If the Built By Wendy clothing label was an addiction, then the gateway drug was her guitar straps. They were ubiquitous in the ‘90s, when every other video on 120 Minutes showed a band member (usually the girl bass player) playing an instrument held on with one of Wendy’s signature, often-sparkly guitar accessories. The guitar straps were initially just an afterthought to her clothes; first sewn by hand and sold in a few record stores, then at her own shop on Center Market Street at the top of little Italy, and eventually, at the label’s height, available all over the world and at four signature retail stores in the US.
Designer Wendy Mullin was born and raised in the Chicago suburbs, and her clothes had a certain Midwestern cheekiness. For many years, the prevailing look was sexy ‘70s kindergarten teacher, but as the label matured, so did the style. Built by Wendy traveled from suburban finished basement to country club dining room; from her Midwest ‘70s childhood to the Metropolitan New York ‘80s teens and adults. Like any good designer, Wendy took retro influences and spun them in a totally unique way: she’d couple disco ruffles and bellbottoms with angular seams and zippers, make a thrift store horse painting into a silk screen and beat Stella McCartney to horse couture.
Unlike many designers from the grunge era who mistook retro influence as recreating their childhood clothing for adults, Wendy made her version of the clothing worn by the cool adults and movie stars from her youth. Sometimes she just created straightforward tributes to those influences on t-shirts, or as embroidery on dresses and shirts, from a depiction of Timothy Hutton in Ordinary People to loving portrait of Gilda Radner and Gene Wilder on a hoodie. She loved vintage Wrangler so much that she ended up collaborating with the brand for a line of shirts, jeans, and cords. Her clothes were chic, but her enthusiasm for her influences kept her style from ever getting boring.
Her clothes were always expensive, but her sample sales were legendary. Built By Wendy eventually because a regular name, not just in the upscale hipster’s home, but also in many a record/book/vegan baked goods store clerk’s closet downtown and in Brooklyn. When the economy collapsed, all but the original store closed, and last summer when the Little Italy flagship closed, and it wasn’t just the end of her stores, but the end of an era.
Posh parents are lucky as her promised kids' line has just begun to take pre-orders, but the online store for adults has yet to materialize. You can always build her clothes yourself with her line of sewing patterns, but I’m just not that craft advanced. Although I treasure my old “babysitter” tunic (pictured) and silk top screened with the sheet music to home on the range, it still feels strange to have so many seasons go by without a BBW sample sale to mark their passage. I don’t know what Wendy’s plans are at this point, but if she builds it again, we will come, to the internet, Little Italy, or anywhere else.