6 Fashion Rule-Breakers Who Haven’t Done It The "Right" Way

Designed by Isabel Castillo; Photo: REX Shutterstock.
In an industry that’s completely obsessed with what’s new, now, and next, standing out in the fashion business can feel impossible, especially given the fact that there are a thousand others like you attempting the exact same thing. Designers can have a ballsy collection or two, but it takes much more than getting editors to rubberneck at the runway to really change the game. Disrupting Fashion Week is one thing. Actually making the industry rethink the way it operates is quite another.

And no matter what aspect of the industry you’re trying to shake up, there’s one strategy that’ll never get you there: following the rules. For an industry that may prize unconventionality, it’s got one of the most traditional, rigid infrastructures around — but there are some brazen individuals who are trying to make it happen by going against the status quo. The six talents ahead are doing it their own way, whether that means stripping away the opaqueness of a the supply chain, forgoing the grind of designing and selling for fashion’s (far too many) seasons, or challenging sartorial gender norms. Here’s why you need to know their names, right this second.

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Designed by Isabel Castillo; Photo: Nathalie Lagneau/Catwalking/Getty Images.
BRUNO PIETERS, Founder, Honest By: The Designer Who Wants Customers To Know Every Single Detail About Their Clothing

Total transparency isn’t commonplace in the fashion industry (unless we’re literally talking about sheer clothing). Belgian designer Bruno Pieters is an exception to that rule: He launched his own ethically sourced label, Honest By, in 2012, with a fully transparent business model. That’s a total anomaly in an industry with massive differences between wholesale and retail pricing, that regularly pays unlivable wages for those actually making the clothing, and uses questionable mass production practices to keep costs down.

Customers know where every single element of an Honest By garment came from and was made; we’re talking total manufacturing minutiae, from the weaving to the printing to the dying to the yarn-pinning involved. That unusual level of clarity extends to the cash flow, too: Pieters’ pieces come with detailed breakdowns of the costs, with the retail and wholesale mark-ups noted, as well as the amount each person involved in the supply chain made for working on that specific garment.

The catalyst that caused Pieters to create Honest By was the misleading production practices at hallowed luxury labels. You can shell out $2,000 for an Italian-heritage brand’s It bag with a “Made in Italy” label that was actually mass-produced in Asia and merely finished in Italy. "Heritage brands kept the price tag, but changed the way they made things. For me, that was the reason to go transparent,” Pieters told The Guardian. “Most consumers don't know where their clothes come from — regardless of the price range. If you're buying luxury goods at luxury prices, you assume automatically that it is good. It's not. And that's crazy.”

Pieters predicts that being so upfront and, as the name entails, honest will one day become the norm, and putting such frank practices in place now is just a way to stay ahead of the industry curve.

“If you don’t do it now, you’ll have to adapt when complete transparency becomes mandatory. I think it’s wiser to be a leader who’s ahead of the rest rather than being behind because, you know, it will become mandatory one day. Buying a mystery will be an absurd concept soon,” Pieters told Business of Fashion.

An alum of the Royal Academy of Fine Arts Antwerp, Pieters honed his skills at houses like Maison Martin Margiela and Christian Lacroix, and had an eponymous line from 2001 to 2010 that piqued the interest of critics like Suzy Menkes. Pieters spent two years as art director at Hugo Hugo Boss and two years as creative director at Delvaux before taking a two-year sabbatical, mostly spent in India. That stint away from the industry inspired Pieters to take a critical look at the production cycle and culture of secrecy. Last year, Pieters received H&M’s Conscious Designer award.

Pieters sees plenty of work ahead when it comes to full disclosure about production processes. Designers need to hold themselves more accountable for the way their designs are crafted, but consumers can change the production process, too — by inspecting the nitty-gritty details of the clothes they’re buying. “Total transparency is easy,” Pieters told The Guardian. "The only reason it doesn't happen is because consumers don't understand that they can demand it. If people asked for it, it can happen tomorrow.”
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Designed by Isabel Castillo; Photo: Victor Virgile/Getty Images.
ALESSANDRO MICHELE, Creative Director, Gucci: The Unknown Designer Doing His Own Thing At A Mega Luxury Fashion House

What does a career-defining promotion look like? Just ask Alessandro Michele. After 13 years of toiling behind the scenes at Gucci, most recently as the head of accessories, Michele was tapped as creative director at the 94-year-old brand in January. Michele scoring the gig was both shocking — “Who is this guy?’ wondered even the most insider-y types — and logical. Because while he did have more than a decade to get intimately acquainted with all things Gucci, he was far from a household name. He was a workhorse, invisibly making shit happen in the trenches of the venerable brand.

