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The Politically Active Designers Reimagining American Identity

As rising openness faces off against a reactionary countercurrent, politically active designers are infiltrating the American fashion mainstream.
Collage by Jan-Nico Meyer
  • Chantal Fernandez

NEW YORK, United States — At Pyer Moss' Spring 2017 presentation, a 16-member operatic choir covered trap music by rappers Future and Fetty Wap, and concluded with "Lift Every Voice and Sing," sometimes referred to as the "Black American National Anthem." For Autumn 2017, singers took turns performing religious music in a spectrum of languages, before concluding with a delicate cover of Justin Bieber's "Sorry." The performances poked fun at the divide between luxury fashion and African American culture, while demonstrating the beauty of distinct voices working in unison.

Pyer Moss designer Kerby Jean-Raymond is one of several young New York designers diving head first into the thorny and politically-charged topic of American identity. While the election of Donald Trump laid bare the fact that the country is culturally divided, tensions have long been simmering. Even as more liberal segments of society embraced a more inclusive and fluid definition of American identity, more reactionary forces also emerged, fighting to maintain a fading social order dominated by heterosexual white men. In American fashion, powerhouse brands like Ralph Lauren and Calvin Klein are ceding ground to an array of upstart, internet-enabled players, who no longer need as much marketing muscle to reach an audience.

Among them, a new generation of young designers, who like Jean-Raymond come from marginalised communities, is finding its voice and starting to infiltrate — and influence — the fashion industry establishment. Hood by Air, co-founded in 2006 by Shayne Oliver, was one of the first labels with authentic street culture roots to infiltrate mainstream fashion, going on to win a special award in the inaugural LVMH Prize. Oliver, along with Telfar Clemens, who launched his namesake label in 2005 and is known for distinctive, androgynous basics, blazed a well-publicised trail for a new crop of designers inspired by the lifestyles and values of their own communities. Many of these designers found solidarity and support in New York City's nightlife. The rise of social media also helped.

4.2 million people in the US walked in the 2017 Women's Marches the day after Trump's inauguration.

A generation before, things were different. “Back then there wasn’t a lot of support,” says Zaldy, the club-kid-turned-model, designer and pop music costumer, of his early days in the industry in the 1990s and early aughts. “There were lots of brands that were existing, but on a very small scale... Maybe Threeasfour got into Barneys, but [no one] outside of that.”

While counterculture was more present in British fashion, the dominant brands on this side of the Atlantic were decidedly mainstream. “Whenever you used to say the words American fashion, it meant a wearable, saleable collection based on classics of sportswear,” adds Zaldy.

"I knew that people buy into an idea and if people can relate to that idea then that's a no-brainer," says Rio Uribe, a Mexican-American designer from Los Angeles who founded Gypsy Sport in 2013 with a line of hats and headwear. He grew it into a ready-to-wear label known for a deconstructed, DIY aesthetic and fluid approach to gender that won the CFDA/Vogue Fashion Fund in 2015. On his runway, models' idiosyncratic beauty is celebrated, lending the impression that they just walked off the street in one of his lace slip-meets-sports jersey looks.

“Who cares about unity, who cares about inclusion, who cares about people who might be marginalised or refugees or LGBTQ people... and wants to represent that on the clothes they wear? I want Gypsy Sport to become that brand. I want to be able to give a voice to myself as a minority but also to any other minorities or marginalised people,” explains Uribe, who studied social work before moving to New York.

“I’m never really thinking, ‘Oh, I need to design more tops for the Barneys buyer,’ — I’m not as market focused,” adds Becca McCharen-Tran, designer and founder of Chromat, a swim and athleticwear label heavily influenced by her studies at the University of Virginia’s School of Architecture. Despite not being aware of how the business of fashion worked, she landed a spot in the 2015 CFDA/ Vogue Fashion Fund. “I’m motivated more by the people in my community and the people around me,” she says. “We want to highlight them and their bodies as well as what you traditionally see in fashion.” Those bodies range in size, colour, gender identity and ability.

