By Deb Peterson
How does a poor boy from a ghost town in rural Arkansas end up designing dresses for first ladies, presenting runway shows in Paris, and selecting furniture and fixtures for the gorgeous new Wallis Annenberg Center for the Performing Arts opening in Beverly Hills in October?
Wayne Kastning has proven it’s possible to create the life you want.
Born on a poor cattle farm in Rush, Arkansas, Wayne’s life was filled primarily with adults. His only sibling was a half brother 17 years older. His dad, Cecil, had always wanted to be a lawyer, but made a living as a carpenter. Bessie, his mother, had dreams of being a veterinarian. She taught school. Neither went to college. Instead, they worked hard, kept open minds, and raised Wayne to follow his heart.
“We were poor hill people,” Wayne says, “so nothing went to waste.”
His great aunts made quilts, sun bonnets, and aprons, often from cotton floral-printed flour sacks.
“I was surrounded by fabric and loved seeing the different patterns come together,” he says. “I also loved to paint and draw, so I was always sketching and designing things as a kid.”
He started sewing when he was 8.
“I loved watching a neighbor lady, Aunt Mindy Maxey, sewing on a treadle sewing machine while I waited for the school bus at her house in Rush,” Wayne says. “She taught me how to pump the treadle and sew.”
At 14, Wayne started helping his father build houses. His first “real job” was building a home in Flippin in 1969 for $1/hour. But Wayne’s parents knew he would need more money than that to make his dreams come true. They gave him a few cows of his own when he was a young boy. Wayne nurtured his herd. With his cow money, his summer construction earnings, and a small loan, Wayne was off for the University of Arkansas at Fayetteville after high school graduation.
“I knew I wanted to do something creative with my life,” Wayne says. “Since I was always around construction sites and working at building houses, I decided to go to architecture school.”
He was working toward a double major in architecture and history when a woman from the theatre department gave a lecture one day about costumes throughout history.
Wayne was entranced.
He took every costume class offered, and loved the immediate excitement of seeing his work on stage.
“I discovered that I loved designing and making costumes,” he says. “There is a feeling of accomplishment when you make the pattern, cut and sew the garment, and see it worn on stage.”
He graduated from UA in 1978 with his sights on the theatre district in New York.
“My parents always told me I could do and be anything I wanted, so I give them a lot of the credit for allowing me to pursue my dreams,” Wayne says. “I knew I had to move to New York if I was truly going to do that.”
His dad drove him to the airport in Harrison in a snow storm. Wayne had $500 and a suitcase. He found his seat in the propeller plane, looked out the window, and saw his dad standing there, waiting for him to take off.
“I can remember thinking, ‘this is the moment my life changed,’” Wayne says.
He still chokes up at the memory.
New York, New York
Wayne got a job working in a costume shop in New York City, and enrolled in the Fashion Institute of Technology.
“I felt I needed better design and pattern making skills,” Wayne says. “It was while I was at FIT that a teacher recommended me to a designer in children’s wear. That moved me out of the costume world and into fashion and 7th Avenue.”
Wayne worked and learned, and each job he had gave him the skills he needed for his next job. He was lucky to meet the right people at the right time. By 1986, designer Carolina Herrera had found Wayne. She hired him to design CH, her first ready-to-wear collection, and Wayne’s career was launched.
“I was just a dirt poor kid from a farm in Arkansas,” he says, “and I was working for one of the top companies on 7th Avenue, seeing my designs in the windows at Saks Fifth Avenue and Bergdorf Goodman’s.”
During the next decade, Wayne designed suits, dresses, and evening wear for designers Adele Simpson and Helga, Inc. His designs were worn by First Ladies Lady Bird Johnson and Pat Nixon, and in the White House by Barbara Bush and Hillary Clinton, as well as by Secretary of State Madeleine Albright. Wayne has dressed Sally Jessy Raphael, Betty White, Doris Roberts, Jane Wyman, Eva Marie Saint, Ann Jeffreys, Joan Fontaine, Dionne Warwick, Katherine Jackson, Mary Alice Williams, Sue Simmons, and many other famous women.
