Text by Adam Lehrer
Traditionally, New York City has been thought of as the most traditional, commercial, and retail-driven of the fashion markets. For the record, this is true. Designers here, by and large, are not as fueled by “the concept.” The fashion show in New York is largely not conceptual, not a story and certainly not art. You won’t have Raf Simons examining the lonely platitudes of the state of creativity, like he did with the Raf Simons FW 2016 collection (but with him rumored to be on the way to Calvin Klein, that might change). You won’t have Rei Kawakubo using the medium of garment design as pure creation. Most brands here, historically, have thought of fashion shows as product displays and the product itself generally has to be sellable. There have been exceptions of course: Marc Jacobs, Helmut Lang (who moved his brand to New York from Paris in 1997, shocking the fashion industry in the process), and Proenza Schouler among them.
But with the establishing of several new brands, those perceptions about New York as a fashion city are quickly changing. New York, perhaps more so than any other city in the world, is an art city. But for some reason, that notion was not always apparent from its fashion brands. But now with the interconnectivity of creative mediums more in your face than ever as a result of the internet, fashion is being embraced by the art savvy young crowd and you are far more likely to see not only artists caring about fashion labels, but also to see fashion people rubbing elbows with the art world. Perhaps this shift started with Hood by Air, a brand that became associated with its sexually and racially diverse customers even while it started blowing up in the mainstream. Hood by Air, whether you like the clothes or not, indicated that different standards of beauty applied to this new generation of creative millennials. It was like all of a sudden fashion realized that there was an untapped market of style obsessives that found beauty in face tattoos and oversized hoodies more than they did a Michael Kors cocktail dress. Since Hood by Air, several brands have started that are clearly appealing to the tastes of radical culture savvy and sexually adventurous art school drop out types. While everyone is still (justifiably) freaking out over Demna and Vetements and everything going on in Paris, there are just as many brands in New York after a similar market of buyers. These brands are selling with the promise of a concept, of an idea that you can buy into. These are those brands.
Alyx designer Matthew Williams is only 30-years-old; two years older than me. That thought is depressing considering the career this guy has had (and subsequently the one I’m trying to have). He has a knack for exploiting the inner punk rebel within pop culture icons; he grunged up the aesthetic of Lady Gaga as her stylist and helped Kanye become Yeezus (sub pink polos for billowing Rick Owens tops and shredded Ance jeans) as Creative Director of West’s Donda creative agency. He founded the DJ art collective Been Trill with Heron Preston and Off-White designer Virgil Abloh, blurring the lines between youth culture driven music and high fashion with designer collabs with Martine Rose and Hood by Air. It was only a matter of time that he’d be fueling his Southern California skate punk aesthetic into a high fashion label of his own and in February 2015 he did just that with Alyx Studio. In a profile, W Magazine noted Williams’ ability (alongside contemporaries like Demna and Virgil) to re-create the styles of underground clubs within the context of high luxury. His SS 2016 collection features a pair of worker jeans baggy at the leg and cropped at the ankle as to fall into a boot while carefully distressed throughout. A t-shirt in his FW 2016 collection is based on a t-shirt he tricked his grandmother into buying him in high school: an obscured graphic clearly reads “FUCK YOU” when folded. Cool fashion girls and the industry are responding. Even though Williams approaches growth slowly and responsibly, the brand is already stocked at Dover Street Market, Machine-A, and Colette and Williams has been shortlisted for the LVMH prize.
The little avant-garde fashion label that could, Eckhaus Latta designers Mike Eckhaus and Zoe Latta have been named to (my other regular publishing outlet) Forbes’ “30 Under 30.” Mike and Zoe are RISD graduates. The school may (or may not) have formed the brand’s DNA, which more than any other has tapped into the spirit of this new generation of New York artists. In an early interview with Interview Magazine, the duo explains that their early fashion memories are stripped of glamour: Mike fondly remembered his family’s utilitarian approach to dress and Zoe discussed discovering garments in the good will bins. They are more art than fashion, and their clothes reflect that. Using plastic and translucent leather to create early Margiela-recalling deconstructed garments mostly created for wear for both and all genders. Perhaps more so than any other brand, they capture the styles of those displayed by kids that hang out at art openings in Bushwick and spend their nights dancing to ‘90s R&B and harsh techno. The clothes are both easy and free but also odd, allowing comfort and a distinct sense of “hey take a look at that person” vibes. They are also smart and have played this aspect of their brand up, with avant-garde fashion videos, a FW 2016 runway show staged at MOMA PS1, and runway models consisting of hip folks like artist Bjarne Melgaard, musician Devonte Hynes (Blood Orange), and artist Alexandra Marzella. The brand has cultivated a customer base by making the base its friends.
