Quinlan Wilhite's workspace is colorful mayhem. Thread, bobbins and fabrics adorned with shooting stars, dancing skeletons and sunset skies are piled four feet high. In a corner of the pile of current and future projects, the Qmulative founder and sole employee sews pockets onto T-shirts.
The 28-year-old fashion designer pulls from a stack of Arizona-shaped pockets. He guides the fabric into the machine with familiarity that comes from repetitive dedication. That dedication just won him the Phoenix Fashion Week 2018 Lifestyle Designer of the Year. I'd wager his laid-back sincerity and lack of any pretension didn't hurt either.
Wilhite has yet to turn down an order of pocket-Ts, but with sewing them all himself, "there's no days off," he says. He recently finished his latest order of 100 pocket-Ts for Pueblo Vida Brewing Company. He makes a line for them every time they create a new beer can, matching the can's original art by local artist Ryan Trayte.
The Arizona pocket-T has been Wilhite's staple since launching his clothing line four years ago, after his grandmother taught him to sew.
"I figured—bring the idea to grandma because grandmas are good," Wilhite says.
His original pocket-T was a functional, upside-down pocket, with screen-printed Qs spilling out of it. He had asked his grandma to sew them for him and had a "yeah, whatever moment" when she suggested he could sew them. Several sewing classes and a fashion boot camp later, and no one doubts that Wilhite can sew. Apparently, grandmas are indeed good at sniffing out hidden talent.
Phoenix Fashion Week cumulated in a fall fashion show and Wilhite's win. But it began with a three-month fashion bootcamp. Fifteen apparel designers were selected to cultivate their brand and compete for Designer of the Year in three categories: lifestyle, couture and contemporary. The winners were chosen not only on their designs but how well they did in bootcamp.
Although a number of competitors were more prepared than Wilhite at the onset, he caught up quick.
"Going from when the pocket-Ts probably fell off the shirt after one wash to this—you can't get any bigger in Arizona," Wilhite said. "Why wouldn't you wanna go all in and win it?"
In bootcamp, Wilhite learned the business side of fashion—a flood of info he says would have taken him two years to learn on his own. His win included a package prize worth $10,000 to assist with future production, marketing and networking.
His designs included men's jogger pants, a poncho, bowling shirts and shorts, overalls made to be worn down with interior fabric of dancing skeletons. The clothing line is all lightweight material and summery colors.
Wilhite did have some help sewing his Spring/Summer 2018 collection, which showed at Fashion Week. His Sewing 1 teacher from Pima Community College, Rachel Johnson, brought his designs to life, coming "full circle," he says.
After starting college at the University of Arizona as an engineering major, Wilhite decided he'd be happier with a non-traditional path. He left the UA and took several sewing classes at Pima.
He got his hands-on attitude from his dad, who loves tinkering and "making things better than they originally were," Wilhite says.
He's currently living and working at his dad's. The house's sizable front yard and garage are a large-scale likeness to Wilhite's sewing table, only replace spools of thread and piles of fabric with old cars, car parts and tires. It's a maze of wonders to make any true car buff's eyes widen.
Wilhite's dad is superintendent for a construction firm, and his mom's a counselor at the UA. So if his parents aren't hippies, where'd he get the name Quinlin? It was his great grandmother's maiden name. His mother laments that he goes by Quin or Q.
The Qmulative brand name was alive four years before Wilhite learned to sew. He sold stickers on the Qmulative website and had an online feed covering his interests: skateboarding, cars, music and art. He did several fashion internships in Los Angeles—four actually, at one time. He interned at two hat companies, where he was selling his own hats, and at two boutiques.
"I had $1,500 to my name and a place to stay, so I just went for it," he says. And he loved it, a big-city kid at heart despite being a homegrown Tucsonan.
Wilhite's Fashion Week win has brought more credibility and validity to what he's doing. He's looking for his own interns now, networking on instagram and with the UA fashion club.
Besides being a natural entrepreneur, Wilhite is also a natural philanthropist and community-builder. He wants to help up-and-coming designers by sharing what he's learned and introducing them to his contacts in the industry.
After Hurricane Harvey, Wilhite raised over $500 by selling Texas pocket-Ts for World Care, a local nonprofit. The Texas-shaped pockets bore a cloudy, orange sky. He has friends who went out there and were in the thick of it, rescuing people with boats. But Wilhite knew sewing was the best way he could help.
"Using clothing for something way deeper than clothing," he says. "I didn't want a hug or a pat on the back. I just felt like it needed to be done."
World Care raised $50,000 for Harvey victims, which Jim Click matched.
On Dec. 2, Wilhite spent the day sewing at Cultivate Tucson, a collective that builds pop-up events of local crafters, small businesses and nonprofits. One of over 50 vendors, Wilhite showed up with about 30 pocket-Ts, ready to sell.
He also brought his sewing machine, an assortment of cut pockets and pocketless T-shirts of varied colors and sizes. People could pick the combo they wanted, and he sewed them on the spot. He was even open to people bringing in their own T-shirts and fabric.
He started sewing up orders at 8 a.m. and took his first break at 2 p.m. Luckily, he had a friend there to take payments while he kept his nose to the sewing machine.
"I've always had ambition, but now I don't have much of a choice," Wilhite says. "I won—there's no days off anymore."
The Qmulative 2018 Spring/Summer line will be out by Valentine's Day (fingers crossed). You can find his pocket-Ts, hats and stickers at his website: qmulative.bigcartel.com. His shirts are also sold at Popcycle and the Museum of Contemporary Art.