Sari Carel


CHEWING THE FAT WITH WENDY MULLIN

 

Wendy on the board

Designer Wendy Mullin doesn't like to do fashion shows. Making the stuff, that's what it's all about. More an arts and crafts diva than your usual fame-hounding bitch, Mullin's god is in the details. Her retro chic clothes sport an array of buttons, pockets, and buckles, and her guitar straps give yet another good reason to really concentrate on a rock star's backside. I spent an afternoon at the Built By Wendy headquarters, grilling Wendy, while watching Bandit deconstruct the day's trash. Sari Carel: I understand since the beginning there was always a connection for you between clothes and music. How did that come about? Wendy Mullin: I really like music. It's always playing when I'm working, and so it becomes part of the process, I guess. But I also used to work in record stores. When I first started making clothes, I was in Kansas. It was '89-'90 or something, and there weren't really any boutiques that carried the kind of the stuff I was making, whereas now, there is a million places that cater to this market. At that time, there were either womens' conservative clothes or just punk rock. I remember doing a trade show, and showing my stuff, and the press would come in, and they would be like, “What's your deal, what is this market?” And I was thinking, “I don't know, I just make the stuff 'cause I like it”. So I would end up selling my stuff at record stores. SC: Because there wasn't a niche for it then? WM: No, not really. It was like either fancy stores or teenage stores, but teenage clothing was really stupid looking. There wasn't Steven Allen or TG 170, just a few record stores, that sold punk rock clothing, and that was where I could sell my clothes. So I would make dresses and tops, and sell them with the punk rocker weird clothes, and the Doc Martens, and all that. So they were all music oriented places, but the clothes were just for girls like me. When I moved up to NYC, I started to work at a couple of record stores, and they would let me have a little area in the store for free, and I would sew every night, and would sell the stuff the next day.

SC: Like bread. WM: Yeah, exactly. SC: Were you always making clothes? WM: Yeah, I started sewing when I was about 14, in '84, 'cause my mom and my grandma sewed, and I took Home-Ed classes. And my mom taught me how to work with patterns, and I would take vintage clothes and take them apart and make them fit nice. I just liked things that fitted right. I would take my dad's pants and cut them, and make a skirt, jeans, and all that. Then I moved out to NYC and met up with Steven Allen, and at the time he was really interested in what I was doing, and there wasn't really any representation for someone like me. He started showing my stuff in '94, and slowly, I started whole-selling more, and then opened the store. SC: So initially you weren't really interested in fashion, but much more in the sewing aspect of clothes making? WM: Yeah, it's still kind of what I'm about. My whole background is obsessed with home-sewing and the handmade and chosen. I spent all my time going to fabric stores, finding weird buttons, and learning how to sew. That's why I don't really like doing fashion shows, that's secondary. I like making the stuff and I don't really care about what happens next. SC: Very non-glam . . . WM: It's more fun for me to actually make the clothes. If I weren't doing this, I would probably be an arts and crafts teacher. I just like making things, and if I wasn't doing this, I would probably be doing something else, which revolves around the craft of putting something together, and concentrating on the details. This just happens to be the medium that I ended up using. When I make my clothing, I don't really think about what is fashionable. I don't really think about looks, or in terms of styling. A lot of designers are more like stylists, and the design comes later. Or some people are more architectural, and they think about shapes and forms. Mine is more of a home-sewing vibe. I start with small little things like, “That would be a cute shape”, or “It would be fun to work with this fabric and see what I can make”. But I don't really think, “The look for next Fall is going to be military or scuba diving”. There isn't really a concept. I am trying to do that more, thinking more in terms of a project or a theme. Like Summer Camp (which ends up being my theme for everything). What would my counselor from Summer Camp wear for Spring, and that would be in my head. SC: Was Summer Camp such a great experience? WM: Summer Camp was not a great experience at all, but for some reason Summer Camp inspired most things that I've done. I don't know why. I should probably go see a therapist. I mean it was fine, I was kind of bummed out that my parents would send me away all Summer for five years, but there was definitely good times, and weird times. But for some reason Summer Camp combines all these things that I'm into, like crafts, sailing-a lot of innocent hobbies, and they have fun clothes that go with them. So it just seems like I perpetually think in terms of being 13 or 12. I've been designing for 11 years now, and most of the things are inspired from those years, drawing on nature, sports, and crafts. SC: There is a lot of nostalgia in what you're talking about, why do you think there is this process of constantly looking back to the past and mentally going there?WM: It seems like everyone is going back all the time. I have a bunch of friends who are 21, 22, and they are totally into the stuff from the '80s, and think it's super awesome. It's kinda freaking me out cause I'm 32 now, and they're like, “Have you ever listened to Bauhaus”, and I'm like “yeah”, and I show them pictures of me in a Bauhuas t-shirt. And I have all their albums. It's scary that it is already retro-ed, but when I started making stuff, I was taking it from the '60s and looking at pictures of my mom, and it seemed really fresh. I think everyone is nostalgic. SC: What do you think about the general pact between fashion and music-like MTV, or the Fashion Channel, which is basically an endless music video. I mean all you really need are some cute girls, some catchy music, and you got yourself a channel. Or that show that sucked really bad, that tried to combine the two on MTV, where there are bands playing live and some girls trotting around in fashion garb. It seems like they are always trying to plunder each other. It doesn't necessarily end up looking like a collaboration. What is your personal interest in this meeting between the two? WM: People always ask me about music, but I don't really think I make Rock n Roll clothes. It's not like Tommy Hilfiger looking at Lenny Kravitz and saying leather pants are Rock n Roll. I'm into music and maybe it comes out in my clothing. It seems that fashion people take from music too directly. I made pants and sweatshirts with a Neil Young song on it, for instance. The thing about music is that it is always in style. It's always cool, it's not trendy. A Neil Young song is always in style. Music is always fashionable. It's classic and for a reason. It's not like I'm into Pink, she's gonna be out of style in a day. I think the connection is phony it's not even a world I'm in at all. I don't listen to bands who win the Grammy Awards. I don't watch the VH1 Music Fashion Awards, it's not my scene, it's not the people I hang out with, it's not what I'm into. I don't care about Roberto Cavali, or Madonna, it's just not my world. It's also so not where I come from. Are all these designers, that secretly want this kind of success, are they nerding out on sewing machines? They don't even know how to sew, they are coming out from this style world. Hey, They are wearing t-shirts that say Jimmy Hendrix and cost $100, but can't even name one album. I'm not joking. SC: When did you first get into clothes? WM: When I was little, my mom would make me and my Barbie doll the same clothes, so me and my Barbie would be matching. So I was really into that, and that's probably where I got psyched. In high school, I started making my own stuff, I mean it was really ugly stuff, but it was fun for me to make it and learn the process. I wish I still had that stuff. I remember when Pucci was popular in the '80s. My mom helped me make a big Pucci print on a tent dress. Yeah, it was this really ugly purple and green dress, I was really psyched on that. And I had these green tights and my hair was all Mod, and I had black eyeliner and I thought I was really Mod and cute. My mom was really helpful. It's weird cause she was really good at sewing. She could make anything, she would make my dad suits and sweaters and stuff. She doesn't do that anymore and it's weird to be better than her, it's not right.

SC: Does she like your clothes? WM: Yeah, I just sent here a coat yesterday. I make her custom stuff. Like I made her a bag with a print of her dogs on it. SC: First you worked in Kansas where you went to school, then expanded to Chicago, where you're originally from, then New Yor

 

Wendy in prom dress