image: Jayme Thornton
The first time I met Katie Ermilio, she greeted me with such spunk and I was blown away by her tailoring and craftmanship. It's very rare to see a young designer with such a fine tuned aesthetic. I was instantly drawn in. I love her dresses and collection — it is modern, classic, and retro all at the same time.
Cannon: The impression that I got when I first saw your collection was of a modern Grace Kelly before I read your bio...
Katie Ermilio: Well, I grew up with pictures of her on the piano when I was practicing and they were all over the house. It was osmosis, maybe. I was influenced by them before I even knew that my grandfather designed clothes for her.
C: Tell me about the how you were influenced by your grandfather.
KE: My grandfather [Anthony Ermilio] died when I was super young. The main influence he has on my clothes now is basically the traditions that my dad carried on. My family has been super strong in the tailoring tradition. My dad [Bob Ermilio] keeps everything by the books. I’m doing this wild and crazy thing by doing womens ready to wear. The company is still heavily rooted in custom clothing. My grandfather's company Ermilio Clothier & Specialty Shop was founded in 1897 in Philadelphia and it started in menswear, bespoke suits, and military uniforms. There was a huge cult following, practically from day one, and I think my familiy's business projected and mirrored what was going on in Philadelphia at the time. Even today, the men are in blue blazers and Stubbs & Wootton flat shoes, there’s this certain type of style that comes out of Philadelphia. I think my grandfather designing Grace Kelly’s clothes was just an extension of that.
C: Does your family still use the same factories? Did you visit the factory growing up?
KE: No, you should listen to my dad talk about the union. But we did have a huge industrial space underneath the store in Philadelphia and there were literally 20 cutting tables. When he pared down, my dad moved the shop to Haverford, Pennsylvania, that’s by appointment only. I grew up going to the store. On Saturdays after my soccer games I would go to the store and work. I would tear out old styles in the swatch books and watch the seamstresses hemming dresses and the coat maker making jackets and sit in on fittings.
I guess the design bug just crept up and got me.
C: There’s something so great about bespoke and having something custom made for you. So many designers are doing fittings, it’s a more personal experience. Tell us about what inspired your personal collection.
KE: That’s the only reason I have one. I started 100% in custom, I started designing things for myself. My dad would take them back to his store in Philadelphia and women would buy them. He is a very traditional Italian man. He would tell me I have to come back on Saturday, that I had appointments. I would be the obliging daughter and get on the bus and meet with these women and it was very organic. That’s how I developed my process with a custom clientele. It got so big that I decided that going into ready to wear was the next step because stores could reach so many more women than I ever could on my own. So that’s how I began.
C: When I see your collection, I see pieces of Caroline or pieces of Oscar and Jason Wu. Your design aesthetic is very neat and modern.
KE: OMG, thank you! It is. I think that’s a marriage of my heritage and my background and this custom clothing style that is the 1930s and 40s, that’s something that my grandfather used to do, married with my personal aesthetic. People look at the collection and they can’t figure out if it's designed for a younger girl or an older girl and I take it as a compliment. I believe it’s in the way you wear it and style it. I just kind of go with it, its not premeditated.
C: When was you’re aha moment, this is really happening?!
KE: I’m still there. I think any designer will tell you it never really ends because you can't shut your brain off. So your always thinking and coming up with new ideas. But the first moment that I knew, I was working at Teen Vogue and I had found my dream job before I graduated from college. One of my jobs in the PR department was going through the tabloids and I was going through Us Weekly and there was a picture of Julianne Hough in one of my dresses on a trend page. I had a client who gave the dress to a stylist in LA and it was this convoluted, serendipitous thing. I thought, OK, this is getting bigger, for me it was just a passion project and a hobby and I loved designing clothes. I didn’t think it would turn into anything, but now maybe this is something I can support myself with.
C: How integrated is your family in your business now? Does your dad give you tips, is he your assistant pattern maker (laughing)?
KE: That’s the big joke — he says, “I’m working for Katie now!”
I always go to my dad when I need a real structure in the classics. Any painter will tell you that in order to paint the abstract you have to be able to paint like DaVinci. When I need to get back to my roots, I’ll sit in on a fitting like I did when I was home over Christmas. I sort of get back to the craft. Which is why I am a designer today. I get the understanding of how to build clothing from the inside out just being in his tailor shop. Just seeing my clothes that I reference and the techniques that I use to make dresses, he’s very helpful in that way.
C: There are a lot of designers that don’t know how to build clothing from the inside out. It's such a gift in itself.
KE: Definitely. Because I didn’t graduate from fashion school, I couldn’t do it if I didn’t grow up with it. You can't just walk into anyplace on 7th Avenue with a drawing and get a garment back in a week and have it be exactly how you imagined. For me, every designer's process is different, I do start with construction techniques and I don’t just think of the style, but how is it physically going to be made? Where am I going to put the zipper, how is she going to get into this? I take it all into account. Just yesterday after you left, I went to one of my factories and the pattern maker yelled at me, "You are too detailed Katie, I’m always going to disappoint you!”
C: So it is like you were going to Fashion college after school....How is it now when you visit your dad’s shop?
KE: It's fun, he has the same seamstress and coat maker from when I was a little. It’s a funny dynamic, they have known me since I was this big, coming into the store moaning that I didn’t want to be there, I wanted to play with my friends. It's really nice to go in there, there are my first pieces and my prom dresses and it's good to see them and see how I started and it reminds me of how much bigger it has gotten in such a short period of time than I could have imagined. Even though we are still pretty small, it's come a long way.