By  on October 21, 2009

Soccer practice and the Cartoon Network were never Katie Ermilio’s Saturday-morning distractions when she was growing up. Instead, one could find the young Ermilio on the floor of her father’s — and before him, grandfather’s and great-grandfather’s — namesake clothing store in Philadelphia, folding bolts of fabric and keeping an eye on the steady line of dapper clients who walked into the shop.

Men’s wear is the specialty at Ermilio Clothiers, now based in Haverford, Pa., but Katie, who often sat with a sketchbook on her lap, took particular note of the clients’ companions. “The first sample that I made was this little wool crepe sheath with a slightly scooped back and a piece of patent that snaps in and out [at the back], and my dad put it on a dress form in the front of his store,” says Ermilio, who is now 24 and launching a women’s wear collection for spring. “Women would come into the store with their husbands to get fittings for their husband’s suits. They would look at the dress and say, ‘Can I buy that?’”

Shrewd marketing — Ermilio soon developed a loyal following of her own clients —has allowed the nascent designer to move from a custom-design firm to her own ready-to-wear line, which bears her name and is based in New York. Yet unlike many young designers, who downplay the contributions of parents or relatives who have invested in their businesses, Ermilio sees her family’s support as an asset to be trumpeted. She produces her custom and rtw pieces — there are about 16 looks for spring, ranging from evening gowns to trousers and tap pants — with the help of a seamstress who has worked for her father since the designer was eight years old (and who also designed Ermilio’s prom dresses). Ermilio sketches her pieces in the small Upper West Side apartment she has lived in since her days at New York University, where she studied journalism before working in public relations at Teen Vogue, and commutes to Haverford for design meetings and fittings.

“We are in the process of testing [factories] here in New York, but you have to do a lot of homework figuring out what factory is the best for you,” she says. Ermilio is also in the process of meeting with retailers about spring orders, although none have been made yet. “I want the brand to have legs, and I want it to live on, but I don’t want to do too much, where we can’t keep our heads above water.”

That little black wool sheath is one of the most straightforward of her designs. Using fabrics like silk faille and heavy twills, which she sources from mills in New York and England, Ermilio creates cocktail dresses with stiff ruffled shoulders and trousers with inverted pleats. The final effect is sophisticated yet youthful — which may account for the age range of her custom clientele.

“There’s a gown that I designed for my 16-year-old client for her prom,” says Ermilio, whose retail prices range from $500 to $3,500. “Lucky 16-year-old, right? And then I made the same dress for this woman in her 70s.” (It was long and red, with a deep scoop back that Ermilio brought up a few inches for the more mature client.)

And while the designer says she is most influenced by bespoke men’s wear — her grandfather, Arthur, created the iconic evergreen Masters jacket, as well as a number of suits for former Main Line resident Grace Kelly — her best-received design is unabashedly feminine: a deep green sleeveless dress with a crisscross bodice, selected from nearly 200 sketches last winter by The Washington Post’s Robin Givhan for the paper’s challenge to design an inaugural dress for Michelle Obama.

“I am always designing for the body,” Ermilio says. “So I get huge inspiration from the body in motion. I will get an idea walking down the street and watching the way somebody walks. And I keep a notepad with me at all times, even by my bed.”

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