Stay true to yourself. The fashion world will always have a designer or look of the moment, and while we all want to be recognized as the next “it” thing, it’s not a sustainable title. Authenticity goes a long way in this industry, and I believe that in order to create a timeless brand you have to embrace your individuality and lean into your unique point of view.
I had the pleasure of interviewing Catherine Kowalski, founder and designer of Catherine Kowalski Bridal, a bridal couture brand for a new generation of brides. Catherine is shaking up the bridal couture industry by offering gowns that are wholly designed and manufactured in the Garment District of New York City and in true to U.S. sizes. Her gowns have been featured in The Knot, Brides online, Wedding Chicks, and WeddingWire, and Catherine’s story has been featured on Inspired By This.
Thank you so much for doing this with us! What is your “backstory”?
I was born and raised in San Francisco, California and was just 10 years old when I knew I would one day have my own bridal line. One day something just clicked for me, and from that moment on, I knew designing wedding gowns was my life’s purpose. At 17, I traded in the west coast for the east to attend the Parsons School of Design in New York City, and have called it home since.
After graduating from Parsons with a BFA in Fashion Design, I started working one-on-one with brides to design their custom wedding gowns. It was primarily as a side hustle in the beginning, as I was working full time as a designer at various companies in the fashion industry. While I was short on time and space — I was doing everything soup to nuts out of my tiny New York City apartment — I loved every minute of it. My time working at different companies in the fashion world was extremely important to me, as I not only learned firsthand just what it would take to start my own company, but the type of company I wanted to create.
I founded Catherine Kowalski Bridal in 2016 and debuted my first collection in April of the year following at The Knot Couture Show. My style has been described as timeless with a touch of the unexpected, and my designs are inspired by the glamour and grace of Hollywood’s Golden Age. I’ve released three collections in total so far, and I am currently working on my fourth for Spring 2019, which will debut in October during Bridal Fashion Week. The collection has been largely influenced by the late actress Carole Lombard. You can find my gowns at independently owned bridal shops across the country, including Serendipity Bridal in Austin, Texas and Angela’s Bridal in Albany, New York.
Why did you found your company?
Out of all the things a woman wears over the course of her lifetime, her wedding gown is one of the most — if not the most — important. It is a true honor to create something that will be worn on one of the most special days of her life.
What is it about the work you’re doing that’s disruptive?
My brand speaks to a new generation of brides, who demand more than just a beautiful gown. When I launched, I wanted to ensure that my mission and values aligned with that of my audience. While I could speak to a plethora of ways that I believe we’re disrupting the bridal couture industry, three are the most important to me.
The first is that all of my gowns are produced in the Garment District of New York City. Having attended Parsons, which was located in the heart of the Garment District on 40th St and 7th Avenue, I saw it struggling to survive as more and more designers chose to produce their goods overseas. I knew that I had to play a part in keeping the Garment District alive, and I could do it through the decision to manufacture all of my gowns there.
Second, all of my gowns are in true to U.S. sizes. Like many women, I have struggled with body dysmorphia for most of my life, so I feel as if I have a duty to size my gowns this way. The bridal couture industry is notorious for its small sizes, and I wholeheartedly believe that making a bride wear a gown that is one to three sizes larger than their ‘normal’ size doesn’t give them the confidence they need on one of the most important days of their lives.
Lastly, my company is 100% women run and operated. I’m a champion of the women for women movement, as I believe that together we can achieve more. I believe in collaboration over competition and consider it a true honor to work alongside hardworking, talented women.
We all need a little help along the journey — who have been some of your mentors?
I am eternally grateful for all who have believed in me and encouraged me to forge my own path, especially my parents.
I’m also particularly thankful for my Aunt Judi, who recognized my desire to become a designer early on. She challenged me to have an opinion, and to share it with the world. She was integral in my development as an artist.
Sister Genemarie Beegan, my high school art teacher, recognized my passion for all forms of art, most specifically fashion design, and challenged me in ways that pushed me to grow. She did everything in her power to set me up for success.
Caroline Simonelli, my professor at Parsons, helped me to develop my viewpoint as a designer throughout my senior year. She urged me to follow my passion for bridal and guided me to become the kind of designer I had always dreamt of being, even if it meant breaking the rules.
How are you going to shake things up next?
We’re taking our sizing to the next level by catering to all body types and shapes. I recently worked with a bride that thought she would never be able to find a dress that would fit her body the way she wanted while satisfying her needs for style. While we already design in true to U.S. sizes, this experience made me realize that we can do more. I’m approaching my designs differently now, and with a broader customer base in mind.
Can you share 3 of the best words of advice you’ve gotten along your journey? Please give a story or example for each.
1. Learn to delegate. Doing so is the difference between failure and success. As with most entrepreneurs, I often struggle with control and perfectionism. But as my company has grown, I’ve learned that the desire to control everything can be debilitating. I have found it’s better to strive for excellence, not perfection.
2. Stay true to yourself. The fashion world will always have a designer or look of the moment, and while we all want to be recognized as the next “it” thing, it’s not a sustainable title. Authenticity goes a long way in this industry, and I believe that in order to create a timeless brand you have to embrace your individuality and lean into your unique point of view.
3. Measure twice, cut once. It’s the first thing you learn in design school, and something I carry with me every day. Hem lines can always be taken up, but they cannot grow.
What’s a book/podcast/talk that’s had a deep impact on your thinking? Share a story with us.
Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie’s We Should All Be Feminists impacted me deeply. Adapted from her TEDx of the same name, she eloquently argues the need for a new definition of feminism in today’s world, one that is far more inclusionary and accepting than in the past. The way she breaks down stereotypes associated with the term “feminism,” and implores the reader to reexamine their thoughts and ideas spoke to me. Her book reinforced my decision to found a fully woman owned and run business, so to give other women a platform in which they can succeed.
Some of the biggest names in Business, VC funding, Sports, and Entertainment read this column. Is there a person in the world, or in the US whom you would love to have a private breakfast or lunch with, and why? He or she might see this. 🙂
I’ve been in awe of Iris Apfel for as long as I can remember. She has an inherent sense of self unlike anyone else which I admire. She approaches the world with a bravery that I aspire to achieve. She created an identity that is truly iconic, and that’s something that I hope to do myself.
How can our readers follow you on social media?
Thank you for joining us!