‘Project Runway’ engages Chicago contestant

By Justin Moran

Since its premiere in December, 2004, “Project Runway” has launched successful fashion careers for up-and-coming designers across the nation. Eight years later, the reality show continues in its 11th season, which began on Jan. 24 and features local Chicago talent as well as a new twist on the competition.

Katelyn Pankoke, 23, is a Chicago-based fashion designer whose local bridal line, Elaya Vaughn, helped her land a spot on the current season. Pankoke, who resides with her fiance in Lakeview, is competing against 11 other designers for the opportunity to show at New York Fashion Week.

She said she has always seen “Project Runway” as the next step in her fashion career, but it took three auditions for her to achieve this goal. According to her, she was first turned away for being 10 days short of the minimum age of 21, a requirement she had hoped producers would overlook. Her second audition was also unsuccessful because the judges wanted to see more growth from such a young designer, she said. A self-proclaimed old soul, Pankoke rejected this advice and gave it another shot, which finally secured her position in the top 16.

Pankoke has joined Project Runway at a transitional time for the show’s structure. This season, contestants will work in teams every week.

However, Pankoke said she prefers designing independently, which naturally made working with teammates more difficult.

“Although it was challenging, working in teams ended up teaching me a lot,” Pankoke said. “It was kind of like getting to play ‘Survivor’ and ‘Project Runway’ all in one.”

While her training is in ready-to-wear design, Pankoke discovered her niche in bridal wear when she launched her Elaya Vaughn line in 2010. She said a designer must be versatile in all modes of apparel, but she definitely considers herself a bridal designer.

“[Bridal design] is basically taking a ready-to-wear idea and just blowing it up into something over-the-top and beautiful,” she said.

Unlike modern street wear, wedding gowns appeal to her more whimsical interests, she said, recalling her college days at Florida State University when she spent time sewing Disney princess costumes in her dorm, wearing Bambi underwear and singing “Circle of Life” at the top of her lungs.

In addition to Disney characters, Pankoke is inspired by designers Marchesa and Alexander McQueen. In particular, she said Grace Kelly’s roles in old Alfred Hitchcock films have guided her creative spirit.

“[Grace Kelly] is just so strong and feminine, and for me that’s the best combination,” Pankoke said.

Pankoke ultimately defines her work as a balance between artistry and femininity.

“I’m an artist, first and foremost,” Pankoke said. “What I like to do is use my art to sculpt on the female form and really enhance what they were born with.”

Pankoke is not the first Chicago fashion designer to appear on “Project Runway.”

Local designer Shernett Swaby, 35, made it to the top five during the first season of “Project Runway Canada” in 2007.

Although she feels her talent was properly showcased, Swaby said she fell short on making dramatic TV for viewers. Nonetheless, she is glad she competed on the show. Though her business did not see a major spike in sales, she noticed that more people began to recognize her. She said contestants who design affordable apparel and appeal to the mass media have the greatest success after the show airs.

For Pankoke’s run on “Project Runway,” Swaby suggested she “go crazy and scratch some eyes out.”

Local designer Nora del Busto, 38, also offered Pankoke advice, asserting that the most successful contestants maintain a very specific and unique point-of-view throughout the season.

“You can’t please everybody,” Busto said.

While designing in teams will likely contribute dramatic sparks to the show, Pankoke said the added twist doesn’t detract from “Project Runway’s” hard-working cast.

“You’re going to see some of the most passionate designers,” she said.

“Project Runway” airs on Lifetime Thursdays at 8 p.m. For more information, visit MyLifetime.com/Shows/Project-Runway.