One of the next big names in fashion could hail from Juneau.
Shea Wilcox is one of four designers competing in FashioNXT’s Up/NXT Emerging Designers Development Program, part of Portland Fashion Week. The winning designer will receive a prize package that could jumpstart a new career.
Wilcox, who cut her creative teeth at Sitka Fine Arts camp, will be graduating from her apparel design program in December, and was disappointed to learn her school would not be producing a fashion show for her and her classmates to show their senior collections.
“We wanted to have a show,” Wilcox said. “Some of my classmates, I think, gave up.”
Not content to let her four-piece senior collection be retired to a closet without having seen the light of day — or the runway — Wilcox sought out another opportunity to show.
With encouragement from designer Wendy Ohlendorf, for whom Wilcox had worked, and an organizer of Up/NXT, Wilcox decided to audition for the competitive program.
“I went to the auditions and everything, and I think 15 people auditioned,” she said. “There were four of us that got picked.”
Wilcox found out she was selected on Aug. 20. She had four looks completed for her senior collection, but the minimum for Up/NXT is eight looks. She got to work doubling her collection in time for Portland Fashion Week, which runs from Oct. 7-10. She’ll show on Thursday, Oct. 8.
The judges for the competition include Lifetime reality television show Project Runway winners Seth Aaron (Season 7, All Stars) and Michelle Lesniak (Season 11), Wells Fargo Bank President Tracy Curtis, boutique owner Anne Bocci, Portland Monthly Style Editor Eden Dawn and Portland Mercury Managing Editor Marjorie Skinner.
She’s admittedly a bit nervous.
She was, however, unfazed by the deadline and said it was common to sew for 13 hours a day for days in a row working on projects. She said she feels lucky to have a supportive partner who will make late-night trips to the fabric store to retrieve thread.
Her collection, inspired by “a strong flower that doesn’t want to wilt in the winter time and just keeps going,” consists of feminine, tailored pieces in shades of cream, ivory and gold.
Some favorite pieces include a pair of gold trousers and a skirt and jacket set that is “like Chanel reinvented (but with better lines).”
More pieces were cut but not yet sewn when the interview took place in September, including cream, faux leather pants.
Some of her classmates poke fun at the designers who like to make frilly dresses, Wilcox said, but she stays true to her feminine aesthetic, drawing inspiration from the natural textiles she prefers to use and flowers.
She also stands out in her commitment to craftsmanship. She sought out a program that focused heavily on construction and tailoring, and doesn’t mind spending hours hand-sewing. One floral frock she drew from the closet was stitched entirely by hand during a train journey to California to see her father.
Though she said she always had “a weird sense of style” and consistently experimented with fashion, Wilcox initially studied Public Health when she began her pursuit of higher education.
It had seemed natural following her Girl Scouts service project creating a website with resources for teens in Juneau. After two years in that program, however, Wilcox realized she was frequently frustrated or angry with the state of public policy.
After returning to Juneau to work a summer at Tracy’s Crab Shack, spending her free time crafting, one morning she woke up with the realization that she needed to study apparel design.
She needed to be in a field that would allow her to feel happy every day.
She attributes her affinity for creative apparel design and craftsmanship in part, at least, to her arts education in Juneau. She began attending Fine Arts Camp in Sitka at the age of 13 and continued through her senior year.
She expressed an interest in applying to teach at Fine Arts Camp in the summer, helping to develop a fashion design or sewing program.
“I would love to give back to that community,” Wilcox said. “I love that place.”
If Wilcox wins the competition or is approached by an investor who wants to help her launch her own line, she may find herself tied up, whether she’s sewing custom pieces for clients or overseeing the manufacture — in Portland’s own garment district — a collection in a run of sizes for a boutique.
“My ultimate dream is that I go to the show and show my work and somebody wants to invest in launching my fashion brand. I hope that some experienced eye is there — Karl Lagerfeld sitting in the audience,” she said with a laugh.
And while she acknowledged it would be exciting to dress someone famous, she’s more interested in dressing working women who may not view couture as accessible.
It is expensive to buy a garment designed, crafted and sold in the U.S., but Wilcox hopes consumers will begin to be more connected to their clothes and the process, opting for fewer, higher quality and humanely made pieces over the fast fashion options that are so prevalent.
Though she has big dreams, she said she is going into the competition and the next steps in her life with few expectations.
“I’m just going to sew hard, show up and put my clothes out there,” she said.