8 Innovative Fashion Players Breaking The Rules Right Now

Photo: Courtesy of Yuki James/Gogo Graham.
We're in the thick of fashion month, and this season, deviating from business-as-usual has become ubiquitous. It's (almost) not news anymore when yet another designer breaks from industry tradition, be it by embracing a "see now, buy now" philosophy or just straight-up abandoning the frenzy of showing at Fashion Week. There's a lot of noteworthy innovation happening in fashion today. And the players responsible for shaking up the status quo certainly aren't doing it by adhering to bygone rules.

Most of these game-changers are doing things differently far beyond Fashion Week (a time-honored biannual roll-out of new collections that, let's face it, appears to be on the brink of extinction). Ahead, meet eight players test-driving novel approaches for succeeding in fashion by breaking the rules, be it in terms of size- or gender-inclusivity, traditional manufacturing M.O.'s, or what, exactly, belongs on the runway, from sweatpants to political messages.

Some have achieved household-name status already, others are behind-the-scenes agents of change or indie talents addressing traditionally underserved customers. But they're all radically rethinking how to go about the business of fashion. If you're not familiar with their names, it's time to get acquainted, ASAP.
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Photo: Courtesy of Pyer Moss.
Rule No. 1: Topics that aren't suited for polite dinner conversation (say, politics or race) have no place in a fashion collection.

Kerby Jean-Raymond, the designer behind Pyer Moss, has long been using his work to grapple with heavy-hitting issues. One of the most woke designers in the business, the New-York native's career dates back to his high-school days, and for the past few years, he's shown at NYFW. His collections have unflinchingly addressed subjects the rest of the industry still isn't willing to touch, be it fall '16's powerful reflection on Black Lives Matter and mental illness, or spring '17's diatribe against capitalism and greed (and the absurdity of this year's presidential election).

"Art is intended to be appreciated for its beauty and its emotional power. I used to get caught up in just making things that were visually appealing, but emotionally empty. I recently started putting my personal struggles and my beliefs into my work and it's made me love what I do even more. The messages of racial injustice that echo in my collections, graphics, and runways are just a reflection of my reality growing up in this city, and now navigating the world as a young black man. It's also a consequence of the eruptions of police brutality. It’s not meant to overshadow my work as a designer or as a tailor, but it’s to give the viewer insight into my life, with the hope that they can relate or be inspired.

"Compared to the activists that do the heavy lifting... I don’t compare. I haven’t risked my life in the way they have yet. I have been simply echoing their messages with my platform just to give them some help. The people who fight for our civil freedoms including activists and military personnel are a special breed that we are all largely indebted to. While I appreciate being clustered in with them, I don’t personally believe I’ve done enough yet to carry the same title as them.

"It’s a shame [there aren't more designers addressing serious issues], for sure, but I get why they don’t. After a few well-written death threats I wanted to stop too, but it's ingrained in me to speak out about things that I’m learning, things I’m curious about, and things that lay a heavy burden on my heart. If anything, I hope designers with larger platforms will start speaking out more because if we really all want the same thing — which, I hope, is equality and a better quality of life for all humans walking this earth — then the movement will need all the help it can get. Education and a sense of fearlessness when it comes to fighting for progression. I’m doing my small part for education.

"It’s a numbers game. There are some fucked up, backwards-ass-thinking people still on this earth. We need to outnumber them. We want equal access, freedom to create, freedom to love, and our right to life to be respected. The crusty motherfuckers don’t, they want to maintain a status quo while people are denied education, food, and civil rights. We need to outnumber them. If you work in fashion, you need to understand that you have more influence than athletes; you have just as much influence as musicians. Use that influence to bring forth progress."
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Photo: Allen Berezovsky/WireImage.
Rule No. 2: A plus-size model doesn't belong on the same runways or in the same campaigns as a sample-sized model.

Model Ashley Graham may have started her career over a decade and a half ago, but the industry has only truly embraced her gorgeousness in the past few years. She's used her rapidly increasing fame quotient this year, her Sports Illustrated cover catapulted Graham to household-name status to become an outspoken advocate for body positivity.

"It's all about being a disrupter, taking chances, speaking up, and making a global impact. We hear about these unicorn tech companies like Google and Uber who are innovating and disrupting their entire industries, and we need to see more of that in the fashion industry. When I first started modeling 16 years ago, I was labeled a plus-size model, but my work goes beyond size. But today I'm not just innovating for curvy women. I'm relating to all women who want to be comfortable with their bodies, regardless of their size.

