Recent University of Michigan grad Katarina Kovac recently scored her dream job — working with designer Jenna Lyons. She reveals how she landed the gig and what it’s like to work in the fashion industry
By Rachel Schostak
Photography by Scot Orser
Most people don’t score their dream job straight out of college. But Katarina Kovac, who moved to New York after graduating from the University of Michigan this year, nabbed the position of a lifetime: working on a “secret project” with designer Jenna Lyons, the former creative director and president of J. Crew. (She can’t reveal anything about the venture, other than it’s set to launch later this year.)
For the 22-year-old, the gig is the culmination of three years of interning and freelancing in the fashion industry, where she’s done everything from writing for Vogue.com to helping plan the 2018 Met Gala. “I was one of those workaholic kids who did a million internships,” says Kovac, who grew up in Lake Orion. “Every job you take will be a stepping stone to another one, and that process becomes more refined as you learn what you like and don’t like. I’ve since found my happy place.”
Can you share a bit about your fashion journey?
I have a Croatian-born mother who has always had a taste for style. I realized early on the power that clothing has to make you feel seen, understood, confident; it was a catalyst for growth and empowerment.
Coming from a small, conservative town, there was a level of sameness that I experienced. The fashion industry gave me a taste of constant change and flux, which I was immediately drawn to.
What inspired you to get into the industry while in college?
My parents wanted me to focus on the financial side of fashion, rather than the creative side [so] I decided to start out as an economics major. This didn’t last long as I found myself crying week after week after taking countless exams that I fell short in.
One day I printed out about 100 profiles of successful fashion industry executives who majored in things like English or art history. I placed them on my parents’ kitchen counter. Eventually they began to realize that it isn’t the degree that matters, but what you do with your time and energy that gets you to that next step. That night, I changed my major to English.
My freshman year, I interned in New York for Rebecca Minkoff in social media and PR. That job essentially opened the floodgates for me, as I made relationships that led to numerous New York Fashion Week jobs, a position at Vogue, and more.
How did you score a job with Jenna Lyons?
I often joke that I stalked her for four years until she gave me the time of day. I sent her letters, stopped her on the street whenever I saw her, and would attend events she was speaking at.
Freshman year in college, I read an article in which she proudly exclaimed that she was in a relationship with a woman — and my world did a 180. Coming to terms with my sexuality was something that I struggled with for many years. I didn’t think that someone who looked like me, or was interested in the things that I was, could be in a relationship with a woman. She changed my life in every sense of the word.
What’s been the most exciting part of working in the industry so far?
Helping plan and execute the Met Gala in 2018. I had an almost out-of-body experience having conversations with people like Sarah Paulson and Gigi Hadid, and then attending after-parties with the likes of Jennifer Lopez. The young girl within me that fell in love with the fashion industry has never been more proud than on that day.
What are some of your highlights / accomplishments you are proud of during your years at the University of Michigan?
My biggest accomplishment during my time at the University of Michigan would be joining the Michigan Fashion Media Summit (MFMS) as the Chief Operating Officer during my senior year. I was involved in other fashion related organizations on campus up until that point, yet nothing was quite like the MFMS. Leading a team of 54 students while trying to plan and execute a 700+ ticketed event with 19 professional speakers, all while trying to juggle 20 academic credits, was unlike any experience I will probably ever have. It tested me to the greatest extent both physically and mentally.
Unfortunately, due to COVID-19, we had to cancel the summit, which was an incredibly hard pill to swallow. Above all, I had to make sure that I was evoking an understanding to the team that our seven months of hard work were not wasted. At the end of the day, the MFMS was created to increase student’s educational opportunities within fashion and media here on a campus that gives little attention to those industries, and through our efforts throughout the duration of the year, we accomplished just this. It feels great to leave behind a legacy of some sort over in Ann Arbor for the next group of students to continue to nurture and evolve.
Who inspires you in the business world?
My team right now is made up of the most talented individuals that I’ve ever had the ability to work with. As a young person entering the workforce, it’s very rare that you receive the opportunity to work directly with very senior people at the office. I couldn’t feel more fortunate to be in the unique position that I’m in that allows me to do just that. I get the privilege to be able to work next to people like Jenna Lyons, Kyle DeFord, Sarah Clary, Brett Bouttier, Marcy Roberts, Johanna Langford, Lisa Lundy, Lauralynn Drury, Tommy McQueen, Rory Clark, and more; the most talented and passionate individuals who each carry a legacy of a career behind them. They make sure that as the youngest person in the room, I know that I always have something to contribute, which is invaluable and something that I never take for granted.
Are you a native Detroiter? What do you love most about your community?
I was born in Rochester and raised in Lake Orion, a suburb about 40 minutes north of Detroit. Both of my parents work in downtown Detroit, and my sisters and I spend a lot of time on the weekends exploring new shops and restaurants together. It’s been so incredibly beautiful to see Detroit’s resurgence as the community strengthens and business grows back. There’s nothing I love more than the resilience of Detroit and its community; we all share a deep understanding of the history of the Motor City and a tangible appreciation for what it stands for in the greater cultural history of this country. There’s a certain energy to Detroit that doesn’t exist anywhere else.
You spent the past 4 years in Ann Arbor. Can you share a few of your favorite local spots?
Ann Arbor is one of the most beautiful, spirited towns I’ve had the privilege of living in. The whole city rallies behind the block M, and there is an understanding of support and camaraderie that never ceases. The bustling downtown has something for everyone; some of my favorite restaurant spots are Zingerman’s (a #2 reuben please), Frita Batidos, Aventura, Mani, and Insalita. My favorite coffee shop is Roo’s Roast (the Friday breakfast burritos never disappoint), and my favorite place to simply hang out or read is the Literati Bookstore.
Our August issue focuses on travel. Where’s your dream travel destination in Michigan?
I would love to travel to the pictured rocks in Munising! I’ve seen pictures from friends and it is absolutely breathtaking. I’ve been to many places on the west side of the state, and my favorite thus far would have to be the Sleeping Bear Dunes. There’s nothing quite like getting to the top of a dune and looking out onto the endless horizon that is Lake Michigan.
Three words to describe your style?
Chic, tomboy, casual.
When you’re back in Michigan, where do you shop?
Your current “must have” item?
A pair of Sacai x Nike sneakers. Jenna got me hooked on them.
Your most cherished item in your wardrobe/closet?
A Khaite dress that I purchased with my first official paycheck.
Do you have a style icon? Who?
Every time I get dressed I do a, “What would (Jenna Lyons, Leandra Medine, Karla Welch, or xxx) do?” scenario.
You’re never fully dressed without …
A coat of Chanel le Volume Mascara. Does that count?
Favorite quote or words to live by:
“If you don’t go after what you want, you’ll never have it. If you don’t ask, the answer is always no. If you don’t step forward, you’re always in the same place.”
Head to toe outfit details: