CHAT: Jessica Stahl

A chat with Jessica Stahl of Stahl House on planning a pop-up event, the ideal shopping experience, and drawing inspiration from nostalgia. 

Gab: How’s your Sunday been? 

Jess: It’s been good. I’ve been in full-mode, working on stuff. My house is just crazy, there’s fabric everywhere. I’m making these giant plushies for the event. I’m excited – they actually look like real stuffed animals. That’s what I’ve been doing for the past 36 hours or something. 

Gab: Wow. Is this your first time making a plushie-type project? 

Jess: Kind of. I patterned everything over the past week and a half. It was hard to know what everything was going to look like when they were all sewn together, I was sort of winging it. But it’s all just geometry. And I enjoy it – when it’s patterning clothes, it’s all about the fit. This is just making shapes, and I’m finding it more fun. 


Gab: Your pop up is happening April 8, right?

Jess: Right! It’s so soon, I’m like, freaking out a little bit.

Gab: What’s the current status of it? 

Jess: Most of what’s being sold in my collection is already made. But I also have some factories producing a few pieces that are still producing some stuff. I have some collabs in the works, too. But, most of it is the presentation. That’s been overwhelming – there’s so much that goes into that. I want it to have the “Wow” factor. 

We’re also doing an after party. My friend is going to DJ the popup and an after party that’ll start around 10PM. The music is kind of curated around the aesthetic of the brand. I know nothing about music, but it’s a really cool way to add that element into it. 

Gab: Knowing the aesthetic that you have for your brand, I’d be so curious to see how your friends translates that into music. 

Jess: Yeah, I’ve been talking to him about that. I’ve been giving a lot of 90s Euro-pop references. I think it would be along the lines of that, but because I don’t really know “cool music”, I’m like “Take that idea, and you turn that into what you want!” 

Gab: I want to hear more about the “Wow” factor you’re looking to create. What are you doing to achieve that?
Jess: My friend Rachel Ward is designing the set for the store. I’ve been talking to her about walking into somewhere that feels like it’s own environment. The concept is like an Alice in Wonderland Chucky Cheese. We have big plushies, some arcade references – some parts will be like walking into a giant claw machine. My friend who’s a digital artist made a plushie character. She made shirts and tank tops with it, too, and an animation that we’re going to project. 

I just really want people to feel engulfed by the overall environment. It’s why we’ve stressed the importance of it not just being clothing racks with the pieces on them. 

Gab: This all sounds so fun. What’s your ideal shopping experience?

Jess: I haven’t been as thrilled about shopping lately. I can’t really afford anything that I actually want. But, even if I’m not even planning on buying anything, I still want to have fun when I’m shopping. I feel like the act of going to buy something should be more than that. 

It should feel like you’re part of something. Especially to understand the concept of what went behind a design and the thought process. It gives products some kind of context like like, “What’s the world that it lives in?” 

I just like really want that to be one of the big focuses to any physical retail space I do. This pop-up is just the start of that. 

Gab: It sounds like the pop up is gonna be really immersive in a lot of ways. Like with the different projections and the music and the props. I remember you said you might be making soap, too?

Jess: Oh, yeah, we’ve been doing that! One of the soaps that we’re making is a little rubber ducky. The packaging we did for it’s pretty cute. I put it on blue cellophane so that it’s sitting on it like a pond. 

I feel like in this city, there’s a lot of thrifting and vintage. There aren’t as many places that are just people that are making things from scratch, which I really admire. I know reworking is really important from a sustainability standpoint, and vintage too. I just also feel like there should be more things that are purely created.

Gab: Yeah, like a true Philly boutique.

Jess: Yeah, I want it to be a little more well-rounded. There’s gonna be some home items, some beauty stuff. I’m also collaborating with my friend who makes nail polish. We’re doing a mini nail polish collection that will be there, too. 

Gab: Will this all be under your brand, Stahl Knits?

Jess: I’ve wanted to branch out from just knitwear. It’s my passion and I really love it, but I  would like to be more of a well-rounded brand. I want to kind of view Stahl Knit as a subset of an overall brand. 

I’m calling this pop-up “StahlHouse”, and I think that’ll become the umbrella brand. I just feel like there’s so much more room to grow – I’m excited by so many materials and I’ve been really inspired by like, collectibles and Y2K toys. Like with these plushies, there’s so much more I want to do on that route. 

Gab: It sounds more fun and kitschy. 

Jess: Yeah, I’ve been finding just apparel and fashion a little restricting. 

Gab: “Stahl House” also gets at that arcade-y, almost fun house vibe. It’s super welcoming, too, so it captures that shopping experience that you’re trying to create. 

Jess: I really do like the name, I’m happy with it! 

Gab: When you’ve been exploring these new materials and ideas to explore, how do you go about sourcing inspo? 

Jess: Childhood nostalgia, joy in little things, wholesome experiences – I’ll remember something from growing up that I either really wanted or that I had that was really cool. 

I had this friend when I was little who’s mom worked for Bonnie Bell, the brand that did Lip Smackers. Every sleepover we had, she’d have these huge goodie bags of unreleased Lip Smackers –– we had huge piles of them, it was so cool.  Now I’m like, “Oh my gosh, I forgot how cute the packaging was!” I got into a hole of researching that and I’m like, “How can I take inspiration from that and apply it to my brand?

I guess 90s, Y2K is very on trend right now, but I’m just gravitating to it. Like, for the nail polish collection, we’ve been using color examples from mini iPods. One of the things I got into during my toy deep-dive was the robot dogs. I just think they’re so cool, and I love their material. I still kind of want one. 

Gab: The robot dog plastic is sort of also like the Apple product plastic, the big desk tops that were like that. With the big desktops that were that way like the clear.

Jess: I’d love to work more with that type of plastic. I know textiles, but if I want to get to other routes, I need bridges to other areas. But that’s one of the cool things about being in the art world. 

Gab: This entire project is of your own making – some parts you learned from school or work, but most of it is self taught. What have you learned from starting your own brand that way? 

Jess: I’d say the biggest one is the business side. In school, you learn the technical parts and how to curate a collection, but the whole idea of how to profit off it it is new to me. My first job experience was at Urban Outfitters. I was just out of school and I didn’t really care about the business part. Sure, they want us to make money, but I just wanted to make cool things because I came from that environment. 

When I started Stahl Knit, I really had to learn all of that. For a while, I was like, “I have no idea what I’m doing.” A lot of it’s trial and error. For the pop up, I made a collection that I I’ve been working on for a while. I think it’s pretty well rounded – I see it, I believe it. I’m hoping it has enough things that people can relate to but it’s also not stuff that everyone else is doing, because then why would people buy from me? 

Gab: How you would describe the aesthetic of your spring collection and just the brand in general?

Jess: Definitely kitschy, playful. There are a lot of childhood toy references. 

Gab: What is your process of styling pieces? 

Jess: We’re going to take photos at the pop-up, so I’m hoping to use that content in place of a styled photo shoot or runway show. It feels more real to me. I’m hoping people will come in and get excited about what they see. They’re going to come in with their own aesthetics they’re going to add to their outfits. It’s a cool way to see how other people choose to style it. 

My stuff isn’t really meant to be worn all together. I don’t make full looks, at least not at the moment. I really like when my work is styled with other designers that I admire or my friends’ stuff that that they’re making. That’s part of the reason why I wanted to have other designers at the pop-up. Some of them are from different cities or don’t know each other, and they wouldn’t normally have their stuff together in one place. I think that’s what’s really exciting – and that makes it more my own. 

Gab: It’s like you’re curating this story in a way. It goes back to what you said about each piece having personality and a story. It’s more of an experience of the clothing. 

Jess: Yeah, everything has a reason to be there. There’s a lot of thought that goes into that. 

Gab: Before this pop up, what has the process of sharing your brand been like? 

Jess: I have my own website. I’ve done the Vicarious Love markets, which are really fun. But it’s hard sometimes, knowing how to present the work in person. 

I’ve been kind of teetering between, should I be more online or should I be more in person? And I don’t know, you kind of never know how you’re going to do. I’ve done pretty well at some markets and I’ve done horrible at some. I still haven’t figured out what my places are. 

Gab: I can’t even imagine.

Jess: If I could hire one person, it would be like a marketing or business person. I could really use help with that. 

Gab: That takes a whole other part of the brain, the more analytic side. I feel like with what you’re being forced to do at this pop up – create this shopping experience and test out your vision of what your future store might look like – that’s just the best way to do it. 

I think Philly is a great place to do that in because, like you said, there are a lot of thrift stores here, but there aren’t as many boutiques. I feel like this city is ripe for what you’re trying to do.

Jess: Right! People are always talking about wanting to move to New York, but I feel like for what I’m trying to do, New York is already very saturated. 

Gab: What has your experience as an artist in Philly been like?
Jess: I honestly really like it. When I moved here, I thought I’d go to New York after a year or two, but I didn’t want to leave. The artist bubble is so small that you know everyone. If there’s someone you want to meet, it can happen. There’s a lot of opportunity for growth here. There isn’t as much going on here as New York, but then it’s like, “Why don’t I do it? Why don’t I make it happen?” 

Gab: Yeah, like your pop up. That’s your chance to do something totally new. 

Jess: Yeah, I wouldn’t be doing something this large scale in New York. 

Gab: What are the details for the event?
Jess: It’ll be from 2-7 on April 8. It’s at 1118 Pine Street. 

Gab: Well, thank you again so much for chatting. I’m so excited to see it!

Jessica (she/her)