The “Greenist” Products Are The Ones That Are Already Made - 10 Questions with Gwen Meking Whittle, the Artist Behind Aunt Gwen
In 2016, Gwen Meking Whittle spent nearly half a year traveling across the United States. Like William Least Heat-Moon, as documented in "Blue Highways: A Journey into America," and John Steinbeck, as documented in "Travels with Charley in Search of America," Whittle set out to discover the people and places that comprise the United States of America. Through her travels, she hoped to come upon a place that drew her in, a city where she could feel comfortable planting some roots. Her journey led her back to her home state of Florida, specifically though to the city of Jacksonville.
Whittle grew up along Florida's Treasure Coast in the relatively small town of Stuart. As a young adult, Whittle left South Florida in search of someplace different, a place that better embraced those who live on the fringe of mainstream in America's counter and alternative culture scenes. For at least a while, Whittle found what she was looking for in New Orleans. Perhaps it is worth noting that she left the Big Easy and eventually found herself in a city whose marketing byline is now "It's Easier Here."
Whittle is the proprietor of Aunt Gwen, a fashion brand through which she reclaims discarded garments and enhances them with designs that she draws and then prints using hand-carved rubber stamps. When making the design, Whittle uses a drawing technique called blind contour drawing. With this artistic method, an artist observes the outline and shape of a subject and slowly draws its contours in a continuous line without looking at the surface on which they are drawing.
Aunt Gwen isn't Whittle's first fashion brand. Embracing the DIY mentality, a teeanage Whittle and a friend launched Nom, an apparel line through which they would silk screen and paint custom designs on t-shirts. The duo achieved a respectable level of success considering they were only 16 at the time and learning as they went along.
Sustainability is a driving value of the Aunt Gwen brand. What's old becomes new and each garment becomes a one-off. Accessibility is another driving value of the brand. Whittle utilizes cuts and styles that appeal to different tastes and can be worn by all body types. She then prices garments at affordable price points, with everything in her collection being priced below $40.
Aunt Gwen will be a vendor on Saturday, June 2 at pop-up market hosted at Bold Bean's Stockton Street location. On June 10 she will be traveling west to Gainesville to set up at the Indie Flea. Garments are also available through the Aunt Gwen website.
10 Questions with Gwen Meking Whittle
What have you learned about yourself through your artistic and cultural endeavors?
I’ve learned that I don't have the patience that I thought I had, both in life and in making art, and that I can make anything with my hands.
How do you define success in what you do?
To me, being successful is being happy. I feel success in knowing that my garments are accessible to people of different economic status and to people that are all different shapes and sizes.
What patterns, routines, or habits do you think advance the likelihood that any given project will be successful and how do you integrate those behaviors into your workflow?
Keeping up-to-date with my planner, without it i'm lost. It really helps me zero in on my short-term and long-term goals. It prepares me mentally for what I NEED to get done and what I WANT to get done each day. I always have a plan of attack before entering my studio so I don’t get sidetracked.
What role do high-resolution photography and social media play in connecting your target audience to your brand?
They've played a HUGE role in connecting me to an audience. I didn’t really know many people in this area when I first started. Through Instagram I was able to meet people in real life and dive into the community. I’m still not really sure who my target audience is because I want Aunt Gwen to be something that is for everyone.
When you were 16, you and a friend started a clothing line, Nom. In what ways did your experiences as a teenage proprietor inform your approach to creating and bringing the Aunt Gwen collection to market?
So with our clothing line, Nom, we made our own silk screens in a real DIY style using old picture frames, and things like that. I’ve always preferred using the resources I already have on-hand, and I still do that with Aunt Gwen. With Nom, we printed every shirt in a different spot so that no two shirts we’re alike. The fact that every shirt was unique to its owner was something that people appreciated. I still strive for that today.
Aunt Gwen started with clothes of mine and my partners that we found we didn’t wear anymore. We were going to donate them and I decided to print on them instead and now here I am!
Sustainability is a central focus of your collection, as is accessibility. What shaped your conscientious approach to fashion design and in what ways are you looking to develop any additional ideas or ideals as your brand grows?
I have always shopped second hand because its affordable. I could also find more unique garments that fit my body type much better than the brands mainstream stores cary. At first I felt bad about it because my clothes didn’t look like anyone else’s. But, it quickly grew on me and I fully embraced it.
The fact that it's sustainable and that I'm doing what I can to keep more textiles out of landfills is a big bonus for me. I’m hoping that, as my brand grows, I will have more time to search for more environmentally friendly fabrics (less synthetics) , but I'll always prefer second hand because I feel the “greenist” products are the ones that are already made.
You spent nearly half a year living a rather nomadic life as you traveled across the United States, living out of your car. You settled in Jacksonville in 2016 with the hopes of planting roots. What was it that appealed to you about Northeast Florida and how are those roots forming?
I’m pretty shy and introverted (social anxiety) so it's been a bit of a struggle for me to be “Aunt Gwen”. I have a hard time getting myself to show up to events even though I really want to be at them. Despite all of that, with the support of my partner and others in the community, I feel really good about my roots here.
I grew up in South Florida and I found there wasn’t much of an alternative art scene for young people or people with alternative styles like mine; att least not where I grew up in Stuart, Fl. Growing up, there were no artist studios available for young people to express themselves, and what's available now is very limited .
Exploring the country and living in all of these different places showed me the role those spaces play in a community. I moved back to Florida in hopes of bringing with me some of that and the weirdness that Florida needs. We came to North Florida, and Jacksonville in particular, because we saw the potential and knew some people here and they really convinced us that this is where we needed to be.
Jacksonville has a steady schedule of one-time and reoccurring pop-up markets. As a regular vendor at many of these markets, what do you find specifically advantageous about exhibiting your work at these events? Additionally, as a seasoned vendor, what do you think makes for an attractive and welcoming set up?
I like to keep my set up really simple. I always want the focus to be on the clothes. I would rather spend my time and energy creating my garments and not having a set up that takes forever to situate.
It takes me about five minutes to set up for pop-ups. I just have a rack that my partner and I made from galvanized steel a couple of years ago, its pretty heavy though, and a hand drawn sign on an easel. I want my clothes to speak for themselves.
I find that exhibiting my work at these events gives me a winder audience that I might not be reaching online. Since I don’t have a psychical shop, it also gives people who are interested in Aunt Gwen a chance to see it in person.
What are the greatest challenges you face as an artist living and working in Northeast Florida?
Right now the weather has been pretty challenging for me. I transport my garments in the back of a truck so I've had to learn how to properly cover everything up. The heat is also a challenge because I currently work in a building with no AC. I have to get in there early in the morning before the sun heats it up or at night after it cools down, so it leaves me with limited time to comfortably do my work.
What would you like to see as an effort to support and grow Jacksonville's arts and cultural sector and creative industries?
Well, like I said, I don't really get out to events much. But, since I've moved here, I've been pretty impressed with how much does go on in, and around, the city. I do miss the more laid back art shows of some of the larger cities I've visited though.
We'd like to thank Gwen Meking Whittle for her participation in this interview. We'd also like to thank you for reading.
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