In many ways, New York is leading the pack in terms of diversity in fashion. I (clearly) am a massive Raf Simons fan, but he has only in the last few years started using models that weren’t uniformly white. Vetements, the radical brand of our times, feels much less radical when noting that Demna failed to use any models of color in both his Vetements and Balenciaga FW 2016 collections. But in New York, color (along with gender and sexuality) is not just utilized but celebrated (just look at Hood by Air). And it makes sense, I’ve always said the most stylish ‘hood in the Five Boroughs is Flatbush, a pre-dominantly black and Latino working class area of Brooklyn. Us New Yorkers see beauty and style in all shades. And no brand is celebrating ethnicity quite like designer Rio Uribe is with his Gypsy Sport label. The brand was started by Harlem native Jerome Williams, Uribe stepping in shortly thereafter. They garnered instant praise when they debuted their garments at the VFiles fashion show in 2014. Though Williams seems to have left (please notify me if I’m wrong about that), Uribe has maintained the aesthetic that appears to be a gender fluid take on popular urban streetwear labels with notable references to tribal warrior patterns and silhouettes. The brand has collaborated with ‘90s hip-hop culture labels like DKNY and Coogi while furthering its own aesthetic. What I find most fascinating about the label is that while it is heavily steeped in ‘90s New York urban culture, it has removed macho posturing from the equation. Take for example the FW 2016 collection where Uribe did a full menswear presentation full of abstract and feminine takes on streetwear while presenting some of the same garments in the womenswear collection. It is a truly modern manifestation of urban streetwear derived from the melting pot of culture that is New York. Aside from Hood by Air, there is no brand that feels so authentically inclusive and celebratory of real life honest-to-goodness people. Gypsy Sport is fashion as exuberance.
Moses Gauntlett Cheng
Of Moses Gauntlett Cheng, I believe Dazed’s Veronica So said it best: “Moses Gauntlett Cheng is really like a fashion version of an art school punk band – they create clothes out of an instinctive necessity to challenge the status quo, piecing together a brand with what they have and seeing what happens.” If Eckhaus Latta started the art-fashion crossover, Moses Gauntlett Cheng takes the concept and steps it up to a more extreme degree. Not surprising then that the brand’s founding designers; David Moses, Esther Gauntlett, and Jenny Cheng; all met interning at Eckhaus Latta. Moses has left the brand, but their gang sensibility remains strong. I once met Moses at an event at the gallery Signal in Brooklyn, and it was easy to see where the brand’s aesthetic comes from. The young art set the designers hang around are wildly stylish but doing so in a way that looks like they could care less about fashion even though they clearly do. See through tank tops and hiked jeans are made to look stunning. And even though the clothes are quite arty, there is an emphasis on quality with Moses Gauntlett Cheng that makes them appealing to those maybe less interested in fashion but still interested in clothes. Their knitwear, for instance, is tremendous and would appeal to someone who shops at Front General Store in DUMBO just as much as an Alexander McQueen obsessive. Even though Moses has moved onto the Vaquera label, Jenny and Esther keep the spirit of the brand that was founded by three friends in the back of a cab on a way to a John Waters event alive.
Fashion has never been thought of as a political medium, but it should be. How we dress indicates so much about us: our income brackets, our backgrounds, our interests, in some cases our sexualities and genders. Pyer Moss designer Kerby Jean-Raymond believes that all artists should reflect the times in their work, and in his SS 2016 collection he entered a cultural discussion few fashion designers have ever even publicly voiced their opinions on. In two shows, one for men and one for women, Jean-Raymond collaborated with Los Angeles-based visual artist Gregory Siff on a presentation entitled “OTA BENGA” named after a Congolese man who was kept in the Bronx Zoo in 1906. At the fashion shows, a documentary examining the wreckage of police brutality told through sound bites of victims’ families was played throughout. The show was deeply emotional and undeniably timely and catapulted Jean-Raymond both into the upper echelons of New York designers as well as established him as a political voice. Most fascinating is that when Jean-Raymond started Pyer Moss he consistently faced the lazy description suffered by other black designers (Virgil Abloh, Public School): streetwear. The SS 2016 show made the fashion industry aware of its own complicity in institutionalized racism. Kerby Jean-Raymond is a high fashion designer with a powerful aesthetic; streetwear doesn’t really apply to what he does. And even though he is already tired of his label being constantly associated with race, it is important to have a designer sharing his political beliefs at the cost of risky business. If fashion is really an art form than it must behave like an art form, and Jean-Raymond is not holding back.
