07 January 2010

Katie Ermilio: Rising Designer

The Philadelphia Inquirer

The fabrics Katie Ermilio used in her spring 2010 collection are so soft the pieces appear limp on a rack of hangers in the family's Haverford showroom.

But don't let the languid pieces fool you.

She shows the same meticulous attention to detail as her dad, Bob, an internationally renowned fixture in the world of equestrian tailoring.

For example, a tomato red, silk-faille Katie Ermilio pencil skirt features a 7-inch, ruffled hem. The matching top is equally exquisite with a seductive open back Ermilio trimmed with the wavy ruffle.

It's the personal dedication to classic couture that has helped Ermilio begin to gain notice among New York fashion editors and on the red carpet. She's also turning into a darling of women on the Main Line who spend big and take their fashion seriously.

This kind of fashion is a completely different art form," Ermilio said from her father's Haverford studio recently. She's just 24, but as the fourth generation of a family steeped in fashion, she is sartorially wise beyond her years. "I want to translate it as best as I can to prêt-à-porter [ready-to-wear] garments."

In the post-recession fashion world, boutiques and specialty department stores are slow to stock sales floors with work by young designers. But because of that, it's an important time for them to continue to build their foundation.

Ermilio is doing just that. In October, she secured a coveted editorial mention in Women's Wear Daily. Her Spring 2010 presentation - a private showing in her New York studio/apartment in September - was attended by fashion editors from Harper's Bazaar, Glamour and Vogue magazines. Next month during Fashion Week, she'll show her fall 2010 collection there as well.

Two of Ermilio's dresses were photographed on the red carpet during the 2008 awards season: a backless coral sheath for actress Autumn Reeser and a smart cocktail dress donned by Julianne Hough of Dancing With the Stars.

Last January, Washington Post fashion columnist Robin Givhan chose Ermilio's sketch of a sleeveless forest-green gown as the winner of the paper's competition for Michelle Obama's Inaugural gown.

"The silhouette flatters a curvy figure," Givhan wrote "And the style is both youthful and grand. But it's the color that makes me applaud."

But, most importantly, it's Ermilio's clean, architectural look and couture flourishes that have won over the women who can afford to spend thousands of dollars a season on their wardrobe. (An Ermilio piece ranges from $750 to $4,200.)

These women, most of whom define their sense of style as conservative with a twist, are more than stealth shoppers; they have the power to create a mystique around a clothier powerful enough to launch a career - as long as you get their express permission to mention names.

"Her designs are one-of-a-kind, and that's really great when you want to go to an event and stand out," said client Paula Yudenfriend Green of Haverford.

At last count, Ermilio had about 50 clients in New York, Connecticut and Florida, with about 20 in the Philadelphia area. She spent most of the holiday season completing fittings and sketching ballgowns for the crowd. Two of her gowns may show up at this month's Academy Ball, the annual gala and fund-raiser at the Academy of Music.

Ermilio, who originally wanted to be a journalist, can't deny that fashion is in her blood.

Her great-grandfather Anthony Ermilio ran a bustling tailor shop in Center City from the late 1800s through the 1920s. He was known for his use of European fabrics.

The shop moved to the Main Line after World War II. In the 1950s, her grandfather Arthur Ermilio designed the first Masters golf tournament jacket, creating the iconic green. He also designed President Dwight D. Eisenhower's World War II bomber jacket and Princess Grace Kelly's riding pants. Both Arthur Ermilio and Katie's father, Bob, dressed former President Gerald Ford.

"They never talk about who they dressed," Ermilio said. "The only reason we know [my grandfather] designed the Masters jacket is because of a handwritten letter. It just wasn't polite. We come from a long line of that tradition."

It's late December and Ermilio is fitting a shrunken jacket with a Peter Pan collar on Debra Guezlo of Paoli. Guezlo's husband, Allen, is a noted historian and the head of the Civil War Department at Gettysburg College.

After the fitting, Ermilio, wearing Phillip Lim trousers, sips a family favorite - Earl Grey tea - and tells her story.

She spent her Saturdays in the family's Haverford and Paoli locations. As a child, she dabbled in design. The first dress she made for herself was a charmeuse baby-doll dress in sea-foam green that she wore to her eighth-grade dance.

In 2006, she snagged an internship with fashion designer Tracy Reese. She landed a marketing internship at Women's Wear Daily, and, the following year, she designed a cream wool-crepe sheath with a low-scooped back that she wore to an interview for an internship with Vogue magazine. She got the job.

She worked for Vogue for a year, all the while designing on the side. In 2008, she graduated from New York University with a degree in visual culture and landed a job as a public-relations assistant in Teen Vogue. Her father sold her designs from his store and connected her with clients. After working the equivalent of two full-time jobs for over a year, she decided to open her own business with a financial boost from her parents.

Katie Ermilio was born.

"I thought about what I wanted to be doing 10 years from now," Ermilio said. "Designing is something that I was meant to do."

Sales vary. Some months she may sell two pieces for upward of $3,000 to $4,000. Other months, she may sell several pieces at $750. Right now, she says, everything is handmade and designed to fit each client's individual needs.

Ultimately, Ermilio wants to establish a ready-to-wear line sold in specialty boutiques and high-end department stores as well as offer her clients couture services.

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