New York Fashion’s Paradigm Shift
“Is this okay?” asks Collina Strada founder Hillary Taymour as she takes the hand of designer Christopher John Rogers. It’s a Wednesday morning in early January, and with the Omicron variant raging, it feels like something of a miracle that Taymour, Rogers, and nine other New York designers who are shaping the future of American fashion have been able to gather for a group portrait at a Manhattan photo studio. Outside, there’s freezing rain, but the mood inside is warm and convivial (and safe; strict Covid-19 protocols are firmly in place).
We’ve all been conditioned over the past two years to seek six feet of separation, and as he was setting up the shot, photographer Davey Adésida explained to the assembled that they actually needed to leave even more space in the frame for the “gutter” (magazine- speak for the fold between the two pages in a spread). But after weathering the challenges of the pandemic, including extended periods of quasi social isolation, all while hustling to keep their young fashion businesses afloat, Taymour, Rogers, and their fellow designers— Theophilio’s Edvin Thompson, A. Potts’s Aaron Potts, Bode’s Emily Adams Bode Aujla, Puppets and Puppets’s Carly Mark, Sukeina’s Omar Salam, LaQuan Smith, Jonathan Cohen, Peter Do, and Khaite’s Catherine Holstein—appear genuinely excited to be in a room together. They keep moving closer.
America’s fashion stars have always emerged in waves. The 1973 Battle of Versailles put New York fashion on the map, with Halston, Oscar de la Renta, Bill Blass, Stephen Burrows, and Anne Klein besting the French couture establishment. They set the tone for the generations of American sportswear giants who followed: Calvin Klein, Ralph Lauren, Diane von Furstenberg, and Perry Ellis in the 1970s; Donna Karan, Michael Kors, Tommy Hilfiger, Anna Sui, and Marc Jacobs in the 1980s and 1990s; and Derek Lam, Thakoon, Proenza Schouler, Jason Wu, and Rodarte in the 2000s and 2010s.
The landscape was different in the past; bigger was better, and success could be measured, and bolstered, by retail titans; a few key awards-show red-carpet placements on A-list celebs could bring about instant name recognition. The CFDA Awards, established in 1981 by the Council of Fashion Designers of America, New York fashion’s de facto governing body, gave designers an official channel to go head-to-head. And often it seemed like the same names won out again and again. Now many of those influential retailers are gone (RIP, Barneys), and so is the awards show red carpet; this year’s Golden Globes was a Twitter thread.
When Christopher John Rogers became the first Black designer to be named American Womenswear Designer of the Year this past November, his label, which was founded in 2016, was (and still is) relatively small and sold at just a few retailers. “I’ve only really sold clothes during the pandemic,” Rogers says. Spring 2020, which arrived just in time for lockdown, was the very first season his color-drenched label of voluminous eveningwear and separates was available in stores. “People were buying our gowns with nowhere to go,” he says, “but they knew that they needed to have these sort of weird little blobby pieces.” Still, there was no doubting his outsize influence. When the popular Gossip Girl reboot’s main character walked in a fashion show, she wore a Christopher John Rogers dress; when Zendaya was nominated for a red-carpet-less Emmys, she wore Christopher John Rogers for the ’gram; and when Kamala Harris was sworn in as the first woman and first person of color to serve as vice president of the United States, she wore a custom purple Christopher John Rogers coat.
Nearly 50 years after Versailles, New York’s new guard of agenda-setting designers is redefining what success looks like. For them, it’s about forging an authentic connection with customers—whether that’s through having their own boutique or e-commerce channel or working with a few carefully chosen retailers—and dressing celebrities and influencers who align with their values. Their designs are deeply personal and radically new. Rather than chase trends or water down their ideas to reach mass appeal, they are honing their own singular points of view. Saks’ Fashion Director Roopal Patel heralds them as “the future of fashion.” “There is such a great energy shift taking place in American fashion as this new guard of designers is leading the way,” she says. Think of Theophilio’s ruched mesh Rasta dresses or the enormous hoop skirts at Puppets and Puppets. In a time when society is finally reckoning with racial inequity, climate collapse, and other global challenges that the pandemic has cast in sharp relief, this translates for customers who want to shop in a more considered way. “There’s an ocean wave of activity that’s giving so many creative people an opportunity to express themselves,” says trailblazing model and diversity advocate Bethann Hardison. “These younger brands have the strength to push through and reveal themselves in the way that they want to tell their story.”