The Los Angeles native self-taught designer Shan Huq garnered attention with his SS 2016 show that was staged within the St. Marks church in the Lower East Side with the concept of turning the styles of Middle America mall rat youths into high fashion. And while the terms “mall rat” and fashion might seem like antithetical concepts, Huq found something endearingly romantic with the vision through short skirts, plaid shirts, cargo’s, and runner pants. His FW 2016 collection featured prints of reality star (and one-time porno actress) Tila Tequila across the back of shirts. Huq finds beauty within the banal. It almost feels like he is elevating the trash culture of the early aughts because, for better or worse, this was the first culture he was ever exposed to. Designing for both men and women, Huq brings some much-needed conceptual head fuckery to the New York fashion schedule. His lack of design training has allowed for him to heed the advice of no one. He likes what he likes, and he finds the beauty in what he is exposed to. Though he is aware of art, he actively avoids referencing most of it. In the process, he has been able to cultivate an insular vision that brings something legitimately new to the industry.
Telfar Clemens is 28 seasons into his Telfar gender-neutral though technically menswear brand. So, he’s no spring chicken and certainly is not on the come up; he’s a veteran. But I feel it important to mention Telfar here, in that he was one of the first New York designers to actively rebel against the fashion schedule and commercial demands, in stead opting for avant-garde presentations and cultivating a small but loyal uber-cult customer base. Telfar’s designs are strikingly minimal; the designer incorporates what he calls the “simplex” aesthetic in which he mutates traditional garments like polo shirts and jeans by transforming belt loops into odd pockets and other small but strange flourishes. He has always been known for his multi-racial casting often featuring strong and broad men dressed rather effeminate and off beat. Telfar has always had a strong association with fine art and is proud of his label’s association with experimental garment manufacturing. The photographer artists David Lieske and Rob Kulisek used Telfar’s garments in a photography series based on early black metal. The models in the photographs wore traditional black metal corpse paint while wearing Telfar’s garments which emphasized the inner sensitivity and vulnerability that defines an artist working within a medium even as extreme as black metal music. And that is really what Telfar is about: letting the wearer’s soul shine through. He is extremely important to conceptual fashion in New York and the world.
Vaquera founding designer (former stylist), the Alabama native Patric DiCaprio, has a serious sense of reckless abandon in his clothing. The FW 2016 collection had a female model in skin-tight tye-dye leggings with an oversized trench coat opened exposing her tits, a male model wearing a short purple dress, and high-waisted pink pants with ruffled seams. He may have developed this “devil may care” attitude while growing up in the rural South where he painted his nails black and straightened his hair to accommodate his look for a string of goth and screamo bands he played in. It’s almost like the oppressive environment inspired him to stand out and be weird (“it’s being in an oppressive environment that really makes you turn it out,” said DiCaprio in a piece by Dazed). But in New York, especially amongst the art and fashion crowds DiCaprio has found a home in, having a striking look requires a higher degree of severity. It’s logical then that he has really pushed his fashion brand to the extreme in gender-blurring, overblown and tastefully distasteful silhouettes, and a freewheeling almost druggy aesthetic. Also, having gained mentorship from the founders of radical arts media platform DIS Magazine, DiCaprio has a rebellious “fuck systems” approach to fashion that feels generally authentic, whether it be staging shows at the Essex/Delancey Manhattan train stop or presenting the first clothes he ever constructed as the first Vaquera collection. Recently, David Moses (formerly of Moses Gauntlett Cheng) has joined the Vaquera party, and it looks like these two merry pranksters will be quietly disrupting New York fashion in the distant present.
Sadly, the 19-year old architectural fashion master Vejas Kruszewski has moved his brand (you know, himself) from New York to Paris after being shortlisted for the LVMH prize as well as citing the incestuous nature of the glut of young New York brands (many of whom are featured here). So, technically, Vejas is a Paris brand now. But I’m still including Vejas here, because why the fuck not? Of all the designers on this list, Vejas is the brand where almost every piece I see I think, “I want that now.” The clothing is gender neutral, but Kruszewski is so in tune with the structure and shape of his garments that every piece is to accommodate both a female and a male frame. It comes down to a matter of sizing. Kruszewski started his label fresh out of high school without any design training, making his knack for pattern cutting and sewing all the more admirable. Kruszewski admitted in an interview that he still has a lot to teach his self, but believes his informal approach allows him freedom from preconceived notions of what fashion should be. The brand’s FW 2016 collection, which was its first shown in Paris, featured trans activist Hari Nef modeling a shaved goat fur jacket, a gigantic tote bag, and architectural knits. There is a certain intellectual trash aesthetic in Kruszewski’s vision that I find appealing; much of his garments remind me of the guys in Trainspotting (the most stylish menswear film ever) and their knack for blazers over camo t-shirts and suede jackets and drainpipe jeans. But the clothes are embellished, in structure not decoration, allowing for every piece to be highly coveted and extremely desirable. New York will surely miss Mr. Kruszewski, but his brand Vejas should prove a valuable addition to the Paris fashion revolution with Vetements Y Project, Gosha and the like.