The Built By Wendy Renaissance

A conversation with Wendy Mullin about her origins, her future, and even Prince.

The Built By Wendy Renaissance

Wendy Mullin is, of course, the Wendy behind the iconic Built By Wendy clothing line. Founded in the mid-nineties, Built By Wendy typifies a moment in design and culture, but at the same time stand apart as a completely unique phenomenon unto itself. Wendy trailblazed as an independent designer who controlled her own production, owned her own label, and her own stores. However, looking back from 2016, it is hard to name that many fellow designers who were able to keep their independence for as long or as successfully as Wendy.

The closing of Wendy’s landmark store on that one block stretch of pure charm known as Centre Market Place probably says a lot about broader trends in retail, but nothing about the strength or relevance of Wendy’s collection, which is currently in the midst of a renaissance. Built By Wendy has always existed in close dialog with independent rock culture, but for much of it’s existence it was characterized by a decidedly preppy vibe. However, for the current collection she is drawing her inspiration has shifted to such things as the bright colors of the Benetton ‘80s.

The reason I know all of this is because Wendy told me! Check out the interview for yourself.

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Your collections from the beginning have always been fun, DIY, and democratically affordable. How have you managed to maintain that vibe while still growing your brand?
I’m very DIY in the sense that I don’t have a team of people, it’s just me. Everything I design originates from me personally. I have always tried to make clothing that me and my friends would wear and could afford. I manage to make my line affordable by basically just not making a lot of money myself. It can be frustrating since more money would help me make more things but I also feel lucky that I can make a living off my creative endeavors.

From your record store beginnings to your guitar straps to just the general rocking predilections of your fans, you’ve always seemed to be a leading voice in the dialog between the cutting-edges of fashion and music. Is this something you consciously pursue? Is it something that continues with the new collection?
Not really. The music connection was just organic in the sense that I worked at records stores when I was first starting out and had a lot of musician friends. But I also had lots of artist and entertainment friends as well. I would say my influences change every season like most designers, and it is usually a combination of things whether it’s a movie or a book or a character or vibe that I feel connected to personally.

Given that Prince is listed as your formative childhood design inspiration, I wondered if you’d like to offer your thoughts on the late Minneapolis Genius.
He was really great and special and when I first made clothes I sold them at a record store in Minneapolis which I think he has something to do with. Being from Chicago, I loved that he was a rock star that did his own thing and chose to have his home in the Midwest. He always seemed like an outside superstar and I think that influenced me to just do my own thing on the edge of an industry. Basically, be independent. Also, I saw the Purple Rain tour and one of the dancers did some dance where it looked like she was giving Prince a BJ and it kind of blew my mind, it was so crazy. AND I did a dance recital to Little Red Corvette in summer camp and still know the moves.

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I have always tried to make clothing that me and my friends would wear and could afford. I manage to make my line affordable by basically just not making a lot of money myself. It can be frustrating since more money would help me make more things but I also feel lucky that I can make a living off my creative endeavors.
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Will you miss the Brick and Mortar Built By Wendy experience and the Centre Market days? Do you have some favorite recollections from that era? 
I loved having my own shops but now things are so different and when I walk around on a rainy Tuesday and see bored shopkeepers with no biz, I’m relieved I’m not hemorrhaging rent money. Most of my favorites times were just friends popping by and hanging out except for Parker Posey whose dog always peed and pooped on the floor (Gracie!!) hahaha. It was always nice to see out of towners come by, that my shop was on their To Do list.

Although you’re time off was brief, the time to reflect offered you a chance to evolve as a designer? Is there anything new about your approach to the new collection.
It’s just a continuation of the general influences I’ve had for years. I used to do a lot of twist on preppy classic stuff but once that got so regular I got over it and got more into a nostalgic sexy 80’s thing starting in 2010 and more overtly with my last collection in 2012. I really wanted to do a simple line after coming off of so many styles and fabric and colors every few months, it made me nuts, so I did this line in 2014 called Soft Rock which took many of my 2012 elements: one fabric, several styles and in many colors. I feel like I’ve evolved in the sense that I don’t need to provide everyone with everything; having my stores I felt pressure to have tees, jeans, coats, sweaters, fancy dresses, everyday stuff. It was great but as a one woman design and production team it was too much, plus I had a kid and party over. Now it’s freeing to just make a small simple line without a lot of pressure. It’s pretty mellow. But in a fantasy world I would love to be just a creative director for my own company or someone else’s so I had the resources to design the shit out of everything. That would be the most fun.

The new collection references the 1980s at its most brightly colored. What led you to this style?
I’ve been feeling the monochromatic vibe for awhile now. The simplicity of a comfortable uniform is very appealing. The 80’s had a sexy and fun vibe and I’m feeling that. It’s also sort of artsy and weird and rebellious but happy. I always loved Esprit and Benetton and euro brands like Naf Naf and Ton Sur Ton were inspirations in many of my collections over the years. But mostly, I can’t deal with all the workout clothes outside the gym and I think this new line is for the women who want to be cute and comfy but not letting it all hang out. For this line I wanted to make a handful of shapes that are easy to wear and clean and you feel good in. After designing for 25 years I have things I always wear year to year and many of these shapes will just be what I grab when I go on vacation.


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