There was a lively guessing game as to who would push Gucci into its next phase. But what he’s done so far in the position is nothing short of badass. Most designers taking the reins at a legacy house dig deep into the archives, tentatively offering new ideas while mostly staying faithful and playing it safe with familiar, recognizable brand hallmarks. Not Michele.

His first showing for the house in January was a men’s collection put together in an insanely short five-day span. Despite the tight time constraints, Michele’s bohemian, gender-bending looks made a splash. A month later, Michele’s debut women’s collection as creative director wasn’t necessarily a slam dunk. But it was considerably different from what the house had been showing under the helm of his predecessor, Frida Giannini, who’d spent over a dozen years at the company: The clothes were less ‘70s-obsessive, instead showcasing saucy librarian and stylish magpie vibes, plus Wes Anderson references. It was also the most talked-about show of the Fall 2015 season. Michele’s sophomore men’s collection, shown in June, challenged gender conventions as well, continuing the industry discourse about Michele and making the typically jaded fashion crowd intrigued — excited, even.

A long, loyal run at one brand and eventually scoring the top design gig doesn’t seem exceptional, yet Michele did so in an industry where creative director musical chairs is the norm. The gender-centric ideas and new Gucci aesthetic that Michele has pushed out onto the runway since getting the job are even more exceptional than how he got the job. Time will tell how rejiggered Gucci fares financially. But regardless of how Michele’s stuff sells, he’s carving out a bold new way for how to helm a history-steeped house without being shackled to the past. Instead of respectively paying homage, Michele is creating a new conversation for a somewhat struggling, old-school brand.
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Designed by Isabel Castillo; Photo: Darren Gerrish/Getty Images.
ISAMAYA FFRENCH, Makeup Artist: The Accidental Beauty Gamechanger

An unconventional approach to beauty doesn’t really scratch the surface when it comes to describing i-D beauty editor and makeup artist Isamaya Ffrench’s work. Un-pretty, completely conceptual, sometimes ugly, even — those would be more fitting descriptives for her style. Coursework in 3D design at Chelsea College of Arts, followed by product and industrial design at Central Saint Martins, influenced the Cambridge native’s approach. “I learnt how to address the face as an overall, structural entity, rather than just in two dimensions,” Ffrench told Into The Gloss.

Becoming a makeup artist wasn’t a long-term goal for Ffrench. “I was doing face painting at kid's parties, then I started doing some for friends who work in fashion and it all went from there really,” Ffrench says. But don’t expect her to be decked out in the kind of outlandish, sometimes garish, always statement-making looks she paints on others: “I'm not really interested in wearing makeup myself,” Ffrench says. “It's like chefs that just eat pizza and chips, you know what I mean?”

When Ffrench joined i-D in May 2014, it was a return of sorts — her first fashion shoot was for the glossy, and it involved some, ahem, unexpected canvases. “I wasn't really into fashion and I didn't know what I was doing — or even what i-D really was—but [photographer] Matthew [Stone] asked me to come and do some body painting to turn these boys into gods and deities, painted in clay...and naked,” Ffrench says. “There was a while where I just felt like a professional genital painter.”

While Ffrench’s editorial and runway work is wild, weird, and fairly unforgettable, she has also nabbed the attention of posh, very establishment brands like Chanel and Hermès, for which she’s done more conventional work. As she told Into the Gloss, “I didn’t go into what I'm doing now in order to challenge gender or identity concepts, but for whatever reason it’s become this thing that I’ve started to explore.”

