There is perhaps no other industry that thrives on idiosyncrasy as much as fashion, whose constant need for novelty is fueled by the quirks and oblique desires of the designers who drive it forward. Two to eight times a year (depending on whether they design both men’s and women’s ready-to-wear, as well as couture, resort and cruise collections), they plumb their psyches to create clothes that not only reveal the wild contours of their own inner lives but also allow us to recognize those emotions and fantasies as our own — to realize that our view of the world is perhaps not as singular as we thought.
At its best, fashion is a unifying force, one that celebrates and rewards the curious, the obsessive and the strange. At its worst, like any industry filled with passionate people intent on keeping its fragile traditions alive, fashion can embody the most harmful aspects of tribalism. Who, from the consumer to the hopeful participant, has not at some point felt the full force of its exclusionary power? But it’s at exactly those moments that it’s most important to remember that this is an industry populated by erstwhile outsiders. So many of the visionary personalities around whom this multibillion-dollar complex orbits were themselves — whether because of their race, gender, sexuality or interests — once pushed to the margins by their peers or families; it is unsurprising that they have often formed, and protected, their own nonbiological families in later life. As an adopted child of African heritage growing up in ’90s Bordeaux, France, for example, Olivier Rousteing of Balmain felt shunned from local society. The adolescent Alessandro Michele — who has since helped usher in an era of exuberantly odd fashion as the creative director of Gucci — was beaten up as a kid in Rome because of the clothes he wore. “The eccentrics can hide,” he has said, “or enter into this territory called fashion.”
Making clothes is an inherently collaborative practice. While the stereotype of the solitary genius often holds true in the literary or art worlds — where a writer or painter might toil alone — creating hundreds of garments requires many hours of shared labor: a team of people drawing and sewing inside a studio; the photographers and stylists who shoot the advertising campaigns; the hair and makeup artists and music producers and lighting designers and set builders who create the shows. For this reason, too, designers have long tended to be pack animals who understand the strength and creative richness afforded by a tribe — both within and beyond the atelier. The industry’s most influential figures have always drawn on the neighboring worlds of art, architecture, music and film for inspiration and gravitated toward their peers in these fields. Elsa Schiaparelli became one of the 20th century’s most important designers by working with the creative group she socialized with in 1920s and ’30s Paris, which included the poet and playwright Jean Cocteau and the artist Salvador Dalí (who helped create the brand’s famous 1937 lobster-adorned dress). Halston was able to channel the glamour of ’70s New York in part because of his close friendships with Andy Warhol, Bianca Jagger and Liza Minnelli. (“You are only as good as the people you dress,” he said.) While a novel stands alone, a dress is completed only when it is filled by a body. And so designers tend to surround themselves with people who actually wear their clothes — without them, their creations would remain not only unseen but also unfinished.
This sense of community is implicit even in the language of fashion. We talk about fashion brands as houses, correctly implying that they act as families, groups united by a shared value system who might have a nominal “head of household” but are fundamentally cooperative. In recent years — due in part to the increasingly grueling show schedule and a demand for transparency encouraged by social media and a number of behind-the-scenes documentaries — there has been a growing understanding that this work is inherently a joint effort. The unexpected stars, for example, of the 2015 documentary “Dior and I,” about the storied French house Christian Dior under the creative direction of Raf Simons, were the tireless, charismatic (but unknown) heads of the maison’s tailoring and dressmaking ateliers. And many younger labels, including Vetements and the mostly anonymous New York-based Section 8, have chosen to position themselves as leaderless collectives. Similarly, the Queens-born designer Telfar Clemens has always worked closely with a team of friends — including his longtime creative director Babak Radboy and the musicians Ian Isiah and Kelela — whose influences on his eponymous brand are as deep and accordingly hard to pinpoint as those within a family unit. The designer Maria Cornejo, too, who was raised by socialist parents in Chile and England, has fostered an egalitarian ethos at her New York studio, where professional and familial bonds are closely intertwined (her husband, Mark Borthwick, and daughter, Bibi Cornejo Borthwick, both photographers, have each shot look books for the company) and even the traditional hierarchy between designer and customer is flattened. Cornejo strives to craft clothes for the very women — among them the artist Cindy Sherman and the stylist Camilla Nickerson — whose work inspires and contributes to her own.