“The teal wool suit Hillary wore during the open house on their first day at the White House was seen by lots of people,” Wayne says. “Having grown up on a farm in Arkansas and seeing Hillary wear a suit I designed for her was probably one of the best moments in my career.”
Wayne eventually moved to California where he was design director for Da-Rue of California before opening his own studio, WK Studio, where he creates all of his own patterns and still does much of the sewing for a handful of private customers. He still sells some of his designs at Melrose Alley Boutique in West Hollywood, consults in the fashion industry, and is now teaching fashion construction at Woodbury University in Burbank.
“I am happy,” Wayne says. “I’m enjoying teaching. It’s my chance to give back. The students are wonderful and their excitement and enthusiasm great. I’m also enjoying working for the Wallis Annenberg Center for the Performing Arts in Beverly Hills. I’m involved in the purchase of furniture, fixtures and equipment, and also in the design and building process so I get to use skills I learned back at the U of A.”
This May, Wayne was off to Paris with another Woodbury teacher, taking 16 students on a fashion design tour of Paris, Lyon, Milan and Florence.
The Heart & Soul of Wayne’s Fashion
What is it about fashion, about dressing beautifully and creatively, that makes a person’s heart sing?
“Most women want the same thing,” Wayne says, “to look good, feel confident and comfortable, and be appropriately dressed while still being current and fashionable.”
When he designs for a woman, he sits down with her and talks about what she wants, sketches ideas, and refines those ideas based on what she tells him.
“I love the process of making clothes,” he says, “picking fabrics, making patterns, sewing them up, and seeing them worn. I think it’s the creating something from nothing other than an idea that makes fashion so exciting and interesting for me. I love the process of taking a flat piece of fabric and turning it into a three-dimensional object that someone can wear. In a way it’s like building a house. You start with the foundation and go from there.”
One of his favorite fabrics is men’s-wear tropical-weight suitings. He loves the way they tailor and drape, perfect for the clean, uncluttered designs he creates now. He loves working with four-ply silk crepe, silk charmeuse, and lace.
“I am inspired by a wide variety of things,” Wayne says. “Architecture, art, nature, texture, they all give me inspiration. As a designer, I feel it is important to expose myself to many different forms of design and creativity. The architectural details on a building, the colors and light used in a painting, the gleam of a sculpture, the shape of a flower, the texture of a fabric give me ideas. The key is keeping an open mind and seeing something in a different way.”
Keeping an open mind…a gift from his parents. Wayne remembers sending photos of his designs home to his mom and dad from New York. His dad was always proud to show them off to his cattle farmer and construction friends.
“My son made this dress,” he would say.
“I’m proud that being a poor kid growing up on a farm in Arkansas with no running water or electricity didn’t stop me from following my dreams,” Wayne says. “The White House is a long way from the outhouse, I always say. I’m happy that I’ve gotten to do the things I’ve done during my career. It’s been exciting to see outfits I’ve designed worn by famous and not-so-famous women. I’ve loved being able to travel across the U.S. and Europe meeting really interesting people. I’m thankful that I met a partner who has been there for me for over 30 years.”
Wayne and his partner, Payton Silver, live in West Hollywood, but they make it back to the Ozarks every once in a while to visit family and friends. Wayne’s godmother, Rosemary Jones of Yellville, is the only one left from his childhood circle of adults. She’s 91.
“He has been a joy to me,” Rosemary says. “I always wished he was mine.”
Wayne made several suits for “Rosie” over the years, surprising her with beautiful clothing that fit her perfectly.
“He can do anything,” she says. “He painted my house when he was here. He’s a good cook. He always makes me a birthday cake.”
Wayne has other ties to Yellville. He is responsible for putting the Cowdrey House, now called the Red Raven Inn, on the National Register of Historic Places in 1978 as an architectural student project.
His hopes and dreams today?
“To continue to do good work and be creative,” he says. “To inspire my students and help them on their career path. To set a good example. To work to make my customers feel special. To continue to look for challenges that make me grow, and never stop learning.”
Underneath it all, Wayne is a Rush Creeker through and through.
“I’ll always be a farm boy from the Ozarks.”
M! June/July 2013
Designs from Wayne’s WKLA Studio: