I BELIEVE it was on Instagram that I first realized Gretchen Jones had moved back to Portland. The sun-drenched photos of her self-described "summer sabbatical" had given way to road-trip shots and vague references to "new life chapters," finally culminating in an image of one of those prints of Oregon's outline with a heart marking Portland's place on the map.
I'd known she'd left New York months earlier, where she moved soon after winning Project Runway in 2010. Though originally from Colorado, Jones really began her career in apparel design in Portland, and was becoming one of the more stimulating voices within the community before being snatched away to TV-land. Now, nobody knew what she was going to do next.
Eventually the rumor mill put forward what was later confirmed: Pendleton had hired Jones, but the details of how her work there will manifest still appear to be forming. The retail sector likes to keep its secrets, but I spoke with Jones about what her new life back in the Pacific Northwest looks like now.
MERCURY: What can you tell me about what you'll be working on for Pendleton?
GRETCHEN JONES: The real answer is that I was brought in to bring a contemporary eye to the line. I'm being integrated into it as a whole, not just designing womenswear. I think one of the reasons they were interested in me is that I have a unique perspective that could integrate into all aspects of the brand. The amount of experience and collaborations and projects I did in New York demonstrated the breadth of my ability, from accessories to home to jewelry to shoes to womenswear. I would like to integrate menswear into my portfolio, too. [Pendleton]'s a great establishment in that it can offer me the opportunity to grow in all those aspects.
Was Pendleton much of an influence before getting the job?
I grew up with parents who wore Pendleton out on the range in Colorado—in the '90s, Pendleton was a big thing, and I remember all my parents' friends wearing it. I've never used the textiles in my own designs, but coming from the West, I take my inspirations from the same places. And there are a lot of innovative potentials within the brand's textile designs. All facets of Pendleton design work very closely with the textile design department, and we're able to have originality in our designs because of our weaving capabilities.
Which elements of the Pendleton aesthetic are you most excited to work with?
I think of myself as an American designer, and Pendleton allows me to embrace that. I really love how vertically integrated the company is, and how easily I can work with the weaving studio. In New York I had to get on the subway to get to my patternmakers and factory. I've found the heritage side to be very interesting and not in a chic, trendy way. The fact that this is an environment that can offer me this kind of an incubator that's not in New York or LA is very exciting. Instead of doing it on my own, I feel like I have the support to grow, and to grow Pendleton.
And what do you see yourself bringing to the brand in terms of your own style?
There's a lot of room to modernize. Bringing relevance outside of the classic, definitive textiles Pendleton's known for, there's a lot of potential within the brand to make chic apparel and home goods. I bring in kind of a feminine and urban edge that isn't heritage, but I think it's interesting to take a heritage brand and think about what a new heritage brand is.
What prompted you to leave New York, before you knew this job would come up?
My experience in New York was great. The type of label I was designing was something I always wanted to pursue. The idea that you can be anything you want to be and the reality of it is, I think, very different. What I was finding is I really enjoyed my experience in New York, but it didn't really meet up with my desires outside of my career. I realized that my ambitions weren't just to do it my way. I took an independent path toward reaching my goals and the next thing I needed to get to, the next step in what I hope is a long career, was to find a company to teach me how to really, really reach a wider consumer. I want to be the best that I can be in all areas of design, and that passes from marketing to designing to sales.
Speaking of marketing, will products you design for Pendleton be marked with your name?
I don't know if I can say. I've only been with the company for six weeks, and I'm still in a position where I'm learning. The goal is to advance both my career and Pendleton, but right now I'm so new in this setting that the focus is on how to integrate me, and me learning how Pendleton works.
What's the status of your own line, Gretchen Jones NYC?
I would say that it's in dormancy, and I'm okay with that because I'm doing exactly what I needed to do. For the last three years I've been in a pretty crazy whirlwind experience, and I don't want to make product just to have my name out there. The last three years working on GJNYC is why I have value, and why I'm at Pendleton today. That was always the goal, it wasn't just to do my own thing and have a namesake. It was to move my career along.
Dare I ask what your perspective is on having done Project Runway, now that you have three years of hindsight?
I definitely feel like it would be silly to say that I regret it. I think it was a good risk I took. If I stayed in Portland and didn't take that risk, I wouldn't be having this conversation. Project Runway gave me the opportunity to walk through doors that are hard to get through when you're from a town of 400 people in Colorado. It afforded me the opportunity to continue on my path, but I had to make compelling enough work to create the portfolio that I have. I'm grateful that I had the opportunity, but I feel quite deeply that it's my talent and skill that got me where I am.
Your name never comes up for All Stars or any other Project alum stuff, do they approach you?
They do, but not as much as for those who are interested. I don't identify myself as a Project Runway contestant. That was really just a six-month experience. I don't think everyone who goes on that show has that same perspective, but I have no interest in being involved in any of that stuff again.
Anything else you want to say to your new/old home?
I know that it's mildly unexpected that I'm here, but I'm really excited about the opportunity and I think it's the perfect fit for me. I hope people are looking forward to what I can reveal... when I can reveal it.