When it came to clothing, Nicole Willis was a willful child. She knew exactly what she wanted, and what she didn’t want — she knew for certain she did not want to sew.
“My grandmother wanted me to learn to sew. She would make my clothes for me and I just wanted absolutely nothing to do with it,” Willis laughed. “I fought her tooth and nail.”
The irony is clear to her now, as the Chandler clothing designer prepares to make her debut at the Phoenix Fashion Week next month with her clothing line, Astrid Underground, Oct. 3-5.
Willis joined 10 other fashionistas competing for the title of Designer of the Year 2019 in an intensive “boot camp” to prepare for the show.
They aren’t only competing for glory; there’s also $10,000 on the line for the winner.
Some days, they spend upwards of eight hours in classes preparing for the show. There are designs to perfect, models to choose from and not a whole lot of time to spare.
“If you think about a designer, and how long it takes them to create a collection, they usually take a year. I’m getting this done in four months,” Willis explained.
“So, we have to look at books, we have to do line sheets, we have to do marketing, we have to do manufacturing, pattern making — everything. I’m doing it all, every step of the way.”
Willis described the average design team as including 10-12 people, but she said she’s a “one-man show.”
“I wake up at 7 in the morning every morning and I usually don’t get into bed until about midnight, so hopefully it’ll all pay off,” she said.
The boot camp focuses on branding and how to be at the forefront of people’s minds.
“You’ve got to get your name out there. So, in order to do that, you’ve got to be in people’s faces. Whether it’s on Facebook, Instagram, pop up shops, trade shows — whatever it is, you’ve got to get yourself out there, because if they’re not looking at you, then they’re not thinking about you,” she said.
Willis believes she has a creative edge that sets her apart from the other designers.
“My style is completely unique to anybody else that’s competing and I think that I’m going to appeal to the crowd that doesn’t necessarily always fit in.”
Though she’s earned confidence in the field, Willis wasn’t always sure of her chosen path.
“I was an addict for 10 years and when I finally got clean, I had no passion for anything,” she said. “I didn’t really have a focus. So, I tried to figure out where my focus was going to be.”
With her family’s support, she tried her hand at cooking at Scottsdale’s Le Cordon Bleu, but it didn’t go exactly as planned.
“I decided that I absolutely hate cooking. I do. It’s atrocious,” she laughed.
She and her husband William Willis began opening recovery homes. They now own and operate seven One Direction AZ facilities in the Valley to help individuals who are homeless, addicted or leaving prison.
Willis eventually landed at Mesa Community College – and found what she was looking for.
“I had never stitched in my life, so I went through all the sewing classes plus design classes, draping, pattern making, they have it all. You can even learn to tie- dye in there,” she said.
One professor, Lori Laing, was especially helpful to Willis when she was finding her style at MCC.
“I’d be in there and she’d be looking around at all the other girls stuff. She’d go ‘Oh that’s pretty.’ ‘Oh, that looks great.’ ‘That’s fantastic. Ooh.’ And then she’d come over and she’d look at mine and she goes, ‘Huh, that’s interesting,’” Willis said.
Willis said her style has never been one to conform to the fashion norms.
As a young adult, she expressed herself through her clothing, often taking inspiration from steampunk and Gothic styles of clothing.
“I was the girl who went out and dressed in black and corsets and chains and spikes,” she said.
Steampunk is a mixture of industrial and Victorian pieces, which form a cohesive style somewhere between sleek corsets and metal goggles.
You won’t find the ruffles commonly found on Victorian clothing in Willis’ designs, however, as she also integrates the Gothic and emo culture of the 2000s to form a mash-up unlike any other.
“I don’t do a lot of ruffles. I don’t do a lot of pleats. I do unusual shapes and textures,” she explained. “(Lori) just allowed me to be as creative as I wanted to be without letting me know that what I was doing was wrong. Because, I mean, it wasn’t necessarily wrong. It was just different.”
Corsets are an integral part of her fashion line, and lining the inside of the one-of-a-kind corsets is 100 percent cotton Batik material, which holds a special meaning to Willis as they were given to her by her grandmother.
“When she passed away, I inherited all of her stashes. She was a big quilter,” Willis said. “So, I decided to put all of those fabrics to the insides of the corsets that I already have made right now. So, it’s kind of like my grandmother’s with me throughout the whole process.”
Though her line of different styles of corsets is the main event, Willis has also been busy making intricately designed and stitched leggings to pair with them, as well as some formal and clubwear she will debut at the show.
Last month, she had the opportunity to showcase some of her up-and-coming designs during a pop-up event at Moxy Tempe. She also sold a few of her pieces to attendees.
“I was really kind of surprised the underbust are more popular than the heart-shaped ones I have because everybody tells me how much they love that design,” she said. “But as long as they’re selling, I don’t care. I was pretty excited.”
She’s also tapping into the rave movement, as there’s been a big uptick in the kinds of fashion worn at raves and festivals like Burning Man.
She describes both her personal style and fashion line as “the rave, steampunk, Gothic, underground type.”
“I like to say that my girl is going to be a girl who is a geek by day, goth by night,” she said.
Willis believes the subgenre of steampunk is only continuing to grow, and many women identify with the feeling of being unique and different from what’s normally on a runway.
“The industrial movement has really kind of picked up steam – pardon the pun – but it’s still very underground,” Willis said. “My client will spend just a little bit extra to make sure she gets that exact right piece to complete any outfit.”
It’s not always easy being an outlier in her design boot camp, however.
“There are a couple of high-end designers and they make me question what I’m doing if it’s good enough,” she said. “but I need to get out of that habit of trying to compare myself to others, because my brand is not like any other brand that’s competing.”
Information: astridunderground.com or her instagram @astridunderground.