of our garment production and development and are sustainable in that we choose either all natural fabrics if we're buying them new, dead stock fabric when we can, synthetics only sourced from dead stock, and we work to design pieces from a sustainable mindset.
We like to do unique, special pieces, not just another wrap dress. We want to create something that's new and interesting and different as opposed to a lot of different styles. But what we do to counter balance this is we make garments to be worn in a whole variety of ways. It's more about investing in one garment that you can get more wears or uses out of in terms of how you style it or wear it. And also as an attempt to keep it in a wardrobe or a closet longer. If you wear something as a dress and you get a little tired of it as a style, you can transition it into a top in different ways to make it a cool new piece.
Cool, and then the Zero is?
Our zero collection is brand new and it is and will continue to be a product made from scrap fabric so right now it's all fabric that's from the cutaway process of our production and eventually we will layer in a garment return system where people can bring some garments back in if they no longer want them or they've reached the end of their life cycle and what's so nice about having this zero project is that we can accept any garment back - it doesn't necessarily have to be in a wearable condition still. If it is in a wearable condition, wonderful, we can sell it in our second hand store and if it’s not we can break it down and put it into rugs. Theoretically, all Winsome garments can be recycled by people bringing them back in again.
Yeah, it's super fun. And then vintage collection is just vintage collected.
Do people bring in things or do you just go around and find vintage pieces?
No, we do some sourcing in a couple of different ways. I just love vintage shopping so I like to find pieces to layer in that mimic what we have going on in our shop. But also, it's a nice way to offer a different price point, too, because our modern garments are expensive, there's no way around it, so offering vintage is a way to help to serve another customer at another price point while also being sustainable. And then we collaborate with another vintage company in town that's called Kollective and they help us source vintage as well. They also participate in pop-ups around town and curate the collections they bring to us to fit in with our aesthetic.
Okay, this is jumping backwards but I’m curious: why did you apply to the University of Minnesota for apparel design as opposed to a school in New York or someplace else?
I applied to a lot but the two I was really oscillating between were School of the Art Institute of Chicago, and the U of M and I feel very thankful for having parents who could sit with me and explain to me the difference between $40,000 a year and $7,000 a year and how that would impact the rest of my life. That's truly how I made my decision – as an 18 year old do I want to be in debt for the rest of my life for school? If I was going to be a lawyer or a doctor that might make more sense but in art, fashion, clothing, I couldn't justify that. I've always known that I had an entrepreneurship heart and I didn't like the idea of being in debt to something like that. I wanted some flexibility to do whatever it is I wanted to do.
That's really great to hear because I think a lot of students aren't given that kind of advice. And I think you also serve as a great role model for other aspiring designers to see that they don’t have to go to the coasts to be successful as a designer.
Thank you – but it also depends on what aspect you're interested in, right? While I am in clothing design, I own a clothing business, my passion hasn't ever really been “fashion”. I am interested in function, I am interested in utility, I am interested in art and creativity and having unique style.
And the world is such now that so much is accessible online, so that even if you're not based in New York or LA you can still visit, you can still intern, and for me it's been more beneficial to live a more financially sustainable lifestyle in the Midwest and be able to travel to these places and still have visual access online through social media or however else. I prioritize having a sustainable financial life. It comes back to priorities and what you're actually interested in.
And the fashion world is changing so much whether its direct to consumer or the ability to see and buy through social media so if you are doing it a little differently you don't have to necessarily be where that monolithic thing –the fashion industry– is that's breaking apart anyway as we speak.
Yeah, it's not as monumental as it used to be. There's a really great creative community, fashion community here, and now there is more of a sustainable community, too. Fashion Revolution has a chapter here. It's amazing working with Winsome in the city for 5 and a half years and I’m still learning of new people and new designers – people who have come to town or who have started something.
One that comes to mind is a gal who creates meditation pillows, all recycled - she sources scrap fabrics from production houses and in the end makes meditation cushions out of them. And she and I have built somewhat of a symbiotic relationship because I have been giving her some of our larger scraps, she's been cutting them out to make her meditation cushions and then giving us the smaller scraps back that we can put into the rugs.
And we’ll end with that! A perfect example of the potential and practice of circularity. Thank you for sharing with us your story.