Katharine Polk: Embracing Fashion Diversity

CW: Body image discussion, ED

Designer Katharine Polk is part of the fashion industry’s collective move to embrace more diverse body types.

Growing up in Malibu, California, Katharine Polk always thought she would ride horses professionally. Instead, her father urged her to go into a more practical direction: art school. Upon graduating from California's Fashion Institute of Design and Merchandising, Polk moved to New York City to become an assistant Couture Designer at the mega fashion house, Badgley Mischka. She then spent a few years styling celebrities before, in 2012, starting her own label, Houghton—so named for Katharine Houghton Hepburn.

Polk: It's timeless, but it's modern. It is sexy without being revealing. It's comfortable.

And it's comfortable for more than just those who can fit into a size zero. Polk is part of the fashion industry's collective move to embrace more realistic body types.

Polk: I've made dresses for super models, and I've made dresses for size 20. Everybody needs to be served and accommodated.

But this commitment to inclusivity is more than just good business. For Polk, it's personal. In 2016, she penned an article for Harper's Bazaar, sharing her decade-long struggle with an eating disorder. She says her bold choice to come out was fairly straightforward.

Polk: If I wasn't able to speak about what I went through, it would feel a little fake for me. I would be advocating for something without being honest about it.

And in this age of the private brand, Polk's choice to blur the line between her private and professional lives was strategic, like many of her choices thus far. Houghton made its New York debut in 2012. Despite the all ivory color palette, Polk decided against the obvious move of showing at Bridal Fashion Week. Instead, she opted for Ready-to-Wear Week, where her collection stood out, and captured the critics' imaginations.

Polk: The clothes would have never changed. It was purely just a matter of timing of being shown in February versus April, which is stupid, if you think about it. But...

AJC: But it made a difference.

Polk: It made a difference, and they discovered it as a cool, ready-to-wear collection that everyone could get married in.

AJC: But typically, I mean, both things happen, right? People do wear this as both bridal...

Polk: Absolutely.

AJC: ...and non bridal.

Polk: Absolutely, and that was always the concept, and my idea of the brand. Typically, unless you're lucky, you pick one look, and that look says a lot about you. It's a lot of pressure to kind of say, like, "What one outfit is gonna represent me?" It's an honor to be part of that day, and have a girl pick, and say like, "This is my look, and this dress represents me."

AJC: And, "This is who I am."

Polk: Yeah.

For Katharine Polk, staying ahead in an industry where good ideas spread fast requires constant vigilance.

AJC: Have you seen your stuff ripped off?

Polk: Yes.

AJC: They say imitation is the highest form of flattery. It's also the thing that's most likely to anger you greatly.

Polk: It is. I mean, we find it daily, but, like, I mean, you just kinda have to take the attitude, like, we just have to do better. I know that my patterns are better, our construction is better, and our customer will come to us for the real thing.

AJC: Right, the original version.

Polk: I just have to keep staying, you know, five steps ahead, and create the next trend, or the next better concept, and the next better design.

In truth, clothes are as much about how you feel as how you look. And Polk wants you to feel hot.

Polk: I want someone to put on a garment and feel sexy in it. A garment just isn't sexy. It's more of a way of being, and a way of feeling, and more of a spirit.

A spirit that Katharine Polk is chasing with every bit of leather and lace that she can find.


For more from Katharine Polk, visit: https://houghtonnyc.com/