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Vickroy: ‘Project Runway’ designer sells bridal gowns at Frankfort boutique

Katelyn Pankoke contestant Seas11 'Project Runway' her home studio Chicago Thursday January 17 2013. | Brett Roseman~Sun-Times Media

Katelyn Pankoke, a contestant on Season 11 of "Project Runway," at her home studio in Chicago Thursday, January 17, 2013. | Brett Roseman~Sun-Times Media

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Updated: February 25, 2013 6:12AM



Katelyn Pankoke hates group projects.

Having to compromise, having to carry the slackers, having to play that psychological game of getting people to like you so they don’t throw you under the bus.

“I’m not used to interacting with my own kind,” said Pankoke, a Lincoln Park fashion designer whose Elaya Vaughn line of bridal gowns is sold at Fiancee Couture, 53 Old Frankfort Way, Frankfort.

So imagine Pankoke’s surprise when she learned her opportunity to compete on Season 11 of “Project Runway” came with a big caveat: For the first time in the history of the popular reality TV show, the designers would be working in teams.

“Ugh,” Pankoke recalled saying. “I thought, ‘This changes everything.’ We’re all big personalities and now we’re all going to be fighting to show our fashions, to get our design aesthetic across.”

In addition to having to create fabulous wearable art under the watchful eyes of judges Heidi Klum, Nina Garcia and newcomer Zac Posen, the contestants had to learn how to get along with each other, a skill that Pankoke admits doesn’t always come easy to artists who are, by nature, accustomed to focusing on their visions.

“I learned so much about how crucial it is to make friends and alliances in this industry,” she said. “That wasn’t something I was expecting.”

Also for the first time, “Project Runway” designers were dispatched to different European cities. When Pankoke learned she was headed to Paris, she cried with joy.

“I thought I’d be 30 or 40 before I got to Paris,” the 23-year-old Florida native said. “But I don’t speak French. I can only count to 3 in French, so I ordered a lot of things in increments of three.”

Pankoke, one of 16 contestants in Season 11, which premieres at 8 p.m. Thursday on cable’s Lifetime network, isn’t allowed to say who won the $100,000 from L’Oreal Paris to start their own line, a fashion spread in Marie Claire magazine, a 2013 Lexus GS 350 and a $50,000 technology suite by HP and Intel, plus the opportunity to design and sell an exclusive collection at Lord & Taylor.

She’s also not sure how she’ll be portrayed in the reality series.

“I saw a commercial in which I refer to these other designers as ‘three bitches,’ ” she said, chuckling. “There’ll be a lot of drama, but also a lot of passion. This will be a very interesting season.”

Pankoke taught herself to sew nearly 10 years ago, about the time she started watching “Project Runway.”

For her 14th birthday, she made her favorite Disney character’s costume and wore the blue and white pinafore dress that Belle made famous in “Beauty and the Beast” to Disney’s Magic Kingdom, where she was promptly denied admission.

“They said impersonating a character was not allowed, that you had to be under age 12 to dress like one of the princesses,” she recalled.

Crushed, Pankoke began to cry, setting off a chain reaction among other young princess wannabes.

“Little girls were asking, ‘Mommy, why is Belle crying?’ ” she said.

Finally, park officials relented and let her in. She proudly wore her creation on several rides, including Space Mountain.

Since then, Pankoke only wears the Belle and Cinderella ball gowns she has since made to her favorite theme park on Halloween when costumed adults are welcome.

Today, Pankoke, who graduated from Florida State University, says her time is consumed by her line of bridal gowns, which is marketed to working women who are independent and have a solid fashion sense. Her price point is higher than, say, David’s Bridal, but lower than Vera Wang. And because all of her gowns are made in the Chicago area, Pankoke said she can accommodate custom orders.

Trending big this year in bridal fashion, she said, are lace, color and prints.

“Bridal fashion is turning away from tradition and becoming more trendy. It’s changing as fast as the rest of the fashion industry,” she said.

Among the dresses she’ll be designing this year is her own. Her fiance, Zach Aberman, a market research analyst, helps her sort through the business end of things.

Two years ago, Pankoke was nearing graduation and applying for job after job.

“No one was hiring,” she said. “I realized then that it’s not how talented you are, it’s about who you know.”

She’d also applied and was turned down for Season 9 of Project Runway.

“I had to move back home,” she said. “I was pretty depressed.”

That’s when Aberman landed a job in Chicago. The childhood sweethearts headed north.

A few months later, Pankoke was leaving for the six-week filming of Season 11, which also features guest appearances by Bette Midler, Susan Sarandon and Miranda Lambert.

This season, Posen fills in for Michael Kors.

“As much as I admire Michael Kors, I was really scared to be on the receiving end of his metaphors,” Pankoke said.

As expected, Tim Gunn was amazing, she said.

“He knew all of our names by the first episode,” she said. “He’s really so sincere. He really wants you to learn.”

As if competing ’round the clock with other artists isn’t stressful enough, Pankoke said being cut off from the rest of the world was really tough.

“No family, no friends, no cell phones, no Internet,” she said. To boot, she added, the participants are miked and on camera all day long.

“It was not as easy as I thought it would be,” she said.

Nevertheless, she came away feeling wiser, more confident and with some lifelong friends.

“I learned I’m capable of so much more than I give myself credit for,” she said. “Humans are capable of a lot.”



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