Fashion, like all creative pursuits, comes from within — its inventions are formed by the maker’s own passions and preoccupations — but unlike other artistic ventures, it must constantly be fed by what its creators see around them. There are only so many ways to cut a dress, to raise or lower a hemline, to cinch or let out a waist; what makes a garment powerful is how it reflects not simply its designer but the world beyond her. Fashion has long acted as a prism of sorts, through which the political and aesthetic movements of a particular moment are refracted into their most radiantly colorful forms, and to sustain this process, its practitioners are necessarily magpie-like in their search for inspiration, borrowing from the art they see, the books they read and, perhaps most importantly, the people they gather around them. And so, while it might be tempting to romanticize the creation of something as otherworldly as, say, one of Michele’s glittering sheaths as a feat of solitary discipline, what’s perhaps more true, and more marvelous still, is the collaborative reality of the work, the collective strivings of a tribe of outsiders realizing their strange fantasies together.
Alice Newell-Hanson is the senior digital features editor of T Magazine.
Maria Cornejo and Co.
The New York-based designer imbues her clothes with great compassion for the women who wear them.
One might think Maria Cornejo’s clothes enthrall creative women because she herself thinks like an artist. When the designer launched her label, Zero + Maria Cornejo, in New York in 1998, it was with a distinctive vocabulary of geometric shapes: near seamless asymmetrical dresses and separates that flirt with the avant-garde. But her followers are less likely to talk of form or abstraction than about how Cornejo’s clothes make them feel — namely, like themselves. “She leaves room for you to make them your own,” says Camilla Nickerson, Vogue’s style director and an old friend of Cornejo’s (the pair became close through their sons and often holiday together, most recently to Costa Rica). Another pal, Teresita Fernández, a New York-based installation artist who was wearing Cornejo’s designs well before her gallerist introduced the two of them 12 years ago, feels “her clothes are for women who are creating something beyond their own appearance.”
This, it turns out, is entirely intentional. “The clothes are interesting to me, but I’m more interested in what someone does in them,” says Cornejo, 57, who grew up in England after her family fled their native Chile during the reign of the dictator Augusto Pinochet, and has spent much of her adulthood in New York. Her flagship on Bleecker Street — on a block where, for a time, landlords would only rent to artists and makers — has remained a destination for over a decade (before that, her shop was on nearby Mott Street), even as countless other independently owned downtown boutiques have been forced to close. “From the beginning, it’s been clients bringing friends who become clients,” says Cornejo. “I always say, ‘Let’s be cool by association.’” She was particularly proud to meet one of her fans — “an actual brain surgeon” — a few years ago in Austin, Texas. “Of course they’re interesting women,” the model and activist Christy Turlington Burns says of Cornejo’s admirers, who include Michelle Obama and Cindy Sherman. “Because that’s Maria, and that’s what she attracts.”
That’s another thing Zero devotees are likely to mention — their deep respect for the woman behind their favorite shearling coat or no-nonsense jumpsuit. “In part, her clothes are attractive because they’re imbued with her ideals,” says Nickerson. Cornejo was among the first truly sustainability-minded designers — she produces 85 percent of her line locally, seeks out recycled fabrics and repurposes unused scraps from previous collections. “There’s also a palpable solidarity with other women to her designs,” says Fernández, who brought up feeling comforted by the fact that a Zero dress she once wore to a Museum of Modern Art party had practical pockets. Similarly, Cornejo strives to flatter all body types with her roomy draping, which means many of her clients wear Zero shifts through their pregnancies (and postpartum). It’s these small but generous gestures that make a woman who wears something of Cornejo’s feel not just like herself but also as though she’s in commune with a friend, whether or not she actually knows the designer. “If you’re looking for authenticity and someone to get behind,” says Turlington Burns, “she’s right here.”
Kate Guadagnino is the deputy digital editor of T Magazine. Olivia Arthur’s work focuses on personal and cultural identities. Hair and makeup: Laura de Leon at Joe Management using Chanel Les Beiges. Grooming assistants: Ben Martin and Robert Reyes.
Olivier Rousteing and Co.
Balmain’s creative director found his calling designing clothes and embarked on a career fueling the self-invention of others.
Olivier Rousteing, the 34-year-old creative director of Balmain, is best known for two things: The first is his audacious clothing, which has recently included hyper-short sequined minidresses with a big-shoulder, Grace Jones-esque silhouette; chocolate-brown pantsuits made entirely of latex and a waist bag with a large “B” emblem worn over a leather blazer. The other is his community of very famous friends, who often appear at his shows and other culture-defining events wearing his designs. Perhaps his finest hour was dressing Beyoncé during her 2018 set at the Coachella music festival in the California desert, in clothing that ranged from riffs on the marching-band uniforms of historically black colleges to meticulously crafted Afrofuturist headgear.
