Fashion is a fickle industry — trends race in and out of vogue so quickly that your closet may feel like it’s in a constant state of flux. Designers arrive at major houses poised to shake things up, only to leave after a few seasons. And, while there are hints at change — toward sustainability and inclusivity — ultimately, movement is slow. But, the next generation of emerging designers isn’t playing into the old rules. The strongest talents of the next generation don’t just make beautiful and unique clothing (sure, they do that, too) — their whole approach to what fashion is and what it represents is different. Clothes are meant for the individual, regardless of gender, size, or color. Collections are shown holistically, at a pace that is built around the creative process instead of the other way around.
If fashion has left you exhausted, or worse, apathetic, get excited: The disruptors are here. Below, five changemakers share the realities of building their businesses and how their personal visions have helped to shape the path to the designers they want to be and the brands that they want to create. At a time when the why of a label is just as important as the what, these designers are not only catching the industry’s attention (racking up a number of impressive prize nominations along the way), but they’re doing it on their own terms. If you’ve wondered about what the future of fashion looks like, here it is.
“I like to always mix two abstract things,” Robert Wun explains, logging onto Zoom dressed in a white tee with black-and-white artwork hung behind him on the wall. His designs — both futuristic and soft — often explore the contrast between two areas of interest and explore how they can exist together. “That’s where the bird merging with the armor [came from],” he explains of the inspiration behind the stiff plates and delicate pleating that make up his Fall/Winter 2021 collection. “I use fabric to manipulate the idea of armor so it’s still soft, it’s like little pieces of a pleat, which resemble the bird wings and feathers.”
Wun, who grew up in Hong Kong, cites a childhood love of nature as an early source of inspiration for his creativity — catching lizards and drawing sea animals. “My family knew that I wanted to do something creative [when I grew up]. But, like any other Asian parents, [they] thought that I could be a biologist ... something a little bit more legitimate.” But Wun remembers the first fashion moment that captured his attention: Milliner Philip Treacy designed feather- and bird-embellished headpieces for Alexander McQueen’s Fall/Winter 2008 collection. “With my passion in nature, I was like, ‘I didn’t know that fashion could be like that.’”
Wun has spun his own artful interpretation of clothing, one that has caught the attention of celebrities whose personal styles span from subversive to classic, Willow Smith and Issa Rae included. Wun has also been one of the lucky entrepreneurs to experience rapid growth over the last year-and-a-half, noting that his Fall/Winter 2020 collection shown last March was a pivotal moment for the brand, having garnered more interest than he expected. “We were very busy, and I think the advantage of being small and independent is we managed to maneuver through the whole lockdown because it’s just me and two assistants,” he explains. “It’s been great for us this last year, for which we are very grateful.”
“The courage of creating something that hasn’t been done before is an act of optimism itself.”
Wun is looking forward — both in his designs (he’s going genderless) and also in his outlook. “Futurism, for me, is just optimism,” he says. “Most of the movies and even animations that I enjoy and grew up watching, they are all really based on science fiction and futurism. Even The Matrix, there is optimism to it. Yeah, it’s a dark, grim world when the machines are taking over. But it talks about human bonds and societal issues. There are a lot of grim, dark topics, but the only way to go forward is to confront them and keep moving forward. That’s optimism to me. I think sometimes the courage of creating something that hasn’t been done before is an act of optimism itself.”
It’s the middle of summer holiday when Meryll Rogge appears on my computer screen for our scheduled Zoom meeting, energized but relaxed. Fashion month is just weeks away, but for the Antwerp-based designer, everything seems copasetic. Having launched her brand in March 2020, it’s as if whatever comes next couldn’t faze her. “It was really lucky because people came to the showroom and we actually were able to show the collection to buyers and press. ... I think we had 75 appointments,” she says. “Old colleagues came by from Dries [Van Noten] and Marc Jacobs, even Dries himself and his partner came. But literally, a week after, it was lockdown all over the place.” Manufacturing her collection in Europe, Rogge suddenly found every factory closed, unable to make delivery windows. “We found solutions, but it was a rough couple of months ... really rough. I did cry.”
“I just wanted to waste my own money if it was going to go to waste.”
