We talk Sustainability with Bill McNicol, Designer of William Frederick Clothing

William Frederick Clothing is a Cleveland brand bringing Ohio back into the fashion scene. In our interview with founder and designer Bill McNicol, he discusses how his brand came to be and the importance of sustaining communities.

PHOTO CREDIT: William Frederick Clothing SEASON 1 – Irene’s Garden

What initially sparked your interest in fashion?

My grandparents, more so my grandpa has been responsible for sparking my interest in fashion. He was always well-dressed and presented himself in a way that showed he really cared about how he looked.

When I got to be about 6 I became a big basketball fan. Michael Jordan, Kobe Bryant, and so forth were the groups of guys I looked up to and I really kind of fell in love with their sneakers.

So it was a mix of my grandfather with his suits and these athletes I looked up to with their sneakers. I would actually buy a pair of sneakers, bring them home, and just re-sketch them into the way I wanted them to look. That was my first time ever sketching or designing anything.

Your fashion brand “William Frederick Clothing” is named after your grandfather “William Frederick”. Can you describe the relationship you had with him and how that relationship inspired you to create this clothing brand? 

Early in my childhood my parents split and my mother was raising me as a single mom with a full time job. So my grandfather was the one who watched after me. I spent every single day with him and other than just how he dressed, he was very calm and peaceful. He was laid back but had this demeanor that demanded respect. In a way you knew he was kind, very down to earth, and didn’t look down upon anybody. He taught me to treat everyone equally.

He introduced me to older films from the 1940’s-60’s and got me hooked on Alfred Hitchcock movies. They always were a dressed just like my grandfather and so I’ve always felt a personal attachment to the films. My grandfather would also would take me to Kaufman’s (currently Macy’s) and would look at the suits because he knew I had a big interest in how suits were made and stuff like that.

William Frederick coats are found featured all over mainstream fashion blogs such as Women’s Wear Daily, GQ, and Fashionista due to your presence at NYFW. What were the events preceding that motivated you to go to New York Fashion Week?

I sketched throughout my teens and 20s. I had two full complete binders of sketches and I was just flipping through at around 27 and I was like, I’m going to be 30 soon and it’s probably time to start focusing on pursuing a passion or a dream.

So I picked a sketch I felt to have the best design and decided to create this topcoat with cadet blue , and sky blue. I’ve always wanted to go to NYFW so I just decided to pack it up and go to New York for a week. I walked around everywhere, from SoHo to Tribeca. A lot of the shops I walked into kept on asking me, “that coat is amazing, who made it?” and I just had to say, “me”.

The response was positive and it felt validating, considering how critical people are when it comes to fashion. So I made a burgundy maroon with a navy bottom topcoat in the same style. Then I did hoodies and T’s because I figured people would want some basics in Cleveland – those were first four things I did, released as a small capsule.

William Frederick Clothing’s trademark line is “Self-expression is the new luxury.” What is the background context/meaning behind that?

Well, I understand some people’s attachment to luxury and the allure of it. But at the same time, I feel that we too often automatically label certain things luxury based just on their price point.

I don’t think anything can be defined as luxury if the people who are making it are not living comfortable lives. They don’t have healthy work conditions because a lot of these high end brands defined as luxury are using factories that are taking advantage of fair wages. They don’t have healthy working conditions.

There’s also this amalgamation of street wear mixed with athleisure mixed with tailored wear. And I don’t think the millennial generation (18-35) are super obsessed with the thought of needing to have Louis Vuitton or Fendi. I know a lot of people who are more concerned about buying things from people who they know are doing the right thing.

The trend of people just buying shirts and sneakers and writing something on it themselves combined with Instagram and everyone’s focus on individuality – that is where the self-expression is the new luxury. Because as long as you have the ability to express yourself freely in whatever you’re wearing…the true luxury is being yourself.

I noticed that William Frederick Clothing is a unisex brand. What was the intention behind that? 

Most of my inspiration currently comes from the way women dress on the street. My pieces are a mix of trials of inspiration from NBA players, Major League Baseball players like Ken Griffey, French films from the 1950-60’s, Hitchcock films, and jazz musicians altogether. So it’s a mix of that in addition to me just liking the way a lot of women’s clothes are made. They generally have more of a natural, more flowy drape.

It’s really hard to find men’s brands have this feel of casual elegance. And the ultimate goal for William Frederick Clothing is to be seen as a casually elegant brand. I don’t think that market really exists on a large scale for men. There’s niche markets here and there especially with European brands, but a lot of the boutiques in Cleveland aren’t carrying casual elegant brands from France.

I want to create that kind of market more so in an American made space. It’s also important to have that identity as someone who does everything made in America.

Can you tell me a little more about your first collection, Season 1: Irene’s Garden?

I had sort of a unique experience as a kid where my grandparents watched over me and they were in the country. In the spring and summer I would be help my grandmother with her gardening. You have to be very delicate and that taught me responsibility because certain types of flowers require different types of care. None of my friends really experienced that and so it was kind of this unique, somewhat energy of gentleness that was instilled in me.

My goal was to channel my adult perspective of these memories and create clothes that went back to that time. My grandparents were really poor. But the one thing they really valued were things that they were able to take care of themselves and grandmother’s garden something she could kind of maintain without much cost. It was something she took a lot of pride in.

A lot of the pieces were very specifically inspired. For example the lilac leather jacket was dyed to match my grandfather’s Buick. I tried to get as close as I could to the prints that my grandmother wore on her sleeveless blouses – hence why one shirt is titled ‘Grandmother Floral’ because it was pretty much exactly the same color and print that she wore all the time. And I just kept building upon this re-imagining. The whole collection in some way or another is something they either wore or was a reinterpretation of something that would wear in their garden or driveway.