Ffrench continues to span the gamut between mainstream, high-end work and indie, statement-making projects: Last month, she was tapped as YSL Beauté’s U.K. makeup ambassador and she’s responsible for Gigi Hadid’s smoky eye look in Topshop’s Fall campaign. But it’s Ffrench’s fantastical, abstract, less commercial creations that make us think differently and critically about how skin — all over the body, not just confined to the face — can function as one hell of a canvas.
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Designed by Isabel Castillo; Photo: Vanni Bassetti/Getty Images.
SHAYNE OLIVER, Founder, Hood By Air: The Renegade Talent Whipping Up A Bold, Genderless Future

From its very first runway show back in Fall 2013, Hood By Air (a.k.a. HBA) has had the fashion crowd talking. Designer Shayne Oliver has worked with unconventional casting director Kevin Amato to stock HBA’s runways with models — most of whom are not professionals — who self-identify in a sprawling array of genders, races, and body types. It’s Oliver’s constant toying with (and eschewing of) these distinctions in his shows that perhaps stands out most.

Oliver was born in Minneapolis, lived in Trinidad for part of his childhood, and then spent his teen years in Prospect Heights and Bed-Stuy, Brooklyn. He was exposed to fashion through his grandma, a seamstress, during his time in Trinidad. Olivier’s first foray into the business was at age six, customizing his own T-shirts. He took art classes at N.Y.U. while he was in high school, and did a very short stint at F.I.T. before leaving — he didn’t feel like he fit in at the fashion school, because his classes were too focused on technical skills. Oliver was much more interested in big, conceptual ideas, rather than learning how to drape and sew.

He thought up the label’s name prior to actually having a collection to go with it, starting with a T-shirt that said “Hood” in huge lettering and priced at $75. (HBA tees currently hover around the $300 mark and hoodies go for roughly $500.) The label’s name refers to a look at life in Oliver’s stomping grounds (the “hood”) from a removed, perhaps bird’s-eye, view (“by air”).

Now, he’s got adoring retail accounts like Barneys, plus front-row (and real-life) fans like Kanye and occasional HBA model A$AP Rocky. There are many editorial admirers as well, and accolades like being named runner-up in the LVMH Prize in 2014 and winner of the CFDA’s Swarovski Award for Menswear this year.

“A lot of [Hood By Air] clothing is menswear, but it’s more like powerwear. It’s about exuding power and fluidity,” Oliver told Vogue. “I’m not really interested in unisex, per se. But if this person wants to give off an energy of power, then Hood By Air is for them.”

His convention-dismantling perspective has taken many shapes over the seasons: Skateboarders in sheer, lacy thigh-highs at his June 2013 show in London; vogueing male models in long blond wigs for his Fall 2014 show’s finale; performance artist Boy Child wearing a massive Plexiglas collar and walking a Great Dane in his spring 2015 show. Some shows smack you in the face with displays of gender-fluidity, while others do it in a more subtle way.

Though Olivier may not use the term “genderless” to describe his designs, he’s clearly not interested in boundaries of any sort. The result: luxurious streetwear — for anyone and everyone — that’s made Oliver a very hot commodity without requiring him to follow formulaic steps to success in the fashion industry.
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Designed by Isabel Castillo; Photo: David Fisher/REX Shutterstock.
TAMARA MELLON, Founder, Tamara Mellon: The Businesswoman Who Wants Fashion To Be Seasonless

Love it or loathe it, Jimmy Choo’s empire of glitzy, unapologetically glam stilettos and minaudières probably wouldn’t exist without Tamara Mellon. The co-founder and chief creative officer of the line, known for its sexy, sparkly heels, parted ways with Choo in 2011 when the brand was sold for $800 million to Labelux.

After being instrumental in building a major luxury empire and scoring a reportedly hefty payout, Mellon could’ve quit the fashion business, retired super-early, and just lived large. Instead, in 2013, Mellon launched an eponymous collection. Striking out to do a namesake line at ready-to-wear price points that garners a celeb following isn’t all that unusual. Trying to disrupt the industry by creating products that get made, stocked, and sold outside of the monolithic fashion calendar with its four strict seasons a year, however, is.

“I believe that is what women really want — to buy now, wear now,” Mellon told Forbes of designing sans seasons. Prices in Mellon’s line range from $250 for sleeveless blouses to nearly $4,000 for a fur coat, with most dresses hovering around $2,000.