Having always dreamed of creating her own line, Rogge bootstrapped the brand herself. She explains that her early experience working for such beloved fashion brands not only gave her a hands-on learning opportunity but also allowed her to save up for her own endeavor and avoid the added pressure of investors. “I just wanted to waste my own money if it was going to go to waste or just kind of get responsible for what I was doing,” she says.
At the root of the brand, Rogge says, is a modern outlook; she doesn’t point out the inclusive or sustainable aspects of the brand — “I don’t want to make false promises” — but these industry issues are an inherent consideration in her work. “We are standing for diversity and good values in terms of sustainability and inclusivity,” she explains. “When I was young, I couldn’t afford anything from other brands. At least I enjoyed [their] images. I always say to people, who want to enjoy images that we’re creating on Instagram or the shoes that we’re making, ‘You are welcome to watch and see, and maybe one day you’ll find an opportunity to buy something.’”
Rogge also explains that because her team is so small, she has the chance to connect with the people who are excited about the brand. “I’m managing the Instagram because there’s no one else. I see people who tagged us, I see the comments, I see the direct messages,” she says. “I see which stories work well and which don’t.” Still, Rogge doesn’t put too much weight into cracking the code of performance; it’s about sharing her message.
Edvin Thompson’s success hasn’t come easy. “Before, I was working at Red Lobster. ... I’ve been working at Red Lobster for a decade. ... I’d only have two days out of the week to really create,” he says of his time spent working to get his brand off of the ground. “The [last year] has caused me to be a lot more intentional in how I design clothes, where I design clothes, where I get my fabrications, what I want to talk about.” Now, with a CFDA nomination for Emerging Designer of the Year and a Spring/Summer 2022 runway show in the books, Theophilio is poised to break out.
The Jamaica-born designer has carved a niche for himself in New York (he’s lived there for seven years), surrounded by a tight-knit group of fashionable friends. After interning at Gypsy Sport, he went out on his own and found himself surprised by the amount of early support and interest he received. “I’m a young kid here in New York, just starting out in fashion, playing with this space,” he explains, noting that one of his first emails was a custom request for Lady Gaga. “How do I navigate within this? Because I definitely want to grow within fashion, but am I doing it the right way?”
But from early custom requests from Lady Gaga to a 2021 Met Gala invite from Lewis Hamilton, Thompson has confirmed his staying power. He’s established an electric aesthetic (his September runway show included bold colors, sheer netting, and even a snake), but that was not how things started. “Coming from Jamaica, [I thought] ‘I don’t want to be so bright, I don’t want to create very vibrant colored clothing.’ But I found my way back into that,” he explains. “I thought of myself as a European designer. Even Theophilio ... it’s from my middle name, Theophilus, which means to be loved by God. I was thinking of something that would sound really great in Europe, you know?” Eventually, Thompson came to realize that his own style and the style of his community gave him agency in his designs. “I am colorful,” he says.
“I have fabrics that I’m going to use four or five collections from now. That’s a very sustainable way to go about creating clothing.”
For Thompson, creativity has always been about more than simply designing based on a whim of inspiration. The hustle — of building a brand while working and bootstrapping a young business — meant thinking outside of the box. “I was forced, in a way, to work with sustainable [materials] because it is what I could afford,” he says of his visits to New York’s garment district in search of fabric. “I felt like, why not go this route? Working with deadstock fabric and other types of sustainable materials, I figured out new ways to design. [...] I never really looked at it as missing out.” He explains that his downtime over the last year-and-a-half has given him the space to plan ahead and to consider how he wants to innovate and grow. “I have fabrics that I’m going to use four or five collections from now. That’s a very sustainable way to go about creating clothing. It’s not like each collection I just throw away scraps and whatnot but instead reuse that, regenerate that in an up-and-coming collection.”
“It was a good push, obviously [I was] not going to turn down that opportunity,” Maisie Schloss, the founder and designer behind Maisie Wilen explains of Kanye West approaching her to be the first recipient of his fashion incubator grant. Though creative from a young age, launching her own slick, highly saturated fashion brand — backed by one of the world’s biggest celebrities, no less — was not how she envisioned things happening.
