Introducing Protagonist:
A Conversation with Designer Kate Wendelborn

“I think that a lot of women are craving something more simple now,” says fashion designer Kate Wendelborn, sitting between a stack of patterns and a rack of samples in her studio in New York’s Garment District. “As I entered my 30s, I found myself looking for pieces that were more mature, well-made—refined but not stuck-up.” She ended up creating them herself in Protagonist, a fashion label that makes its debut on The Line with a range of effortlessly modern tops. We sat down with Wendelborn to discuss the concept behind Protagonist, how she distills complex ideas into sculptural silhouettes, and what’s next for the label.

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What is Protagonist?

Protagonist is about creating garments that are essential to women’s wardrobes. I don’t want to say “simple” because they’re not simple. It’s a complicated process to get to a simple point. There are no fancy tricks. These pieces—we’re starting with tops—appear to be elemental and yet they’re versatile and made of the highest quality materials. You can wear them in an elevated way or a casual way, inject them into your existing wardrobe.

What led you to become a fashion designer?

Patternmaking is what got me interested in fashion. The fact that I was making something out of nothing—that’s what came first, and then later I took more of an interest in seeing what I could do with it and expressing a particular look, feeling, or personality just through using that skill set.

“I spend quite a bit of time to make each piece look effortless. Subtleties—of shape, fit, and material— allow Protagonist to be worn in either an elevated way or a more casual way. There’s a bit of rebellion in the refinement and a definite self-awareness.”

Kate Wendelborn, creative director of Protagonist
Kate Wendelborn, creative director of Protagonist

Why did you think it was the right time to launch this label?

I felt that I was ready, in terms of my skill set and knowledge, to deliver and to create really high- quality pieces. I’ve learned about what incredible fabrications look like, what really beautiful finishing is, what a good pattern looks like, what a good fit looks like. And I think that a lot of women are craving something more simple now, yet I didn’t find a single collection that gathered these quintessential pieces—very well made, sexy yet not overt, refined but not stuck up. I thought it was time to address this through pieces with a hint of rebellion and a great deal of self-awareness.

How did you decide on the color palette for this collection?

I’ve always been attracted to neutral colors—or pastel or tonal things—because I like the idea of your eyes being an accessory--or your lips or your hair—not wearing too much makeup and really having features stand out. And the neutral palette also puts the focus on the shapes.

What materials have you used?

The best, because the fit and the sewing technique and construction and the way that it looks finished on a hanger is very much determined by the quality of fabric. There are no prints to cover up a sloppy seam. There are no pleats to cover up bad sewing or an ill-fitting garment. The best fabrics show the best shapes. They also feel the best on your skin.

“It’s a complicated process to get to a simple point. There are no fancy tricks. These pieces— we’re starting with tops— appear to be elemental and yet they’re versatile and made of the highest quality materials.”

Shirt 01 Medium Body Dress Shirt - Black Nappa Calf
Shirt 01 Medium Body Dress Shirt - Black Nappa Calf

You’ve described this collection as versatile, and yet these clearly aren’t “basics.” How do you balance flexibility with distinctiveness?

In the beginning, I work on doing the drape, then take that basic style and make it something a little bit different. There’s a rebellion that comes out in the intention of the cut. The Deep V Neck Pullover is a bit rebellious because it’s unconventional. It’s slightly longer than you would cut normally. And the tank is scooped out a bit more in the front than it would be in another collection that would do something so elemental. Normally, if you do something with crazy cuts, it’s for an eccentric collection. But what I’m interested in is refining—rooted in basic patternmaking, just the core shapes in making clothes, and taking these basic principles and tweaking them, gently.

How do you see Protagonist evolving?

We’ve started with these core pieces in your wardrobe, and the idea of pieces that you can return to again and again is very important. Also we wanted to focus, to make sure that we used the fabric in the best way we could, that we got basic fits down, and I think it helps ground the aesthetic, too. Protagonist will grow gradually by introducing new categories—pants, skirts, jacket— while evolving and building upon the existing pieces and categories. I think it’s a great way to develop the aesthetic—slowly, consistently—and keep it really solid and really strong.