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Wendy Nichol says she only uses "white magic"—the designer's name for "a skill in your hands that not every human has"—at the jewelry bench, or while whip-stitching leather, but we're convinced she has actual powers. The evidence: her "bullet" bags have enjoyed three times the shelf life of your average designer "It" item (and their popularity shows no signs of waning), she started making delicate earrings for girls with multiple piercings way before fashion magazines declared tragus and forward helix holes must-have accessories, and she's been honing her dark, mystical aesthetic for years—even though "witchy" only entered the fashion lexicon as a compliment fairly recently.
"I love that a witch is a powerful female figure. I think the people who work with me and create in my studio have magic coming out of their fingertips," Nichol told us when we stopped by her Mott Street store (she has a second outpost on Sullivan Street). "Like a surgeon who does an operation and has to carefully move one vein over. That's artful."
We chatted with the designer—whose pieces are all hand-made in New York—about the challenges of overseeing three lines (leather goods, ready-to-wear, and jewelry), how she started her own company as a stay-at-home mom, and who really buys her leather crowns.
Have you always been into fashion?
I've always been into making things, for sure. When I was young, I'd make myself little things out of fabric, like skirts. But I didn't study fashion or art, it came naturally as I became more comfortable with my style and my ability to sew.
Which came first: the bags or the jewelry?
I started making jewelry in my apartment in 2007, and I was working leather into a lot of my pieces. Once I touched leather it was magic. I knew that was what my medium should be.
What were you doing in 2007, before you started making jewelry?
Being a mom. My daughter was born in 2000. I had worked for Joe Mimran at Club Monaco for four years, so I spent a lot of time working in fashion and I took some time off to be with my daughter. Then once she was in school I started to work on my label.
What did those first jewelry designs look like?
There was a three-pyramid cuff, a ten-pyramid cuff, a pair of pyramid earrings, and a single-pyramid ring. That was my jumping-off point with geometry. Triangles have always been reassuring to me.
When did people start to notice your jewelry?
I just decided to go to stores I liked and show them. It was very nerve-wracking. I was really amazed at how several of the boutique owners loved it. That was such as big deal.
And then what happened when you found yourself with all of these orders to fill?
It was just me for a really long time. I would take Sofia to school, I would go to Midtown and run around and get my supplies, and then I'd come home and sit on my bench and work on things at home.
After you made the leap to bags, when did people start going nuts for them?
I remember the first bag order I took was from Bird. I had made three bags.
Three styles, or three total?
Three styles. Probably around three total, too. Maybe six. At the time I didn't have the same tools I do now. I didn't have the same experience making goods. I remember when I had to make the order I was at my kitchen table and I was not sure how I was going to get it done by myself.
What's your most popular bag?
The bullet bag. It's a style that I made in 2009, and it's been sort of the highlight of my handbag collection, and kind of iconic for the brand. It's different from any of the other bucket bags that are out on the market, I think, mostly because it's made by hand. So it has this character to it that's really beautiful. It was just featured in the August issue of Vogue, which is really exciting.
How long does it take to make one of your bags?
When did you realize your line was becoming successful?
When Colette in Paris bought my collection that was, like, wow. We had over 100 pieces to ship them, and I finished on my birthday. I had two other people working with me in the studio—I couldn't have done all of that on my own—but I literally worked until 11pm and I took the boxes to FedEx myself. I was carrying these big boxes so I could get them there on time, because that's such an important thing—being on time with deliveries.
How did you choose Sullivan Street and Mott Street for your stores?
I got my Sullivan Street space in 2010. A lot of stores had gone out of business, there was still this post-depression economic gloom. I had never been in the west part of Soho, and right away I was like, "there's magic going on here." The store was beautiful. But then, two years later, we needed more retail space.
A lot of people are like, "why would you get another store ten blocks away?" But they're two different neighborhoods, really. A lot of people who come by Mott Street don't even know what's on Sullivan Street.
How would you describe the Wendy Nichol woman?
The girls who come in here have great style and they're looking to add something into their jewelry or handbag repertoire that's really special. A lot of our customers are creative and interested in the quality of the store experience because we're making all of our bags in the store. She's awesome, I love our customer.
Who buys your leather crowns?