“I joke that I’ve been grooming myself to be a fashion designer since I was like 12,” laughs Schloss. The Los Angeles-based Chicago native built her experience at indie New York labels like Opening Ceremony and Vena Cava. After graduating from Parsons School of Design, she did a stint designing private label swimwear for stores like Walmart and Target, then, when she signed on as an assistant designer at Yeezy, it was a pivotal point. “When I started there, it was truly the bottom of the totem pole. I was a very low-level assistant,” she explains, adding that after working in a corporate setting, the challenge excited her. “Even if my literal day-to-day tasks weren’t the most creative ... I was just so excited to be in that environment and to be contributing to work I really believed in.” That level of excitement, of being willing to get involved wherever possible, in addition to Schloss’ own playful, print-heavy style (she’s wearing purple-and-white plaid for our interview), ultimately led Schloss down the path to launch her own line.
But the art of building a brand is nuanced, and Schloss — who is up for 2021’s CFDA Emerging Designer of the Year Award — is quick to explain that building Maisie Wilen is a constant act of exploration and adaptation. “I don’t mean to sound ridiculous,” she laughs. “It’s almost hard for me to remember what exactly I was envisioning at the very get-go. A lot of things are consistent just because I have such a longstanding, consistent aesthetic. I’m always very into bright colors and into prints and sort of loud, maximalist design. If anything, my evolution has really been in response to customers and how the women wearing it are perceiving it. Especially with social media, I’m able to really see what people are doing with the clothes. It often surprises me.”
“With social media, I’m able to really see what people are doing with the clothes. It often surprises me.”
She points to her first season’s perforated leggings as a prime example. “I was like, ‘These are the weirdest, least commercial thing,’” she says, explaining that she envisioned them as a textural layering piece to be worn with dresses, blazers, or skirts. Instead, customers (including Kylie Jenner) have taken to wearing them standalone. It’s a testament to Schloss — if she makes it, it’s because she loves it, even if she’s unconvinced that others will feel the same — and she’s apt to prove herself wrong.
Seven years. That’s the amount of time that Lukhanyo Mdingi says he’s been under the radar, building the identity and bones of his fashion brand. Then came the spotlight: 2021 marked the year that Mdingi was nominated for the LVMH Prize (he ultimately walked away with the Karl Lagerfeld Prize alongside Rui Zhou and KidSuper), and launched his collection in major retailers Net-a-Porter and Ssense. For the Cape Town-based designer, it’s a year worth celebrating.
“Before the prize, our label had been under the radar,” he explains, tuning into Zoom from home, wearing a brown bandana tied tightly over his head, his ears lined with spines of silver hoops. “We really had a lot more time to just work on our seasonal collections without a heavy demand. And what I realized is that that was actually quite a blessing because it allowed us to establish relationships with our tailors and also our patternmakers and those that we’re working with in terms of the productions and factories. It allowed us to solidify our foundation, which is so crucial because essentially they are the core of the making.”
Mdingi uses words like classic and essential to describe his line, but notes that over time, an artisanal sensibility has developed into a hallmark of what he creates. He works with local manufacturers, artisans, and tailors, all part of his team who have invested in his vision for the brand. “It’s difficult to find the right manufacturers, only because not all manufacturers have the right machines. The people are abundant,” he explains. “There’s a lack of infrastructure within our country, which makes it very difficult to produce to the capacity that you actually want. To give an example right now, we’re working on units that are 500 worth [for] Net-a-Porter and Ssense. And that’s not even enough. But I’m in a position where I’ve done a lot of begging.”
“People feel the honesty and they’re willing to help because they can feel the passion.”
Still, Mdingi found that working locally and telling his story has brought people into his corner — “People feel the honesty and they’re willing to help because they can feel the passion” — and with that, he reflects on the importance of relationships in his work. “Even though the label says Lukhanyo Mdingi, I really want people to understand that it’s a body of people, it’s a community with people,” he says. “It’s been seven years of steadily finding our signature, seven years of steadily nurturing our business, and our foundation, and our relationships, more than anything else.” And while he can’t predict what the next seven will hold, Mdingi’s outlook is one of optimism. “If we continue on doing the right thing, knowing who we are, on being of service to one another, through the spirit of design, and craft, and business, I think we’re on the right trajectory of steadily reaching our fullest potential.”