New York emerging designer Jackson Wiederhoeft describes himself, and his clients, as “theater nerds grown up.” His first full-fledged collection for pre-fall is a literal play on that theme.
“For the new collection, we went back to a high school, imagining a ‘performing arts high school for witches.’ That was the vibe,” Wiederhoeft said in an exclusive interview. “In June and July, we started writing the script. For me, I mentioned I wanted to start with the product, but I also have a hard time if I don’t have a narrative in mind, so it became a lot easier once we started brainstorming characters. The horse girl would want to wear the dress with boys on it, or the fashion girl would maybe want something punk. That helps me to design and it all comes together at the end.
“I wanted to reimagine these characters that we all play in our own lives. In school, I was the costume nerd within the drama club. It feels like it’s something everyone can relate to, especially within the people who love my clothes. Everyone relates to being an outsider, to growing up and being cool. We wanted to play up these archetypes: the crazy drama teacher, the horse girl, the thespian who takes himself really seriously, the fashionable girl — have this whole range of characters.”
The collection film’s cheeky “high school characters auditioning for the drama club’s play” concept, titled “Wiederhoeft Academy of Magical and Performing Arts,” aptly emerged, as did the ready-to-wear, which injected the humorous, campy narrative with smart, realistically wearable details.
The rtw represents a major step forward for Wiederhoeft, who launched his brand in 2019 after cutting his teeth at Thom Browne following graduation from Parsons School of Design, where he won “Women’s Designer of the Year.” He started with conceptual, theater-inspired evening and special occasion garments and now, two years and four collections later (including the debut of bridal), he’s expanding into a full rtw collection.
“We opened the showroom in March,” Wiederhoeft told WWD during an appointment in his Garment District showroom in Manhattan. “I was going to dinner with a friend saying, ‘I’d love to wear something fun to dinner,’ while sitting in this room full of clothes thinking, ‘Oh, I have nothing to wear!’ Even for me, my friends and my circle, I want to see people in the clothes every day. It’s all part of the same world, of course, but completing this closet. I love making special occasion pieces, but it’s just as powerful to make clothes for every day — that’s when we live our lives.”
The idea sparked the designer to translate his whimsical and fantastical ideas, silhouettes and emotions into clothes for the real world; come last June, Wiederhoeft was designing what would become his most robust collection to date.
“Early in the brand, I felt it was important to release as many collections as possible, and now I’m realizing it’s better to slow down and focus on making quality products,” he explained, adding, “I think the pandemic was a great time for us all to reflect on what’s actually important, making pieces that are important. There are already enough clothes in the world, so I wanted to make sure anything we’re putting out is something that should be there, not just more stuff.”
Pre-fall is certainly not “just more stuff.” His collection shows breadth and talent, ranging from novelty, everyday knits and cut-and-sew garments to modern evening and excellent tailored outerwear. Even with the diverse range of styles, the collection works together and is filled with the ample personality that forms Wiederhoeft’s smart, playful brand DNA.
“We did this tailored jacket and coat; I hadn’t really done tailoring since Thom [Browne].…It’s a fun, full-circle type of moment. I don’t think it’s normally what people would associate the brand with, at this point, but it makes sense within the narrative,” he explained.
“I’m so proud of him going out on his own,” Thom Browne told WWD of Wiederhoeft. “One, it’s brave, but it’s also something I personally feel is important.…It’s rare to see a young designer who is true to himself and has the confidence to take that chance and put something out there that’s not only personal, but is really saying something.…He’s done a good job of putting some interesting ideas in front of people.”
When asked where the pre-fall collection started, Wiederhoeft answered: “I felt it was the first time I thought about it starting from a product rather than from a narrative.”
Within pre-fall, the emerging designer has introduced jewelry (inspired by his longtime vintage-bauble-collecting hobby), knitwear, tailoring, outerwear, shirting, and so much more, all for the first time. Dipping his toes in myriad categories was also a strategic move.
“Since ready-to-wear is new for us, it’s seeing what people are interested in. There’s such a range; I wanted to set the foundation and build up from there,” he explained, later noting: “For example, one place I really explored is the artworks in the cut-and-sew knits. If we were going to do sweatshirts, they needed to be fantasy.”
While the designer noted the line was product-driven first, a seasonal narrative, derived from the idea of presenting the collection through a scripted short film, soon followed.
