Indie-Fashion Pioneer Reveals Secret To Her Success

Wendy Mullin, the indie mastermind behind Built By Wendy shares her thoughts on Do-It-Yourself Cred, Courtney Love, and the difficulties of being a small design label.


It isn’t very often you get to meet someone whose career you’ve been following for decades, and furthermore watched emerge from the back pages of your favorite magazine into a full fledged international success. However, such is the case when PSFK recently was able to catch up with Built by Wendy designer Wendy Mullin, no doubt on her way to putting the finishing touches on her newest piece.

Considered by many to be one of New York’s most established independent designers, this native of Chicago founded her company in 1991 while studying at the University of Kansas before moving to New York in 1992 to study at FIT. While working part time at two prominent downtown independent record stores she set up mini clothing boutiques within each store to sell her much coveted clothing and guitar straps. In addition, she also became a fixture in both the music and art scenes working as a costume designer and stylist for music videos for influential bands such as Sleater Kinney and Pavement, and as a freelance designer for Kim Gordon’s X-Girl collection, as well as Mike D’s X-Large.

Growing further, in 1995 she began wholesaling her own Built by Wendy collection and acted as a founding designer in the Steven Alan showroom. Now 20 years after the launch of her first collection, Wendy Mullin is still going strong with multiple stores nation wide, and a celebrity clientele which includes Sofia Coppola, Zooey Deschanel, Kathleen Hanna, Jack Black, Parker Posey, Andy Samberg, Kirsten Dunst, Michelle Williams, Kristen Wiig, James Franco, and Chan Marshal from Catpower amongst other well known names. Below, Wendy was able to answer a few long-held questions by us, as well as give some insight into her upcoming plans.

First off, I should say I’ve been a big fan of Built by Wendy since I read in Seventeen Magazine a long, long time ago that Courtney Love wore your guitar straps. That was pretty much the pinnacle of coolness, and since then I’ve always kind of associated you with the DIY/ Riot Grrl movement of the 90’s. Would you also consider yourself part of it, or was it more incidental?

When I think of the DIY movement I think more of people doing things themselves as an alternative. So for bands–they couldn’t get their music put out by major label record companies so they would put them out themselves or for writers who couldn’t get book deals with a major publisher, they would self publish. I started my company 20 years ago when I was sewing out of my apartment making clothing, I was a student developing my style. Once I moved to NY I was selling my line to stores all over the world like Barneys and Browns in London. I wasn’t selling them myself as an alternative to selling to major stores. I wasn’t making a statement to be alternative. I think my association had to do with when I first started and sewed all my clothes myself–that was for a year about 20 years ago. My company has grown and changed a lot since then. I think my association was more incidental and socio economic–if I had money I would have hired a design team and had runway shows at Bryant Park–but I’m not independently wealthy or have investors. I did and still do have a lot of friends in the music industry who supported the stuff I made–they range from Hip Hop to Rock to some Riot Grrl type bands. It seemed though when I started getting press in the mid-90′s it coincided with the Riot Grrl movement getting a lot of press and I fit into that story.

Between your pattern-making and your recent book, you seem to truly be spreading the gospel of DIY. What do you think sparked your interest in this?

I do my own pattern-making because I can do it faster, better, and cheaper than hiring a pattern-maker especially under the quick turnover time of fashion seasons. So it makes sense business wise to do that. I wrote the sewing books because I felt I could share my knowledge in a unique and understandable way to people who want to design clothing, the kind of book that wasn’t out in the market–combining sewing, pattern-making, and design.

When did you know the time was right to open up your first shop?

I opened by first shop by a chance opportunity. My Brooklyn, LA, and SF stores were because I had a large customer base in all those places so it made sense to bring BBW to them.

Do you still come by your store, or at this point are you more of a behind the scenes designer?

Yes I visit my stores all the time. I’m very hands on with my business.

How do you decide what will be each season’s theme or pattern?

I decide based on my current seasonal inspirations–here are a few: http://www.builtbywendy.com/about/collections/spring-2012-collection3/

How do you think the line has matured since you first started it?

With more success–i.e. money–I am able to work with better quality fabrics and design my own prints. Also, as I get older I have more of an archive of designs which push me to go forward with expressing newer and newer ideas.

Given the massive rent hikes and overall rise in cost of living here, if you were just starting out today do you think you would still come to New York to start your line?

Yes since this is the base of fashion in the US. I would just live out in Bushwick like people in their 20′s are doing. 20 years ago when I started it was the Lower East Side.

Where would you like to see BBW expand to?

I’m expanding into childrenswear.

These days high/low and big/indie collaborations seem to be everywhere. If you could team up with any major company, who would you envision it being?

When I designed a line for Wrangler Jeans (Wrangler 47) in 2003-06, it was exciting to pioneer the big/indie type collaborations that are everywhere now. Wrangler was on a long list of classic brands that I loved and wanted to help bring back to its heritage roots. I’d love to do something like that with a childrenswear for classic American brands like Osh Kosh or Carter’s. Or someone like Marimekko.

What advice would you give to any smaller designers out there that are looking to turn their side gigs into full-time businesses?

Learn how to do business or have a business partner so you can focus on what you are good at.

Thanks Wendy!
Built by Wendy

Check out some images from Wendy’s Spring Collection below:

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