Mentoring is the Best Part for This Costume Designer

Katherine with her costume team leaders,

Katherine with her costume team leaders, Kate Klaschka and Kira Ross

There is no question that mentoring the kids is what brings me back year after year. I don’t need to make another dress.” ~ Katherine Winter, Costume Designer

As the costume designer for the award-winning Summit High School Theater Arts Program (Summit, New Jersey), Katherine Winter’s job is to design and create costumes for the full casts of the Fall and Spring productions. For over 13 years at the high school, with every production, every cast, every performance, Ms. Winter leaves her mark, her knowledge, and her passion with the students and the adult volunteers who work tirelessly with her on the costume crew. Because more than anything else, Ms. Winter believes that her true purpose is to teach, mentor, and elevate the young people with whom she works. It is a passion that started when she was a young girl using her mother’s Singer sewing machine and a desire to tell stories that is an integral part of Ms. Winter’s Irish heritage. Brooklyn, New York, was the original stage for Ms. Winter’s love of costume design; it all started with that Singer sewing machine and the strong need to create, always create, something entirely from scratch …

I grew up in Brooklyn, the first generation of Irish immigrants. It was common for many mothers of the time to purchase sewing machines and learn to make their own clothes. As my mother, who was very fashionable, was learning to sew, she encouraged me and my brothers to learn with her. My brothers lost interest quickly but I became hooked. I couldn’t sew enough! I loved making things: buying the patterns and the fabrics, and creating most of my clothes! Every weekend I attended a Parish dance, and it became a ritual for me to make a new dress for each dance. As time went on, I made my own Prom dresses (I still have two of those dresses!) and most of the clothing I owned.

When fashion shifted to the “hippie” and “mod” movement, I jumped on board embracing the attitudes and styles with my choice of colors and patterns. I started using fringe and gauze, quiana and Pucci prints. I loved thinking out-of-the-box and experimenting. My mother loved beautiful, delicate things, and needless to say, she struggled with the new fashions. It broke her heart when she saw me adding grommets to the sleeves of one of my Prom dresses! But, to my mother’s credit, she always supported me and my creations and I am grateful for that.

After college, I went into the corporate world and stopped sewing. Eventually, I stayed home to raise my two daughters. Twenty years ago, when my children were in grammar school, an opportunity presented itself that changed my life. I met Director, Anne Poyner, who was determined to bring a different type of theater experience at the elementary school level. Anne was looking for a team of individuals with whom to work, and because I could sew, she pulled me in! We started in the elementary school, worked on town-wide productions, and eventually moved to the Summit High School – I was hooked from the first. The Summit High School Theater Arts Program is an award-winning program, recognized every year by the prestigious Papermill Playhouse Rising Star Award program and I am honored to have been on a winning team for all of these years.

My Irish roots in storytelling has much to do with costume design. It’s the stories that we are telling – the history and the passing down of information. Every spring production starts with a script – it’s all in the script. My role is to interpret the story through the costumes. Anne, as the Director, has the top vision, and all of the elements: sound, sets, lighting, hair and makeup, and costume design, stem from this vision. The goal is always to tell the story. As a costume designer, color and silhouette are very critical elements. One of the reasons I am good at what I do is that I understand construction and fit and I try to share that with my costume design team, which consists of talented adult volunteers and students.

New students often join the costume design team because they are interested in fashion and in the fashion world. What they quickly learn is that there is much more to it than they could ever have imagined. It is project management, weekly deadlines, color work, decision-making and follow-through. Fashion may be the initial draw but the work soon takes over. I try to give the kids as much freedom as their skill set can handle. If you give someone the responsibility and give them a work ethic, they will do it! Trust is enormous; I have to be able to trust them and they have to trust themselves.

All this time I have been a witness to the magic. Seeing young people gain self esteem as they start to believe in themselves and in their capabilities is so emotional for me. They become my kids and it is hard for me to let them go. I have conflicting emotions each year as the Seniors graduate. While it is gut-wrenching for me to see them leave – taking their skills and experience with them – I am always thrilled about the possibilities of new leaders and crewbies who will challenge the status-quo and ramp everything up in a new and exciting way. There is no question that mentoring the kids is what brings me back year after year. I don’t need to make another dress.”

Just this week, Summit High School was awarded 18 final nominations, including Outstanding Costume Achievement as well as Outstanding Student Achievement for the Costume Crew, from Paper Mill Playhouse Rising Star Awards! This marks the 11th year that Costumes is a finalist,; an achievement for which Katherine Winter is most proud!


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2 thoughts on “Mentoring is the Best Part for This Costume Designer

  1. I have had the privilege of working with Katherine for 5 productions with Summit HS and it is a favorite part of the year for me. I too quit sewing when I went to work after college and then with two small girls confined sewing to household projects and Halloween costumes. Katherine encourages her adult volunteers as much as she does the young people working with her. Everything is done with the goal of making those young people on and off stage feel good about what they do. She inhabits that concept and imparts it with grace and enthusiasm. Whether we are making “beautiful” costumes or “drab,” there is such satisfaction at seeing the end product on stage come to life and bring that huge smile to Katherine’s face. Looking forward to the next show!

    • Thank you Susan for your lovely comments about Katherine. I met her for the first time when I wrote this feature, and I was so inspired by her mission and her warmth. This is the reason I write and share stories – to connect fashion and self esteem. And Katherine does just that. Thank you for reading! xx Mel

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