"Years ago, you wouldn't see a size-14 model as the face of a mainstream ad campaign. You wouldn't see a size-14 model designing clothing for sizes 4-24 (like I do with my Dressbarn line), or a lingerie company like Addition Elle being asked to make smaller sizes because women with smaller chests love the collection. All of these shifts are transforming the fashion industry and perceptions of beauty."
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Photo: Courtesy of Yuki James/Gogo Graham.
Rule No. 3: There's no need to specifically address or design for people that identify beyond the gender binary.

New York-based designer Gogo Graham has been credited with creating the "first true trans-fashion line," building an "underground empire" with her one-of-a-kind pieces designed expressly for trans individuals. Thus, Graham is placing a very genuine, from-personal-experience focus on a customer base that's largely been ignored by the fashion industry.

"I dress people who identify as trans femme, transwomen, gender non-conforming, and anywhere within or outside of a gender binary excluding cisgender folks. All of the garments are made custom for each individual, so it's impossible that the result would be anything related to conventional notions of gender. The community aspect that comes along with the shows I do is important to me. I think that it's important to hold events run by members of our community that allow us to gather and feel empowered in each other's presence.

"I think maybe other labels run by trans folks have not been as visible as mine or visible in the same way. I believe the term 'trans fashion' is a product of cisnormative culture within the fashion industry. I think cis people have a very clear idea of what trans identity means and the term probably comes from a projection of that within a context of putting clothes on people and the fact that it's coming from the mind of a trans-identified designer."

"I don't think [the fashion industry has become more open-minded about gender identity]. I think people like to pretend it has because it makes them feel less guilty about working within an industry with a reputation [for] being white supremacist, misogynistic, and exploitative at its core."
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Photo: Courtesy of Under Armour.
Rule No. 4: Running clothes don't belong on the runway.

Sportswear ins't a completely foreign category for Belgian designer Tim Coppens, an alum of Antwerp's Royal Academy of Fine Arts (a.k.a. the former stomping grounds of design greats like Ann Demeulemeester, Dries Van Noten, and Martin Margiela). Coppens has made a name for himself, literally, with his eponymous menswear label. But now, Coppens has rolled out a full-fledged performance line, and it's not just a sporty offshoot of his namesake collection. It's an ambitious bid by Under Armour to finally be able to compete with other activewear behemoths like Nike, Adidas, and Puma in terms of having a legitimate, high-fashion collection. Dubbed Under Armour Sportswear, or UAS, the coed collection debuted at NYFW last week, and is available on Under Armour's site, its NYC and Chicago stores, plus fashion retailers like Barneys and Mr. Porter. Can UAS compete with the fashion-cred-packed collabs its activewear-producing peers have been rolling out for years?

"UAS is not the product of a short-term reaction to what’s happening in fashion right now. For me, it is a continuation of where I started as a designer. UAS links two important worlds to me: fashion, and the performance and athletic market. We're working on a holistic vision for an entirely new product line with UAS. It takes time and focus to create product that is innovative and also trend-right for the global apparel market. We recognize that there is a desire for something new: a new twist on an American sportswear brand that allows the ambitious generation to go longer, faster, and harder with intuitive products and a modern style.

"To be clear, we define UAS as sportswear, not activewear, and certainly not athleisure. UAS is for the customer that goes to the street and still needs the function of Under Armour product[s], but captured in a collection that is built for life. The right tailoring, the right fit — you get that with UAS. Natural materials and tech materials are used in the right way, and used where appropriate.

"I think the fashion industry has been embracing sportswear for awhile; [sportswear and fashion] are no longer separate, but running parallel to each other. Innovation is where sportswear has a very real connection to the consumer."
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Rule No. 5: You can't really, truly create clothing that's both accessibly priced and environmentally friendly.

While affordable prices and sustainable-production practices certainly don't have to be mutually exclusive, they don't often dovetail. Two-and-a-half-month-old brand YSTR is one of those rare exceptions. Co-founders April Liang (pictured), who heads up production, and Garrett Gerson, who serves as CEO, launched the label in July with an ambitious zero-waste commitment (each piece is cut to order), a cool-girl aesthetic, and price tags that top out around $200.