“I don’t think anything can be defined as luxury if the people who are making it are not living comfortable lives.”

“It Takes a Village” is a documentary you released in correlation with your second collection “News From Home”. Why did you choose to make mental health the subject and how is that translated in your collection?

Each collection highlights a segment of 8 years of my life. “Irene’s Garden” was like ages 1-8 and “News From Home” was from 8-18 in which I moved to Wellsville, Ohio.

The issues Wellsville faces right now is being overrun by poverty, drugs and crime. We also don’t have any access to mental health therapy. I believe that these crimes, drug issues, poverty, etc. are often either caused by mental health or lead to poor mental health. I struggle to think that anyone living in poverty for extended periods of time is truly mentally healthy after the effects of what poverty can do to you. In result, a lot of those people going and struggling through poverty resort to drugs as kind of an escape. It’s a cycle that keeps repeating,

So I said, “okay, we need to start talking about mental health and look at it from a different angle”. “It Takes a Village” is an attempt to educate people and shed light on people that are severely depressed. They’re going through a deep dark depression and that’s why they turn to heroin, opioids, etc.

My friend Peanuts still lives there and he’s someone that is really well respected in the town but also someone no one would ever identify as someone who’s depressed because he’s always appears to be happy. I thought it would be really important to show that, as depression comes in so many different forms.

After the release people in Wellsville reached out to him, saying things like “this made me feel like it’s okay to go to therapy now”. People also were thanking me for bringing it to attention and bringing a deeper understanding while encouraging others to not being afraid just to even talk about it.

PHOTO CREDIT: William Frederick Clothing: SEASON 2 – News From Home

All William Frederick Clothing products are made locally in Cleveland. What is your stance on sourcing and do you plan on having your clothes continue to be manufactured in Cleveland? 

About 50 years ago, Cleveland was the second source of garment production in the United States. A lot of the buildings still exists but they’re obviously rundown now and Cleveland is sort of an afterthought when it comes to fashion nowadays. So I feel that it’s important to me to reinvigorate that market here.

On a personal level and growing up in Wellsville, Ohio (a small town), I was raised to do everything you can for the community that you’re currently in. So to me, it’s really important to do everything here.

It’s also helpful to be making your clothes in a factory that you have physical access to. I’m in and out of the factories all the time. It’s easier to create those relationships with the people at the factories and stay on top of exactly what’s happening. If there’s a production issue I can just hop in my car and be there in 30 minutes versus getting on a call and trying to figure out exactly what is wrong.

I actually want to only do more and more production in Cleveland. A lot of people always ask when I’ll source from L.A. or New York but that would defeat the whole purpose of my brand.

As a designer, what does ‘sustainability’ mean to you? And how important is sustainability to you? 

I’ll walk you through my design process and I think that’ll answer the question. The first thing I identify is what each collection is going to represent. After identifying the title and what I want to accomplish with the entire collection, I do a mood board and then move on to fabrication. The fabrics I pick is chosen by the criteria of communicating the story I want to share.

I try to source everything fabric wise within the United States as much as possible especially with stock fabric. The vintage straight fabrics that I included in Season 1 and Season 2 I found in California from the 1980s. A lot of my more unique prints are dead stock.

In terms of focusing on sustainability, I find all fabrics I want to use and then after identify which ones will be the most harmful. I don’t go into it with this idea that everything I’m going to use is sustainable right away because that I find that that has limited me in terms of where I source from. So it’s more so, getting the exact fabrics that work. That process of elimination is then based on what is sustainable.

Do you do all of your dying and prints in the factories in Cleveland or is that something that’s outsourced?

We source from a company in Vancouver that specializes in sustainability. We do some custom dyeing here in Cleveland in which you can go in and hand-dye. They’re very educated in terms of what’s harmful, what’s wasteful, and what uses the most water. Anything you buy from me you can trust that it’s sustainable.

“I think the first step to any change is awareness.”

Your brand was recently featured in Cleveland.com by reporter Annie Nickoloff. In the article you discuss how William Frederick Clothing is motivated by the hopes of helping your hometown Wellsville, Ohio that suffers from issues such as poverty and drug use. How do you plan on utilizing your voice (through your brand) to make a difference/solve these issues?

I think the first step to any change is awareness. I’m using the brand as a platform to bring up these issues.

Initially when we premiered the documentary, 90% of the people who came had never even heard of Wellsville, Ohio before, so that was the first step. With depression being an issue I felt it was important to use that documentary in a video form instead of just words so that the viewer could visually connect someone struggling with depression. I wanted to make it very relatable on a human level. I’m hoping to inspire people to come and support in any way they can.

I have a very specific list of things I want to do with my hometown. One of things is to redo both the basketball court and playground that I grew up on because the rims are all screwed up. I lost a friend to a heroin overdose and that was where we both grew up playing basketball together. I want to rebuild that playground in court and name it after him, in the hope for kids there to have a recreational outlet rather than turning to drugs.

I also want to do is seminars and teach fashion design to kids at high school because we don’t really have an arts program. The goal is to build a creative space to learn.

Lastly, what are your future plans for William Frederick Clothing? 

Season 3 is going to be released next month and we’re shooting in New Orleans in less than two weeks. The main theme of this collection is achieving a balance between freedom and restraint.

I’ll be messing around a little bit more with fabrication and having more unique silhouettes. That’s something I’m excited to do going forward, along with a lot growth over the next few seasons. 

In a couple of weeks, Ho‘omaluō will be following up with Bill McNicol to highlight the release of William Frederick Clothing: Season 3 in correlation with “It Takes a Village” Part 2 of the 3-Part Series. To watch Part 1 of the documentary, click here.

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