Sometimes it's a girl who wears hats, and this is just another hat. It's an interesting question, because who wears a crown on a regular basis?
There should be more occasions that require crowns.
When I first made it I wore it because I was just so excited about wearing a leather crown. It gets a little bit of a reaction. Girls do wear it, they'll buy one for a special occasion, or for going out. It's kind of a guilty pleasure.
We see your earrings everywhere! Especially on girls with multiple piercings.
We've sort of figured out the multiple combinations of earrings all the way up the ear. And we try to get a price point that's good for everyone—our silver earrings start at $80 per pair.
What's the story behind the middle finger motif on your bags and jewelry?
I thought "wouldn't it be funny if you opened your wallet and you were flipping someone the bird with the hardware?" The more I drew it the more I loved the concept of this wallet with the custom hardware on it. I made a model and we cast it in bronze. When I actually saw the hardware on the wallet, I thought it would be funny to wear it on your hand, too.
Fashion week is coming up! Can you tell me about the inspiration behind your next ready-to-wear collection?
Inspiration is always coming from garments that are pored over by hand. I love expensive see-through silk and tulle, and I love black and white. My collections are really a continuation—a conversation that relates to the previous one. If you have our duster, or you have our slip dress, or our handbags, or jewelry, this new collection will work with it.
You had your first ready-to-wear presentation around this time last year.
My first presentation was called Saints of the Zodiac. We did it at the Elizabeth Street sculpture garden, and it was literally planned in six weeks. My husband and myself and our friend Jimmy are in a band together, Midnight and the Stars, and we played live during the show.
The music was scored to the looks—there were twelve looks for the twelve signs. We had twin models for Gemini and they came out with their hair fused together, they had to walk in synchronicity, it was this dramatic moment.
There's something witchy about your style.
I love that a witch is a powerful female figure. I think the people who work with me and create in my studio have magic coming out of their fingertips. Like a surgeon who does an operation and has to carefully move one vein over. That's artful. It's a skill in your hands that not every human has.
That magical vibe is trusting in your intuition and in your ability to create like that. A good witch, not a wicked witch. We believe in white magic.
It seems like fashion has embraced these mystical symobls—pentagrams, evil eyes, etc.—lately
I do think that there have been a few television shows that have covered the topic of witches and covens, and that may be crossing over into fashion.
Symbols are an important thing for people. They help you feel protected. If you have a symbol on a piece of jewelry and it means "health" and "power," then that gives you the strength. I think that it's just something that humans have always used. It might be more of a trend lately to display that in clothing and accessories. I like that.
You have so much going on! Your jewelry, bags, ready-to-wear, stores. Is there a typical day for you?
My day starts early. I get my daughter up and get her ready for school. Then after she's out the door I'll drive into the city from Brooklyn with my husband. On the way, I'll usually be communicating with my staff about everything that's going on.
I try to be in both stores as much as possible—I see clients in both. My little design office is on Sullivan Street, and that's where I do most of my draping and fitting for ready-to-wear collections. We also have two studios in Midtown, where we do jewelry and clothing.
The truth is I work six days a week, and I probably work twelve hours a day. I absolutely love my job and the people that I work with are super magical. It's hard, and there are lots of challenges for sure, but it's rewarding.
What do you look for when you're hiring?
I look for someone to literally blow my mind. If I get a resume that does that I will do everything in my power to get that person into my studio and hire them.
It's how you write, it's the images that you send, it's how everything is put together. Every single cut is a big deal, so I'm looking for extreme thoughtfulness and talent. Our interview process is intense. Especially to come into what we call a "maker" position—it involves an audition-style interview.
Which new pieces are you most excited about?
We just made a beauty case that I'm obsessed with. I've been carrying it as a handbag, which I think is adorable.
And I'm excited about the chokers. The leather is cut here and the closure is made in our Midtown jewelry studio. And if you wanted to get a pyramid or a pavé cross or an eye on the front we can do that.
Time for the lightning round!
8am or 8pm?
Beer or wine?
Whiskey or tequila?
Cats or dogs?
Beach or mountains?
Favorite vacation destination?
Favorite lunch spot?
Favorite happy hour spot?
My back room
Rap or country?
Mad Men or Game of Thrones?
Game of Thrones
Coffee or tea, and how do you take it?