Personal identity, intersectionality, and a belief that representation matters are paramount for these designers. “We all have our own communities,” says Peter Do, who started his label in 2018 and made his runway debut for Spring 2022. “After the show, so many people in the AAPI community DMed me to say, ‘I’m so proud there’s a Vietnamese American designer representing us.’ ”
“My family is from Mexico City, and I grew up in San Diego, so my life straddles the border; it’s important to me, and it’s very much who I am,” says Jonathan Cohen, whose hand-drawn floral prints have incorporated Día de los Muertos skulls and who created the purple “Unity” coat Jill Biden wore at the Covid-19 memorial service on the eve of the inauguration. “Being Black and an immigrant and a gay male, I thought fashion was a way to connect with other people and really have a very important dialogue,” adds Edvin Thompson, the Jamaican-born designer of Theophilio.
Aaron Potts says the designs at his gender-fluid label, A. Potts, are all about making people feel seen. “I think about chubby little Aaron, not always loving himself and not always seeing himself reflected,” he says. “I try to cast people of different sizes, ages, color, and gender.” He launched his line, characterized by flowing parachute silks and lots of fringing, in 2018 after a long career at legacy labels including Perry Ellis, DKNY, and Anne Klein. “I really did it as a way to free myself from the creative restraints of ‘Is it a dress or is it a tunic?’ ” he says. “If it speaks to someone, then who cares?”
“It sounds a bit cliché, but we are more connected than we know,” reflects Omar Salam. His label, Sukeina, which he started in 2012, features dresses and separates fashioned from panels made using intricate West African braiding techniques. “The idea comes from that possibility,” Salam says, and he would know: Salam was born in France to parents from Senegal and Mauritania and was later adopted by a Jewish American woman. His late birth mother, whose name means “bright light” in Wolof, is the collection’s namesake.
These designers are also coming to prominence at a time when the effects of climate collapse couldn’t be clearer, the need to act is increasingly urgent, and consumers are more broadly aware of how much global manufacturing contributes to the climate disaster. Understanding their carbon footprint, working to lower it, and creating transparency around those efforts is par for the course with this crew. “Consumers increasingly care about transparency and the values of a brand,” says CFDA CEO Steven Kolb. “Today’s new generation of designers is authentic in its beliefs and not communicating those beliefs as a marketing ploy but rather because they care.” While they’re in the business of selling fashion, they want to create fewer, better things. “Our ethos has always been about creating clothes that real women truly want to wear—revitalizing American classics to offer collectible pieces,” says Catherine Holstein, who launched her brand, Khaite, in 2016.
Taymour, known for her exuberantly clashing prints on prints, has made environmental responsibility her raison d’être since her New York Fashion Week debut in 2014, and she always asks herself one question: “Why does the product need to exist?” She’d like to see designers create a shared fabric library so they can repurpose one another’s deadstock. “You can make new beautiful clothes with these materials, so why wouldn’t you?” she asks. At the end of 2019, Cohen, who is celebrating his 10th anniversary this spring, launched the Studio, a shopping vertical on his website where he sells one-off pieces including patchwork skirts, pillows, masks, and men’s shirting made from deadstock and fabric remnants. While the impetus was to cut down on waste—he did a case study showing that the pattern placement for a typical dress requires six yards of fabric, nearly half of which winds up on the workroom floor—the Studio also ended up being a lifeline as supply-chain issues brought on by the pandemic wreaked havoc on production schedules. “By doing something with the fabric remnants, you’re stopping it from going into the landfill, and you’re also creating new opportunities to make money for your business,” Cohen says.
