The coronavirus pandemic led to the closure of many fashion businesses, but it has also marked the arrival of new ones. For brides-to-be, the most exciting has been the debut of designer Katharine Polk’s namesake wedding dress line.
Those familiar with the bridal industry will recognize Polk as the designer-creative director behind the ultimate Cool Bride brand Houghton. Known for its edgy designs, and for setting bridal trends — with crop tops and pants, cutout dresses, and leather and varsity bridal jackets all part of the roster — the New York-based label was never for the traditional bride. Instead, it was for the fashion-forward woman who happened to be getting hitched. But while the media looked forward to the splash that Houghton would make every season — which ranged from a documentary-style fashion film to an opulent presentation in a Manhattan townhouse — according to Polk, the “hardest thing to hear from brides” since then, was that they didn’t feel like the collection was for everyone.
In January of 2018, when Houghton closed, many in the industry mourned the loss of the impossibly cool brand. As an editor, I was devastated to have one less brand that made Bridal Fashion Week exciting to attend and cover; when I recently got engaged, I was devastated as a bride-to-be with few places to turn to for non-traditional wedding looks.
Meanwhile, Polk was left to figure out what was next for her. After leaving New York City, where she lived and worked, for Los Angeles, she began consulting other bridal brands. “You have to learn from the mistakes, from what goes wrong,” she tells me. “That’s where you learn, and that’s where you grow. And I wanted to share that with other businesses. I had all this knowledge to share with other people and young designers.”
As Polk settled into this new role, brides continued to reach out to her for custom wedding looks. Many went so far as to ask when, not if, she would create a collection. Because of the number of inquiries, Polk began to envision what, on December 1, officially launched as Katharine Polk. “It happened so organically,” Polk says when I ask her when she knew it was time for her second act. “It was a matter of me just being able to build up enough money and savings to be able to create that so I could present it to them. And being able to do it right. I didn’t want to just rush and create something just because. I wanted to make sure I had the foundation I needed and that I was communicating a real brand message that was true to me.”
That message is “bridal for everybody,” which, according to her, means “every ethnicity, every person, every body shape, every size…” And while Polk has always operated with inclusivity in mind — Houghton often cast non-models and prioritized inclusivity in front and behind of the cameras — this time, the message is at the forefront of her label. With that in my mind, she didn’t separate Katharine Polk’s collection into straight and plus sizes. Instead, all dress styles are available in sizes 00 to 30.
“I want my women to feel amazing without feeling like they’re being put in a different garment because of their size. I want my collection to feel like everything can fit every woman,” she says. “I don’t want you to feel like you have to wear this dress because you’re a certain size. Like, ‘You’re only able to wear this dress, you can’t wear these because of your size.’ I want you to have the same selection as everyone else does.”
When asked why so many brands not only create separate collections — in 2017, Good American made headlines when it asked for Nordstrom to carry its 00-to-24 size range together — but sometimes entirely neglect women over a certain size, she points to the training designers get when they are starting out. “I was trained in a certain way where sample sizes [usually size 0 to 4] is how you create a collection. I think the fashion industry has created a certain mentality of how collections are made, how collections are presented on the runway, and that’s not the reality of the rest of the world,” she says. “It’s a matter of just retraining yourself, or teaching yourself, and pushing yourself to learn different techniques.” She adds that she is lucky to work with “amazing” seamstresses and pattern-makers who can design in every size.
In 2018, Polk told me that one of the things she learned from starting and closing a business is the need to “simplify and be really good at one thing.” This collection exemplifies that. Whereas Houghton was putting out sometimes six collections a year, resulting in hundreds of new styles over the course of its existence, with her namesake line, Polk wanted to create a collection that would serve as the “foundation” for the brand to expand on in the future, rather than toss out entirely with the arrival of the new season. The result is nine dress styles.
“As a designer, of course, I have a board of a million other designs that I would have loved to add to Katharine Polk. But I had to really restrain myself and really edit, knowing that, in the long run, these were the designs that I could build on,” she says. “I wanted to spend the time on this collection, mastering and knowing that these patterns were perfect.”
“The fashion industry has created a certain mentality of how collections are made, how collections are presented on the runway, and that’s not the reality of the rest of the world.”
Some of the styles were inspired by the requests and feedback she got and from brides for custom orders — “so they were already road-tested.” Others came from Polk’s knowledge of what sells well and what’s missing from the market. “I looked at what brides were asking me for. I looked at how many requests I was getting for certain gowns. I did tons and tons of research, took tons and tons of fabric meetings,” she says. Silhouettes range from a midi wrap dress to an open-back slip and a Regency era-like gown with goofy sleeves that Daphne Bridgerton wouldn’t have hesitated to marry the Duke of Hastings in. With every piece made-to-order in L.A., all the dresses are customizable in terms of color, fabrics, and styles. “You can mix and match all the styles. You can easily say, ‘I want a sleeve, I don’t want this sleeve, I want to take this skirt and put it on this style,’” Polk explains.
While over the years Polk has become known for avant-garde wedding creations that would land her placements in fashion magazines (as opposed to just bridal ones), her focus this time around is to make her brand accessible to as many brides as possible. “I can do an editorial gown, I can do a $20,000 gown, I can order a couture fabric, that’s the easy part, but I wanted to create something that was affordable to a majority of brides,” she says. And while the $500 to $4,650 price point may not be affordable to everyone, it is reasonable by industry standards where sometimes bridal gown alterations alone can cost $500. “For me right now, less is more. I am thoughtful and intentional with every decision I make,” she adds.
Many would have hesitated to start a new brand so soon after closing one — let alone in a pandemic! Yet, according to Polk, having the time to think about the things that she did, yes, wrong, and, maybe more importantly, right as a businesswoman and designer has given her the confidence she needed to dive headfirst.
“As a designer, of course, I always think I am going to make something and no one will buy it,” she laughs. “That said, I poured my entire savings into this company. I completely believe in it. I am a different person than I was at Houghton. I’ve learned so much, and I’ve poured all of that into my new business… I know in my gut that I am doing the right thing.”
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