These are higher price points than season-free brands tend to have. Yet, they’re certainly lower price tags than those of Azzedine Alaïa, the idiosyncratic design great who’s never shown his couture-level, hand-crafted designs on a schedule. But Mellon’s reasons for eschewing the standard fashion cycle are business-minded. She’s not ditching resort and skipping out on spring because of the creative process. Alaïa opts out because he believes that being a slave to seasons drains a designer’s creative abilities. (Also, because he’s an established legend and can do whatever he wants without losing his rapturous fashion girl fanclub). Both are legit reasons to deviate from the ever-demanding schedule, but Mellon seems to be doing it primarily because of the bottom line.

“Now that catwalk shows are online instantly, women aren’t excited by the trends if it takes six months for them to reach stores,” Mellon told The Guardian. “The consumer is way ahead of the industry here, and the industry needs to catch up.”

Net-A-Porter has been the most important online stockist for Mellon’s line, and it’s carried at tony department stores like Bergdorf Goodman, Neiman Marcus, Saks Fifth Avenue, and Nordstrom.

Beyond her unconventional selling structure, Mellon has big plans for business. “I’m [running] a female-dominated company,” Mellon told Forbes. “I try to work with women, and promote them in business, even when I outsource. I’m starting a foundation for women’s rights, lobbying for equal pay, ending gender discrimination in the workplace, and abolishing the sex slave trade.”
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Designed by Isabel Castillo; Photo: REX Shutterstock.
JONATHAN ANDERSON, Founder, J.W. Anderson & Creative Director, Loewe: The Designer Who Always Flips The Script, On & Off The Runway

Since Jonathan Anderson debuted on the London fashion scene with a men’s collection under the name J.W. Anderson in 2008, followed by a women’s collection in 2010, he’s stood out from his wunderkind contemporaries. And he’s done it without resorting to cheap shock-and-awe tactics to attain fame.

Anderson has put forth bold ideas about gender in his collections, while shirking the term “androgynous” (he calls it “quite a dated concept”). He’s seen as a savvy commercial investment by the deep pockets at LVMH, without losing cred as a wonderfully weird and directional designer. His customers and industry cheerleaders are an inclusive bunch, because his designs vacillate between mainstream, wearable looks and more subversive, counterculture ideas. Plus, he’s chosen catwalk inspirations that deviate from what everyone else is showing in a given season: While many designers seemed to experience a freaky mind-meld of all things ‘70s for Fall 2015, Anderson skipped ahead to full-on ‘80s everything. And while many designers are hungry for social media promotion, Anderson purposefully created a narrow runway that discouraged front-rowers from Instagramming from their seat.

The designer has experimented with gender conventions without: A) tepidly going with a half-assed “borrowed-from-the-boys” aesthetic and calling it a day, and B) pointedly trying to make a trite statement about cross-dressing or gender fluidity in fashion. “If you can get a bustier and shorts working on a man, that’s a feat in itself,” Anderson told W after his Spring 2013 men’s show. More recently, he trotted out a traditionally feminine silhouette — the cinched waist — at his Fall 2015 men’s show in January.

The Irish designer trained as an actor before a job at a Dublin department store prompted him to change course, resulting in a move to London, a gig dressing Prada’s windows, and a degree from London College of Design. After starting with men’s garb, he made his foray into womenswear because women were snapping up his men’s pieces.

Anderson’s namesake line grabbed enough critical (and retailer) attention to score him the creative director role for Versus Versace. Donatella Versace even compared Anderson to her late brother, Gianni Versace, when Anderson’s first Versus collection was unveiled in May 2013. In September 2013, Anderson got serious funding from LVMH, and was simultaneously named creative director at LVMH-owned Spanish label Loewe.

Anderson has become a big part of the recent cultural conversation about gender-bending fashion, alongside names like Riccardo Tisci, Rick Owens, and Hedi Slimane, though at just 30 years old, Anderson has one or two decades less experience than any of those talents. The designer has proven to be a critically-adored rabble-rouser so far — while still being seen as a solid business investment by one of the world's biggest fashion conglomerates. Anderson’s work is a London Fashion Week must-see for his own line, and his turn as the well-received creative director of a formerly fusty legacy house has made Loewe relevant again on the Paris Fashion Week calendar. Whatever Anderson does next, there’s no doubt the industry will be watching (and rooting) from the sidelines.

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