When the no-nonsense fashion world confined her to a “Barbie” box, St. Louis-bred designer Laura Kathleen Planck followed the lead of “Project Runways” most successfulshe “made it work.” As it turns out, Season 9s token blonde and Saint Louis Fashion Weeks Project:Design! host is a force to be reckoned with.
“I like to entertain.” When taken out of context, Laura Kathleen Planck’s response to the charge that she’s the “hostess with the mostest” ranks among the most accurate of all self-descriptors offered during our interview at her boudoir-esque Downtown loft and design studio. Although she stands at a petite 5’1″, she has a big personality that clearly tends to the spotlight. Take this year alone. Just weeks after performing at The Pageant as one of 50 St. Louis Rams Cheerleader finalists, she signed on for her most popular role to date: contestant on “Project Runway” Season 9—after fiive seasons
While her attention-grabbing traits were undoubtedly instrumental in landing the MICDS grad among the 20 designers who made it to TV, there’s no questioning Planck’s fi ne-tuned chops. On paper, she’s impressive—with a degree in Design, Merchandising and Textiles from Western Kentucky University, design coursework at Accademia Italiana in Florence, teaching credentials at Lift for Life Academy (the charter school at which she launched a fashion program two years ago), apprenticeships under pros like R&M Designs’ Connie Simpson and shows in at least a dozen local fashion events (including Project:Design!, Spring 2009) among her credits. In person, she exudes an intense drive that convinces everyone who meets her that witnessing the realization of her dream—seeing her name in place of Macy’s on the huge building at 6th and Olive—is only a matter of time.
It was this combination, supplemented with her maturity as a designer, that made Planck—a seamstress since age 8—a fierce “Project Runway” competitor. “I tried out my fi rst year out of school, and made it to the top 25 or so. If I had made it [onto “Project Runway”] back then, I think it would have been bad. Today, I know my aesthetic better than I ever have, and I’m as technically sound as I’ve ever been.”
Her relationships with two Season 8 cast members, St. Louisans Michael Drummond and A.J. Thouvenot, provided further edge. “I was the only one on the show with good friends who had been there, telling me about their experiences and assuring me that I could do it.”
Even so, in early episodes, pulling for Planck proved comparable to rooting for Elle Woods at Harvard—both smart women pegged underdogs, thanks to good looks and blonde hair. “Barbie” became her nickname, and an intended-to-be-comical “Are you speaking foreign?” question played out like Jessica Simpson’s ditz-defi ning confusion over Chicken of the Sea. Luckily, the thick-skinned Planck was ready to take all that was dished out.
“When I went into my personality interview during the audition process, I decided that I wouldn’t act like a business person like I had in the past,” she explains. “I spewed it all out. I said, ‘I’m privileged. I’ve been privileged my whole life. I went to prep school, I’ve never had to want for anything, my parents buy me cars…’ [The producers’] eyes lit up. Those who know me know that I’m very grateful for my support system, but I knew I was going to be cast as ‘Pretty and Privileged’; it was a term they kept repeating to me. But I knew they wouldn’t be able to carry it on for very long.”
As it turns out, winning challenges, helping opponents in the workroom and turning out consistent work fast is a recipe for earning respect. Almost as quick as they were to openly dismiss her as a “dumb blonde,” the show’s most influential audience members—most notably, bloggers Tom & Lorenzo—made a point to go on the record as having retracted their reflex judgments.
“I deal with stereotypes a lot,” Planck shrugs. “It’s nothing new; it’s just on a national level now. People who get to know me know that, all in all, I’m really a good person. And, I’m not a spoiled Barbie—I just like to look good. And who doesn’t like money?”
The Real Deal
If there’s one thing that can be said for certain about Planck, it’s that she keeps it real—which is ironic, when considering her Marilyn Monroeinspired dye job, her clip-in extensions, her gelled nails and her defense of cosmetic surgery at the time of our meeting.
“Myself? I’m vain. I like beauty,” Planck admits—a matter-of-fact statement she goes on to defend. “I’m a very blunt person. I don’t feel like there’s any reason to beat around the bush about things.” And, as the meaning behind the “True tattoo on the cheek of her derriere suggests, it’s important to her that those in her life fl y their freak fl ags, too: “I only surround myself with people who are true to themselves.”
“Project Runway” opponent Viktor Luna became her closest friend on the show. The two met during the audition process—when Planck reportedly greeted him with a fi tting and amusing, “I don’t do bullshit. What are you about?”
“We get along great, and we have a mutual respect for our crafts,” Planck explains. Midway through a break between filming competitions and the show’s New York Fashion Week fi nale, Planck had already spent a portion of her free time in New York hanging out with him—that is, after fi ve days spent in Naples, FL to decompress.
“It is as grueling as it looks on the show,” she confi rms. “More so, actually. When they say you have a day to complete your challenge, that’s a lie; you have, like, a half a day. You also have mics wrapped around your body, listening to everything you say. If you make a noise of frustration, the cameras swarm. So, not only is it challenging to work under hard circumstances, but you’re very aware that you’re under a microscope.”
Still, she vouches for the fact that, in the end, it’s all worth it. “I have a great product, I think—so I really wanted to show it on a larger scale. ‘Project Runway’ gives you a platform that takes a long time to build. It’s a household show, so you become a household name and it makes for brand loyalty-which is amazing.”
And, while she expected it, she’s still warming up to her own star status. “Last weekend, on the subway, I saw this big group of girls running; I just thought they were being crazy, doing something silly—but then I realized they were running at me! It was weird. I was like, ‘Hi! It’s just me…nothing special…I don’t really know what to say to you…'”
It’s a safe bet that the emerging star will soon get used to the attention. Although her original plan for 2011—to concentrate on the business side of her label, which launched three years ago and has survived on custom work—has been altered, she has no complaints.
“I’m still going to do the things I set out to do, like bring on brand management, but now I’ve got ‘Project Runway’ to push it even more. And, I will probably be releasing new work in spring/summer of next year, versus fall of this year—but it’s totally fine,” she says, fl ashing her mega-watt smile. “It gives me a larger audience.”
Cover: Laura Kathleen dress available at LauraKathleen.com. Earrings available at Ivy Hill, Central West End, 314.367.7004. Bracelet available at Vie, Ladue, 314.997.0124. Inside: French Connection dress and earrings available at Ivy Hill. Ring available at Melanie’s, Ladue, 314.993.0664. Styling by Jill Manoff; Hair by Josh Nichols, Kink Hair Salon, Maplewood, 314.973.3252. Makeup by Lisa Kalz, lisakalz.com.
Laura Kathleen Planck
Laura Kathleen Planck
Photo credit: Photography by Attilio D’Agostino