Tallulah Willis doesn’t want to be thought of as another privileged celebrity child slapping her name on a clothing label.
Rather than trade on her Hollywood heritage — her mother is Demi Moore and her father is Bruce Willis — she sees this fashion venture as a way to distinguish herself. In an interview Friday, the youngest of the amicably divorced couple’s three daughters spoke openly about the downsides of growing up in the public eye and the impact that has had on her mental health.
Instead of distancing herself from that, Willis has interwoven a mental health component into today’s launch of the expanded Wyllis clothing label. Hang tags are printed with information about the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline and the National Alliance on Mental Illness Helpline. In addition, 10 percent of Wyllis’ proceeds will benefit the Loveland Foundation, which offers free therapy and healing to communities of color.
Candid about her mental health and body image issues, eating disorder and sobriety, she spoke about how the ultra-enhanced glare of the tabloids amplified those struggles. After entering rehab in 2014, an employee at the treatment center “stole” her intake form and sold it to the tabloids, she said.
“When I came out of treatment, there were stories everywhere. Pretty early on in my adolescence, I came to this understanding that I would rather just own it,” Willis said. “I would rather have the story coming out of my mouth than trying to hide, stay away, do damage control and massive p.r. It was really about ownership. There was kind of a freeing sense to just be able to talk about it.”
Having spent a lot of time with younger actors in the spotlight, she recalled how they were “hyper vigilant about what photos were taken, where they were taken, what they were doing and who they were with and if they were OK with that.”
That was never her deal. “I don’t know if it was my personality or this feeling of, ‘Why not?’” she said. “It’s kind of that age-old trick. If you make the joke first, they can’t really say anything. I think it came from being bullied [by the tabloids] at such a young age so publicly.”
That building confidence can be seen in her Los Angeles-based company. After introducing T-shirts and sweatshirts under the Wyllis label last season with brand manager Rachael Finley, Willis has unveiled a broader vintage-inspired collection that includes dresses, crepe pants, leggings, footwear and other new items. Finley guided her through the logistics — ideas, patterns, samples, fittings, sourcing fabric and zippers, selecting Pantone colors.
“I really didn’t know what I was doing,” Willis said. “I had all the ingredients but no recipe.”
Her venture into fashion was years in the making. As a high schooler, she interned for Rachel Zoe, who was then evolving into a designer. On the third day, after accidentally gouging her thumb with a packing tape dispenser, Willis said her main concern was damaging the gowns. “I kept thinking, ‘Please don’t let this be,’” she said. After graduation, she worked retail — at a vintage store on weekends and at a Helmut Lang boutique on weekdays. “I had this duality of ripped Rolling Stone T-shirts and Levi’s from the 1910s and very modernistic, clean-lined, asymmetrical Helmut Lang,” Willis said.
Another designer influence is Donna Karan, whom Willis first met at the age of five through her mother. “I love that woman. Donna is a hoot and a half,” she said, remembering how they swapped ideas last fall at a launch party in New York for Moore’s autobiography. “We started spitballing back and forth at this fancy dinner. I was pulling up photos on my phone and the line sheet,” she said. ”Some of the minimalist, early Donna Karan is so inspiring for me. It’s a classic, timeless thing that will always be in the back of any designer’s mind.”
Inclusiveness is an underpinning of Wyllis. Between the ages of 12 and 18, the founder faced a constant stream of language from the tabloids about how ugly she was. Willis recalled how words like “deformed” and “grotesque” are hard to hear at 13 or 14, “especially when you are trying to understand who you are. Adults are confirming what your biggest fear might be. That really created a mass injury within me and is the source of a lot of long-term mental health issues,” Willis said.
She added, “I wish it hadn’t happened. But more importantly, I wish that by me being so candid about it, I can prevent future generations from having to walk through what me and my sisters have had to walk through.”
As for whether her parents helped steer her away from the negativity, Willis said, “Outside of putting blocks on the Internet about what you can Google, it’s pretty dangerous to be in a room with a phone and a computer. I don’t think I had a cell phone then, but I had a computer.”
Attending red-carpet events for her Hollywood parents was an introduction to fashion and tabloid abuse. If the occasion was important enough, there were stylists and hair and makeup for Willis and her sisters, too. “It was such a privilege. I know it’s something that most people don’t get outside of the really special moments in their lives. I felt like this beautiful young woman,” she said. “I would read the article afterward and it just knocked the floor out from under you.”
Confident as she is in this new business venture, Willis said she has been suicidal and “the most prominent low moment” was in the fall of 2018. “I have been suicidal. I have been in that place. I’m right next to anyone, who has ever felt that way. It’s an incomprehensible, terrible feeling that anyone has felt it knows,” she said. “You don’t even understand the pain that you are going through. How can you begin to articulate it? I really wanted to cement the idea that you are not alone.”
At 26, Willis is most proud of her transparency about her mental health struggles and sobriety, as well as eating disorder and body image issues. Sure, she wants people to like her design aesthetic, but what she really wants is for them to think of her as “a safe designer — “someone who is looking out for those who have been stigmatized,” Willis said.
To that end, the collection offers XS to 3X inclusive sizing and accessible pricing. The apparel retails from $75 to $275 and shoes sell between $218 and $268.
Not the kind of person who puts on an outfit to stay-at-home, Willis said she has been living in nightgowns and robes as of late. Vintage bags and shoes are her weakness, and the five floor-to-ceiling shoes racks in her home are testimony to that. “But I’m barefoot most of the time,” she said with a laugh. “It’s like a collector sitting there patting their fingers together, [saying] ‘My precious babies — so pretty.’”
In fairness to her, finding vintage shoes, which tend to run on the small side, is a snap with “itty-bitty size five-and-a half feet.” Partial to sweatpants and sweat shorts from The Great and fashion from Dôen, Willis said, “If we’re going for a real outfit, it’s pretty much all vintage. I haven’t been able to group my exact aesthetic with contemporary designers.”
Ever fearful that her family and heritage will make people perceive her as an unaware privileged person with no reason to work and is just lazy, Willis is also wary that some will presume she can’t understand certain struggles. Admittedly, there are things she will never understand, she said. But empathy for those struggles is an undercurrent in her brand.
“Truly, in any job, any field, any career — no matter how hard I work there will still be people who hold that perception and that’s OK. When I was able to accept that, it didn’t mean I should just hide in a hole, do nothing and be sedentary. Why should I stop from pursuing a dream?”
Insisting that she is putting in the hours, going to the office, participating in meetings, working on sourcing and design inspiration, she said, “I’m really into it. I think I can safely say, ‘I’m a designer.’”