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Makin' It: Willy Muse, Fashion Designer

I showed up in a shirt I had made, some tight black women's jeans, my red vanilla ice Nike Blazers, [with] my old Montgomery Ward sewing machine.

Willy Muse is an associate menswear designer for J.Crew. Over the course of our conversation, he touched on the importance of Nike Blazers, the irrelevance of special job certifications, and being in the right place at the right time. We wouldn't have expected anything less from a wildly creative farm boy from Ames, Iowa.

Is it very common for fashion majors at state schools in Iowa to get recruited by the largest and most respected clothing designers in the world?

Every year, Iowa State University has a student-run fashion show, and we always have a guest designer. My junior year it happened to be Todd Snyder, at the time, head of men's design for J.Crew. One of my odd jobs in college was a tailor at a bad chain store at the local mall. A friend of mine was one of the student producers for the show, and he called me around 8:30 on a Wednesday night while I was drinking a margarita on a friend’s lawn. He asked if I wanted to be the tailor for all of the clothes that Todd was bringing from J.Crew to our show. I of course agreed, and, after sending my professors apologetic emails for missing all of their classes, showed up to the next day in a shirt I had made, some tight black women's jeans, my red vanilla ice Nike Blazers, [with] my old Montgomery Ward sewing machine. Todd started throwing things at me to sew, and I kept up. I saw him a few days later at an event for my major, and he gave me his email address and told me to contact him. That day, I was wearing an outfit that consisted of brown wing-tips, old wool pants, a blazer, and a cowboy shirt and tie—both with horse prints. As I left the event, I remember calling my mom to tell her about it, and Todd drove out of a nearby parking garage at the same moment, likely seeing me sitting on my bike in this ridiculous outfit. I always think that was the final thing that made him decide to ask me to come to NYC and intern over the summer.

Was your jump to J.Crew that serendipitous?

Well, after my internship, I studied in Florence, where I learned a lot more about the art of fashion design. I then went back to Iowa and finished up my last semester of college. A few weeks after graduating, I got a call from J.Crew's HR department. It was a Saturday afternoon, and the woman on the line told me that they wanted me to work for them full-time, starting on Monday. I pleaded with them to give me a week. So I paid off the rest of my rent, gave away everything I owned, had one last big show with my band, and moved to the Big Apple for good. I did footwear and accessories for a year and then switched over to outerwear and bottoms where I've been for about a year.

What exactly does a menswear designer do at J.Crew?

My days are never the same. You are constantly working on all four seasons. For instance, right now I'm sketching for Fall 2012 so that we can get samples made and present them to the company. We just finished designing Summer 2012 and are starting to finalize all of those designs. Spring 2012 has been finished for a few months, but we are still working out all of the kinks and also approving/rejecting submits constantly. At the same time, things are starting to hit the store and website for Holiday 2011, and we are learning what works, what doesn't, and where we're having production issues. Basically, there's always too much to do and never enough time. The challenge is wonderful.

Had you always been interested in clothing and design? Did you have a favorite store in Ames?

Ames doesn't really have any inspiring clothes, and since it's an agriculture and engineering college town, it doesn't have much inspiring street fashion either. My mother has a t-shirt company, and I grew up making t-shirts with her. But I was never into fashion, because if I ever wanted something, I had to make it. I remember a time in third grade where I begged my mom for a Nike shirt, but the only way I could get one was if I made it myself. So I made one with a Sharpie marker and wore it to school the next day, which was, of course, really embarrassing. My sister and I were also avid secondhand hunters, and any new clothes I had weren't new at all. Probably because of all this, I started college as a Computer Science major. But my girlfriend freshman year was in fashion design and had me help her out with a few projects. I realized I was good at it, so I switched majors.

Does fashion design require any certification or education beyond an undergrad degree?

My job is not all about where you went to school; it's about what you can do and how well you can do it. There is no special certification for that, and I think anything of the sort would really stifle the ability to design. In fact, I know a few great designers that never finished college. You have to learn most things in fashion design by actually working; college can't teach that.

What are your hours like?

The hours change depending on what part of the season we're in. There are some weeks when I leave at six o'clock every day, and there are some weeks where I'm there until nine or 10 every night and all weekend. I think if it wasn't something I loved I wouldn't be able to put this much effort into it.

What about this idea of “doing what you love” as a career, which in theory sounds great, but it essentially eliminates the traditional personal/professional divide. Are you able to leave your work at J.Crew, or does it follow you home on the subway?

It definitely follows me everywhere, but it keeps my mind going. I'm always looking at people's clothes—details, fabric, anything that you can store in your head and use later. There's also this nice feeling you get when you see someone wearing something that you've designed, or even just something from our line. I think that doing what I love as a career works perfectly for me. It makes me continue to learn, and in the end, it lets me spend my spare time doing other things I love, like making music. If I didn't have a job where I was doing fashion, I probably wouldn't be doing it because I wouldn't be able to spend nearly as much time on it. I also wouldn't be able to make any of the things that I do now if I didn't have the resources that I have at work. It feels great to be able to go all the way from picturing something in your head to wearing it.

Makin' It is the work of journalist Brady Welch and illustrator Skyler Swezy, the team behind

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