The brainchild of Lady Gaga’s former makeup artist, House of Jade Sky boutique is a call to embrace your inner New Yorker.
by Caroline Portillo • photographs by Amy Kolo • produced by Whitley Adkins
Marissa Jade Willinsky may have fallen in love with Charlotte three years ago, but her clothes, her vibe, her live-out-loud home-turned-fashion boutique? They’ve got New York written all over them.
A former makeup artist to some of the world’s biggest superstars, from Lady Gaga to Britney Spears, Willinsky, 39, is the founder of Charlotte-based House of Jade Sky. It’s a members-only fashion boutique in Wesley Heights that the Brooklyn native created to “bring out the inner New Yorker in people of all ages, all beliefs, all races and sizes.”
An annual membership to House of Jade Sky costs $50 and comes with a host of perks, from exclusive party invitations to anytime access. That’s right: The House of Jade Sky is open 24 hours a day to its 350 members and their fashion emergencies, “catering to last-minute black-tie invites, impromptu out-of-town trips, broken hearts and even 2 a.m. boredom,” Willinsky says.
And if you’re wondering whether her members actually take her up on it — they do. One member, whose husband had surprised her with a last-minute weekend getaway, stopped by at 3 a.m., Willinsky says. She left three hours later with cocktail dresses, beachwear, belts and loungewear for the plane in tow.
Those late-night fashion calls are possible because House of Jade Sky’s boutique also happens to be Willinsky’s home. She opens the front door in limited-edition Chuck Taylors and a distressed denim jacket spray-painted in neon colors, sleeves rolled up. The back of the jacket is emblazoned with a screen print of Frida Kahlo, rivers of orange and pink streaming from her closed eyes. A mustard-yellow velvet baseball hat and a bright red lip complete her look.
The walls of the home, from the front door to the upstairs showroom, are marked by murals of massive flowers and butterflies in an explosion of color — the handiwork of local artist Kristi Kirkpatrick. On the first floor is a tropical oasis of a bedroom-turned-dressing room, complete with pink walls and palm-leaf murals. The second floor is the kitchen, living area and showroom, where walls and windows are lined with Willinsky’s designs.
The clothes and accessories range in price from $32 to $395, and all are made to be noticed. Consider the Space Cowgirl bodysuit studded with rhinestones and pearls, the Andy Warhol-inspired Pop Art mini dress, the iridescent purses, bedazzled sunglasses, and crossbody bags fashioned to look like takeout Chinese containers (read: New York).
Willinsky wants her clients to be noticed — to stop traffic. “If they’re not getting whiplash, I’m not doing my job,” she says.
‘Meet me in the Bronx’
Willinsky’s fashion sensibilities are a product of her upbringing, her education and the legendary New York City nightclub scene she became well acquainted with in her teens.
Willinksy’s father, an Italian, and her mother, a “5-foot-2 spunky Asian,” met in Korea when her dad was in the U.S. Air Force. In Korea, her mother’s family owns a manufacturing company that produces apparel. Willinsky grew up watching her mother, who owned a hair and nail salon and boutique, make clothes for her and her sister. Willinsky herself was always sketching, making her way through a stack of white construction paper and a 64-count box of Crayola crayons.
She stepped into her first NYC nightclub, the Limelight, on a Saturday night at age 15 (after “borrowing” the ID of her 22-year-old sister, Kim). She loved the scene — the showmanship, the sleek silhouettes, the shiny black outfits, the nights spent planning what she’d wear the next time she went out.
Willinsky got a bachelor’s degree in psychology and after a change of heart, went back to school at the Fashion Institute of Technology, where she earned a bachelor’s in fashion merchandising. Throughout college, she worked in retail and fashion merchandising and at MAC cosmetics, a key player in New York’s fashion scene. When she graduated from FIT in 2008 at the start of the recession, she got an offer to be an assistant designer making $30,000 a year — about what her Manhattan rent cost. MAC, on the other hand, offered her $60,000 to return to her old job as a makeup artist for major events.
“It’s not what I wanted to do forever,” Willinsky says. But it paid the bills and meant trips to Milan Fashion Week and Paris Fashion Week. And one Sunday morning at 6 a.m., she got the call that changed her life: “Get your kit together and meet me in the Bronx,” her friend said.
Willinsky showed up on an industrial set to find music superstar Lady Gaga doing a photo shoot for her Monster Ball worldwide concert tour. Thanks to that 6 a.m. call and a fortuitous day spent in the Bronx, Willinsky spent the next decade touring with some of the music industry’s biggest names: Lady Gaga, Britney Spears, Justin Bieber. She was a makeup artist for hundreds of shows a year, but she’d pinch hit wherever else she was needed: hair, nails, even wardrobe.
Then in 2018, during Gaga’s Joanne tour, the artist’s chronic pain led her to cancel the 10 remaining concerts. She gave everyone five weeks of paid leave — unheard of in the industry, Willinsky says. So rather than go back to New York to try to scrounge up some gigs, Willinsky headed to Cornelius to visit her mother and sister. Her sister and brother-in-law had relocated to the Charlotte area years earlier, and Willinsky’s mother joined them after Willinsky’s father passed away.
In those five weeks, Willinsky discovered what a gem of a city Charlotte and its growing creative community was. She decided toI put down roots.
A launch, a shutdown and a rebirth
Willinsky had always wanted to open a boutique and to design her own clothes. And thanks to her extended family’s manufacturing company in Korea, she had the means to bring her designs to life. In November 2018, she opened House of Jade Sky in the heart of NoDa.
“Jade Sky” is a play on her middle name (Jade) and the end of her last name. It wasn’t long before she and her New York panache made a name in the Charlotte creative community. But 14 months after she opened her doors, Covid-19 forced her to close her brick-and-mortar retail space and pivot. That’s when she decided to bring her work home, officially.
When Willinsky first saw the Wesley Heights home that would become House of Jade Sky, it was the second floor that struck her most. The big windows, the open concept — they reminded her of a New York City showroom. On the third floor is Willinsky’s bedroom and her sewing room, where she cooks up all of the extravagant designs that later find themselves on the showroom floor. And the rooftop, with its skyline views, makes for the perfect party spot.
This summer, Willinsky toasted to new beginnings for House of Jade Sky with a five-DJ lineup, catering from Los Viajeros in New York and a 10-minute firework show. Some of Lady Gaga’s backup dancers made a surprise visit — donning Willinsky’s designs, of course — and Beyonce’s choreographer James Alsop, better known as Miss James, performed.
“My mission is to bring out something in you that you never knew you had,” Willinsky says.
And sometimes, that means sprinkling the Queen City with a little Big Apple flavor. SP