Jessy Wolff, '20, left the corporate world to start her own business and earn a college degree.
Jessy Wolff, ’20, is a designer. The UW Tacoma psychology grad runs her own company. Wolff Designs specializes in vegan handbags. “The apparel industry is a big part of the throwaway economy,” she said. “Fabric mills are one of the largest polluters in the world and I wanted to decrease that impact my creating sustainable products.”
Wolff has been professionally involved with apparel design for more than 15 years. After high school she attended Seattle Central College where she earned an associate’s degree in apparel design. “I really wanted to work for a smaller business,” she said. This ethos lead Wolff to intern at Utilikilts. The Seattle-based company makes “Men’s Unbifurcated Garments.”
Wolff’s internship turned into a full-time job where she held the title of “leather girl.” “I oversaw all of the leather kilt orders,” she said. “At the time these were their most expensive kilts and so you needed someone who had a strong eye for detail and who was very precise.”
From Utilikilts, Wolff took her skills to Black Rock Gear. The company makes lightweight outdoor gear. Wolff worked there from 2010 to 2013. “Working for these companies was great, the people were wonderful, and I learned new skills, but I didn’t get to do what I wanted to do,” she said. “I decided to go off on my own.”
Wolff Designs allowed its namesake space to explore. “It’s important for me to keep things affordable as well as accessible to everyone,” she said. Wolff’s bags are very much a reflection of who she is and what she values. This, as it turns out, ended up being a catch-22. “I started thinking about the impact I was having and why I was really doing this,” said Wolff.
These questions lead Wolff back to school to pursue a degree in psychology. “I’m a pretty empathetic person and have personal experiences with trauma and adverse experiences,” she said. “I’d done some healing work and I felt like I could really help others who are trying to find their way.”
Wolff’s formative years were marred by separation and abuse. “My parents divorced when I was six months old,” she said. Wolff’s then 20-year-old mother got custody of her, but it didn’t last. “She was still so young and couldn’t really handle it, so I went to live with my dad in Iowa.”
Life didn’t get better in the Midwest. Wolff’s stepmother physically and verbally abused her. “My dad found out about it almost by chance,” said Wolff. “He was on his way to work and realized he forgot something, so he turned around and walked in to find my stepmother banging my head against the floor.”
Wolff moved back in with her mother but found a similar situation. “My mom had found somebody new who she ended up marrying,” said Wolff. “He was also an abusive person. I pretty much spent my childhood in a constant state of terror.”
No matter the chaos unfolding around her, Wolff always had a means of escape. “Art is a big part of my identity,” she said. “I’ve always been really creative.” Wolff’s expertise came in handy recently. She served as the Breakaway Coordinator for the Center for Service and Leadership during the last academic school year. Breakaway trips give students the opportunity to give back to the community by say, volunteering with a food bank or Habitat for Humanity. The COVID-19 pandemic changed the nature of Wolff’s work. “My position became more about making masks and trying to support people in either getting kits to make masks or teaching them how to make masks,” she said.
Wolff excelled while at UW Tacoma. She participated in two study abroad classes. Wolff was also a part of the Global Honors program and is a Bamford Fellow. The fellowship includes a research component. “My partner and I looked at colonialism and neocolonialism but from different angles, said Wolff. “I’m looking at communities in Brazil that escaped slavery and were able to build communities in remote areas where they were able to maintain their identity and resist colonialism.”
Wolff plans to attend graduate school. Her long-term goal is to be a licensed mental health therapist. In the meantime, she’s keeping busy with her business and raising her six-year-old son.
The design process isn’t pretty. Sometimes, you get pretty far into a project before you realize it’s not working. Jessy Wolff is a designer. She’s skilled at taking things apart and using the materials to create something new. Wolff has spent the past few years working on a project and she’s done, for now.