Kate Walz's fashion career started with a pair of jeans. Using her mom's cookie cutters as stencils, with copious amounts of glitter, she converted the plain denim into high fashion (by preteen standards, anyway). They were a project for 4-H — the Decorate your Duds category — and they won the grand champion prize at the Washington County Fair. She was 8 years old.
Kate quickly moved on to more complicated projects — following patterns, making simple garments. Within a few years, she was creating her own patterns, and by the time she was 12, she was selling her tutu-inspired skirts at a downtown boutique and developing her first line for Omaha Fashion Week. She'll participate for the seventh time in the biannual event later on this winter.
But before that, the 16-year-old will take part in the biggest fashion event of her life thus far.
A few months ago, out of the blue, her mom received a Facebook message inviting Kate to participate in a new designer showcase during New York Fashion Week in February.
To Walz, the timing felt perfect. She had already begun developing a 10-piece collection for Omaha Fashion Week that takes its inspiration from New York in the 1960s.
The chance to show the collection in the city that inspired it felt serendipitous, Walz said. She and her mom, Jackie Walz, who also manages her growing career, decided by the day's end to pay the $300 registration fee, and the two began planning a mother-daughter trip to New York.
The collection Walz will show on Feb. 8 at the W Hotel in Manhattan is mostly evening wear — cocktail dresses and ball gowns in red, champagne and black and made from tulle, organza, silk satin and faux leather. She's also designing coordinating outerwear in wool crepe for some of the looks. The finale piece features a black, strapless, faux-leather bodice and full red organza skirt adorned with a giant flower at one hip. Kate and her mom both think it's the best gown she's designed so far.
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The Millard North sophomore also will show 20 pieces from her two most recent Omaha Fashion Week collections, and she's donating yet another dress for a liver cancer research fundraiser the night before her show.
“She's a very creative young lady for her age,” said Wayne Shields, founder and chief creative director for Plitzs New York City Fashion Week, which puts on two shows for emerging designers in New York each year. The Plitzs shows are separate from the much larger (and much more costly) Mercedes-Benz shows, but they're held at the same time, when New York is at the very center of the fashion world.
The Plitzs fashion week events were founded in 2004 to give young or otherwise emerging designers an affordable way to show their designs in New York City, Shields said. Some designers apply for one of the 36 spots in each show, and Shields seeks out others. A member of the Plitzs PR team ran across Kate's Facebook page and showed her work to Shields.
The cohesiveness of her collections, as well as the aesthetic appeal and craftsmanship of her work, so impressed him that he allowed Kate to skip the application process.
It's rare, he said, for a teenager to possess all three of those attributes.
Of course, at this point, Walz has been sewing for half of her life, and she has her creative process down to a science. Months before a collection is set to hit the runway, she sketches designs. Once she has a collection, she orders fabric swatches from Mood, the famous New York City fabric store. She picks fabrics for each look, refines her sketches, orders her materials and begins making patterns.
Once the fabric is in, she gets to work, cramming in cutting, pinning, sewing, ironing and steaming between school, dance classes and hanging out with her friends. Occasionally, design and school events overlap. Kate once signed on to show a collection in a charity fashion show, only to realize it was on the same day as Millard North's homecoming dance. Kate went to the dance (in a dress she had made specially for the occasion), and her mom ran the show.
But that doesn't happen too often.
All in all, Kate guesses she spends about four months on each collection. Most of her work takes place in her mom's living room, where her sewing machine, dress form, rack and piles of fabric occupy an entire corner.
While Kate designed and made patterns for all of the pieces she'll take to New York, the busy teen has had some help for this show. Yolanda Diaz, a childrenswear designer who has shown several collections at Omaha Fashion Week, has helped out with the sewing, Jackie said. Other Omaha designers have offered advice and kind words.
“I think Omaha is a really special place, because that's just the way we are,” said Brook Hudson, producer of Omaha Fashion Week.
Hudson, who remembers well Kate's first collection at Omaha Fashion Week in 2010, said it was incredible to watch Kate's work evolve from tutus to dramatic evening wear over the course of just a few years.
“We're very, very proud of her,” Hudson said. “She's worked hard, and she deserves it.”
As her collections have become more ambitious, Kate has become a bit of a celebrity. Last year, she flew to New York to film a pilot for a television show about young fashion designers. The show never got off the ground, but it did introduce Kate to the organizers of a fashion summer camp she had long dreamed of attending. They invited her this summer to act as sort of a camp counselor, her mom said.
And when Kate started high school last year, many of the girls she now counts among her friends already knew who she was via stories in the local media.
They've become her cheering squad, Kate said, attending her shows and helping out when she needs it.
“Some of my friends model for me, if I need a last-minute model,” Kate said.
Kate hopes that her fashion experience is enough to land her a spot at either the Parsons School of Design or the Fashion Institute of Technology, both in New York City. And before she's done with (or has even started) college, she'd like to start having some of her designs manufactured and available for purchase in brick-and-mortar stores and online shops.
But probably not the tutus she started with.
In the years she's been designing, her styles have matured, and most of her looks now are vintage-inspired and classic. To reflect that, she's changed the name of her label from “Just Because by Kate Walz,” to simply “Kate Walz.”
Kate's own look has matured, too — she wears a lot of black, though during her shows she often wears a vintage dress handed down by her grandmother. For her show during Omaha Fashion Week last August, she wore her grandmother's pale blue wedding dress, much to Grandma's delight.
Her grandmother, who gave her a vintage navy dress for the New York show, may well be the root of Kate's love for fashion in the first place.
“I get a lot of my style inspiration from her,” Kate said.
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