"The fashion industry has become a gluttonous, oversaturated industry where companies are overproducing garments in order to bring down costs (and therefore prices) on products that are disposable and will inevitably end up in landfills, polluting our earth. I don’t think we’re necessarily disrupting the industry, we just want to grow a company that celebrates what fashion used to be and what fashion should be: thoughtfully crafted clothes that are responsibly made. We don’t want to make clothes just to satiate our desire to design or turn a profit — we want to approach the fashion industry in a way that will allow our daughters, sons, nephews, and so on to have a beautiful world to live in in the future. Our innovation doesn’t come from looking at ourselves as a company that only cares about the bottom line — it comes from looking at ourselves as part of a community." —Garrett Gerson

"Many people don’t realize that when a fashion company makes clothes in bulk (due to minimums set by manufacturers), the overproduced garments eventually all end up in landfills and pollute our earth. That includes clothes that initially go to secondhand clothing stores or outlets, where only one out of 10 items actually gets sold. A lot of companies start out with a cut-to-order model because it financially makes the most sense as they are still testing out the market and figuring out who their customers really are. However, these companies soon transition into traditional manufacturing once they are confident that they can financially handle high manufacturing minimums. We’ve created an opposite business where we are taking the characteristics of a contemporary fashion company and applying it to our cut-to-order process. Our ultimate goal is to inspire likeminded brands and individuals help change the industry and figure out other potential creative ways to run eco-friendly businesses."— April Liang
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Photo: Gregg DeGuire/WireImage.
Rule No. 6: Plus-size clothing shouldn't occupy the same racks as smaller, under-size-14 designs.

When Melissa McCarthy launched her size-4-through-28 fashion line last summer, she completely called out the limited fashion options for average-sized women, the fact that their sizes are stocked in the most remote, undesirable real estate on the selling floor — oh, and she blasted the term "plus-size" too. McCarthy does, in fact, have some fashion background — she briefly attended FIT before her classmate and close pal Brian Atwood encouraged her to instead pursue a career in comedy. But McCarthy has had a close collaborator working behind-the-scenes on her eponymous fashion line as well as her killer red carpet looks: Judy Swartz, a seasoned industry vet who made her name in tween fashion-empire building (think the Olsens back in the day, and Miley Cyrus circa Hannah Montana), has worked with McCarthy for the past two years. Ahead, Swartz discusses how she hopes to redefine what inclusive fashion can, and should, look like.

"The fashion industry is in its infant stages of realizing that there is a whole market out there that is not being addressed. There is a lack of fashion and style that is accessible for this demographic. It has been an extremely slow process that is frustrating to shoppers, and the fashion world is finally being forced to recognize and adapt. What is still lacking are the other categories that support the fashion apparel. I hope that retailers continue by designating more floor space and giving this segment priority locations, incorporating it into other sizes on the main floor. ¨

"The main issue I've run into into while styling Melissa was the lack, globally, of key items as well as fashion pieces that could be incorporated into her look for events. This has been a challenge for me while shopping for Melissa. In designing and styling her looks for events, once we launched her line, I was able to pull from her collections, because we took these issues into consideration while creating the line. ¨

"What was important to me was to help Melissa realize her vision for all women, no matter their size. I helped her in her first few seasons create a collection that made women feel good about themselves and their bodies, and to address the lack of style and fashion in the marketplace."

¨To be honest, I do not personally think that the challenge [of finding red-carpet options for non-sample-sized celebs] is being addressed in a real way. Unless celebrities [wear] sample sizes, it is hard to connect with a designer that is willing or has the time to design for these red-carpet events in this particular [size range]. As a designer, I have found it very rewarding to shop fabrics and design creations that would be red-carpet worthy in a particular genre where these designs may not have been available before. ¨

"[The plus-size customer] is the forgotten woman. I tend to think department stores and specialty retailers are always afraid to set a new standard. Once a department store sets a standard and sales product, retailers will realize and follow suit for this under-serviced demographic. All women need to feel good about themselves and bridging all sizes will help all women feel special. Shopping is an event and an experience, we should all be able to go shopping with our friends in the same section, and not be segregated."
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Photo: Courtesy of Rebecca Thorpe.
Rule No. 7: The modeling industry is, and will continue to be, siloed by size.

Rebecca Thorpe spent a decade and a half as a plus-size model, and these days, she works in another capacity within the fashion industry, as an agent at Muse Model Management. Five years ago, Thorpe founded the agency's Curve division; these days, she's very optimistic about what an increasingly diverse modeling industry can, and should, be.

