OK. Designing a dress that was worn at the 2018 Oscars was a big deal. But, it doesn’t define her.
Wendy Ohlendorf’s life is so much more.
The clothing designer is a down-to-earth businesswoman with a pet cockatiel named Oliver serving as the mascot in her Gulfport shop.
“He’s in charge,” she said. “People around here come to visit him.”
Her atelier is nestled in the back of Gulfport’s Courtyard area located off Beach Boulevard. With a street number of 2914-1/2, her shop is appointed with a showroom, a work area, a sit-down conversation counter for two, Oliver’s home, and a wine bar along with a package sales area specializing in vintages from Oregon and Washington state.
It all started when she worked periodically in a friend’s vintage clothing shop. While she repaired clothing for resale, “I started getting lost in the construction, looking at how each piece was put together.”
Next, her ex-boyfriend’s mother gave her a sewing machine.
“I put fabric on the floor, took scissors and literally cut free form and sewed it up,” said Ohlendorf. “That was the beginning of my designing and it evolved from there.”
At one time, she owned her own vintage clothing store. It evolved into higher end pieces and then it consisted exclusively of her clothing creations.
“I sculpt with fabric instead of clay,” said Ohlendorf. “Each one is a one-of-a-kind art piece.”
Her stores have always featured items made by others that complement her runway designs including matching necklaces, jewelry or handbags. “I try to bring people along,” she said.
While following her dream, her dad and then paternal grandmother began to have health issues. They lived in Bradenton. In her visits to Florida, and while staying with local friends who she also considers her family, she realized she wanted to live nearer to all of them.
“We are all aging and family is family,” she said.
She looked at several places in the Tampa Bay area to relocate her physical store but the fits just weren’t right, she said. When she saw Gulfport and its waterfront early on a foggy morning, she knew she had a place to put her toes into the water and to call home.
That was in May of 2017. Now, about a year later and with the help of her dad and extended family, she’ll soon be expanding her Gulfport store to include the space next door. The expanded area will be named “Vintage Small Bites Wine Lounge.”
Her dad helped her build the new lounge’s bartop. Her longtime friends are also a part of the wine and food venture.
“It’s a family affair,” she said.
As part of her connection to the community, she sponsors courtyard bands that play for free every second Saturday from 5 to about 8 p.m.
“When the lounge opens, I’ll have more things in the courtyard like food nibbles and a movie or open mic nights,” she said.
Talking about clothing design and finding fabrics is what brings out her most passionate smile.
When she had her shop in Portland, Oregon, one of the gowns on display consisted of five parts, including capri pants, an overskirt and cummerbund. It caught the eye of a woman whose husband is a member of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences.
“They own a major theater chain in the Los Angeles area,” said Ohlendorf. And, she needed something to wear for the Oscars.
What did Ohlendorf think when she heard the word “Oscars”?
“It’s the same as anybody who wants something,” said Ohlendorf. “I’ve done a lot of gowns. Yes, the Oscars are incredible. I had one of my gowns go to the Grammys. I don’t really care where they go. Each gown is going on somebody and the end result is their face lights up and I know that what I did with these hands made someone happy and smile. So, for me, that’s the joy. The real joy is personal.”
Ohlendorf does not have permission to identify her Oscar client. But, she can say the woman and her husband ride their bikes to the annual awards ceremony.
“So the dress had to be bike-friendly with stretchy and non-wrinkle fabrics,” said Ohlendorf.
The Oscar gown was designed as a three-piece outfit. The woman’s top differed from the model as it had a higher neckline and backline along with three-quarter sleeves. Like the model, the bottoms were capri pants and when she arrived at the Dolby Theater in Hollywood, “she took the large overskirt out of her bag and put it on to complete the outfit,” said Ohlendorf.
In her Gulfport shop, the Oscar inspiration dress is showcased through a courtyard picture window. Two mini display areas feature collections of party dresses and gowns.
Ohlendorf finds fabrics in specialty shops, repurposes vintage clothing, buys from online vintage sources and travels to Los Angeles to comb through bolts in the six-block garment district that speak to her.
The goal is not to have too many things made from the same fabric, she said.
“The dress that went to the Grammys was made from fabric I found at Jay’s when I was visiting dad,” she said, referencing Jay’s Fabric Center in St. Petersburg.
After 20 years, Ohlendorf understands her artistic workflow, her professional focus and is seeing a market that is increasingly appreciative of couture.
“I push myself really hard. I expect a lot out of me. I’ve built a standard that people know,” said Ohlendorf. “When people get something from me, they know it’s going to be just so.”