Kate Barton’s Futuristic World of Optical Illusion

Kate Barton’s Futuristic World of Optical Illusion

Story by Angelina Cantú
Jun 17, 2024

Kate Barton is a culmination of happy accidents.

The 28-year-old designer and 2024 CFDA Vogue Fashion Fund finalist is a refreshing addition to the industry with her unique materials and avant-garde silhouettes. From glass handbags to magnetic leather corsets, Barton is pushing the limit to what we consider everyday pieces. The award-winning designer is charting her own path with conscientious design processes that explore wearable art.

PAPER sat down with Barton to discuss how she got her start and what’s next for the young designer.

I want to start from the very beginning, tell me about your upbringing as a triplet.

I was born and raised in Kansas City. Growing up as a triplet was great, but you do kind of lose your individuality. We were always grouped together as like, “Triplets this, triplets that." It was fun, and we we are all very close. Like the birthday parties, we had the same cake, and my mom dressed us up in the same matching outfits that none of us liked. I think it really pushed me to start discovering my individuality at an earlier age than most. I am now realizing too, being asked this question, that this desire to do something different has translated into my personal and professional life.

Do you feel like there was any competition between you?

We’re all so different. We even have different hair colors. It was easy to get grouped into the same interests and activities, but we were always pushing each other to do our own thing.

And so design and fashion, was that something that you found at a young age or later on?

I never really got to explore my artistic side growing up. I didn't know that this was something of interest to me or something that I was even capable of doing.

Is that why you decided to pursue a business degree?

I went to the University of Alabama and started out in business. Pretty soon after, I switched over to fashion merchandising, and I think the reason I decided to pursue the business side of things was because I had never explored anything remotely artistic. I was like, that’s not even in the realm of possibilities for me. But I was never really fulfilled by that degree. It wasn’t until I did an internship in New York that I was able to explore design.

What were your key takeaways from that experience?

I kind of made up on my applications that I had some experience in fashion design because I really wanted to do this internship. On my first day they were like, “Go to the back and sew this top for us.” Mind you, this was all new to me, so I went to the back sewing room and I YouTube'd a video on how to sew, and then I did it. It was really then that I also realized that designing is all about learning as you go. The whole internship, they had no idea that I had no background in fashion design, and they felt so bad once they found out. It was really those experiences that taught me that being a designer was all about problem solving, and from there, everything came so naturally to me that I realized that I was exactly where I needed to be.

And so then after that internship, you decided to pursue fashion design at the Savannah College of Art and Design.

After the internship I went to SCAD for grad school which is a two-year program. The goal with going to grad school was to work for a big designer in NY. That was the ultimate dream. I had no experience, so I wanted to go to grad school so that I could have some understanding of technical design practices. However, once I got there I was actually faced with more challenges than I expected. The expectation from the professors was that we should already have four years of experience: sewing, pattern making, etc. So this is, again, where that problem solving found its way in. I had to figure out new ways to create that made sense to me without any technical experience. But that’s what ultimately led me to the processes I still use today.

One funny story I always think of is on the first day of class, we were tasked to bring a fabric manipulation sample. I didn’t know what that meant so I just googled, “What is fabric manipulation?” and I took the definition literally. And so everyone brought in these unique stitchings or dyed fabrics, and I just sculpted the fabric using some weird method. Well, it ended up being so different that the teacher loved it. That assignment was really the beginning of the techniques I use today and I think not having that technical training ended up being a huge advantage for me because I started creating my own way of doing things.

Most people think that your sculpted fabric is made out of metal. What is it actually made out of?

Our sculpted pieces are made out of a chrome reflective material which usually gets mistaken for heavy sheet metal, but they are actually a byproduct of recycled leather that I sculpt by hand. This idea actually started back in grad school. I started using silver acrylic that I would mold in my oven at home. It was very popular to create sculptural pieces and garments, but it’s obviously not functional or realistic to wear a heavy metal acrylic piece. Through this technique, I found a way to give the same metal-like aesthetic and sculptural visual while still being functional. All of the leather sculptural pieces are detachable either with belts or hidden magnets, making it very accessible.

You mentioned that they’re made out of this recycled byproduct. How does sustainability fit into your brand, and when did you discover this material?

The brand is sort of built on happy accidents. The draping technique that I created is more of a fabric first approach where I am able to drape these complex shapes and volumes without the necessary waste from traditional techniques that include a lot of cutting and layering. We try and find these solutions in every outlet of our design process to achieve the most sustainable and thought-through way of designing.

Another way that we focused on the brand was through bringing cause and purpose to everything. More recently, I have been working with The Cystic Fibrosis Foundation to bring awareness and donate proceeds to the foundation. Something that excites me is finding new materials and techniques to better these processes, and then also just giving back and keeping a purpose to it.

What is your connection to The Cystic Fibrosis Foundation?

During grad school, one of my close friends passed away from cystic fibrosis. It was during COVID, and at that point, it felt like the only way I could continue with fashion design was to give purpose to it. It felt so menial at that point in my life. Finding a way to make it about The Cystic Fibrosis Foundation and support that community brought such a positive change and awareness to the organization that allowed me to continue on.

You received a prestigious award in Milan. Tell us why it was important.

Right out of grad school, I was informed I had been nominated for this Italian award that is presented during fashion week. It’s called the Mittelmoda fashion award. They flew me out to Milan for the show, and I had just graduated. I was just happy to be there. I became the first American to win the main innovation prize, and I got a lot of industry support from that, which was really what leveraged me to have the confidence to go ahead and launch the brand right away. At that time, I was planning on coming back to NY and hoping I could find a great job working for a designer. So that kind of changed plans, and I then had the confidence and the push from the industry to start the brand now.

You start your brand, and then you meet Albert from Up Next Designer: the big intro to the industry.

I met Albert during grad school. He posted and supported me when I received the award in Milan and people were starting to hear about the brand. He was really one of the first people to support my brand way back in grad school, and he still does today so it means a lot to me. I think through the Up Next Designer support and exposure, I have been introduced to so many amazing people in the industry that I still collaborate with today. I appreciate all of his support, and he has really been able to use his platform to give spotlight to us emerging designers and give us a fair chance in this competitive industry.

Speaking of exposure, you just had a viral moment with Katy Perry on American Idol.

I worked with Katy and her stylist Tatiana on a custom look and it was a lot of fun and very collaborative. Due to the short turnaround time we were very aware of the possibility of the security of the look. It was a very editorial piece that we had made for a photoshoot so we were looking to see how we could make it into a top for a live show. Even after the wardrobe malfunction, the top ended up getting a positive response, and I am really happy she took the risk because I think it was an amazing moment for both of us.

What’s next for the brand?

This past month, I also found out I was selected as a finalist for the 2024 CFDA Vogue Fashion Fund. It has been a crazy few weeks since finding out, with our first challenges starting last week with a presentation at the Vogue offices in front of the esteemed jury and the next day pitching to the Nordstrom buying team, followed by a shopping event with the Vogue 100 members. It has been such a cool experience so far, and I’m excited to see what’s in store for the rest of the program. We were told that, since it’s the 20th anniversary, they are bringing back the design challenge this year lead by our mentor, Tommy Hilfiger, which is probably what I’m most looking forward to! I’ve been really focused on establishing the brand's language and getting the brand’s aesthetic across. Now I’m at a place where I’m ready to translate the brand’s story into a more accessible, ready-to-wear offering through our e-commerce “Icons” launch. We are going to be doing interactive lifestyle experiences and try ons to bring our customers into our world.

Photography: Nathaniel Jerome
Hair: Kennedy Trisler
Makeup: Shu Zhang