The effortless seductiveness of Rousteing’s clothing makes his rise to head of the 75-year-old French fashion house look easy — he was, after all, only 25 when he took the helm. But in fact, the odds were always against him. Born an orphan in Bordeaux, France, he was adopted as a baby and for much of his life knew nothing of his birth parents. A 2019 documentary, “Wonder Boy,” directed by Anissa Bonnefont, follows his search for his origins, and his discovery that both his mother and father were African.
Growing up with no knowledge of his own background made him forge an identity through clothes instead. “What I love about fashion,” he said, “is that when you put on some clothes, you can be yourself, or you can be another person. You can pretend to be, or you can just be.” If there is a through line in his work, he said, it is the figure of “a strong woman with timeless elegance,” a kind of classic symbol of French fashion, but one that he has attempted to redefine. For a long time, especially at legacy European fashion houses, that woman looked a certain way: skinny and white and modestly dressed. “Now, there are different shapes, different ages, different colors on the runway,” Rousteing said. “And that’s refreshing, but also normal.”
He attributes his loyal fan base to his championing of these differences. Colloquially known as the Balmain Army, his circle includes some of the most prominent figures in contemporary pop culture, like Usher (“I grew up with his music, dancing in front of my mirror,” Rousteing said), Shailene Woodley (whom he said embodies his idea of a strong woman) and Kim Kardashian West (“Kim,” he called her in conversation, somewhat preciously). What they share is less a unified aesthetic than a vividly realized gift for self-invention.
It’s odd to think of Rousteing as a populist given the names he attracts and his clothes’ expense (a black knit jumpsuit with flared pants and a large white collar from his women’s spring 2020 collection costs $5,450). But there is something democratic about the trajectory of where Rousteing came from and where he is now: If an orphan from Bordeaux can run one of the world’s top luxury fashion houses, then hope is more powerful than the fashion world’s elitism.
“Maybe the clothes aren’t for everyone,” Rousteing said. “But dreaming,” he added, “is.”
M.H. Miller is a features director for T Magazine. Ilya Lipkin’s work has included a 2018 solo exhibition at Svetlana Gallery in New York City. Producer: Farago Projects. Digital tech: Niklas Bergstrand. Photo assistants: Christian Bragg and Laurent Chouard.
Telfar Clemens and Co.
Perhaps more than any other designer, Telfar Clemens reflects the ethos of his fans: young creatives unafraid to wear their politics on their sleeves.
The first time Telfar Clemens heard the term “Bushwick Birkin” was in 2019, in, of course, Bushwick, Brooklyn, where his eponymous fashion label is based. The phrase likens the 35-year-old designer’s best-selling vegan leather shopper, which sells for around $200, to the famously expensive and coveted Hermès Birkin bag, named after the English actress Jane Birkin. It captures the essence of the accessory’s anti-It-bag aesthetic and also acknowledges the neighborhood — in spirit, if not uniformly in fact — of the young, creative, fluid and determinedly status-unobsessed fans the designer has attracted since he launched his brand in 2005 with a collection of unisex hoodies and drawstring pants.
The designers of old European fashion houses have long put inspirational figures like Birkin on pedestals — Hubert de Givenchy had Audrey Hepburn; Jean Paul Gaultier, Madonna; Alexander McQueen, the model and socialite Annabelle Neilson — but for Clemens, the idea of a single muse feels dated, not to mention exclusionary. Instead, the self-taught, queer Liberian-American from Queens, N.Y., creates his clothing — defiantly nongendered sportswear such as quilted biker jackets, tracksuit pants with thigh cutouts, fisherman-knit ponchos printed with “Telfar” in varsity letters — as well as his much buzzed-about events with the help of a diverse set of forward-thinking creatives, including the playwright Jeremy O. Harris, Lauren Boyle and David Toro of the decade-old New York-based magazine and art collective DIS and the stylist Avena Gallagher and her fiancé, Telfar’s creative director, Babak Radboy.
The word “community” is often reductive, deployed for political or social expediency and rendering certain groups monolithic, whether they’re defined by gender, sexual orientation or race. But Clemens believes his designs — and those who participate in their presentation — accentuate his community’s individuality. A Telfar show — whether it manifests in the form of the short film made to present the spring 2020 collection, “The World Isn’t Everything,” a collectively produced film made with Harris, the American rapper Butch Dawson and the actor Ashton Sanders, among others, or the live concert he held for the fall 2019 season, which featured a performance by the British-Nigerian singer, songwriter and record producer Oyinda and models trust-falling into the crowd — is the purest expression of how Clemens’s community contributes to and informs his work. “Traditional fashion shows feel empty,” he says. “We try to have experiences both with ourselves and the audience. It’s about engagement with each other.”
