Born into the Internet generation, Lithuanian designer Urte Katiliute has been able to witness the world of fashion, all its whims and drama, through a screen. Perhaps, the ultimate blessing the Internet has brought us is the ability to share one’s knowledge worldwide, which is exactly how the young designer’s self-monikered brand, Urte Kat, has been able to prosper.
Urte Kat bleeds authenticity and is dedicated to celebrating local traditional craftsmanship and folklore. Using only what is available at hand, from materials to literal hands, Urte Kat has prospered not only in its own country but also on a global scene, all thanks to the power of online connectivity.
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Since this is our first time speaking, could you introduce yourself to our readers?
I am the designer behind the brand Urte Kat which I started in 2019. . I’m 26 and currently based in Lithuania where I run the brand.
When it comes to fashion, very few people would turn to Lithuanian fashion as a key source of creativity, in part due to their lack of knowledge or desire to look at places outside of London or New York or other big fashion cities. What does the creative community look like at home for you? Is the younger generation embracing and tapping into their creative side more than previous generations?
I don’t feel like people search for brands based on the brand's location anymore, today we have huge online marketplaces and smaller boutiques, both investing in small labels, not minding the whereabouts of it. The creative community in Vilnius is very DIY, resilient, accepting and eager. Lithuanian contemporary art is absolutely on par with the world's standards. My creative community is not bound to a single place though. It is very scattered and much of the time online. The younger generation here is post-Internet and post-post-trauma, which makes them much more open. I do not see a difference between the Gen Z’s here and in London. We all grew up on the Internet. The Internet was the thing that made the gap between experiencing teenagehood here and in London that much smaller.
For much of the Eastern European block alike, poverty was the norm, where citizens, especially of the older generations, had to queue for all sorts of goods, from bread to milk, a phenomenon which history professor Peter Gatrell calls “an economy of absolute shortage.” I can only imagine that fashion, a luxurious industry that thrives in environments of excess wealth, is not exactly regarded as a typical or even possible career path in Lithuania. What were your friends and family’s reactions to you telling them you wanted to study and work in fashion?
Fashion exists everywhere, at all times, no matter the economic state of the given place. It might not be the luxurious industry we are used to imagine, but I wonder if any job in fashion has actually looked like this since the excess wealth of the 90s. The fashion scene in Lithuania caught speed in the mid-2000s. I was applying to study fashion in 2015, which was a decent if not common choice at that point in time. We all dreamt about CSM, we read fashion blogs and had Tumblrs, so it really was no surprise to my friends. My grandmother did find it crazy that I was able to choose fashion as a career, and I did have to tell her many times that I will learn the craft of garment construction and sewing, to calm her down. It must have been a very different experience for someone who was pursuing a fashion career in Lithuania in the 90s or even early 2000s.
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After enrolling yourself in a design college back home, you managed to move to London, securing yourself design internships, notably with Ashley Williams. How did you experience the change in environment and culture?
London and its fashion scene were overwhelming at first. I had to learn at a very fast pace to keep up. The first month I was in London in 2017 I would have breakdowns often and in this one internship, I was caught crying in the bathroom, after which I heard the pattern cutter wondering what will happen to me during fashion week if I’m crying already (laughs). One year later I started at Ashley’s, which was a pivotal point for me. I was inspired by her attitude, by the people surrounding the brand and by the brand itself. It was all so cool and so London. The biggest difference in London was definitely the pace, you would see a collection appear before you in not even a full month. I realised how much you can do with little time.
Soon enough though, you moved back to Lithuania, where your practice is now located. Why did you choose to move back?
At that time I felt like I didn't really have any other choice. I was applying for fashion jobs almost daily for 6 months and could not secure a position anywhere. I was competing with people who had United Kingdom diplomas and who have had many more internships under their belts. I was also tired from the servicing job that I was doing and decided that I needed a break and to think things over. You cannot really afford to take breaks in London, so going home was the solution. I did not think about starting anything of my own at that point; that idea seemed too far-fetched. Moving back home I did feel a bit defeated. Looking back, that was the best decision I made for that time, but it sure did not seem that way then.
You mention being inspired by Lithuanian folklore for your collections, yet Lithuania, despite its rich heritage, has had its culture compromised, or even tarnished, in recent history, notably due to the German occupation during the World Wars or its annexation to the Soviet Union. How do you keep in touch with your country’s culture? Is it ever a struggle to dig up its past?
