by Carole Verona
If you had asked Germantown resident Kristin Haskins-Simms 10 years ago the odds of her eventually becoming a fashion designer, the answer would have been an emphatic “None!” At the time Kristin, now 42, was a successful graphic designer with a studio in center city and a client base that included small businesses and the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania. True, she enjoyed the world of fashion and was hooked on watching “Project Runway” on TV.
Her foray into the world of fashion began one day in 2006 when she decided to design a computer bag because she just couldn’t find a fashionable one in stores that she really liked. She sketched it, did a 3-D mock-up, then left it alone. “I was scared to really dive in,” she recalled.
Then she started making T-shirts, first for herself and later to sell at the Penn Relays and on the streets of Philadelphia. But they weren’t ordinary T-shirts. They had a message. “My focus was to use fashion to educate about history,” she said. One of her designs had a quote from Martin Luther King Jr. on it. Another had an inspirational message about Herb McKenley, who won a gold medal for Jamaica in the 1952 summer Olympics. “I got wonderful feedback from people, and I loved having a diverse group of customers, ranging from college-age kids to middle-aged women,” she said.
Kristin then took the leftover T-shirt material, purchased fabric dye, started cutting out patterns and played around with her grandmother’s sewing machine. “I thought I could re-purpose the T-shirts by making jackets. I figured it out as I went along, until I realized that I didn’t know how to make sleeves! I got a pattern maker to help me, and I’m still using that pattern today to make some of my most popular pieces.”
During the fall of 2009, Kristin presented her first collection at Philly Fashion Week. The name of her company at the time was Strangefruit, but it has since been changed to Krysi. Her specialty was repurposing old clothes. For example, she used fabric from a pair of old cargo pants to make a jacket, placing a pocket from the pants strategically on the back of the jacket. “People loved what I did,” she said. “They said it was fresh and new; several people suggested that I try out for Project Runway. So on a whim, I did.”
“Project Runway” is a reality show, created and hosted by famed model Heidi Klum, that airs on the Lifetime channel. The contestants compete with each other to create winning designs under tight deadlines and on limited budgets. Their creations are judged by leading fashion experts, and one or more designers are eliminated each week. The top three designers get to show their collections at New York Fashion Week, and the top winner receives other valuable prizes.
Kristin managed to submit her application for Project Runway the day before it was due, and was surprised to get a call back for a casting session. “I almost didn’t go. It was scary,” she admitted. “It takes time for me to conceptualize a collection … it doesn’t happen overnight.” She received advice from her cousin Kelvin Rice, who was also a fashion designer. He helped her learn how to put a collection together and taught her how to develop a storyline and a narrative.
Kristin appeared on season eight of Project Runway, which began on July 29, 2010, and, unfortunately, she was eliminated after the fourth episode. She can’t divulge exactly what went on behind the scenes, but she did say that it was a stressful experience. “You’re secluded from your family for five weeks. Some of the people you’re with are likeable, and others are not. If I were younger, I think I would have adapted better, but I’m not blaming anybody else.”
One of the things that Project Runway does really well is to help emerging designers define their fashion point of view and their target audience. Kristin refers to her point of view as “organic”; she designs for a woman’s life experience. That means creating pieces that are, in her words, “fashionable yet functionable for career women and working mothers who want something they can wear from day to night and during more than one season. Clothing that is versatile and that looks chic, but can be squished up and thrown into a bag. Clothing that is easy to wear and easy to take with you when you travel.”
While at “Project Runway,” Kristin listened to her fellow designers and learned. Some were already in the business but only had the capability to produce samples of their designs. “They weren’t set up to produce or manufacture in larger quantities. So what if they got orders?” Kristin wondered. “I realized there was a niche to be filled. I decided that I wanted to manufacture my own clothes. At that point, my clothing was being sold at Pileggi Boutique in center city and through my online store. I was working with a guy in New York who manufactured for me.”
Kristin’s business model, developed in part as a result of her experience on “Project Runway,” is to be able to produce everything in-house. To that end, she purchased a historic building at 5330 Germantown Ave., which will house a showroom and space for design and manufacturing teams. Her goal, which she hopes to accomplish two years down the line, is to work with women who are ex-offenders, teaching them new skills, ranging from pattern-making and sewing to administrative.
In 2011, Kristin posted a video on “It Gets Better,” an Internet-based project developed to provide hope for lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and other bullied teens by letting them know that it does get better. She did it because she experienced bullying when she was a kid. “I was 6 feet tall, taller than everybody else, and the kids called me ‘Tree.’ When my parents would drop me off at school, I would hunch over to make myself shorter so I wouldn’t stand out. I didn’t feel pretty, and I didn’t feel accepted. It was just horrible.”
Kristin’s business values were greatly influenced by her parents as she was growing up in West Mt. Airy. Her mother, Yvonne Haskins, is a real estate attorney, community activist and former Executive Director of West Mt. Airy Neighbors. During the 1980s, she worked as Regional Director of the Pennsylvania Board of Parole, focusing on prisoner rehabilitation and the reduction of recidivism. Her father, Harold Haskins, was an administrator at the University of Pennsylvania for 38 years. And in the 1960s, he worked with gang members in North Philadelphia, helping them get their lives together. “My parents are all about education, giving back and empowering people. I have those values instilled in me,” Kristin said.
Kristin attended Springside School from grades one through five, then transferred to and graduated from Germantown Friends School in 1989. She received a Bachelor’s degree in English from the University of Pennsylvania in 1993, worked in New York in the financial services industry for a few years, then received a Master’s Degree in Fine Arts from the Rhode Island School of Design in 2000. She has taught graphic design courses at the University of Connecticut, University of Pennsylvania, Philadelphia University, Rutgers University, Rowan University and Temple University’s Tyler School of Art — “wherever they needed me,” she said.
“I never studied fashion. Part of me wishes I did, and part of me is glad I didn’t because I’m not restricted by the rules. That’s why I think I’ve gotten as far as I have in fashion.”
Kristin’s husband, Harold Simms, sells software products for a commercial real estate firm. The couple has a 15-month-old son named Quincy.
For information on Kristin’s designs, visit her website at www.shopkrysi.com or call 215-991-5711.