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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."
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."
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."
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."
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