I was born 4 years after Lithuania regained its independence, at which time the wounds were still fresh for my parents, but I had quite a big distance from the traumatic events and grew up in a completely different Lithuania than they did. Russia’s terrorism against Ukraine, has definitely evoked the pain and the anger though. It became clear that my generation has the collective historical memory of the horrible atrocities, even though we never experienced them firsthand. Growing up in a country that was annexed and only recently regained independence, I think you subconsciously learn to keep in touch and to be proud of its actual culture, as there is this importance put on it because people cannot take it for granted. My grandmother was very adamant that I learn Lithuanian history and that I know from an early age that recent events do not define us.
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How do you manage to reconcile the past whilst creating an aesthetic for the younger generation?
By creating a new future. As a young independent designer, my job is to celebrate the chosen ancestral pride, not to fix the mistakes of the past.
In recent years, we’ve seen the rise to prominence of many Eastern European creatives, such as Bulgarian designer Kiko Kostadinov or LVMH Prize winner Nensi Dojaka from Albania. Do you think the recognition of Eastern European talent will spread through to the Baltic countries, putting underrepresented aesthetics onto the global fashion scene?
It would be incredible to see that happen. I do think that there is a shift happening in the industry of people being more open to designers not being based in the fashion capitals. It makes sense because small regions are full of interesting stories and craft traditions, and fashion is always looking for something new and unseen. Both designers you mention have been a huge encouragement for many Eastern European creatives I know. I wonder if we’ll start seeing designers without a prestigious education and not based in countries that have support systems for designers to rise to those levels. Maybe it’s too much to ask for.
In 2017, we saw the ‘post-Soviet aesthetic’ born out of the poverty embedded in the ex-Soviet states, being integrated into mainstream fashion, notably due to Russian stylist Lotta Volkova or Georgian designer Demna Gvasalia. Yet, this quickly became a ‘trend’ which replicated itself in many design houses, though it was quickly called out as cultural appropriation due to designers having no ties to the Soviet Union. What were your thoughts when you started seeing this ‘aesthetic’ on the runway and all over celebrities?
This subject is very complex and a question of historical memory and cultural reflection. You can condemn the aesthetic, but at the same time you cannot write off the importance of rethinking the past. My friends and I have discussed this many times. Honestly, seeing this aesthetic at first around 2015 was exciting, as it was something we felt so close to, introduced in such a fresh context. We didn’t really think about the cultural impact that this would have. Seeing it now, years later still trending and worn by the mainstream in the West can be frustrating, especially if this aesthetic goes hand in hand with a light attitude towards communism. Fashion can definitely get frustrating anyways and it feels like appropriation is inevitable in many creative industries.
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Could you tell us about the traditions, local practices and/or styles you emulate and celebrate through your clothing?
My process with this is usually not structured and is more relaxed. I like to see what is sold at the craft fairs that we have very often in Lithuania. I love to research these ancient websites of Lithuanian craftspeople, these pages are just gold, you would not believe the raw talent and skill concentration there. My goal is to work with more and more people like that. For Spring/Summer 2023, our jewelry was designed by Elza White in London and is now produced in Lithuania by these very OG jewellers who make Baltic jewellery inspired by archaeological finds and Baltic symbols. That feels like something I want to do more and more; somehow connecting young global talent and the older generation local talent. 
The spiral motif is one we’ve seen replicated and reinterpreted on many of your pieces, from tops to bottoms and accessories. Where does this stem from?
The spiral motif stems from my interest in Marija Gimbutiene's work. Marija Gimbutiene was a very important figure in feminism and archaeology, she studied feminine symbols in archaeological finds, and she was a very pivotal figure in connecting archaeology with mythology. The spiral motif is one of the most common symbols of femininity and when I saw this spiral knit bolero that one of our knit ladies had created in her spare time I asked her to help me with our first spiral item. Our spiral top turned out to be our first best-selling product and so we had to make a matching skirt for it, all other spiral products followed this pattern. When we first did it, the spiral motif was already starting to trend in fashion and art and I think we are seeing its peak trendiness at the moment.
Keeping your production to a minimum – mainly working on a made-to-order basis – is important to you due to the close-knit relationship you have with your garment makers. Is a runway show something we could ever see be done by you?
Working on a made-to-order basis is something we have to do at this point as we cannot afford nor do we want to produce the stock. If we wanted to work the usual way, we’d have to pull a Spring/Summer 2015 Martine Rose (love her and this was iconic) and produce a single look every season. I am in a product-focused stage right now and not really thinking about doing a runway show. I would love to do that in the future once we are ready for it.
What are your goals for the future of Urte Kat?
The goal is for Urte Kat to become a gold mine for local craftspeople and myself. More seriously, we’d like to move the brand into the real world more and away from its exclusively online existence. Manifesting a showroom experience and leather accessories for next season.
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