A Resonance of Roots
written by Jen Namba photographed by Tim Sugden
It is a perfect summer day in Juneau, Alaska. Sweeping, snow-capped mountains tower above a crystal sea, beckoning tourists from their cruise ship balconies. Just off the pier, the sweet smell of fresh crab, the hum of friendly conversations, and the easy atmosphere of picnic tables and paper plates paint the picture of Tracy’s Crab Shack. It is here that a young college sophomore wakes up to her dreams.
Growing up in Alaska’s thriving capital, designer Shea Wilcox never really had fashion on her mind. She remembers dressing eclectically as a kid and being interested in sculpting and theater, but it wasn’t until the summer after her sophomore year at Oregon State that the idea of apparel design found her in that unlikely fast food pavilion.
Wilcox had been working towards a degree in public health at Oregon State, but decided to take a break from school following her sophomore year. “I didn’t feel like I could make a big impact in public health, so I decided to drop out,” she says. Instead of going back to her usual summer job of selling fine jewelry, she elected to work at the local crab shack, “just because it was outdoors and fun and steps from my house,” says Wilcox. During this brief season, she woke up one day and just knew. “The idea came to me like a beam,” she says. “I just woke up and felt resolved to go to the Art Institute of Portland.”
Wilcox entered the Institute determined to impact the world of women’s business fashion. “The need for me that I felt like I could fill was in professional wear for woman,” she says. “As a woman who had worked in fine jewelry for many years and had to wear suits, I had come to recognize that there seemed to be two narratives for professional wear for women: it was either frumpy clothes that didn’t fit you from the petite section of department stores, or the sexy secretary. I felt like there were no other options.”
At the Institute, Wilcox encountered the slow fashion movement. Disenchanted by current fashion trends, which are often associated with unsustainable goods and practices, Wilcox became an advocate for slow fashion, which encourages realistic production schedules, fair wages, and environmental accountability. During her first year of studies, Wilcox discovered Pendleton, a company that aligned perfectly with her deepening convictions, and one of the few vertically integrated companies left in the American clothing manufacturing industry.
“When I first visited the [Pendleton] mill in Washougal, I saw the old equipment there – the old 1930’s carding machine – and I felt really connected to it,” says Wilcox. “At home in Alaska, being from a pioneer family, you have things and you fix them. The guy who was working on the machine said he had been there for over 50 years and that he had to create his own parts when they broke because they just don’t make them anymore. I just felt really inspired by that. I felt a sense of electricity… Like that was a place I wanted to get to know.”
Four years later, and just three days after graduating with her BFA in Apparel Design, Wilcox walked into the career advising office with only one company on her mind: Pendleton. Known for its vivid colors and intricate designs, Pendleton seemed an unlikely career choice for Wilcox, whose personal design aesthetic plays more in pastels than in plaids. For Wilcox, however, working for Pendleton was not about a synergy of style, but a resonance of roots.
“I wanted to work for Pendleton because of its American Heritage; because it is still owned by the same family that started it six generations ago,” Wilcox says. “That’s something that’s in my heart, being the fifth generation of where I’m from. There’s a lot of pioneer homestead sensibility that I can really relate to, that really drew me towards working for this company. I didn’t apply anywhere else. I wanted to focus on something homegrown.” She was hired immediately and now works as a materials developer assistant, sourcing fabrics that the company doesn’t make, forecasting future fabrics, and choosing buttons and trims for future lines.
Although Wilcox loves her work at Pendleton, her real passion emerges in designing for her own eponymous brand. She revealed her initial line, Efflorescence, at Portland’s NXT Runway Show in 2015. Working in white, with pale pink and gold highlights, these soft, wintery looks tell the story of “a woman who does not bend when the frost comes, like a flower that keeps thriving and growing despite the snow.” A preview of her spring 2017 line just walked the FashioNXT runway last month. This collection, Opal Heart, plays in contrasts of sheerness and layers, and “the duality of fragility and strength,” as she describes it. The full line will be released in March and can be seen (along with her previous and future lines) at www.sheawilcox.com.
As Wilcox continues to expand her brand, she also seeks to spread awareness of the slow fashion movement. “I’d like to work more on the advocacy side of fashion,” she says. “The system of how we get our clothing is pretty messed up, and I’d like to help change that. This model where we have clothing made by people and ideas that we’re not connected to seems like a big disconnect.”
As for her future, designing and creating custom clothes for individual clients is where Wilcox ultimately sees herself. Her ideal client? “Princess Kate, 100 percent,” she says. “Her or Jackie Kennedy. But we’ll stick to Kate, since she’s still with us.” As for how Wilcox stays connected to current fashion trends and ideas, she claims to be the least “clicked in” person there is. “I don’t spend a lot of time reading blogs or anything for inspiration,” she says. “I find inspiration in clothes themselves. Sometimes I don’t even know what I’m sewing; I just let the fabric lead.”