Interview: Katie Kortman found Project Runway sparked a vibrant career boost

PROJECT RUNWAY -- "Fashion Is Back, Baby!" Episode 1906 -- Pictured: Katie Kortman -- (Photo by: Barbara Nitke/Bravo)
PROJECT RUNWAY -- "Fashion Is Back, Baby!" Episode 1906 -- Pictured: Katie Kortman -- (Photo by: Barbara Nitke/Bravo) /

On Project Runway Season 19, Katie Kortman made a bold impression. Although she might not have been as experienced as some designers and sometimes allowed others to have too much of a guiding hand on her looks, there was never a doubt which designs were hers. Now that her time on Project Runway Season 19 has come to a close, Katie reflects on the experience and shares her thoughts with Culturess.

To say that Katie’s looks were unique on Project Runway Season 19 might be the current understatement of the season. While many of the fashion designers stepped away from the traditional somber palate often seen on the Bravo television show, the reality is that prints were not quite as plentiful on the runway.

Although Katie had a very distinct point of view, she appreciates that it can take a little adjustment to be appreciative of her aesthetic. When asked why some people might shy away from bold choices, Katie shared “I think it’s easy to stick to solids, or to design with neutrals or black because you can focus just on the garment, and you don’t have to worry about figuring out a balance of color or print placement.”

Even though Katie believes “many of the contestants liked color this season, I don’t think anyone else loved it or used it quite like I did,” the reality is that it takes a willingness to embrace that color story.

Katie said, “To those who are scared to wear bold color and prints, I say, baby steps! Try one piece and see how it makes you feel, follow people that wear more color to get inspired on how to wear color. I also have a digital book and online class called “Wear Happy Color: A Guide to a Colorful Wardrobe” to help people out!”

Katie Kortman believes fashion can be wearable art.

Given that Katie is an artist, her combination of prints and colors shows that flare. Although fashion might not be a piece hung on a wall, it is an artistic expression.

Specifically, Katie shared, “My background is in art, and I have always wanted to combine painting and clothing that made what I wore, or what I designed feel like wearable art. What we wear is an extension of who we are, and it tells the viewer something before they even speak to you. I want that first glance to make them think of art. If you can walk right by something I’ve made and it elicits zero response, then I have failed. I don’t feel the need to design super-neutral, pleases-everybody type clothing. The world of fashion is already full of that.”

In some ways, an bold color story can make an impact beyond just the casual glance from people walking down the street. While many people wear fashion for themselves, the reality is that a shirt, a shoe, or even an accessory can be the way that people change their mood. From ditching the loungewear to strutting down the grocery store aisle in something fabulous, the reality is that fashion and emotion are just as important as fashion and function.

When asked about how fashion and color impacts her perspective, Katie said, “What we wear, and the colors we wear REALLY do affect how we feel. When you take a little time to put on something besides your comfy clothes or activewear, it can have a positive effect on how you feel. When all you’re doing is shuttling kids around, running errands and making meals, it can seem frivolous to care about what you wear. But I promise that it is worth it. I design clothes that feel as comfortable as your loungewear but look much more put-together and colorful. I make sure there are pockets in all those dresses! Big color, big sleeves, loose-fit all make them have that double goal of fun plus function. Try wearing something fun in your regular, everyday life and see how it makes you feel! And then come tell me about it on Instagram!”

Although Katie has made many strides in her fashion career, the reality was that Project Runway required her to push herself further. Beyond people’s commentary regarding what is or is not runway-worthy, there was a learning curve to her experience.

Katie Kortman had to go beyond the “fake it till I make it” mentality.

While Katie thought that she could “’fake it till I make it’ since I had zero background in Fashion Design,” that learning on the fly was added pressure. She shared, “I had been designing my own wardrobe for a few years but I had never done anything past that!”

As many fashion designers learned on Project Runway, it is more than just a gorgeous look on a hanger. The judges are looking for the complete package.

For Katie, it was a tall task. She commented, “On Project Runway I had to try and find things on an accessory wall that didn’t necessarily speak to my aesthetic. I had to figure out hairstyles when Hair is the last thing I ever think about in my life, and I hadn’t thought about making outfits that were specifically “runway” in their drama. You saw them, flown fabrics that may have been part of a super simple look, but had runway drama because of the length or airiness. I also don’t normally work with shiny, beaded, or other gown type fabrics because those don’t fit into my everyday wardrobe that I’ve been creating. I never normally have self-doubt with my fashion, but being critiqued and constantly told to be more “modern” did make me question what it was that I could make that the judges would like. Unfortunately in that time-constrained environment, I was lacking on quick ideas or extra fabric to make a 180 that would’ve possibly satisfied the judges. Outside of the competition I can’t stop ideas from flowing into my brain—- including the “high end” type looks I think they were looking for. In the competition, my creativity felt stunted.”

That emotional toll has been noted by previous Project Runway designers. Sometimes the difficulty of the competition becomes the weight that cannot be shed. From the time constraints to the pressure, creating a bubble might not be right for everyone.

Still, that Project Runway experience had positives for Katie. She shared, “I learned a little more about “runway” type looks and styling from the other designers. I also asked them myriad questions on how to start and run a fashion brand. They all do things differently, so I loved finding out more about that. When I got home I hit the ground running, immediately working to start my own line. The experience didn’t change my approach to design, but it was the impetus for changing my career and my life!”

But the experience did come with a few regrets. Specifically, Katie said “my regret is not realizing that I shouldn’t have been making RTW looks, and instead should’ve constantly been trying to make more elevated, fancier pieces. I think I could’ve stayed in the game longer had I realized that.”

Katie Kortman believes that there is time and season for everything.

Now that she has returned to her “normal” life, the mom and military wife have found that balance is not always perfect. But, she found ways to keep herself fulfilled.

When asked about what advice she would offer other women who are trying to juggle it all, Katie was candid. “I would say, there is a time and a season. When my kids were younger I had an accessory line that I had to put aside because it was just too hard to do everything, plus have a husband in residency and the Navy (making him very very rarely home). I kept on doing creative things and learning new skills, and when the time was right (my kids were in school) I was able to take all that practice and skill and do something with it. It is still tricky to balance my mom-life, and my husband, being an OBGYN, is still not home much, but I prioritize my needs more now that I know my kids can do more things on their own.”

As Katie branches out with her goals, she is letting new experiences influence her approach. Currently based in Japan because of her husband’s military appointment, she believes that the locale offers a great opportunity.

Katie shared, “Japan has beautiful color in its nature which is very inspiring. The people in my area tend to dress very neutral-colored, but always stop me when they see my bright colors, so hopefully I can figure out how to break into this market as well.”

What is next for Katie Kortman? She just launched her first collection. And, she mentioned, that she plans “to continue with women’s wear, expand my size range, and get some more gender-neutral and male pieces as well in the coming year.”

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Project Runway Season 19 airs on Bravo Thursday nights at 9 p.m. ET/PT. In addition, it can be streamed on Peacock.