Settled on 12 South, a trendy neighborhood near Belmont, is a building with an unimpressive gray stone façade, an architectural relic of the late ‘60s. But it’s distinguished by a sign –a large torso and head of a pinup cowgirl in a red bustier with matching hat and fringed skirt. She guards rope lettering that spells out “Katy K Designs.”
Walk inside and unless you’re in the market for an armadillo-shaped handbag or a belt buckle disguised as a flask, Katy K’s might not seem to offer much beyond novelty.
Down the hallway, though, the walls are lined with autographed pictures of country music stars. Rooms that shoot off to the side are filled with Western wear, new and vintage for men, women and babies. Whether it’s a loud, a flashy embroidered Grand Ole Opry-style Western shirt, a colonel tie, a fedora for club wear, or a 1950s dress that might have caught Bettie Page’s eye, Katy K’s Ranch Dressing has it, and you better believe people want them all. Kitschy up front, serious in back, the store has a lot in common with the lady who owns it.
The namesake of the store, Katy K Kattelman, walks out from the hallway sporting gray lace-less Converse sneakers and a beige dress with a cowgirl pinup pattern. She’s approachable and willing to give a tour, noting which fabrics look sexy and which shirts the younger guys like to buy.
It feels as if it were in another life that Katy K was a designer in New York, with a concession in Fiorucci, a 1980s fashion hot spot. As she sits at a cow print tabletop in the stuffy kitchen in the back of the store, Kattelman recounts her life without an ounce of bravado or boast, even though she is a designer featured in the New York Times and Harper’s Bazaar and the owner of a store that was often frequented by country legend Porter Wagoner.
Kattelman grew up in Philadelphia. The fashion bug caught her young, “I guess it was seeing my mother get ready and remembering her beautiful clothes,” she said.
One year her parents gave her a little dressmaker’s dummy for Christmas. She set to work to try to make a replica of one of her mother’s cocktail dresses out of Kleenex. From there she started sewing and making dresses for her dolls.
“It’s funny, because I love clothes and I love costumes, but I was really never up with fashion,” she said. “I just had what I liked and what I wanted to look like, or what I wanted people to look like.”
As far as the genesis for her interest in Western wear, she cited the Western movies she loved as a child and a local kid’s show called Popeye Theater. The host was a cowgirl by the name of Sally Starr. “Our Gal Sal” came on in the afternoons after the TV music hit, “American Bandstand.”
Sal made an impression. “She used to wear cowgirl outfits with rhinestones, and fringe, and she had platinum blonde hair, and I just loved the way she looked,” Kattelman said. “ I think that’s the only way I can figure that I got into it.”
Eventually, she moved to New York and went to fashion school. Kattelman had a series of lucky breaks, but not before putting in some time making raincoats out of shower curtains. “[I was] just walking into boutiques saying, ‘You want to buy these?’”
Life changed in the late ‘70s, though. “I had a dear friend who worked at Fiorucci, which was a very trendy, up-to-the minute Italian store that had moved to New York. Everybody went there, and through him, I got a little concession,” she said. And by “everybody,” She does mean everybody. Designer Marc Jacobs told the New York Times that instead of sleep-away camp during the summer, he would hang around the store, the very store where Jackie Onassis, Cher and Elizabeth Taylor all shopped. Madonna got her jewelry from one of the other concessions there, and the Fiorucci line is credited with inventing designer jeans.
“I had my little area in the store, and it was rockabilly, ‘50s Western kind of stuff,” she said. “At that time in New York, it was very novel and different.” It was in being different that the publicity came and success followed quickly.
For one, Katy K crinolines brought her attention from the likes of Cindy Lauper and Whitney Houston. Houston bought a crinoline and wore it in her 1987 Billboard Hot 100 chart topper, “I Wanna Dance with Somebody.”
“I’ll never forget hers, because it was the craziest colors,” Kattelman said. “It was like a black crinoline, and it had acid green and red ribbons on it. Whitney wore just the crinoline with no skirt on top and we sold them like that. Girls in the ‘80s – that was the style.”
Kattelman originally discovered crinolines while driving to Florida with her mother. They stopped in a square dance store in a small town and she came across the crinolines. Ever the entrepreneur, she contacted the name on the label to make them for her.
The clothing item was a success, but the success came with a hard lesson in business.
As Katy K put it, “All was well until the orders got too big to fill.”
When demand outstripped her ability to produce the clothing herself, she turned to a factory to produce her designs. “A business course would have helped, so it was a lot of kind of getting burned, but I made a name for myself, and I did meet a lot of wonderful people,” she said.
As notoriously vicious as the fashion industry is, Kattelman seems unaffected by it.
She moved on from Fiorucci later in the ‘80s, and stylists for Nashville music stars like Trisha Yearwood began to approach her. “That’s when I started thinking that I would do good in Nashville.”
By 1994, Kattelman wanted to leave New York. “The times were weird, I had to get out,” she explained. One of her best friends had moved to Nashville and, having visited plus having professional ties to the city, she decided to give Music City a try and she stayed.
Kattelman moved into the 12 South location in 2000. She’s neighbors with Thomas Tours, the Hope Center, and a pack of apparently feral cats.
“She’s nuts about these cats,” said store manager Kara Simmons, who has worked at Katy K’s for the past four years. “She does everything but warm up their food for them and it’s just so cute.” Even on days when Kattelman is not at work, she makes sure to call in and check on the cats.
Simmons counts herself lucky to have found work with Kattelman. “We used to sell her vintage shirts and she was looking for a new manager. We just hit it off. She’s sweet,” Simmons said, drawing out the ee’s. “She’s so sweet.”
These days, Kattelman doesn’t do much designing. Specific fabrics that were readily available in New York are harder to come by in Nashville and costs don’t justify the process. Regardless, the store attracts an eclectic mix of people.
On one Friday afternoon, three teenage boys came looking for a colonel tie. On the more prominent end of the spectrum, Jack White and Paul Reubens, better known as Pee Wee Herman, stopped in. “They came in together and Kara was so excited because Jack White came in, so she pushed the buzzer to warn me,” Kattelman said. “Then I go out and see it’s Pee Wee Herman with him. I’m usually very cool, but I kind of lost it.”
Kattelman is so even and calm, it’s hard to imagine. She said they usually don’t ask to take pictures with the notables who visit, but instead ask for a head shot. That day was no different.
And now on the wall between two of the rooms in the back hangs a glossy photo of Reubens. “To Katy K, your pal, Pee Wee Herman.”