Portland is known for unapologetically creating its own rules and marching to the beat of its own drum. Shea Wilcox is no exception. Known for her romantic and whimsy aesthetic, Wilcox is an up-and-coming womenswear designer who impressively created a fashion label and participated in multiple fashion shows all while still in school.
We sat down with the recent Art Institute of Portland graduate to chat about her experience as both a fashion student and business owner.
LAPTOPS & SMALLTALK: WHY DID YOU CHOOSE TO STUDY FASHION DESIGN?
SHEA WILCOX: Do you know when something is so obvious, but for some reason, you fail to see it? Despite always having a markedly experimental fashion sense, I didn’t know I wanted to be a fashion designer immediately from a young age. I grew up in an artistic community, with a background in sculpture and theater. Although creating with my hands was in my nature, I never figured myself getting into fashion. It wasn’t until half-way through a degree in public health I literally woke up one morning with a new direction. I don’t want to be cheesy and make it sound like some epiphany, but I really woke up one morning, totally resolved and ready to leap into this adventure.
L&S: FROM PORTLAND FASHION WEEK TO FASHIONXT, YOU'VE PARTICIPATED IN MULTIPLE FASHION SHOWS WHILE STILL IN SCHOOL. HOW IMPORTANT DO YOU THINK IT IS TO HAVE INDUSTRY EXPERIENCE WHILE YOU STUDY? DO YOU THINK IT'S NECESSARY?
SHEA: To be successful in any field, real world experience is necessary. Studying at a college or institution can be this dichotomy of being mind-opening while being insulating in many ways. In my experience, school is a really different environment than the outside industry, but you can really work that to your advantage. For example, I would always stack classes so that my projects could relate to each other in order to practice curating an idea from start to presentation. This really gave me an edge of having show-worthy pieces while still studying. From my perspective and interest in performance art, shows are important to me. That is why I have participated in so many shows, I really enjoy them.
I cannot stress the importance of internships! I was lucky enough to work with Wendy Ohlendorf for mine. She consistently provided real working knowledge about running a small business and techniques I wasn’t taught in school. She runs a really impressive operation for having such a tight knit, small team. I learned more practical things from Wendy in our 6 months together than I had in much of my schooling because the size of her business relates to the slow-fashion culture that is so important to me.
L&S: WHAT'S THE MOST VALUABLE LESSON YOU'VE LEARNED AS A STUDENT?
SHEA: Simply: show up! Show up to your commitments. Show up to support your peers. Most importantly, show up when you’ve made a mistake. Own it and work hard to make it right. The best opportunities come to people who are around! Volunteering and going to openings/launch parties of people/brands that you admire. All of these are great ways to break the ice and encourage familiarity.
L&S: WHAT'S THE MOST VALUABLE LESSON YOU'VE LEARNED SINCE GRADUATING?
SHEA: A great friend recently told me, “People with their own direction will come at you sideways”. No, but really! What that means is that there will be a lot of voices telling you to take a particular opportunity, make your collection “safer”, take a job, be in a specific fashion show, etc. Listen to almost none of these voices. I’ve learned that you have to listen very carefully to your inner voice, and not allow people to pressure you into making decisions. Not every job, show or exhibition is the right one for you/r brand and that is alright!
L&S: WHAT IS THE MOST VALUABLE PROMOTION TOOL AS AN EMERGING DESIGNER?
SHEA: I think you, yourself, is the most valuable promotion tool. Your personality and ethics will drive people to work collaboratively and being dependable will open so many doors. In a world where so much of our image is impersonally curated, old-fashioned manners will brew authentic connections with people.
After you, a social media manager is the most valuable promotional tool! They can provide a Birdseye view of your impact, direct content that matches your brand identity and clue you into media trends/events you wouldn’t otherwise be savvy to.
L&S WHAT ARE SOME OF THE CHALLENGES YOU'VE FACES AS A DESIGNER IN THE PORTLAND FASHION INDUSTRY? HOW HAVE YOU/ARE YOU OVERCOMiNG THESE CHALLENGES?
SHEA: Honestly, the largest challenges I’ve faced in the Portland fashion industry are mostly growing pains! I long for the fabric availability that larger cities have. I travel to LA frequently for material and inspiration. I don’t like to shop online for material but I am trying it out! It really flexes the patience muscle. Otherwise, I have faced a lot of opportunities in this great city.
L&S: HOW DO YOU SEE THE PORTLAND FASHION SCENE EVOLVING IN THE NEXT 5 YEARS?
SHEA: The best part about the Portland fashion scene is the comradery of the people in it. I feel like the design world here is very inclusive and supportive. This unique strong suit will likely cause compounding success for everyone as the gaze on Portland magnifies. I hope solidifying common values and supporting local manufacturing will cement our future, and provide an example for other emerging fashion communities.
L&S: WHAT ADVICE DO YOU WISH YOU'D BEEN GIVEN WHEN YOU STARTED YOUR BUSINESS?
SHEA: It is not the strongest species that survive, nor the most intelligent, but the ones most responsive to change.
L&S WHAT ADVICE WOULD YOU GIVE TO EMERGING AND UPCOMING DESIGNERS?
SHEA: You can’t do it all yourself! Get an accountant, get a stylist, and work with photographers whose aesthetic matches yours. Be uncompromising about choosing collaborations that reflect your ethos and don’t take people’s interpretations of your work too much to heart. Keep on learning and working and good things will happen!