In the Astronaut Belt of Florida, the Space Shuttle is grounded, but earthshaking launches continue apace. Case in point: the debut of Wendy Williams’s first clothing line for HSN (formerly the Home Shopping Network in name, currently the same in mission), headquartered in Tampa.
Williams, 50, is a former shock jock radio DJ who has reinvented herself as a salty Oprah for the social-media age with her daily syndicated talk show. (She can currently lay claim to 1.34 million Twitter followers and 2.3 million Facebook fans.) The show’s gossipy segments, “How you doin’?” catchphrase, and the TV host’s generally rowdy disposition have caused ratings to skyrocket in its sixth season.
She has been married for 17 years, has a 14-year-old son, and lives to chatter about celebrity. (When she was a radio DJ, she was famous for starting feuds with stars, although she has mellowed.)
Yahoo Style was invited to go behind the scenes—or spill the tea, as Wendy says—of her HSN debut in Florida, which launched with a live two-hour episode on Sunday night. Here’s the breakdown.
We are given a tour of the HSN headquarters, seven bleachy-white two-story buildings on a 66-acre campus. The HSN logo is stamped everywhere: frosted on doors, plastered on posters, stamped on little azure-blue water bottles, looming on the navy wall of the call center, which is the size of a football field. “It’s fun here!” is the tagline.
There are eight bright studios: Kitchen sets and jewelry sets and living-room sets. In one, a shirtless male model and woman in a bathrobe stand around for no clear reason. There is a QA room, where workers assemble every product and test it (today a table is piled high with blankets and Martha Stewart paraphernalia); another is lined with washing machines, where a woman washes every garment according to instructions and either approves it or sends it back to the vendor; there is a room with two giant metal forklift-style devices that simulate the rocking and bumping of a UPS truck, so HSN can ensure that packaging will hold up around electronics; a ginormous warehouse stores clothes that are en-route to air. It has the sweet smell of success and synthetic fabric.
We head back through the giant, high-ceilinged call center where there are rows and rows and rows of short-walled cubicles: 500 agents in house, supplemented by 1,000 working from home. “It’s kind of like Las Vegas,” says our tour guide brightly. “There are no windows or clocks, so you kind of lose track of time.” As we march through, the operators cast their eyes up hopefully, puppies in a pet-store window.
For our interview, Wendy enters the studio, and the seas—in this case a tributary of production assistants—part.
The first thing you notice is her shockingly small waist (a size four), capped by “two big girls,” as she calls them, physical attributes she has designed into the line (more on that later). Her permanently wide eyes and arched brows give her a sense of a look of surprise or enthusiasm, it is hard to tell which is which.
Williams sits down, brushing caramel waves of hair past a hoop-accessorized ear, flashing a giant ring and row of gold bracelets. “OK,” she says, “How are we going to start this? I need to breathe before the show.”
She doesn’t look low on oxygen. “My inspiration is simplicity,” she says. “The line is 100% stuff I would actually wear. I have found my fashion voice, and generally speaking they’re good solid pieces that every woman should have in her wardrobe.”
She says the wrap dress is her go-to piece. “I got my first wrap dress when I was like 21. At the time, I was much heavier, but it just works. Whether you’re 21, 31, or 51, 71, wrap dresses work for everyone. You can gain 20 pounds and still wear your wrap dress, as long as you have your proper…” — she mimes under her chest — ”’cause mine stretch like nobody’s business.”
The biggest challenge, she says, was designing every piece in a size run from an XS to 3X, an HSN requirement. “You don’t want to just throw away the fluffier woman. You want to respect that figure. I think we’ve captured that lightning in a bottle. The skirts are tasteful lengths, the colors are vibrant, the fabrics are nice. There’s nothing worse than getting what you pay for in terms of fabrics.”
As for her style icons: “I like some of Sarah Jessica Parker’s style, I like some of Jennifer Lopez’s style. I like some of Michelle Obama’s pieces, depending on where I’m going and if I need to be that conservative. When you look to the First Lady and she does it, you know it’s right-on. But my style inspiration is me. I’m 50. I can’t be inspired by someone who’s flatsy-tatsy” — again she gestures at cleavage level — “and I can’t be inspired by a short woman, because I’m tall. I do me, because of my body challenges.”
The line took a year to develop. “HSN approached my team, but I was ready,” she says. “You don’t put the cart before the horse. You don’t do a clothing line six months into doing a talk show because you’re trying to get acceptance in people’s homes. Now we’re in our sixth season, we’re in 54 countries. The Midwest is a tough nut to crack, especially when you’re a city slicker. The majority of the country is that woman. But she’s watching my show now. Now it’s time to invite myself into her closet.”
Williams says she is involved in every aspect of the line, and often left her Manhattan talk-show studio to go to the manufacturer’s offices to test fabrics and buttons. (The clothes are made by KBL Group International, which also supplies clothes for Forever 21, Dressbarn and White House/Black Market.) “The manufacturer had to know that I am a woman with an opinion,” she says emphatically.
Mindful of Williams’s scandalous past, in which she posed for photo shoots in bondage gear and low-cut corsets, we ask about the craziest item in her closet. Turns out it is nothing boa-centric, hyper-platform or big-girl-baring. “I have a shirt that I got from the big-and-tall shop, when I wasn’t feeling comfortable about my body,” she says nostalgically. “There was a time when women swathed their body in a big shirt and leggings, and they’d think it was cute. And it is cute. I have a picture of myself in college radio station putting a record platter on in this shirt, and I remember to make it funky and fly, I went to the trim shop and changed all the buttons to crystals.”
