Even in the middle of a pandemic, the dedication, creativity and optimism of New York designers shows no signs of wavering. Back in September 2020, at the height of COVID-19 restrictions, New York Fashion Week SS21 was a ‘phygital’ affair: Eckhaus Latta staged a socially distanced outdoor show in Lower Manhattan, while Khaite’s augmented reality ‘presentation box’ beamed virtual shoes into the living rooms of showgoers. After that, all eyes were on the first of the Big Four fashion capitals, as the city proved what it could do in times of great uncertainty.
For the AW21 shows (2 February to 15 April), New York’s unofficial theme of ‘unity’ continues. In January, chairman of the CFDA Tom Ford announced that New York Fashion Week would now be called the American Collections Calendar, saying that “while the CFDA will continue to encourage American designers to show in New York […] we recognise the need for some to broaden their global visibility.” And although Ford, The Row, Michael Kors and Marc Jacobs didn’t show this time round, the schedule’s emerging designers-to-know have come together to create a palpable buzz by focusing their joyful collections on a future beyond the pandemic.
From Maisie Wilen’s aquatic runway filled with glittering post-pandemic club gear to KEENKEE’s playful proportions and Theophilio’s ode to superhuman strength in the face of hardship—these are five of the most exciting designers making fashion a fantastical affair.
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Maisie Schloss, Maisie Wilen
In 2018, former Kanye West protege Maisie Schloss left her womenswear design position at Yeezy to start her own label, Maisie Wilen. Two years later, the 29-year-old has just shown her fourth collection on the New York schedule—complete with liquid catwalk—imbued with the spirit of post-lockdown festivity, poppy colours, nostalgic detailing and glaring optimism.
What was it like creating an AW21 collection during a pandemic?
As someone who typically works from home, the pandemic affected my creative approach more than my actual day-to-day operations. While designing, I considered the reality of people’s needs. This season, I played with a juxtaposition of natural and tech imagery. I created what I call ‘non-fiction’ prints that include written information about the collection intended to snap the viewer back to reality.
What are your hopes for the future of fashion?
For it to slow down. Although I’m missing the in-person fun, I’m inspired by the creative solutions different brands have found in place of live shows.
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Kee Kim, KEENKEE
Formerly a graphic designer working with some of fashion’s biggest labels such as Prada and Tom Ford, Yale University of Art graduate Kee Kim, 37, made his NYFW debut in 2020. One year later, and the Seoul-born designer’s AW21 offering is saturated with sharp, contrast-stitch outerwear, gradient pastel knits, floral fleeces and tailored velvet suiting.
What do you think about the current state of New York Fashion Week?
I have a strong belief and affection in the cultures and energy of New York, which is unique compared to any other place.
What is the biggest lesson you’ve learned in lockdown?
I was amazed and fascinated by how people and systems are capable of dealing with this ongoing situation. Wearing a mask has become default mode in the collaborative process. Fabric supplier, pattern maker and dressmaker; we are all used to these circumstances now, there’s just a lot more technological communication. We’ve applied multiple textures, especially by collecting deadstock fabrics from a few trustworthy suppliers in Korea. Densely weaved wool whipcord was one of my favourites, and shoulder and sleeve seams are one of my key interests in regards to shirting and jackets.
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Edvin Thompson, Theophilio
Edvin Thompson’s Jamaican lineage is woven throughout the designs at his Brooklyn-based label. Founded in 2016 and inspired by his middle name, Theophilio is a way for the 28-year-old to imprint his heritage on the fashion industry. His latest line, Solace, pays homage to heroism and The Matrix (1999)—think razor-sharp ankle-skimming leather coats and paint-splattered boots.
What do you find exciting about New York Fashion Week?
It’s allowed diversity to prosper. My hopes for the future of fashion is for it to continue its mission of inclusivity, allowing spaces for many designers to share stories that aren’t heard.
What was the soundtrack to your creative process?
I listened to Black Coffee’s Sónar 25 mixtape quite a lot during my design process. I also felt inspired by The Matrix as it incited an introspective thought of finding the superhero in all of us—it gives comfort and consolation in a time of distress and sadness, which is reflected in my debut AW21 collection, Solace. You should look and feel good, affirming the person you would like to become.
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Pierre Davis, Arin Hayes and Autumn Randolph, No Sesso
A beacon of joy that operates as a Black creative collective, No Sesso’s nonconformist designs are celebratory. Founders Arin Hayes and Pierre Davis, and designer Autumn Randolph shared a statement ahead of their NYFW slot saying that due to personal circumstances, they would be rescheduling their AW21 show, choosing instead to present via a film.
Has your creative process shifted at all for AW21?
Arin Hayes: Because of the pandemic, we decided to […] show AW21 hopefully in person, in September. Most of the lessons learned during this time have been deeply personal. It was important to reinforce each other emotionally and mentally, and to make that our priority. Since we didn’t have a show, we were able to work with video in a way we haven’t been able to before. We were blessed to have [digital studio] 3BlackDot provide the funds to make the video lookbook possible.
What was your inspiration for the collection this season?
Pierre Davis: There are many, but the biggest inspiration was an asymmetrical dress from our AW20 collection that we call the ‘one titty’ dress. We made different versions of the iconic silhouette, and used silk chiffon and silk charmeuse for the gowns, which were adorned with ostrich feathers and jewels.
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5. Neil Grotzinger, Nihl
Neil Grotzinger isn’t afraid to flirt with the boundaries of technology. In fact, the 29-year-old’s latest offering was an opportunity to create the feeling of fantastical “beings crawling out of your computer and into a mundane reality.” Working out of a studio space in their New York apartment allowed them to design material-led pieces, from frilly trousers to figure-hugging silk jumpsuits.
What was it like creating a collection during lockdown?
I enjoy making a lot of my samples myself as it gives me the freedom to design while I’m building. The design process in quarantine has been a lot of exploring and challenging myself to come up with new details on garments. While I do miss being in more collective spaces, working alone has also allowed me to come up with new ways of making.
What are your hopes for the future of fashion?
One of the biggest challenges I’ve faced as a designer is getting buyers to take my work seriously as a product that makes sense on their floor because it has a queer undertone. My hope is that fashion will embrace this idea more, and find new ways to emphasise all gender and sexual identities.