Kate VanAsten is on a mission. Since 2013, she has been on a mission to dress women who are self-starting and take charge. The women who wear the Wulfka line, these are the designer’s muses who are getting shit done every day in style. Kate is a resident of the Chicago Fashion Incubator located at Macy’s on State Street. Chicago Fashion Incubator (CFI), “provides six emerging Chicago based designers in residence with the resources, business acumen, and mentoring to launch their careers in fashion.” CFI was featured in Fashionista as a standout accelerator program that retains and nurtures local talent.
Kate and I met earlier this spring at the Show of Hands Market, and we made an instant connection. During our Behind the Seams interview, the Logan Square fashion designer and I talked about that time she tripped off of mushrooms and why that day was so important, the importance of inclusion in fashion, and why women like Ruth Bader Ginsburg are muses for her Fall 2017 collection.
THS: You went to FIT in New York. What essentially made you want to leave the major fashion capital to build your business in Chicago?
KVA: Partly because my family is in Wisconsin. I wanted my nephews to grow up knowing me. I also thought it would be absolutely impossible to start something in New York. I don’t come from a lot of money, and I would be working my fingers to the bone to live in a crappy apartment. I thought it would be a lot easier here. People in Chicago are way less cutthroat. They are much more willing to help you. In New York, I feel like it is more competitive because only a few can survive. The sentiments are “a rising tide raises all boats.” I feel like there is a lot more collaboration here.
THS: You and a couple of other designers have said the same thing. They stay in Chicago because their family is here (in the Midwest) and that the market isn’t as saturated. But what about the connections you gained while in school? That didn’t give you a reason to stay?
KVA: I feel like if I knew what I wanted to do right out of school, I would have stayed. Then I really would have taken advantage of those connections.
THS: So right off the bat you didn’t know you wanted to be a designer?
KVA: No idea. There are just so many things that you can do with fashion. And I guess I figured I would’ve started working for somebody but I didn’t know how to do that, so I just started my own business.
THS: That’s pretty boss!
KVA: Isn’t that what Millennials are doing? So I met my husband in New York, and he was working for Vice at the time. He had a big boy job and was still living in a basement with three roommates. It is impossible to get ahead there unless you start with money.
THS: So at the end of the day it was about the lifestyle you wanted to have. Because you have a house right?
KVA: Yeah. And now we have the internet, so we don’t have to be in New York. A round trip ticket is a couple of hundred bucks. Yeah, you don’t have to live there.
THS: What is the meaning of the name Wulfka?
KVA: I named myself Wulfka while I was tripping off of mushrooms in college. My boyfriend at the time who is now my husband got it tattooed on his arm. He said it was my “spirit name.” Years later when it came to naming my business, I chose it because it’s an entirely made up word that is kind of feminine and kind of fierce.
THS: The goddesses that your design for, who are they?
KVA: I named my first collection after Greek goddesses, after that my husband came up with the tagline “clothing for goddesses,” I think it just works so perfectly. My muses are definitely these incredible self-starters, the creatives. That is who I design for. Every collection is now named after a group of goddesses. I couldn’t figure out a group that encapsulated this particular collection for fall, so I decided to name each of the pieces after my heroes.
THS: Who are these heroes that you admire and think of so highly?
KVA: I feel like, right now, with the whole political climate. Women are stepping up—winter in Chicago is the time to buckle down and get shit done. And that is what I wanted to portray in this collection. I named my pieces after inspiring women like Ruth Badger Ginsburg. There were a couple of women that I admired growing up like Amelia Earhart, Jane Goodall, Coco Chanel and I named pieces after them as well. In this collection, I was just trying to draw from powerful women who get shit done.
THS: Talk about some of the silhouettes and styles in your Fall 2017 collection.
KVA: When I start sketching for a season I try to think of how I want to feel in the clothes. For this fall I wanted to feel “cocooned.” A lot of heavy collars and hoods. With really long sleeves that you can bunch up, and they feel so cozy and so safe. I want to feel bundled and comfortable while I am kicking ass.
“I am just trying to draw from powerful women who get shit done.”
THS: Designers rarely create their clothing in such a large range of sizes, but you do? Why is that so important?
KVA: There’s such a demand for it. Plus size women. They don’t see themselves everywhere, but I want them to know that I have it. It’s something that I want to focus on for the spring. I have a couple of pieces that I show in XL and double XXL, but I know there is a demand for larger sizes. I mean we are in the Midwest. I’ve had women come up to me who say, “ you need to make 4XL.” I used to fit everything to myself. With CFI we hire a fit model for the next collection I will fit with an extra small model and a plus size model to do the larger sizes well. These are women with money who need clothes. When I meet women at these shows, it’s so funny. I ask them what they look for and they tell me, “don’t think like a fat girl. We want to dress like everyone else.”
THS: You are a resident of the Chicago Fashion Incubator, what is this program and how is it helping you as a designer?
KVA: It’s phenomenal! A mentorship of six designers-in-residence with industry mentors who can give us the connections, bounce ideas off of and provide us with the answers. It keeps me on track and much more focused. When I worked from my studio at home, I would not stop working, and sometimes I wouldn’t even shower! There was no separation of life and work. Coming here helps. When it comes to efficiency, the mentors realize I spend all my time sewing. Which you can’t do when you are growing your business, so they have helped me learn how to bundle my fabric so I can have someone else sew it for me. It’s an extra set of eyes on everything that I am doing. It’s interesting to have people on this ride with me.
THS: You are getting an extra set of eyes on everything now, but what are some mistakes or learning experiences that you wish you could’ve avoided as an independent designer.
KVA: Those mistakes were all tough experiences doing my first trade show when I had no idea what I was doing. Things like setting up appointments with buyers ahead of time, I did not know anything about that. I wish I would’ve been with someone through their selling experience.
THS: How important have markets and festivals been to your business? Why continue to do them?
KVA: I started doing them because I didn’t know how else to get out there. It helps to get into the door because buyers would see me and had heard of me through these events. They are also very accessible. You can get some real reactions that you cannot get anywhere else. You get real honest feedback which is great and very helpful. People care. They are excited and proud to meet the person who makes their clothes. Even through my email list, people are invested in the business.
THS: What’s next for Wulfka?
KVA: For spring expanding into extended/ inclusive sizes. I am super excited about that. I also want to do collaborations with other women. There are so many phenomenal women in Chicago. I want to showcase other women and build up their brands, like my girlfriend in New York who is an illustrator. She created a print for me that I placed onto fabric and am thinking about making a bra and panty set since a lot of my pieces are backless. I would love to do more stuff like this in the future. I would also love to expand into organic fabrics. There is also so much waste in the fashion industry. I also feel passionate about labor rights and what that means to me as a small business. I want to show what that means especially to be in Chicago but not sure what that is yet. But I am working on it.
You can meet the bubbly designer year around at some of the best markets and festivals throughout the year. Her fall collection will be launching in September as well. Wulfka is sold in local stores across the city as well as on the designer’s website. Check out the latest collection and stockist on the Wulfka.com.
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