With Eugene Fashion Week in full swing, EW thought it high time to catch up with one other Eugenean making a name in the world of fashion: Eugene native Korina Emmerich. The now Brooklyn-based designer is currently a finalist on season 13 of the popular design competition reality show Project Runway, where she has been spinning out a distinctly Pacific Northwest style. With the show’s finale airing Oct. 24, we caught up with Emmerich — who had to remain mum on whether or not she won while raising sparks on the show — to chat about growing up in Eugene, using Pendleton blankets in her work and, of course, Project Runway.
Tell me about growing up in Eugene?
I always say to everybody that I wouldn’t have rather grown up anywhere else. It’s a huge arts-based community with the Saturday Market and Holiday Market. I went to South Eugene High School, and I played clarinet and took arts classes. I took art classes at Maude Kerns as well, which was a huge influence. I took figure drawing. Me and my friends were all about the art scene in Eugene.
How did growing up here influence your design aesthetic?
It has a huge influence. I’m American Indian from the Puyallup tribe. That’s a huge influence on my design. The first thing I ever made is a jingle dress — pow wow regalia. We created the first Native American student union at South Eugene High School. That was the first time I ever danced in the first dress I ever made … Eugene is really supportive of cultural differences.
How has your Native American background informed your style?
Now, at this point, it’s so ingrained in the way I see clothing. It’s a huge part of what my voice is as a designer now. Especially in fashion, there’s a huge amount of disrespect of Native American culture, like with headdresses. You can express that you can be inspired by Native American culture without being disrespectful. A lot of people say it’s honoring the culture. It’s a fine line. Then there are so many Native American designers out there … There are so many artists that are not being seen.
Tell me about using Pendleton blankets in your designs?
I grew up with Pendleton blankets. My dad actually sent me — for holidays and my birthday — he always sent me a box of Pendleton fabric. In a way I’m designing with my dad in mind. He’ll send me the inspiration and I’ll make something out of it.
You studied fashion at The Art Institute of Portland?
I really enjoyed it. My favorites classes I think were histories of material culture. I took a lot from learning about the history of American fashion. One of my teachers — Sharon Blair — I guarantee I would not have finished school if it weren’t for her.
How did you go from Oregon to Brooklyn and Project Runway?
I actually tried out for Project Runway season seven. I made it to the top 30. I got a call saying you’re really young, maybe now is not the right time. I was just super devastated. I’d never been to New York my whole life. My family, we didn’t grow up with a lot of money — I have two sisters. I hadn’t been past Montana. Then I just decided if I didn’t get it I can’t rely on something else getting me there. I sold everything that I owned and I moved to New York with two suitcases and a cat. I’ve been here for six years.
What has the Project Runway experience been like?
It’s been positive now. I think with any form of reality TV it’s really difficult, just the response I get from people and the way it’s edited. I think the rewards present themselves later. The clothing speaks for itself at the end of the day. How would your life be presented if put under a microscope? At the end, number one, I’m extremely fast at sewing now. My design process is a lot faster.
Is co-host Tim Gunn as nice as he seems?
Tim is a nicer person than he is on TV. He is just one of the most incredible people I’ve ever met. He’s 100 percent genuine.
Any advice for designers in Eugene?
I got to a point where in New York — I’m a small fish in a big pond. It’s so hard to get noticed. The more you’re involved in the community — being involved in Eugene Fashion Week is the best thing. And to just work. Work and work.
To see more of Emmerich’s work, visit emmerichny.com. Q&A edited for length and clarity.