Recently I completed an interview with stunning British ex-pat Kato, who owns and operates Steampunk Couture, a company that as you would expect, deals in everything steampunk, and produces amazing items of unrivalled quality. Interest in the steampunk style is skyrocketing at the moment, and it is easy to see why when you come across true high quality authentic examples of the fashion. It’s also easy to see the attraction when the creator of such pieces is a beautiful model in her own right, who talks so eloquently about her craft. I was so enthralled by Kato’s answers that I immediately became a steampunk convert, and wanted to know as much as I could about the style and it’s origins. Kato is an impassioned and immensely talented designer, whose forays into modelling are as captivating as the clothes she produces. For all fans of the steampunk style, and of creativity and beautiful productions, I bring you my interview with the unstoppable Kato. She’s a lady that gave so generously of her time amidst a busy schedule, providing me and us with a really gripping and entertaining interview. She’s also a fellow native of Wales, a fact that I just had to ask her about at the start of our interview. Enjoy…
You’ll have to forgive my self-indulgence, but I like you, was born and bred in Wales and love talking about the place. You only emigrated to the US in 2007. Can you briefly talk about growing up in Wales, and your thoughts and feelings about the country?
As a young child, I loved it. My family lived way out in the sticks so I had tons of room to play and roam. Once I hit my teens, I felt too removed from the world so wanted to get away and move to the City. I emigrated to Los Angeles, California, and quickly realized that I’m a total country bumpkin at heart and not an urbanite in the slightest. I love everything about Wales and am super proud of my country. I miss it a lot.
What’s it like being a Welsh girl in Hollywood? Do you still have the accent, and how does it go down over there?
It’s a sad fact, but most Californians don’t seem to know where Wales is. I get these puzzled looks when I tell them where I’m from, and then they shyly ask where it is. So I gave up saying “Wales” and just use “I’m from the UK/I’m from England.” Sometimes you’ll get someone who knows and they just shriek something about Catherine Zeta Jones and “do I know her?” etc. Lol
Being Welsh in Hollywood is cool…because no one else is Welsh. I have something special about me now that I don’t back home. Ha-ha. Yep. I still have the accent. Though apparently I sound like an odd English/American hybrid to my family.
You started off making couture clothing from your kitchen table. What was it that made you begin this incredible journey in the first place?
I’d been designing in this certain style that I had no set name for, for many years, until I was introduced to the term “steampunk” by the only other steampunk-sporting people at the time (Abney Park). Then when I emigrated to the US, I had steady work that allowed me the freedom and time to pursue my career in fashion design, so I learned to sew and focussed on starting the world’s first steampunk clothing company.
After reading about you it seems as though “steampunk” wasn’t a style you chose to work within. Rather a friend branded your style as such. Where do you think your inspirations came from in those early years?
Mad Max and Tank girl. I watched the films over and over and collected the comics. I was a little goth at heart and obsessed with customizing and creating new garments in this weird Post Apocalyptic meets Harajuku style. But I lived in and around Victoriana and was heavily influenced by its beauty. That’s the best thing about the UK in my opinion. SO much history and 1900s style that we preserve. I grew up in this gorgeous, 350-year-old house that my folks still live in today, and they decorated it traditionally and encouraged my love for this charming style.
What does the phrase “steampunk” mean to you?
I immediately see fashion before I think of everything else steampunk encompasses, so to me It’s basically taking the Victorian style and dumping it in the modern day. Wearing your beautiful bustle dress with some raggedy, fingerless leather gloves and spraying your hair up into a mohawk. That’s the punk part.
Are there any “steampunk” guidelines or conventions you think about when making a garment?
Nope. I’m known for pushing the boundaries, crossing the lines and breaking the steampunk rules set by people that now hate me for it. Ha-ha. I have recently (this year) attempted to design according to seasons, but I still end up making some weird thing that came to me in the middle of the night.
It seems important to you that your clothing is not only seen as costume, but every-day wear. Does this make your process, materials or the kind of pieces you can produce, differ at all?
Yes. I try to steer clear of an outfit or garment becoming too theatrical and costumie in the fabrics I use and its complexity. I want people to be comfortable and cool if they’re going to wear it out to a Steampunk club night or trapes around ComiCon all day. You need to be able to put it on and take it off without needing someone to help you and to be able to throw it in the washing machine at the end of the day.
You have definitely moved on from working out of your kitchen. What is your workspace like now, and how many people work with you?
I turned the master bedroom in my house into my studio and decorated it all shabby chic style. Lots of lace and cream but beat-up, worn out furniture and second-hand rugs. Everything serves a purpose as storage etc as well as looking lovely and also doubling as a photo shoot backdrop. I have three members of staff working for me now. I have an assistant, another seamstress and a photographer/prop-builder/videographer.