"I absolutely love what is happening in the industry right now. As an agent, the most positive change I’m seeing is that clients are asking for curves. It has taken time to get here, and we still have a ways to go; but, the excitement and energy surrounding this progress is undeniable! Big companies are slowly but surely seeing the power of diversity. The casting process is different than it’s been in the past. Even when clients aren’t explicitly casting plus models, we’re still hearing, 'send someone not too skinny.'

"What baffles me is that magazines and fashion editorials have not caught on more to the power of diversity and the demand for the shift. There are models and agents who have pushed this front for years. We have seen a shift in the form of capitalism, which makes sense when we boil it down to the dollar. But, at the core of fashion is artistry and creative vision, and that is where we are stalling. Its frustrating. I am not only an agent and former model, but at the end of the day, I’m a consumer. I want to be inspired when I shop, just as a smaller woman may be when flipping through an editorial. Do curvy girls have to always be in corsets, naked, or next to food? Where is the aspiration of the clothes, of the image?

"Why are people taking the term ['plus'] so personally? It's not an insult, so I tend to shake my head at all the chatter around a word. It is terminology in my day-to-day world, plain and simple. As the director of a curve board, I use curvy. I use plus. I am curvy and plus, and all the amazing things that those words mean... At the end of the day, if we are only focusing on a word, we are missing the point."

"Christian Siriano, Sophie Theallet, and [Chromat's] Becca McCharan-Tran are a few designers who are exhibiting diversity in an epic way, and effortlessly. They just do it. There is no questioning. They know they are impacting many when doing so, and they believe in the diversity they are showcasing. I also have to tip my hat to stylists like Carine Rotfield and Zanna Roberts Rassi. They go for it, and size does not even faze them. Brands like H&M, Levis, Calvin Klein, and Aerie are killing it right now. These brands and individuals are championing diversity within the modeling world without ever saying a word. They see the larger perspective of what fashion is and what it can be."

"Plus models in straight-size shows indicates the designers are forward-thinking and understand women as a whole. They don’t shy from doing the work in creating a dress for that type of platform, visibility and purpose. It proves that those designers really understand that there is beauty in diversity. When you have had the chance to sit at a show and witness the claps and smiles as a girl with a different shape walks down the runway, you know for a fact that tokenism has nothing to do with it. It's so genuinely and sincerely applauded, and I hope to see more of that in upcoming seasons."

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Photo: Courtesy of Thakoon.
Rule No. 8: It's tough, if not impossible, to successfully be direct-to-consumer, ready-to-wear, and see-now-buy-now.

Well, Thakoon Panichgul has done all three of those things, (basically) all at once. The slew of changes was set into motion in December, when investment firm Bright Fame Fashion acquired a majority stake in Panichgul's then-11-year-old brand. After skipping out on NYFW's fall '16 shows in February, Thakoon returned at the end of the summer with a new business model focused on in-season shopability (oh, and he opened his first-ever brick-and-mortar store). Ahead, here's what Panichgul told us recently about his ambitious new direction.

"I had been feeling this movement [in the fashion industry] for a couple of years now... It didn’t feel right anymore to show something [on the runway] that you couldn't access for another six or seven months. It doesn’t grow your business, because by the time those clothes go to store, nobody wants them anymore. It didn’t make sense."

"Even after the recession, we rebounded fine. We’ve always had a good customer base and a following; what we do sells really well. But, at a certain point, I think that every other component of the business — in terms of department stores, editors, everyone involved in the inner workings of fashion — were not jiving with me at all. Barneys New York was buying in a certain way, and that sold really well — and then Bergdorf Goodman and Saks Fifth Avenue would buy other ways. At that point, I felt like the messaging was a bit all over the place, and I thought, Wow, I don’t have control over what I’m putting out there, in terms of my sensibility and my visual impact in fashion. I was being pulled in different directions, and I was beholden to that, too, if something wasn't selling. I knew that was a problem, and I kept saying, 'We’ve got to change this. We’ve got to be able to control what we’re putting out there ourselves.'

"...Before, editors dictated what they want to communicate in terms of their storytelling, and then department stores would grab onto those stories and amplify them at the store level. This shift gives me the ability to control that storytelling from the get-go. What I put on the runway now is what I’m showing in the store. It's communicating the brand directly to the customer, without having anyone else grab that story and pivot it towards their storytelling purposes."