Within the film, Shiva Baby’s Rachel Sennott (who wore one of the designer’s looks to the film’s premiere) appears as the film’s drama club professor, donning Wiederhoeft’s impeccably tailored, custom floral, cherub and bow jacquard corset with matching knee-length, round hem pencil skirt, and attitude to match. The silhouette also came in candy-pink, double-faced satin with large, carnation embroideries, as seen on model Danielle Mareka under a standout floral tapestry jacquard tailored topcoat. Austin Goodwin, whom Wiederhoeft collaborated with to write the script, sports a three-dimensional bow and heart jacquard drop-waisted dress with heavy white crepe back satin tailored blouse and branded silver charm jewelry with cherubs and lockets; Paperboy Prince, the “student body president,” is in a playful “Wiederhoeft Academy” pink printed cotton French terry hoodie worn over a green corduroy cargo dress, complete with pink hand-beaded teardrop crystal coin purse; model Teddy Quinlivan wears a body-hugging, light pink quilted cotton lame corset dress with fox-fur pom-poms and matching cargo belted puffer jacket (finished with custom engraved silver logo buttons), and Martha Graham dancer Leslie Andrea Williams dons an argyle, feather-trimmed cocktail shaker as the school’s “Principal Dancer.”
“It felt important — we had 16 people within the cast — highlighting people who are really in line with the brand as far as identity, being true to yourself, being interesting and fashionable and not afraid to speak up and stand up for oneself. It felt fun to play off of everyone’s person,” the designer noted. “This coming-of-age collection reflects on the queer identity within a magical context, defining a sense of identity in a world where we become our own heroes,” show notes echoed.
Also spotted on the cast of characters: a printed oversized pullover with “Lady of the Lake” faux movie poster graphics and crystal embroidery (worn with a cargo puffer jacket and zip-off cargo shorts) or ”Renaissance Festival” graphic cut-and-sew T-shirt with a vintage-meets-modern feel; tailored occasion wear and everyday clothes with Wiederhoeft’s fantasy-, ballet- and theater-inspired nostalgia (like a tailored button-up blouse with hand-drawn “crazy bow” motif or cool cargo styles). A variety of novelty knits in compact viscose (colorful bike shorts! fingerless gloves!) and cozy merino wool (a great argyle oversized cardigan) rounded out the collection.
“It’s a brand for people who aren’t necessarily trendy, but are stylish. For people who probably buy a lot of vintage, who buy for the piece itself rather than clout. Even for me, this collection was focused on things I love. For bridal or evening, it’s designing for this abstract person, and in a way a lot of this collection is things I want to wear as well. In a way, I’m also one of my best customers within the collection.”
Leading up to the collection release, Wiederhoft had already gained a celebrity following from the likes of Rihanna, Lil’ Kim and Chloe Bailey; he also dressed Lady Gaga in a custom pink bow-adorned costume for her 2020 music video, “Stupid Love.” Without a doubt, the designer’s pre-fall collection will garner a wider audience and attract attention from the red carpet to city streets.
But the garments don’t just look good, they feel good, too. Wiederhoeft knows the importance of quality production, timing and sourcing. With the help of his intimate team (one full-time assistant; a new external sales team and product developer), Wiederhoeft was able to successfully pivot into rtw, citing production across New York’s Design District (for jewelry, tailoring, corsetry and evening styles), Italy (the cargo group and merino wool knitwear) and Los Angeles (compact viscose knits) with custom, stock and Italian fabrications.
Opening to the wholesale market for the first time, on the pre-season calendar, at the emerging designer price point (starting at $240 for bow bucket hats, up to $7,990 for the collection’s electric yellow oversized hoodie with allover carnation embroideries), Wiederhoeft offers a bit of something for everyone while feeling equally unique and special. Each piece offers ample personality and fun, without the gimmick or oversaturated feel within the market.
The designer, who previously handled all of his business direct-to-consumer for bridal and occasionwear, plans to stick to the pre-season calendar going forward and hopes to present his second rtw offering in May.
“[During the pre-season] is also where we’re trying to give the buyers as much of an advantage as possible. We’re small, so delivering early is something we can compete on. Where we can possibly get an advantage, releasing the collection early December, delivering in June, [we’re] trying to give people a reason to buy into it,” he noted. “Feedback [from retailers] will be helpful for us to figure out next steps.”
Separate from his pre-fall collection, the designer is just as busy designing 50 looks for an upcoming one-night-only, New Year’s Eve immersive, theatrical performance at Pennsylvania’s Nemacolin Resort.
“That just came up a couple of weeks ago. It’s going to be an immersive, theatrical experience for the guests. The whole creative team is coming in from New York…we’ve been in rehearsals already all of last weekend. They’re doing several numbers and taking over the resort — it’s a lot of the creative team of people who used to dance or direct at Sleep No More, even some of the lighting and scenery. It’s very much — Maggie Hardy Knox and PJ Magerko who run things over there, are super artistic and creative. Luckily, I get to go there a lot for different shoots — they’re very invested in a really high level of production and artistry. I designed their new uniforms last year,” he explained. “These guys at Nemacolin, they get it — what they’re doing with their own brand is amazing. Pivoting into this artistic, queer world is really awesome to watch.”