At Telfar’s fall 2020 Pitti Uomo show in Florence, Italy, this past January, the 19-year-old musician Hawa performed during the finale while models — wearing cutout denim and leather trousers, bow blouses and riding chaps — walked around an audience of Telfar’s close friends and collaborators, who were seated at a long Renaissance-style banquet table that remained cluttered with the detritus of a dinner party that had been held the evening before for some of the attendees. The wine spills and crumbs left by the guests — who included the conceptual Brooklyn photographer Elliott Jerome Brown Jr., the singer Solange Knowles and the filmmaker Terence Nance of the HBO show “Random Acts of Flyness” — became a part of the designer’s spectacle. “I’ve been doing it this way since I was 15,” says Clemens. “I surround myself with friends who have been there for me and supported me. I’d never collaborate with people I don’t genuinely like. I’ve worked long and hard so I don’t have to.”
Brian Keith Jackson is a novelist and essayist. John Edmonds’s forthcoming show, “A Sidelong Glance,” is scheduled to open at the Brooklyn Museum later this year. Production: Lauren Stocker. Prop stylist: Todd Knopke. Hair: LaMesha Mosley. Hair assistants: Amelia Andrews and Amesha Alston.
Alessandro Michele and Co.
Gucci’s creative director, who for his most recent runway show looked to the golden age of Italian cinema for inspiration, has become the auteur of his own eclectic troupe.
When Alessandro Michele was a boy, his mother was an executive assistant at Cinecittà in Rome, the famous studio associated with the golden age of Italian cinema, where Federico Fellini and Luchino Visconti made movies. “She met Fellini’s actors there and would tell me, ‘He was a good person’ or ‘This one was funny,’ and because of that, I feel like a friend of Fellini,” says the 48-year-old fashion designer, who found inspiration in the director’s work for Gucci’s fall 2020 ready-to-wear show in Milan this past February, where members of his design team dressed models right on the runway, revealing the magic that usually happens backstage, hidden from view. “I wanted to create a movie within a movie, like Fellini,” Michele says of the director, who created social commentaries filtered through a surreal, rococo lens. “He worked with a circus of passionate people around him, and it’s the same thing in fashion. I wanted to celebrate that we are a circus.”
Like Fellini, Michele has become the ringleader of his own colorful and flamboyant circus. Since being named the creative director of Gucci in 2015, he has gathered an ever-expanding band of performers, writers and artists around him, pioneering a new kind of collective, collaborative approach to design that has since been embraced by other fashion designers, as well as artists in different mediums. From his work with little-known Instagram artists like the illustrator Jayde Cardinalli of @jayde.cardinalli and the painters Helen Downie of @unskilledworker and Gill Button of @buttonfruit (all three women created prints for past Gucci collections) to figures like the musician Harry Styles and the actor Jared Leto, who have challenged the norms of men’s fashion by wearing gender-blurring Gucci ensembles (velvet loafer heels, a marigold Lurex bow blouse paired with a raspberry ’70s-style suit, a rhinestone-encrusted scarlet gown), Michele is attracted to those who are committed, in their identity and art, to disobeying old rules around gender, race and beauty. “The things we are doing at the company are attracting people that want to belong to this project, and to invent different ways to open the conversation,” says Michele. In that sense, he is not only designing the fluid, baroque clothing that has made Gucci a commercial success over the past five years but creating a movement, one that he hopes celebrates and welcomes people who find themselves othered in some way.
Leto and Styles “like the idea that they can show a different part of themselves” through his clothes, Michele says, and it’s for that same reason that fellow creatives who experiment with the idea of self have been drawn into the circle, such as the American musician Mykki Blanco, known for their punk-laced hip-hop, or the modeling agent Bethann Hardison, who developed and promoted some of the industry’s most significant models of color, including Naomi Campbell and Tyson Beckford, and, therefore, has changed who and what is seen as attractive.
Michele also sees his position atop one of the world’s biggest luxury fashion brands as an opportunity. “Maybe I became a creative director in the right moment. Sometimes there’s an energy that moves everything,” he says. “I hope in the future they will look at me as someone who started to talk about real freedom.” That freedom, he believes, begins with dialogue, and fashion — “a language that is art” — is one form of communication. It’s this communion that he treasures most, comparing the relationship he has to some members of his inner circle — the Florence and the Machine frontwoman Florence Welch, the Black Lips saxophonist Zumi Rosow and the actress Dakota Johnson — to those he had as a child growing up in Rome. “We’re like kids when we get together, like when I was in school and we’d all go crazy over indie music or rap or how we all wanted the same hat,” he says. “Friendship is a gift.”
Alexa Brazilian is the fashion features and special projects director for T Magazine. Nick Waplington’s most recent book, “The Search for a Superior Moral Justification,” was published last year. Production: Mai Productions.