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Remembering Wendy Pepper, Fashion Icon, Free Spirit

Remembering Wendy Pepper, Fashion Icon, Free Spirit

By Edith Pepper Goltra

Wendy and daughter Finley Stewart on Mt. Desert Island in Maine, 2017

On November 12, 2017, longtime Middleburg resident Wendy Pepper passed away from complications of pneumonia, having battled cancer for several months. A fashion designer, chef, writer, and life-long entrepreneur, Pepper was the consummate artist who forged her own path in life.

Pepper appeared during the first season of Project Runway in 2004, making it to the finals at Fashion Week. While on the show, she won several challenges, including the opportunity to have one of her designs sold at Banana Republic and the chance to design Nancy O’Dell’s dress for the Grammy Awards. She also made an appearance during the second season of Project Runway All Stars, which aired in 2012 and 2013, as well as Bravo’s Celebrity Poker Showdown and Battle of the Network Reality Stars. On Project Runway, Pepper was portrayed as a cunning strategist who formed alliances with the other contestants in an effort to win the game. In real life, however, Pepper was the very opposite. She was admired by friends and family for her wit, kindness and humor – and ultimately, for her generosity of spirit.

Fortunately, many viewers recognized this. Upon hearing of Pepper’s death, one fan tweeted: “OMG! She was my all time favorite. She’s the reason I fell in love with [Project Runway].”

Television and radio host Andy Cohen tweeted: “#RIP one of the first of many great characters to appear on #ProjectRunway. She was a big reason for the first season’s success.”

“I loved going to Wendy’s house when she had her Project Runway parties,” says friend Aeron Mack. “We would all gather around with hors d’oeuvres and wine, and during the commercial breaks, she would tell us what was really going on behind the scenes… often it was completely different from what the audience saw. We always ended up howling with laughter. She handled the whole thing with such grace and humor.”

Pepper once told a reporter for The Picket, Shepherd University’s newspaper, that fashion, like any art form, requires dedication and ‘a degree in fearlessness.’ “There will always be people who love or hate your work… It’s important to create one’s own sense and hold on to it.”

Born in Dayton, Ohio, and raised in Washington, Pepper embraced her creative
spirit early in life. During college she travelled to Nepal where she learned to weave textiles, an experience that sparked her interest in clothes and fashion. By the time she moved to Middleburg in the early 1990s, she had launched a business hand-sewing wedding gowns and haute couture dresses. Many people will remember Pepper’s white clapboard house on W. Marshall Street just behind the Red Horse Tavern. Her workshop was located in the basement. Glass doors opened onto the sunny backyard where her daughter, Finley Stewart, now 18, played with neighborhood friends on the swing set. The coffee was always brewing. The radio station was tuned to NPR. People came and went throughout the day. After school, kids worked in Pepper’s workshop alongside her.

“I like to live and work in my community,” Pepper told The Picket. “I feel like it’s an open door for people to come in and experience the world of fashion.”

Pepper’s creative flair permeated every aspect of her life. She painted the front steps and walkway in front of her house a shimmering gold, signifying The Yellow Brick Road. Her license plate aptly read: “SEWBEIT.” She delighted when her daughter, Finley, took a silver sharpie and embellished every inch of the car’s interior with geometric swirls and designs. Across the dashboard were the words: “Wander Unafraid.” Over the years, Pepper launched a half a dozen businesses. One venture, “Wedding Belles,” was a catalogue of bridesmaid dresses that could be made to order. Another was a twist on children’s riding britches. Rather than the typical earth tone hues, Pepper’s britches were bright red, purple, green and blue. They sold online
and at Highcliffe Clothiers in town. An exceptional chef, Pepper launched an artisan cookie business. Her cookies were spectacular culinary creations: wonderful tasting and almost too beautiful to eat. She also made soup that she sold at the farmer’s market in Middleburg.

“Wendy brought some of her delicious soup to my mother when she was sick,” says The Plains resident Catherine Mack. “She was always doing kind things like that on the sly – not drawing attention to herself.”

Pepper was drawn to people from all walks of life. She struck up conversations wherever she went – from the gas station to the Safeway to the poker tables of Las Vegas.

“She was always giving – a gentle spirit,” says Marie Feil, Middleburg resident and Pepper’s long-time friend. “She was always helping organizations or donating something she had made to the silent auction at school. The person who won the item was always so excited to get a Wendy Pepper design. She also ran art camps on the front steps of her house during the summer. They would make masks or do tie-dying. She was always there for my kids. One night our power went out, and she stayed up and let us come over so my son, Henry, could get his paper done. She typed his paper until after midnight.”

Paul Davies, owner of the The London Shoemaker, feels Pepper’s absence acutely. He
recalls a trunk show that the two had together when Pepper made some bags for his shoes. Davies offered to pay Wendy for her work, but she said, ‘No, no, just come sit with me.’

“And so I sat with Wendy while she sewed, and later she would sit with me while I mended boots,” Davies remembers. “Whenever we needed a shoulder to lean on, we had one. We’d get together and have such bellyaching laughs. I came from England 12 years ago, and she’s the best friend I’ve had since moving here.”

“Growing up with Wendy Pepper has been the greatest adventure,” says daughter Finley. “Creativity was always the most important thing, and it showed up in everything we did. We were a team. Pedicures on Monday night ‘just because,’ and late-night trips to Safeway for brownies. My childhood was a never-ending play date with my best friend. I watched how my mother always brought out the best in people. She always saw the child inside.”

Pepper was particularly drawn to the sea. She loved Maine because it meant time with family, cooking, foggy weather, and knitting by the fire. For her 25th birthday, while living in Texas, Pepper tattooed her stomach with a large octopus that had 25 pink legs and 25 green boots. At the age of 50, she wrote a novel about an eccentric family of mermaids.

Says Highcliffe Clothier’s Mark Metzger, “Wendy was one-of-a-kind. It’s fitting that she wrote a book about mermaids, because a mermaid is the ultimate free spirit – and she was one.”

“Wendy will always be here,” says her mother, Anne Livingston Emmet. “She is floating among us all.”

A celebration of Wendy’s life will be held at 10:30 a.m. on December 1, 2017, at Christ Church in Georgetown. Reception immediately following. All are welcome. ML

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