“I still have that white shirt,” she says. “That is probably the craziest thing, because I’ve worked so hard on myself that there’s no way I would want to wear a tent. But just in case things start to untuck and go left, I still have my tent from college.”
I take a look through the rack at stage right that holds one item from each of the line’s few-dozen pieces.
Vividly patterned wrap dresses and a ‘50s-style cardigan in various sherbet colors catch the eye. The cardigans are made of thick, smooth cotton. There’s a ribbed-cotton tank dress with a kicky A-line skirt. A pencil skirt has cool laddering detail on the sides. There are ruched leggings and a skirt of T-shirt material with a side drawstring that creates more ruching. There is a lot of ruching.
The fabric quality, heavy on cotton, light on the synthetics, is reminiscent of Uniqlo, the value-priced Japanese brand that eschews trend-chasing to fixate on perfecting the fabrications, fits and details of extremely basic items like jeans and oxford shirts. The rack is free of the faint polyester scent that drifts through the HSN halls. Every piece is under $70; almost all are under $50.
So Williams is pivoting to define herself as a conduit for what American women wish, think and want, which is apparently comfort, “athleisure,” and a splash of leopard print.
The studio audience files in for the 6pm airtime. HSN shows are normally shot on empty sets, but a crowd of 30 or so has been recruited to capture the vibe of Williams’s talk show. “Push It” by Salt-N-Pepa blares unironically over the studio speakers.
“Listen, ladies!” a hype man shouts, “We want this to be a PARTY!”
The encouragement is not necessary. Everyone is hyped. Everyone in the audience is a “Wendy Watcher,” a fan chosen by Facebook geo-targeting to the Tampa area. Many are local bloggers. All of them had been sent pieces from the line to wear.
A camera-ready woman circulates around the bleachers; with her heavy makeup, perfect highlighted coif and working of the crowd, she looks like a politician’s wife, doing a mom dance to “Push It.” This will be Williams’s co-host for the program, Colleen Lopez, an HSN host for more than 20 years who doesn’t miss a beat when ad-libbing in her sphere and is the star of a YouTube video titled “HSN Anchor Meltdown.” She’s wearing a fetching pencil skirt and azure cardigan (the hue, we will later learn, is called “Wendy blue,” after the seat covers on Williams’s talk-show set.) She shakes hands and bends down to compliment members of the audience, reinforcing that HSN lives and dies on the idea of personal connection.
The show begins. Williams emerges, wearing her wrap dress in a cool black-and-white graphic pattern. “How you doin’?” The answer is pretty clear. Lopez tells Williams how excited they are for her to be part of the HSN family.
“Listen, I’ve been an HSN shopper for 30 years,” says Williams. “There is nothing better than being able to order something and there it is in your mailbox.”
The studio audience erupts into applause.
The first piece is that wrap dress, worn by models of different sizes: One is a 14, one is a 2, one is “of a particular age,” which is Williams’s term for a woman over 40. The forgiving nature of the wrap dress is emphasized, particularly when it comes to weight and boob size.
“Listen, I’m a size 4, but I come from a place of fat,” says Wendy. “Which is why you don’t want to spend a lot of money on your clothes, because you don’t know what’s going to happen.”
The studio audience applauds this. The studio audience applauds a lot, occasionally segueing into an “ooh-ooh” disco refrain and “Wen-DEE, Wen-DEE, Wen-DEE!” like a football chant. The women in the front row are particularly attentive, nodding and uh-huh-ing and laughing.
The show contains “Eye Candy” segments just as in Williams’s talk show, in which Williams pulls an audience member up to discuss the Wendy piece she is wearing. One of the women is on the front row, a stately silver-hair lady “of a particular age,” who wears the zippy leopard-print wrap dress.
At certain points in the show, an HSN host reads live tweets; when one tweeter asserts that Wendy has made her believe she can pull off a wrap dress, off-camera Williams gestures toward the Eye Candy woman and mouths, “YOU! YOU DID!”
As the presentation continues, it’s clear that Williams has taken charge of certain details based on her personal body challenges. Most seem geared toward preventing accidental nudity. She points out the “booty coverage” of a V-neck T-shirt cut lower on the hips, a cap sleeve cut on the diagonal to flatter the upper arm, an extra snap placed inside a cardigan placket to prevent cleavage-related accidents, extra linings and length on the wrap dresses “to preserve your dignity” when sitting down. The audience applauds each innovation.
“Do not be afraid of a T-shirt dress!” she advises at one point, presenting her line of “athleisure wear:” very cute coordinating T-shirts, skirts and cardigans in jersey material. “Do not be afraid of a cap sleeve!” The audience expresses that no, they will not.
“This is the first sexy hoodie!” says Lopez of a hoodie with crossover detail, pleased at her ad-lib. The audience applauds.
“100% cotton!” Lopez notes at another point. The audience applauds.
Ratcheting up the tension of the evening, Lopez, in good HSN style, advises that certain pieces are “flying out the door,” and warns against a potential upcoming drought: “Only a thousand left!” Some of the pieces don’t even make it to the catwalk before they are sold out. Almost every time the well runs dry, Williams apologizes.
“My foot is asleep,” Williams says, taking off her platform heel.
“We are separated at birth!” Lopez notes. “I broke my toe once, it never healed right, and sitting here it hurts!”
“That’s why fashion shouldn’t be complicated!” says Williams.
After two hours, nearly every piece in the collection is sold out. The HSN rep says that the wrap dresses will probably be reordered; the others pieces are a question mark. Williams will be back to present other collections through the year; exactly when hasn’t been finalized. What’s clear is that as the Wendy Watchers file out of the studio to collect their gift bags, a little glassy-eyed and ecstatic, none of them have to question how she’s doing.