“It’s irresponsible to be mediocre, as a black man,” says Jean-Raymond, whose identity as one of the very few young black designers on the official fashion calendar is central to his creative process. “You got the door open and you really just want to stand on the mat? You better run through and break everything in that house.”

It’s an approach he has grown since his Spring 2016 runway show, which opened with a short, poignant film about racial injustice and police brutality. “For more information and insight, open your eyes,” read the screen in between emotional interviews with family members of victims of recent police brutality. The Pyer Moss collections that followed focused on mental health, financial injustice and Jean-Raymond’s father, a Haitian immigrant who arrived in New York in the 1980s.

Uribe has also taken a novel approach to his shows since the brand’s unsanctioned debut at Washington Square Park. “Now that we have a public message of inclusion and unity, we just attract people that are into that.” For his Spring 2017 presentation, he cast his models at the protest marches that followed the inauguration of Trump.

“[Our runway shows] are less about the clothes and more about showing people around the world that look and feel like them,” he says, explaining that it is one of the reasons why he is still interested in the runway format. “I feel like I need 30 cool kids from New York City on a runway in order to make it feel like a full, thorough presentation of diversity.”

“We show a lot of different models that maybe you haven’t seen before, but this is normal, this is the world that I live in,” adds McCharen-Tran, whose Chromat shows are also known for celebrating body types that are rarely seen elsewhere at New York Fashion Week. “The weird thing is not this. But then I realise some people do actually only hang out with skinny white people.”

Abdul Abasi and Greg Rosborough of menswear line Abasi Rosborough think carefully about the visual power of their brand. “Our platform is fashion and clothes and communication,” explains Abasi, who was the first child in his family born in the United States and feels as Nigerian as he does American. Immigrant values of hard work and determination are priorities for the four-year-old menswear brand, which was launched to revolutionise the suit while honouring its historic association with power and was short-listed for the 2017 LVMH Prize for Young Fashion Designers.

Before, I felt that by casting lots of different coloured and sized and gendered people, that was enough. But now I think, I have to be more active.

In its Autumn 2017 show, New York-based design collective Vaquera presented an American flag print babydoll dress with an exceptionally long train. The significance of dragging a flag across the floor was not lost on the designers. “It was a bit of a lament,” said Patric DiCaprio, who launched the irreverent label three years ago, before David Moses, Bryn Taubensee and Claire Sully joined the group. “We got excited about the idea of having this patriotic, innocent-looking silhouette that is also at the same time a little punk,” added Sully.

McCharen-Tran’s Autumn 2017 Chromat show featured inflatable garments to make the wearer feel lifted and swaddled. “We felt that everyone was clinging on for dear life right now and just trying to survive,” she says. “I think silence is so dangerous at a time like this.” Trump’s decision to withdraw protections for transgender students in public school bathrooms was particularly troubling to her. “Swimwear is very gendered, it’s sort of like a bathroom because it deals with gendered parts of our body — what garments work for whom in swimwear is something we are thinking about,” she said.

Abasi Rosborough felt similarly politically motivated this season, presenting a uniform for today’s protestor, complete with military-inspired fabrics like Velcro. Just before the election, the designers published an editorial featuring the Senegalese model they work with exclusively, Aly Ndiaye, wearing the Autumn 2016 collection around historic government buildings in Washington, D.C.

Uribe wants Gypsy Sport to be a source of positivity, unlike the kind of glamorous goth exemplified by many other “outsider” fashion brands. But Trump’s election tested his resolve. “The last few months of 2016 were such a turning point for me as a creative because I felt like, as the son of immigrants and as a gay male and any other sub categories I could put myself into... I felt betrayed,” he recalls. “And I don’t think I’m the only one. But what I got out of it was: you have a little bit of a platform. And even though it’s a small brand, I don’t see it staying a small brand.”

Uribe says he felt renewed energy to be more outspoken, not as much against Trump and more in promotion of unity. “Let’s work together, let’s unify, let’s conquer this shit and move on,” he declares. “Before, I felt that by casting lots of different coloured and sized and gendered people, that was enough. But now I think, I have to be more active.”

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