Menswear Label Willem’s Contrasting Artistic Influences

Ahead of the brand's first-ever NYC pop-up, we speak with founder Sean McDonagh

Menswear brand Willem—under the direction of founder and creative lead Sean McDonagh—reimagines staples with contrasting artistic influences. The newest collection, FW19’s Pavement Preacher, includes nods to Dash Snow, Glenn O’Brien, Richard Prince, and silhouettes from Clint Eastwood’s Pale Rider.

When investigating “cowboy” style (which comes and goes), McDonagh saw an opportunity to address the root of its most recent resurgence. Brushing aside the trendier traits, he noticed a timelessness to newer Western looks, and a resemblance to how Snow dressed in the months leading up to his death. Including these influences in a collection of ready-to-wear garments proved difficult, but doable—especially with the assistance of luxury expert and former Ralph Lauren director of vintage buying, Bob Melet. McDonagh and Melet dug through hundreds of vintage samples, finding specific shapes and styles that existed at the intersection of all their current interests.

With years of experience at other labels and plenty of time spent studying contemporary art, McDonagh accumulated a wealth of knowledge to share, and going through the collection piece-by-piece (often with lengthy moments of era-spanning supplementary storytelling) proves educational. When he makes mention of Snow’s work, Eastwood’s film, or an iconic look, he often has a visual reference to share too.

Fortunately for customers, that same opportunity presents itself at Willem New York’s first-ever pop up this month. Open tomorrow through 30 November, the SoHo space’s elaborate window display (which reflects dozens of shades of blue thanks to its shredded, indigo-dyed paper, white walls and sparkling glass) references Pale Rider and Snow’s 2006 sculpture “Book Fort.” Beyond the McDonagh-made display, garments range from a carefully designed cross-front varsity coat to Japan-made flannels and artistic T-shirts. We sat down with McDonagh to discuss how a brick and mortar space can lend to context to a collection with rich stories to tell.

Can you explain how your pop-up encapsulates the current collection?

I would say that the pop-up mostly encapsulates our current mindset for Willem as a whole. We’ve learned so much from the past two collections that this collection, to us, was about making clothes that we want to wear out of the best possible fabrics and injecting subtle storytelling into those pieces. The store is a reflection of that philosophy. The story of the collection, and of this collection’s muse, Dash Snow, will be present but not so obvious. The spotlight will be on the clothes.

As you mention, Willem’s pieces reference art and artists. How does this particular space lend to the garments being viewed as art?

I’ve always thought of the space as mimicking that of an art gallery. That is why we chose to be located on W Broadway, because W Broadway was home to galleries such as Leo Castelli and Mary Boone. The space will have some artwork hung from friends of Dash and we will have some rare zines and books from not only Dash but his peers as well. To me, the pop-up is more like a curated exhibition. Artwork, images, books, and clothes that are all connected by a single theme or statement.

If you’re to compare, how does this collection differ from the previous ones?

It’s just better. Starting the collection, our goal was to just continue to improve in every direction—from packaging to fabric, fit, process—and that is going to be the goal for every collection. As for the designs themselves, all this art talk has me thinking about how to explain it with art as a common ground. We are, in a way, following the route of a young artist. The early work has a lot of imitation, influenced by people that you admire. Then comes more experimental phases to progress from that early work or foundation. And now we are finding our own style and voice.

How does having a physical space lend to the overall story of each piece?

The window display is what we have worked on the most. The overall scene takes from the collection’s Pale Rider influence. We put our spin on one of Dash’s sculptures for the display. It has a notes of Richard Prince, hints of Robert Wilson. There was a lot of background thought that went into it while at the same time keeping it clean, simple, and interesting at first glance.

What’s to be expected from this pop-up? 

The biggest thing for us is to get people to touch and feel the clothes, really. We have had so many people come to our office/showroom and feel the clothes and tell us that we need to find a way to let other people see in person all that we put into each piece. That is an important takeaway that we want our audience to experience, and the other would be to just learn more about the early 2000s art scene. We always say that if someone were to Google a collection’s muse and learn more about him or her than we did our job. Same rules apply for this collection.

The pop-up, at 426 W Broadway, opens Thursday, 7 November and closes Saturday 30 November. Hours are 1-7PM on weekdays and 11AM-7PM on weekends.

Images by Evan Malachosky