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KATE VANASTEN, CLOTHING DESIGNER

Our first official date was at Kate’s request, to talk shop and get to know each other. We had met at a show but had little time to chat. Now, I don’t often get asked on dates by asymmetrical, pink-haired, awesome ladies. So, I certainly wasn’t going to pass such an opportunity. Plus, I have a massive girl crush on Pink, so anybody that looks as bad ass as her, and just happens to have one of the most infectious laughs I’ve ever heard, has my undivided attention. ;-) 

 

Since then, we’ve collaborated on a photo shoot for one of her look books, and I somehow managed to invite myself to her studio where she walked me through her design process. Side note: this is also where I learned sewing is not one of my gifts. 

 

Here is is the story of a strong and determined woman, an Amazon dressed in effortless utilitarian Goddess looks.

Where does your love for sewing come from? 

I've always loved making things. I used to be really good at origami as a kid, and I think I could still fold a dollar bill into an elephant. Yes, you heard that right! It was my mom who taught me how to sew when I was a little kid. And it always just made sense to me, that a two-dimensional object cut in a certain way and sewn together would fit a three-dimensional object.

 

I remember early on in life being aware not only of how clothes where constructed, but what the impact was of producing them at a large scale. In high school, I had a teacher that did this great experiment in a social justice class. The week we where talking about labor rights, he shoved each of us into refrigerator carton boxes and said we had to make a certain number of necklaces, using macaroni as beads, within a certain amount of time.The inside of the box was a very confined space and it was hard to string the macaroni and get that many of them done in the time given. 

 

My teacher gave us a fake dollar for each necklace we made. He explained to us that anyone who didn't make enough money for the day would have died because in the countries where people worked under such conditions, they often couldn't survive on their labor. It was an eye-opening experience for me. It helped me understand the struggle, and what the whole supply-chain looks like. I don't think the gravity of what he was showing us really set in until later, but it always stayed in the back of my mind. So, when I decided to start Wulfka, I knew I wanted to treat workers well and give back to the community. I am proud to say that all my garments are produced in Chicago.

What’s your earliest memory of making a garment?

One of the earliest memories of actually making a garment was when I was in high school. I don't remember what project brought me into Joann Fabrics in the first place, but I do remember I saw this fabric and I was like, “That’s mine!” I still remember that fabric! It was a woven, very short hair velvet fawn, brown with gold Indian-like designs printed on top. It was so hideous! Haha (omg, that laugh!) But at the time I was just enamored with it. So I made my first pair of pants with that fabric. They had the big, wide-leg, bell-bottom look,  and I am sure they fit and looked terrible, but people would always compliment me when I was wearing them. I wore those ugly, brown, fuzzy pants until all the gold print fell off. I just I love those pants!

Before you started Wulfka you worked as a massage therapist. How did you go from treating the body to clothing the body?

You know it's not a straight line. Growing up I had many passions, and one of them was massage therapy. So, right after high school I went to massage school. I loved healing and had a passion for understanding human anatomy. I loved the fact that once you understand how the body is on the inside, you could feel it from the outside and heal it. So, I did that for ten years, mainly working in chiropractors offices on rehab cases. I loved seeing the progression and how people’s bodies where restored by using my hands. It's so satisfying to be able to target a specific muscle, and feel the difference from the beginning to the end of a session. And when that person stands up and tells you, “Oh my god, my headache is gone!” It feels great. 

 

I feel the same satisfaction after making a really good garment. That moment when you just know… as you are flipping the piece you just finished sewing… and you just tell yourself “I fucking made this well!” 

Now, the whole time that I was doing massage I still loved sewing, but I was just doing it for myself. I guess at some point, I felt like massage was not really a future career choice for me. It’s very demanding on your body and a lot of people burn out because your body just you can't physically do massage forever. In order to make it into a career, I would either have to start my own massage place or go into something more medical like kinesiology. I knew neither of those options were good for me. 

 

I decided to go back to school, and studied fashion design at FIT in New York. When I finished the degree, I moved to Chicago because I’m originally from Wisconsin, so being closer to my family was really important to me. 

 

I was still a licensed massage therapist working in Chicago when I decided to start Wulfka. I just focused on making clothes and starting business. I did a collection and photographed it. It was terrible and I didn’t sell much. With my second collection, I sold a couple of pieces and just started building my business one collection at a time. And eventually I was able to quit doing massage and just do design full time.

Do you think your past professional background has informed your designs?

Yes, because I worked with so many different body types. You don't get twenty-four year olds with perfect bodies coming into massage therapy. So, I really got an opportunity to see what real bodies look like, and talk to people about their bodies, about what they were self-conscious about, and about their concerns with their health.

 

Working with people’s bodies has really informed how I make clothes. For example, I know a lot of women are self-conscious about their arms, so even though in the past I’ve had a hard time designing sleeves I really liked, I know it’s important to spend time making it work because it matters to the women that are going to be wearing my clothing. I know real women have hips, and so I consider that when I am designing. A lot of designers don't have the same experience I do with real bodies, so they design for the skinny, little models. I feel like my designs really fit a variety of body types. Designing for a variety of body types matters to me because I have a weird body. Haha! Honestly, I have a big butt and I am curvy. So, I make clothes that are going to fit me and I think a lot of women really respond to this type of design philosophy.

What are the main steps in your design and making process?

Every collection begins with tidbits of inspiration that I've collected like a magpie. Pages torn from magazines, the color palette of a Wes Anderson movie, a screenshot of a living room that begs to be danced in. I channel that inspiration into my sketches and fabric choices. Then I choose the sketches that I think my customers will like best and draft them as two-dimensional patterns, carefully marking notches, button placements, and zipper stops. I sew each piece, take notes, and make adjustments to the pattern until it's perfect. I order fabric in giant rolls and roll them down my cutting table, laying fabric two or four or six layers at a time. I arrange the pattern pieces as tightly as I can and cut all layers into many identical pieces.

 

The bundles of cut fabric stacked on my cutting table are as colorful and full of promise as the shelves of a candy store. I spend many days slowly eroding the stacks, bouncing between my sewing machine, ironing board, and serger with my headphones and iced coffee by my side. As I finish sewing each garment I carefully hang it on a rack proudly displaying the Wulfka label from the back of the neck.

Can you tell me where the name Wulfka came from?

I was in New York going to design school. It was the Fourth of July and I was with my husband — we where dating at the time — laying on the rooftop of my Brooklyn apartment, celebrating. We had eaten a bunch of mushrooms and I was tripping. And I don't know why, but as I was laying there looking at the sky I was just like, “I am Wulfka,” and I named myself Wulfka. He went out the next day and had it tattooed on his left arm. I love him! Years later when I was trying to think of a name for the company and I didn’t want to do VanAsten Designs, he was like, “Why not Wulfka?”

Kate VanAsten, Wulfka

Photography by Niko Sulek at Motorkast