"Interview by Suzanne Stroh."
February 5, 2006. Wendy Pepper’s living room is a work in progress. Enticing picture books are stacked six and seven high on the hardwood floors, acting as makeshift coffee tables. Mannequins stand around blithely in various states of undress. Solar power drives a lighting experiment. The afternoon sunlight bends through moving crystals and dances on the floor, walls and ceiling. An impromptu guest has just left and taken her adult-theme conversation with her. The children return. My four year-old daughter and I are staring at two lipstick red futon chairs that look like Wendy adopted them after an “Austin Powers” film shoot.
Wendy Pepper (Studies my daughter studying her chairs.) Pippa, what do you think of the red?
Pippa I love it!
WP (Relieved) So I chose the right color. (Turns to Suzanne.) From overstock.com. I knew I needed chairs for my salon pad here. I didn’t want to get, you know, actual furniture. Because it’s too permanent. What I love about this overstock.com is, you can’t get what you want! So when I saw the re shag acrylic I was like “buy it, baby—because those things need homes, OK?”
Suzanne Stroh To the rescue!
WP I am going to provide the loving home for these, these—creations. And when I get my [fake yule] logs, right? This is gonna be, like, the major crash pad of all time.
SS You have great saloniste instincts. Where else can you come in Middleburg and your first conversation is about why sexual predators always carry Tums? I mean what was that about?
WP (Laughs.) Absolutely, OK? We are open to all things here.
SS Were you always an intellectual?
WP No. But I was a rebel. I was out of place in polite society, but now I find at this point in my life, that’s what I like to create in my work, pieces that are well-thought out and feminine, with refinement.
SS Gentle society had its way with you.
WP I rebelled against it, now I’m trying to reintroduce it to the world.
SS Do you remember the turning point?
WP In college. I love travel. I went to Nepal as a student of the Tibetan language [for three and a half months], and it was there that I first responded to fiber arts, away from all the influences of this society. Fashion is the most intriguing expression of cultural interaction. It’s omnipresent.
SS: So give me the download on Project Runway. How you heard about the show, that whole thing, and why you think they picked you. Because they pilloried you in the end.
WP Of course. In their wildest dreams I don’t think they imagined they would find a contestant like me. To find a woman in her forties, the mother of a young child, I mean what could be more powerful, who is totally opinionated, competent—
SS: And you were trained.
WP Actually I wasn’t trained. I was trained as an anthropologist but I didn’t go to fashion school. I had nothing to do with the New York industry. I apprenticed. I found individual people to teach me every single thing that I know how to do. It took me twenty years. And now I can do every single aspect of it.
Everyone associated fashion with this complete disconnect from real life. And I was this critical link, one of the main reasons [Bravo] gathered the wide viewership that they did. People were like “holy shit, that’s close to what it would be like if I went on that show!”
I was married to Robert. [Robert Downing, still her husband, although they now live apart—but still within a few miles of one another.] I was making dresses in my basement for local clientele. I had put together a couple of fashion shows. I was really struggling with the call to develop my career based on my limitations—small town, small child, that’s my first responsibility—to create the environment to raise my child in. But I had this desire to make high fashion clothing. So I was struggling with that conflict.
SS But your clothes were incredibly appealing. I mean women wore them to society balls in Washington.
WP I make beautiful clothes. There was no question about my ability. But in fashion, especially, if you’re not in New York, if you’re not in L.A., that says that you are irrelevant.
So in a way, back to Project Runway, it was very compelling to viewers. Here was somebody who has made a choice to NOT do the mainstream thing in their career. And yet it was obvious that I was good. So for all the people watching the show who are good at what they do, yet because of choices they’ve made they’re not right in the center of whatever career they’re in—I touched off a nerve across all kinds of career paths. Any woman who has chosen family over her career could relate. That’s why I made a strong statement. I wasn’t just a fashion designer. If you look at a lot of people on the show [Project Runway’s first season]—take Austin Scarlett, he’s a fashionista, dramatic, kind of artistic in his personality.
But me, I was like a lot of women over twenty with things like mortgages, and children, and divorces, and all these things that come up. You have this worry: can I continue to function in a career with the young people coming up behind me saying: “Well you’re old. So you have nothing to offer.” So I stood up on that show and said, “Well you’re young. And I really don’t know what YOU have to offer.” And I think it was brilliant that they [the producers] would have the nerve to turn that around!
I’m not about the youth-centered culture. I’m about: If you have a couple of miles under your belt, I’d much rather be working with you. So I think they couldn’t have anticipated that tension. And then of course they exploited it.
SS Tell me about your audition.
WP I flew down to Miami, right, with six dresses. Finley stayed with her dad [Wendy’s former husband, who also lives nearby]. My dad met me. He was the official dress holder. I stood in line with all these incredibly flamboyant sort of young, hotsie-tootsies. It was very intimidating. I had that pit-of-the-stomach feeling like, “Oh my God, there’s no way I can compete with the flamboyance.”
Fashion’s an awkward fit for me because I’m all about serving my client. I’ve always been envisioning something worn on the person I’m designing for, as opposed to creating something myself. I redede into the background, which is what I think a proper designer should do. But now it’s about: how much attention can you draw to yourself?
So standing there in line with hundreds of people, I mean one was more crazy than the next, and I remember thinking, “this is not going to go well at all.” Well the one thing I can do very well is speak. So when they asked me what I wanted to do on the show, it was great.