There is a real sense of drama in the clothes you produce. Have you ever been approached to work in the film and TV industry?
Project Runway bug me every year. It’s very flattering, but I’m quite anti-television show. I have not watched TV for over 6 years. I have been approached to work on costumes for films but nothing major and it’s not really of interest to me because I’m not excited about working to someone else’s brief.
You utilise very different materials in fantastic ways within your work. Is it a trial and error process when it comes to finding the perfect material for an outfit or accessory?
It was at the beginning, but you learn fabric contents, what works, what shrinks, what will and won’t dye and you begin to know exactly what fabric you’re going to make a new garment out of before you’ve gone hunting for it. But sometimes the fabric will inspire the design. I’ll stumble across something beautiful in the fabric store and it sparks a ton of ideas.
You are an exquisitely beautiful model as well as a talented artist and designer. Would you say you are an extrovert, or has the modelling side of things just been a necessity?
Thank you! I never considered myself a model, but worked with a couple of great photographers back in 2004 and 05 , then modelled my own designs early on in order to save some money not having to hire other models. Those photos got around and I suddenly had a lot of modelling gigs booked. I juggled Steampunk Couture and modelling until about two years ago when I had to choose one or the other. I focussed on Steampunk Couture up until last week, when I began modelling again and shooting photo sets for a re-launch of my modelling portfolio thisiskato.com and a very special new site called SteamGirl.com set for launch in the New Year. Now that I have some help with Steampunk Couture, I’m able to juggle both again.
It’s important to realise you not only produce steampunk clothing, but a wide range of Victorian, period, sci fi, and more traditional everyday garments. Everything has the signature Kato quality and individuality, and the clothing is simply gorgeous and offers something that isn’t out there anywhere else. Are there any styles or particular genres of fashion you would like to branch out into, or do you feel you can explore all elements within your current style?
I felt that I’d pigeon-holed myself with the name Steampunk Couture and that I had to keep to a steampunk style regardless of which direction my tastes moved, so this is why you see some of my work looking very traditional or sci-fi. I would like to move more in to the futuristic, sleeker side of fashion and bring out some show-stopping, utterly unique in every stitch, designs but keep it wearable. Stay tuned!
The make-up your models wear is very bold and marries extremely well with your pieces. Who does the make-up when you shoot?
I do. Except for Cassie Meder. She knows my signature style and is made up and ready before the shoot begins. Gotta love models that do their own makeup! But yes, makeup was something I just got thrown head-first into doing as I had no other choice. I was asked to take care of the styling for the Dr.Steel cast and performers when I first moved to the US, so got some real practice there and makeup is a piece of cake for me now. I’m in the process of filming some hair and makeup tutorials at the moment by popular demand.
Do the stylistic choices and flair present in all your clothes infiltrate into other elements of your life? For instance, what is the décor like in your home?
I’m renting the house I live in right now, but I pay an extra $50 a month in order to do whatever the hell I want with it! So every room is a live-in set from a grand Victorian-style, from open living room/dining room and tea room to a Pirate cabin to a laboratory. I used to build sets for TV and film so am a dab hand with a power tool and also know how to make something look a million bucks on a shoe string budget. I gave myself three months to complete my house when I moved in this year, but it ended up taking over five. Thankfully it’s finished now and I’ve been able to utilize each room as a backdrop for my work and still have rooms and corners to shoot in.
Where would you like to take your work in the future?
I actually ask myself this all the time. Do I want to grow it to an enormous stage where I’m making enough money to grow it in whatever direction I want but am miserable with stress and responsibility for years in the process? Or do I take it to a place where it keeps me financially comfortable and gives me the weekends off? All I know is that things have progressed in a wonderful direction since I began simply listening to my gut and so I’ll just keep doing what I love - creating - and see where it takes me.
Are there any pieces or lines coming up that you can tell us about?
The Fall/Winter collection is a month late this year due to personal health reasons and so I’m going to extend its release and keep unleashing new designs every week for the next 7 months. It’s a huge undertaking, but a really fun one. I think I might release a 2012 collection next year as opposed to 4 seasonals. It’s going to be my biggest, weirdest collection yet.
I would like to thank Kato massively for her time and efforts. I understand she didn’t feel 100% during the lead up to our interview, and I wish her a speedy recovery, and hope she’s feeling a lot better now. I think you’ll all agree that this is a true exponent of the steampunk ethos, and it’s plain to see that her focus and determination is serving her very well. I hope you’ll all visit Kato’s many sites and media outlets, and support this remarkable woman. Thanks.
All pictures for this piece were provided or sanctioned my Kato herself, and they are outstanding!