I had the opportunity to speak with couture designer, Kimberlei Ellen. Kimberlei is a graduate from FIT and has created and launched her own line of lingerie and formal wear, Kimberlei Ellen Designs. What Impressed me most about Kimberlei was her passion for designing—she is a true talent and has hand crafted so many beautiful master pieces.
Brianna: What was it that made you decide to specialize in couture designs?
Kimberlei: I think I have always had an appreciation for fashion and art and once I had been accepted into FIT I started to realize exactly what my style was. I took as many courses as I could—I loved learning and couldn’t get enough. I decided to take an extra six classes and complete a certificate in haute couture while earning my bachelor degree in fashion design. I knew that I wanted to create things that were extraordinary. My work is not something that can be mass produced, it takes time and craftsmanship. In Couture we do a lot by hand, it’s not the quickest way but it is the most beautiful. I find a sort of freedom in approaching things with this mindset. It allows me to create one of a kind pieces that evolve during the process of creation. No piece I have ever made has looked the same as the sketch I started with at the beginning. In fact, I rarely ever start with a sketch, I like to start with a shape or silhouette and let the fabric tell me where it wants to go from there.
Brianna: That is so wonderful that you worked so hard and stayed so dedicated to your craft—I am truly impressed. Now, you attended FIT—which is a top school for fashion design, number seventeen in America for design—can you talk about what that was like and the specific program you were involved in there?
Kimberlei: The fashion institute of technology is no joke, it’s a very tough program. In your last two years you have to choose a specialization. I decided to specialize in evening-wear/bridal, my program only accepted eighteen students so it was stressful wondering if I would make the cut. I remember college as being one of the most stressful times in my life, but also one of the best. There were countless nights I would get home from the city at four in the morning only to catch an hour of sleep and head back in at seven. That being said, I always knew how lucky I was to be in such a great program. I tirelessly pushed myself to take as many electives as I could—I wanted to absorb as much knowledge as possible. I went as far as taking nine courses in one semester. I’ve taken courses in leather, tailoring, art history, even a painting class just because I could. I have always been hungry for knowledge.
Brianna: I think that a lot of young people can relate to what it is like to have a dream where the road to achieving it is taxing. You talked about getting in at four am only to have to go back in at seven, catching just a few hours of sleep. It would have been the easiest thing in the world for you to take fewer classes, not do as much—but you kept with it, you were consistent—that must have taken a lot of effort on your part. I think that what you did is very admirable and it is rare to see someone as young as yourself taking on so much. You said that you worked to get your couture license, can tell us about what that process entailed?
Kimberlei: I decided to go for my couture license after my first year at FIT when I realized that evening wear was my true passion. The skills that I have learned from those classes have given my work an edge and opened up so may design possibilities for me. For example, for my thesis I created an evening gown made completely of flowers which I chose to make by hand. Without my couture certificate I would not have known how to make any of those flowers. I cut each petal out by hand using a hot knife on glass, then I placed ostrich feathers, that I hand plucked from the plume, in between each petal to give an airy texture. When I was done, I sewed a Swarovski crystal into the middle to hold it all together. All these small little details that went into each flower took time, patience and a lot of thought.
Brianna: Wow, that is truly incredible. I think that dress may be my favorite piece in your collection. When I first picked up your look—book I was floored by the workmanship you have put into your designs. I think that you really have an eye for detail and it is clear in your breathtaking, elegant designs. While looking through your book I noticed that your designs seem to all have a similar theme, how do you create a cohesive collection?
Kimberlei: All of my collections have a philosophy behind them. You start with an idea and from there you create a journal full of inspiration. I usually create a collage of images, quotes, and fabric that all come together to create a theme. Once I have done that I use that journal as I am sketching. I start by sketching very small “thumbnail” figures and from there I edit out ones that don’t fit or begin to combine ideas and then I draw a cohesive collection full scale. Fashion art is not meant to be technical, it is meant to evoke emotion. When someone looks at my artwork I want them to feel something, I want them to see a bit of the inspiration behind it without explanation.
Brianna: That entire process sounds like it takes patience and focus, I am so inspired by your work ethic and how dedicated you are to your designs. They truly are art—I really liked what you said about how you want your artwork to make an audience, somewhere, feel something. That is what I love so much about fashion, fashion evokes an emotion from people. Can you explain, now, what the design process is like?
Kimberlei: My design process is always evolving. I like to let the fabric tell me what to do. I am very big on trims and lace, so I usually start with a silhouette. I’ll create the base first and then I will step back and start the process of deciding how I want to decorate that base. I will sit in the studio for hours and cut apart and appliqué all my lace by hand. I will make 300 hand cut flowers with Swarovski crystal centers and sew them all in by hand just to create one gown. For me it’s all about the materials, I like to play around and figure out what looks best. I never know exactly how anything is going to look until I am completely done.
Brianna: Wow, that is so inspiring—I can not get over the work and time that goes into what you do. I walk in to a department store and am always comparing the quality of clothes, and now that I know the labor that is involved in creating fashions I am stunned. I never truly appreciated a design or a piece of clothing until now. I have a more fun question now, who are some of your favorite designers?
Kimberlei: When I was a young girl I always remember Betsy Johnson being my favorite designer. As an adult I can say I am always looking at what McQueen is doing, I love John Galliano, and I have been fortunate enough to actually work at Marchesa who’s work will always have a special place in my heart.
Brianna: All designers I am big fans of myself, John Galliano is a favorite of mine as well. One thing that I think is so important for a designer is their look-book. Your look-book is stunning. I love the sheer elegance of it and that you use that theme consistently throughout your work. What went into putting your look book together?
Kimberlei: Putting my look book together was a lot of fun. Choosing which pieces to include was a difficult decision. It was more of a compromise between me and my photographer, she ended up asking me to bring in one of my earlier pieces that I had never even considered and it photographed quite nicely. In the end, after we had rented a space, booked two models, a makeup artist, a hair person, an assistant and a videographer everything came together and we created something beautiful.
Brianna: It is something beautiful. I love everything about it from the theme you chose, to your color palate, to your set. I love how everything you do you put so much work and effort into. It truly does show in your look-book and your designs. I know that you had a runway show, how did you get involved in that?
Kimberlei: I have been involved in a few runway shows and was even fortunate enough to win the Fashion Institutes 2016 runway exhibition show with my lingerie designs. I just like to always keep an open mind and an open ear. If I hear of an opportunity I like to be open to it.
Brianna: Congratulations on the award, that is amazing. You are so young and to have accomplished a great deal already, I think, speaks volumes to how far you will go in this industry. I have one final question for you, what are your aspirations for the future, specifically what you hope to accomplish in this industry?
Kimberlei: My aspirations in the industry would be to create a name for myself making one of a kind creations. I like to think of fashion as moving art. Eventually, I would like to make custom evening-wear, lingerie or costumes. I want to stay true to my process and true to my self while also considering the customer’s wants and needs.