Navy Spouse's Project Runway Dream
by U.S. Navy Patrick Ciccarone
Commander, Fleet Activities Yokosuka
October 27, 2021
Growing up as the eldest child in a family of six, designer Katie Kortman, a military spouse onboard Commander, Fleet Activities Yokosuka, finds herself reminiscing about her love affair with fine art, design, and the ever-expanding world of fashion.
“I remember making clothes for my Barbie dolls out of burlap, stapling and taping together different outfits for them,” said Kortman, a West Palm Beach, Florida native. “My passion for design has been there from the beginning, but it has been a colorful journey leading me to where I am today.”
October 6, 2021 - Military spouse Katie Kortman, a contestant on Project Runway and community member of U.S. Navy Commander, Fleet Activities Yokosuka (CFAY) ... in her fashion designer attire. For more than 75 years, CFAY has provided, maintained, and operated base facilities and services in support of the U.S. 7th Fleet's forward deployed naval forces, tenant commands, and thousands of military and civilian personnel and their families. (U.S. Navy photo by Taylor Curry)
These days, Katie finds herself creating outfits for a different type of model ... those belonging to the reality television series Project Runway, where she was a contestant for season 19 of the long-running program.
“I have followed Project Runway since it began airing back in 2004, and have been obsessed with it ever since,” Katie recalls. “To participate on the show has been a dream of mine for a long time, but I never imagined it could ever happen.”
Katie’s selection for Project Runway has been a culmination of hard-work and an intense drive to master her craft ... the CFAY-based mother-of-four has been building both her skillset, and notoriety, since 2018 when a sewing contest held on Instagram thrust her into the spotlight.
Kortman and her family had been stationed at Naval Medical Center Portsmouth in Virginia, having accompanied her husband, an Obstetrics & Gynecology department head, to his new duty location. Their growing family provided both new challenges and opportunities for Katie to stretch her creative limits.
“I had made a set of goals for myself that year where I wanted to learn how to design fabric, clothes, and fine-tune my sewing ability,” said Kortman. “I did not purchase any clothes, forcing myself to learn how to make everything. I was motivated by the Instagram contest to buckle-down.”
By the end of 2018, Katie had met all her self-set goals except one: she had yet to learn how to design fabric. With the contest looming, and her lack of knowledge impeding her progress, she fell-back on her art school roots and did something unorthodox: she painted her dress design.
“I graduated from Brigham-Young University with a Bachelor of Fine Arts in painting,” she said. “Having studied drawing and painting there, I went with what I knew to make my submission in time.”
Katie’s gamble paid off. Selected from over 2,000 online participants, she won the contest and soon found her own Instagram count rocket ... among them, Spoonflower, a fabric design company.
Despite the win under her literal-and-metaphorical hemline, along with a growing online following, Katie found herself torn ... her talents were being recognized, but her confidence in her own abilities was not as strong as the demand.
“Spoonflower reached out to me requesting I start designing for them,” Kortman said. “I told them ‘Okay, but I need a little bit of time.’”
Determined not to let her chance slip away, Kortman hit the books learning how to digitally design fabric via various online resources and computer programs, like Adobe Photoshop.
“If an opportunity is presented to me and it is something that I want, I do not care if I do not have the skill or know-how to do it ... I will figure out how to seize that opportunity,” Katie said. “My partnership with Spoonflower really allowed me to both hone my craft and learn the design business.”
During her partnership with the online designer, Katie was appointed as their first ambassador, which included teaching design workshops and writing a blog, that is until her continued rise caught the eyes of Fabric.com, an Amazon subsidiary.
“Working with companies like Spoonflower and Fabric.com was a great opportunity to get my name out there as a new designer, providing me with a lot of publicity and promotion,” said the fledgling designer. “It was shortly after I partnered with them though, that someone else contacted me.”
That ‘someone’ was a casting-crew member from the Peabody Award-winning television series Project Runway. “How have you not already made it on Project Runway?” the message over Instagram read.
Katie’s whirlwind foray into the fashion world had finally caught the eye of Project Runway. Her dream was finally within reach.
“My friends had always encouraged me to pursue this dream of mine,” mused Kortman. “But when I saw this message from a Project Runway representative, I thought ‘this has to be some kind of prank ... no way is this real.’”
Katie was contacted during a Spoonflower-sponsored workshop where she was guest-teaching at and she found herself fighting not just her own disbelief, but also the clock – Project Runway needed her answer, and a video submission within a day of their initial contact.
“I remember racing home within three-hours and telling my husband that we needed to record an audition video,” laughed Katie. “He filmed it for me, my children were involved, and it was completely silly, but Project Runway loved it.”
Facing a gauntlet of auditions and interviews only the steeliest of fashionistas could conquer throughout the early months of 2020, Katie’s, and later the world’s, biggest challenge made its appearance center-stage:
The Coronavirus, or COVID-19, arrived halting everything in its tracks.
Project Runway postponed their casting calls, auditions, and interviews, leaving Katie and her family concerned for her long-sought dream. While contestant selections were paused, the U.S. Navy made their own selections – Katie and her family, amidst the international constraints of a pandemic, moved to Yokosuka, Japan, where they began their life anew.
“I thought, ‘well, I guess this is never going to happen now’,” Katie said, woefully. “Project Runway told me everything going forward was postponed.”
Finding support among her fellow churchgoers, she and her family were able to bond with members of the CFAY community and navigate COVID-19 together.
The Kortman family was once again contacted by the Project Runway team. This time was for real. Despite restrictions all throughout the world and the emotional tug-of-war she had been dealing with, Katie was eventually chosen as a contestant in April 2021.
“Congratulations ... you have been selected. Please come to New York within the month,” said the voice over the phone.
“I remember screaming in elation when I was called,” laughed Katie. “I was rocking back-and-forth in my car shouting ‘I made it!’”
Katie had a lot to accomplish within two weeks, and she was going to need help. Living overseas, and with a husband who was dedicated to serving CFAY’s mission, her friends and family kicked into high gear to support her dream.
“Women from our church, spouses and family members of other government workers on CFAY all told me ‘I have to go ... I have to do Project Runway’,” recalled Kortman. “They said, ‘we’ll watch your children and hold down the fort here.’”
With military and family members alike onboard CFAY coming to the Kortman families’ rescue, Katie was free to pursue her dream, and so made her way to New York to begin filming in May of 2021.
“It was a mixture of everyone coming together at the last moment,” Katie said fondly. “I could not have done it without any of their support – my husband and family, the wonderful ladies and friends here at CFAY, all of them. They helped make my dream come true.”
Although Katie could not provide any details regarding the outcome of her participation due to a non-disclosure agreement, she assured there would be plenty of laughter, tears, and chaos on the set.
“What you see on television is only a tiny percentage of what really goes on behind the camera,” Katie said, with a hint of mischief. “You’ll just have to watch and see what kind of trouble we find ourselves in.”
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