Keeping manufacturing local not only benefits the environment, it also fosters and maintains community. Salam works exclusively with domestic factories, as do Taymour, Smith, Thompson, and Potts, and all of the designers do at least part of their production in New York’s Garment District, which for decades was the city’s manufacturing hub but in recent years has become an emblem of a flagging industry in transition. These relationships with local manufacturers became all the more crucial to maintain during the pandemic. “The foundation of Bode is domestic craft—textiles that were made for the home, in the home, largely by women,” says Emily Adams Bode Aujla, the 2021 American Menswear Designer of the Year, whose Chinatown shop is filled with one-of-a-kind garments fashioned from antique quilts and lace tablecloths with the help of her team of skilled artisans. While many larger fashion brands canceled orders when factories were forced to close during New York’s lockdown in the spring of 2020, Aujla went back to basics and invited patternmakers and seamstresses to take piecework home. She even created new jobs by hiring spouses and roommates who were out of work to do pickups or drop-offs and pack orders.
While it’s possible to live in sweatpants, fashion can provide a much-needed emotional uplift. “My sales tripled from 2020 to 2021,” says LaQuan Smith. “I was very confused as to where all of these women were going in catsuits, but they were selling out like crazy!” Instagram offered clues in the form of posts showing birthdays and anniversaries, even if they were just taking place at home. “I feel like there is always room for celebration, despite what we’re going through in the world right now,” Smith says. “My entire brand DNA is really about uplifting women and making them feel celebrated and beautiful and sexy.”
Although Smith gained new retail partners like Saks during the pandemic, he hasn’t always felt accepted by the fashion industry. After getting rejected from design school, Smith, who learned sewing from his grandmother, launched his business in 2010, at age 21, designing custom clothing. “Along my journey, I’ve embraced breaking the rules and creating my own narrative and doing things that work specifically for me, because when I tried to be like everyone else, it just didn’t necessarily work for me,” he says. Edvin Thompson of Theophilio, the CFDA’s 2021 American Emerging Designer of the Year, took an equally unconventional path after founding his label in 2016. As recently as March 2020, he was working full-time as a server and bartender at a Red Lobster in the Bronx. Laid off during the lockdown, he was able to focus on fashion, thanks in part to support from Your Friends in New York, an incubator founded by Pyer Moss’s Kerby Jean-Raymond. “I think the conversation around fashion as of late has just been really supportive of younger brands, inclusivity, and diversity,” says Thompson. “During the pandemic, my business has done amazing, even as the world is crumbling.”
Carly Mark quit the art world on the cusp of turning 30 and founded a fashion brand in 2019 named after her Chihuahua-terrier rescue, Puppet; her exaggerated silhouettes are now carried at Bergdorf Goodman. “There are no limits, and there are no rules,” she says. “I can’t do anything wrong because I don’t know if I’m doing anything right.”
At this story’s photo shoot, the designers discussed some of the unique challenges they’ve navigated over the past two years, like supply-chain woes (Rogers, Aujla, and Cohen all skipped seasons and released collections off schedule when it made sense) and what to do when Covid-19 comes for everyone in your office. (Uber contactless package deliveries were a lifesaver.) The pandemic has brought them closer together. When Rogers accepted his CFDA award, he congratulated his fellow nominees, including Do and Holstein. “When I think about American fashion now, I think of friendship,” says Do. “I don’t feel the need to compete with my peers because there’s enough space for all of us. A win for one is a win for all.” Taymour agrees. “I really look up to my peers,” she says. “With our rise together, we’ve been able to create something with American fashion that has never been done before.”
Opening Image: From left: Aaron Potts, Edvin Thompson, Emily Adams Bode Aujla, Carly Mark, Christopher John Rogers, Jonathan Cohen, Hillary Taymour, LaQuan Smith, Catherine Holstein, Peter Do, Omar Salam.
Hair: Mideyah Parker for Oribe Haircare; Makeup: Kuma for M.A.C.