Rising StarRising Star: Katie Guinn on What it Takes to Make it in Fashion Design

Katie Guinn
Katie Guinn, a Portland fashion designer and founder of the Katie Guinn label.

There’s something brewing in Portland—and it’s not just IPA. Our little city that could is starting to gain a national reputation for fashion design, not in a “we want to be New York” kind of way, but in a style all our own.

But what does it really take to thrive in Portland’s fashion industry? We sat down with Katie Guinn, creator of the Katie Guinn label (recently featured in our 2014 Startup Apparel Gift Guide), to talk about the opportunities and challenges she faces as an up-and-coming apparel designer here in Stumptown.

Here’s more from Katie:

How did you get started in fashion design? I went to the Art Institute of Portland and got my apparel design degree. I have always been an artist, and I always had a passion for clothing. I used to keep a binder with all my favorite models, vogue editorial shots, and celebs on the red carpet. It occurred to me that I could combine my two passions and become a fashion designer. I had no idea what I was getting myself into – I just thought, this would be fun, perfect, my dream come true! Being an educated designer is one thing; being educated on how to thrive as a business is another.

Once I graduated, I realized that starting my own label requires business knowledge that I never learned in school. I’ve learned some things over the years, but it’s a slow process. I make money designing custom garments, often for weddings and special occasions. I’m also a freelance writer on fashion industry topics and do a little bit of art/photography on the side.

If you’re an artist and a creator, you need your art. You can’t survive without it.” (Tweet this.)

Where do you hope to go from here? I’d like to continue doing custom garments but also grow my customer base and connect with my customers more. I feel like people don’t know I’m here. I’d also like to do a small wedding gown collection, which is something I’ve been thinking about for a long time.  I would like to get my ready-to-wear collection of clothing into more stores and sold wholesale or direct-to-consumer through my website. Eventually I’d like to expand beyond Portland as well. Maybe that’s too many directions, but I’ve always been that way! I’m certain many people would say that’s a problem, but I am aware that focusing on one thing at a time is key.

Katie Guinn Sheer Tank
Model Holly Stalder sports Katie’s Sheer Madness Tank from her “Funk Yeah” collection.

What are the most formidable challenges for a fashion designer starting out in Portland? People here talk a lot about buying local, but it’s still a small group of people who actually do that. Most still want to buy their $5 shirts at Old Navy. That said, I do think more people are thinking along the lines of, maybe I should invest in this $60 shirt—it will last longer, it looks fantastic, and a local designer made it. Clothing should be an investment. Our wardrobes consist of the most used items we own.

Sourcing materials, gaining exposure, and getting affordable access to equipment, like industrial sewing machines and digital textile printers are other big challenges. Really, we’re missing a nonprofit incubator that wants to help designers grow and thrive, to start small and grow with us.

What opportunities for fashion designers are unique to Portland? It’s an exciting time. We don’t have the resources we need, but we’re connecting, supporting each other, and banding together to explore our options. Something exciting is certainly right around the corner for us. The fashion design community here is definitely attracting more attention, and consumers are becoming more aware too.

Katie Guinn - Art
In addition to fashion design, Katie also keeps up her art and photography on the side.

How would you characterize fashion design here in Portland? A lot of designers in Portland are artists and make their clothes as art. We don’t just make clothes to make clothes. Everyone has their own aesthetic and message, and in lieu of being competitive are truly supportive of each other. Most Portland based designers are also really focused on craftsmanship and producing high quality pieces.

How does your approach to fashion design set you apart? One thing I focus on is color. A lot of designers are minimalists when it comes to color, and consumers like that more because they can get a piece that will work in their wardrobe and go with anything. But I love color, and I love prints. I almost always incorporate a print into my pieces, and it really does set me apart from most. Also, I love the female body. I make clothes for women, but I like to draw them without clothes, ha. I really understand the different body shapes, and respect them, which is why I enjoy the custom aspect of designing so much. You must focus on one particular body and all its unique character.

Katie Guinn - Runway
Runway models showcase pieces from Katie’s “Funk Yeah” collection.

What’s your advice for an aspiring fashion designer? If you want to work for Nike or Columbia, definitely go to design school and get your BA. But as far as being an independent designer goes, think carefully about the courses you take and make a game plan before enrolling. Get advice from others in the industry, not just from school advisers.

Make sure you take some business classes too. In some cases, the knowledge you gain may ultimately be more important than getting a degree. I’m not saying I regret my education because I don’t. Taking a class like “History of Film” adds to my quality of life, for sure! (And fashion sketching? I’d love to teach that class in a whole new format.) Knowledge is power.

What do you like about being an entrepreneur? If you’re an artist and a creator, you need your art. You can’t survive without it. I worked full-time on warehouse floor for many years, up until last year, and I would still find time to create something. But to have that be my career is really the most satisfying thing. Having a deep passion for something, enough to combine artistic survival with monetary survival is such a blessing, a gift. I thank God and Goddess every day for painting that into my being. (Okay enough sappiness, right?!)

What’s the most challenging thing about being an entrepreneur? Of course, there’s something to be said about going to an 8-5 job, where someone else is managing your priorities for you, and then leaving it there when you leave. When you’re the owner, you have to think of everything. It’s enjoyable and satisfying—I’ve accomplished so many things that I never thought I was capable of—but I need to be diligent about time management. If I get behind, there’s no one to help me catch up. I’m a control freak. I need to know how to do everything myself so I can make it exactly how I envision. I work into the night a lot, and have learned how to survive on very little sleep. But it’s worth it because I get to make my own things and make something that people want and love and that (hopefully) enriches their own life.

Connect with Katie: Website | Facebook | Pinterest | Google+ | Instagram

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