SS When they said why do you want to be on the show.
WP I said I wanted to be the next great American fashion designer. They kicked me upstairs immediately. They were intrigued that I’d obviously done my research, and I didn’t feel the need to gild that lily.
SS What was it like upstairs?
WP They wanted to see how you worked with the camera. That first experience of going up there, those lights that are on you! And you’re miked. You have no idea how you’re going to respond to something like that, whether you’re going to become very quiet or whatever. It was profound. I was like, “good to go!” I was very comfortable.
(At that moment, Pippa enters in a wild fairy creation of her and Finley’s design using scraps from Wendy’s workbench. There is a problem with Pippa’s stilettos. She wants to strap them on.)
WP Come here, dear. Can I fix it for you? Yesterday, Pippa, we had a sewing machine here for children.
P Wow. (Turns to Suzanne) Can I go out in this dress?
WP What if we brought people in here to you?
(This seems to satisfy my daughter, and off she goes in search of same-age company.)
SS What was in your audition video?
WP Well first of all it was total shit because I didn’t have a video camera. I had 24 hours to make my video after I got chosen in Miami. So I had to fly back here, borrow a video camera. I got a couple friends to come out [from Washington.] Once a year there’s a Civil War re-enactment at Mount Zion Church about ten miles down the road. And they were doing it that day. And they’re very particular.
SS Do you remember that, growing up at Oatlands [the historic estate nearby]?
WP My mother grew up there, so no, I had never seen it. I asked them to relax their rules and let me film “my models walking through your re-enactment because this will give my video local character.” I said “I feel like it’s really important that I establish that I’m from Virginia, I work in Virginia, and my esthetic emanates from the geography, the feel and the history.” They were real purists over there, but I begged. And pleaded. And we ended up filming these wonderful vignettes of modern feminine women walking among these Colonial women.
In one of the most powerful scenes, I had an African American model barefoot on a horse, and she’s showing off her dress to a Caucasian woman in Colonial dress, and they’re interacting in this really interesting way that of course reverses the power equation if you look at it historically. Because I’m interested in the role of fashion in defining women in society and history. Like you never see me in the video except tangentially until the very last frame. I just didn’t make it about me. I made it about my work. Tim Gunn [one of the producers] later told me that was one of the reasons they chose me. They let me know about a week before filming started in August.
SS Which was basically like you had to completely organize your life in a week.
SS For three weeks?
WP Three and a half weeks—if you lasted.
SS So your mom, [your husband and your former husband]—everybody ponied up to support you in this last-minute career opportunity?
WP Everybody was there for me, but the most important person was my mother: “Just leave Finley with me, and if you go for two days or if you go for three and a half weeks, that’s fine with me.” That was the permission I needed. Which was: this fashion business is not going to adversely affect a five year-old. I could call Finley once a day, that was my one phone call. I’d get on the phone, (jokes) Finley would be like, “I ain't got time for you.” It’s like the only contact I have with the outside world and I’m like: “No! Come back!” (Laughs.)
SS When did you start to get a feeling that they were playing you? I mean they made you up, right?
WP No. I have a trickster side to my personality. I thought, I’m gonna play with this a little bit. I’m gonna stretch a few assumptions. I’m gonna throw in a couple of things that I know, from a visual standpoint, are gonna be curious. Like people aren’t gonna know exactly what I’m up to.
And then when I got there and I felt this incredible concern, among other people, about how they were coming across, my response was to do weird things. Why would you wear a lab coat, peroxide your hair and wear really ugly makeup to forward your career? Well that’s exactly why I did it.
SS So those were all your own choices.
SS To stand out? It’s like an evolving strategy.
SS Did you watch any reality TV before this?
WP I had watched Survivor. I definitely had a strategy. And my strategy was, “you’re not gonna know where the hell I’m coming from.”
SS “I’m gonna mix you up.”
WP Totally. I need to mix it up almost every day cause I need to keep my competitors off balance.
(The conversation turns to the business plan Wendy is writing to attract capital partners in her fashion brand, Wendy Pepper.)
SS What were you saying a month ago about your tag line? It’s “Timeless.”
WP It’s “Timeless” for a reason. I would like to design a piece of women’s clothing in such a way that she could gain or lose ten pounds, because that is pretty much a reality for most women I know, and certainly for me. I would like to know that a piece of clothing could endure the test of my natural habits. I would respond to a designer who would acknowledge that that was normal! I feel that any designer who works for women has to understand that. Our lives are in constant flux.
SS In my area of special interest, outdoor technical clothing and gear, the growth of sales has been driven by this. I mean how do you think Descente has been selling one-piece ski suits for fifteen years? Because they have fabric innovation every year. And these are real innovations.
WP I’ve given the textile chemist [I’m working with] a list of properties that I think would be ideal for this product. Fitness wear has exploded, borrowing from fashion. You now have designer sportswear. For those of us who are not athletes, we face the same challenges every day. Temperature control. Humidity. Wicking. Give and stretch memory. Wash and wear. I’m going to borrow from athletic wear because our general lives are very athletic in nature.
SS Are you going to have to give up your high-end, private-label-Wendy-Pepper self to pursue the mass market if your plan gets you the funding you seek?
WP No, I’m going to do them both.
END OF INTERVIEW