written by Mary Walsh | photographed by Tim Sugden
From an outsider’s perspective, fashion designer Wendy Ohlendorf’s professional life may look a bit like a game of pinball. This isn’t to say that it has been hectic, but that the designer shows determination and resilience, and knows when to restart and when to make her winning move. Moving from one end of the country to the other and holding an eclectic mix of jobs have led to the Big Win for Ohlendorf. With an extraordinary journey, she has discovered her true purpose and joy in fashion design. However, it isn’t just fashion design, but a highly artistic couture collection that surely gives tell to Ohlendorf’s former career in interior architecture and design. Spending the early 2000s hopping back and forth between the northwest and Florida, Ohlendorf decided to make herself a resident of the “Sunshine State.” After soaking up the sun for nine years, the self-proclaimed wanderer found herself searching for more.
“When I was down in Florida, I found myself super tan, really doing nothing,” says Ohlendorf. “I was just hanging out at the beach and at the pool, and bartending. There was this one day I was floating around in the pool, and I got to thinking to myself ‘I’m not getting any younger, I really need to be doing something.’ Right then I drove myself to the Art Institute of Tampa, and asked them what they taught there. They showed me the list and I said ‘ok, that one.’ I signed up that day for the School of Interior Design and Interior Architecture. So yeah, I can build you a house as well as the electrical and plumbing, and design your wardrobe. It was a really wonderful experience studying architecture for four years, which was also very inspirational.”
How did you circle back to Portland after that much time?
The world is a huge place and it’s full of inspiration, and you kind of have to go and float around. A few days after graduating, I was done with Florida. In the process of moving back to Portland, my friends in LA said that I would love California and I should just move there. So I moved to LA and I didn’t love it at all, I lasted 16 months. I was practicing interior design on a design team for various celebrities’ nurseries. There was a commission check from one of these high end clients, and I thought ‘I could pay off some student loans…or I could go home.’ Home sounded good and that’s exactly what I did. So I gave that lady my notice, cashed this check, drove myself and a couple of cats in my Honda, and up we came. After a while I came in contact with a friend who was driving the cast and crew of “Grimm” around. He managed to get me an interview, so I started driving a van…for a lot of hours.
What was the turning point for you and when did you realize you wanted to be a fashion designer?
During the summer hiatus for “Grimm,” I decided to take myself to Paris, France. I had never been to Europe and my friend was touring with a band, and he said that he would be spending three days in France for his birthday, so I decided to go celebrate with him.
On my flight over to Paris, I was flipping through a fashion magazine and bending the page with this one dress thinking to myself, ‘if I bend it the right way I can see that seam line.’ Then we were walking down this street and just by chance there’s that dress in a window. The real dress, right there in Paris. I was stopped dead in my tracks, it was totally crazy. It was also the moment my brain said to myself in my own head, as loud and clear as possible, ‘Wendy, you do not drive a van. You need to go home and do what you’re supposed to do and make your art.’ And I did that. I came home and listened to me, then dug out all my sewing equipment from storage and started making stuff in my dining room.
What is your opinion of the fashion industry in Portland?
Portland is fabulous. I can’t complain, it has been wonderful to me. Everyone here is really supportive. There is a wonderful network of not only supporters but people who help develop new talent and work to make the fashion industry a landmark here. Then of course we have awesome designers, and the people that come from the “Project Runway” background help put us on the map even more.
There is an awesome foundation here for local designers to be able to flourish and to make a living doing this. That’s all I do now is make dresses. It is possible in Portland to be able to substantiate that and to live. I have some clients that have several of my dresses and only come to me for their events. I make new ones and then people hear about me by word of mouth and it just keeps growing. I’m blessed and super grateful that’s the way it has gone for me. I couldn’t be more grateful that I get to make things that I think up with these hands. It goes from my head to my hands then into its new home. It’s been awesome and I think that many designers not only have that same ability, but I’ve seen many that have put forth that same effort and have really gone after their dreams to be in the fashion industry. Portland has really embraced that and helped that along.
Tell me about your involvement in the most recent FashioNXT.
It is always a pleasure to be a part of an above-the-bar production. FashioNXT strives to not only create an atmosphere that showcases designers to the fullest production level possible, but also what the audience doesn’t know is that the producers of Fashionxt support the designers year round with marketing opportunities to expand your brand beyond Portland by networking within the global community to help expand the reach of showcased designers.
I presented an expounded collection of designs. Built upon previously shown works earlier this fall; The Golden Forest brought to light my influence and inspiration of the work of artist Gustav Klimt. I was incredibly fortunate to collaborate again with Portland handbag designer Susan Fairchild of S. Fairchild Designs. She created a dazzling collection of beaded and chained leather evening clutches that were out of this world… and paired exquisitely.
From other designers I have spoken with, I hear that it is a very supportive community, as you say and that most people are about building up and encouraging each other. It’s a community for each other.
I definitely have experienced that, and also try to be a part of that. It’s not only about creating your own art, but if you’re giving back and helping to support the community at large, you only continue to build the strength of that community. I love those people. It’s super fun. One of the last Fade to Light shows was probably one of the best experiences. Backstage, everyone was having so much fun and it had such a great drama-free, positive energy which is what you want. I dig it a lot.
Can you tell me more about your pieces, and about the textiles you use? What inspiration do you draw from them?
I utilize mostly new fabrics, but I also take apart things and use the old fabrics when I can or the buttons or other small details from it that still have some life to live or stories to tell. I try to incorporate those things, or found objects, things from Etsy, just so they have that special something. Every few months I go down to LA and spend a few days in the garment district and ship back what I need and what’s been inspiring. I also have a running list of the projects that I need to collect for so I’ll go down and bring those things back up. I’ll use those until I run out, then back down for more. More often than not, the fabrics will speak to me and tell me what they want to be. Sometimes the fabric itself will tell it, or spark some inspiration. It’s like the Michael Angelo saying that when you chip away at the marble, you’re not creating it, it’s just becoming what it’s supposed to be. I feel that way often, especially utilizing the motifs in lace to overlap and create the effect that it is. Mostly, I use silks, fine silks, cottons…rayon is about the extent of my work into the synthetic lines. I really try to use mostly natural fibers and repurposing materials from other things.
Tell me more about your inspirations.
My things are often inspired by music, by film, a combination thereof, architectural lines, period themes such as Mod. Once the inspiration starts, then the music starts. I have to start thinking about what song I want on the runway, so then we start listening only in the studio to things that could possibly be on the runway. I create playlists of music that I feel could go with it, so it’s really inspired. The music is really getting invested into the pieces we’re creating.
How has working out of Seattle been going?
Seattle and I have embraced each other. It has been quite fun setting up and working in my Ballard neighborhood studio (located within the Venue Makers Space and Boutique).
I travel weekly between Portland and Seattle developing new client relationships, further developing existing ones, and designing for immediate availability at FlairWalk.
Ohlendorf has recently expanded into the Seattle market where she will continue to create her sculptural pieces in a workspace there. Not only does she have an excellent reputation as a couture designer, but she has an inspiring line of ready to wear. To experience Ohlendorf’s fabulous garments in person, check out the Multnomah Athletic Club Fashion Show or visit the upcoming holiday First Thursday at Flair Walk, where you will be able to not only purchase the designs, but meet the lovely artist herself. View her past works, get a sneak peek into her workshop, or keep up with her day-to-day by following her on Instagram @ohlendorfatelier or visiting her website.