These Emerging Knitwear Designers Are Making Sweater Dressing Sexy
Subversive and snuggly.
When you hear knitwear, what comes to mind? If you’re a retailer, dollar signs since it’s one of the industry’s most promising categories, projected to be a nearly $1 trillion business by 2023. There’s little debate that for the past few years, customers have been hunting for cozy pieces that are both comfortable and easy to wear. But where big, thick, and snuggly sweaters (best accessorized with a hot beverage) have long dominated the market, a new crop of designers are rethinking classic crafts like crochet, knitting, and patchwork, with edgy creations that’ll do little to keep you warm but look incredibly stylish and cool.
Cropped, netted, and see-through, they’re made to cling to and reveal the body: Picture catsuits with giant cutouts at the waist, crop tops that appear to have been pieced together spontaneously, and neon brights that clash in a pleasing manner. They’re subversive and confident, for a person who’s unafraid to show plenty of skin, no matter the weather.
For the five emerging labels pioneering sultry, stretchy pieces profiled ahead, the pandemic proved to be a blessing in disguise. With lockdowns and plenty of time on their hands, the lead designers found their creative groove in isolation, drawing on inspiration that ranges from nature to pop music to their far flung families. And as daring as these pieces may seem, there’s also a sense of nostalgia and softness to them as well. Another unifying theme? A focus on sustainability: Their work is as low impact as possible, whether that’s by way of zero waste collections, using natural dyes, working with local artisans, or some combination thereof. These brands are changing what luxury knitwear looks like, but also how it’s made.
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Most 9-year-olds claim to know their future career path, only to drastically change their minds later in life. But for Katya Zelentsova, that was the age when she decided to pursue a career in fashion. Growing up in Volgograd, Russia, she was a normal kid with a flair for the dramatic, especially when it came to her outfits. With her love of drawing and the discovery of Dior’s couture collection (namely Fall 2004), Zelentsova was determined to create a clothing brand of her own. Fast-forward to a decade later, she found herself at Central Saint Martins in London, toughing out all-nighters for the institution’s notoriously intense program.
During Zelentsova’s time at the prestigious design school, she discovered her love of knitwear, mainly due to her own desire to excel in a class she was struggling in. “While my grandmother was a maverick at knitting and crocheting, I didn’t pick it up until I was accepted into CSM. While there, I took knitting machine classes, and I was tanking at first, so I’d just stay after hours and teach myself how to use them with the help of YouTube videos. Somewhere along the way I just fell in love,” she explains. Her 2020 graduate collection, which features slinky see-through woven catsuits, crochet flowers, and patchwork knit miniskirts in a rainbow of colors, was put on display as part of the CSM’s annual showcase. From there, life snowballed: Ssense picked up the line, Kali Uchis wore the brand, and insider-ish fashion magazines like AnOther and The Face were demanding her pieces for photo shoots.
Zelentsova’s approach to her designs always begins with an item of clothing plus a phrase and feeling. Her current collection began back in summer 2020, during London’s first lockdowns when she couldn’t visit her family. “I thought about staycations and revisiting the summers spent just outside of my hometown, dressing up for an evening stroll. Also, I finally had the time to read Meet Me in the Bathroom that summer, so there’s a subconscious dose of Karen O in there too. All shaken up, but not stirred,” Zelentsova explains. And while the indie rock singer might have infiltrated her mind, she has an expansive view of who her customer is, “Anyone can get in on some knitted eleganza. I see them as colorful armor, something that can quickly cheer you up when everything else is amiss,” she says.
As for the future, Zelentsova has a few wishes, namely to grow her range, but there are also a few dream collaborations that she’d like to manifest into reality. “I’d love to work with Wolford because they have access to all this amazing cutting-edge machinery,” she says. “And Sonia Rykiel, because it would be incredible to be able to tap into such a rich textile archive — if anyone wants to pass down my number!”
Chances are you’ve seen Alicia Robinson’s work before, even if you don’t recognize her name. Before founding AGR, her signature label, the London-based Robinson freelanced for the likes of Yeezy, Missoni, and A-Cold-Wall. In 2019, she decided to start her own brand, which masterfully melds the worlds of luxury knitwear and streetwear with body inclusive, neon-colored minis, crop tops, and oversize sweaters. Retailers were quick to notice, with the likes of Net-a-Porter, Saks Fifth Avenue, and Dover Street Market picking up her designs. Celebrities are also following suit: AGR is a favorite of musicians such as Burna Boy and Khalid, as well as Formula 1’s Lewis Hamilton and Hailey Bieber. Plus, the brand managed to make it to the semi-finals of the LVMH Prize, another point of pride for Robinson and her team.
Robinson’s love for knitwear began at an early age. “My mom not only gave me her knowledge but also all of her own knitting equipment, so I guess you could say it’s in my blood,” she says, adding, “I’ve always found it fascinating because you make something literally out of nothing as the process is turning yarn into fabric. Nowadays, I’m into mixing craft with tech, which allows us to really push boundaries in the field.” This translates into using knitting machines that are programmed with coding software as well as experimenting with digital prints as motifs and using mini robots to add on diamantes, which are the little sparkly embellishments normally applied painstakingly by hand in most ateliers.
While technology is key in Robinson’s approach to design, art also plays a huge factor. “I’ve always loved visiting exhibitions as this used to be bonding time between my mother and I. Last weekend, I saw one of my favorite artists at the moment, Lakwena — she’s inspiring as an artist and a human being,” she says. Her love for creatives of all sorts is evident in each collection, as they feature historical references ranging from photographer Martin Parr’s saturated color images of everyday life (for Spring 2022) or 16th century Italian Bargello needlepoints (for Fall 2022). It’s no surprise then that this mishmash is a draw to major, well-known brands like Nike (she partnered with the brand on a collection made entirely from deadstock materials in 2021) who is no stranger to mixing disparate creative worlds.
Robinson’s buzzworthy collabs speak to her for the future as well. “I’d like to one day have an official trainer collaboration with Nike, of course, but ultimately I hope the brand becomes a household name like Missoni,” she says.
Slow fashion has become a buzzword in the last few years, but for Lily Yeung it’s less a marketing strategy than a way of life. Yeung, who is of Navajo and Chinese descent and grew up in Southern California — but now calls London home — began crocheting during the pandemic as a way to find calm during uncertain times and found herself garnering a following for her painstaking, handmade designs. “I started making pieces that held me and made me feel protected. People connected with that energy during uncertain times, and I think they also appreciated the imperfect and expressive nature of my garments,” she says of her work.
Because of the nature of her pieces, Yeung’s creative process isn’t as linear as your standard fashion brand. “I have a very tactile relationship to design, and I like developing through hands-on processes. The spontaneous tendencies of crochet and knit inspires me,” she says. Beginning with the material, Yeung explores organic forms and textures as it relates to her body and emotions. It’s no surprise that nature is one of her biggest influences. “The way each piece unfolds over time is very different each time,” explains Yeung. “Often I’m gathering inspiration for months without realizing it.” She utilizes her own body as the template and drapes everything on herself, adapting as she deems fit, which explains the sensual nature of her work. In shades of beige, gray, green, and brown, the body-revealing crop tops and skirts manage to be soothing and subversive at the same time.
Because each piece is handmade and requires weeks utilizing delicate yarns, all of which are deadstock, upcycled, or new but environmentally gentle, the price reflects Yeung’s commitment to small batch, slow fashion. Eventually she would like to work with more Navajo herders, spinners, and dyers as well as grow her own materials and dyes. And although crochet may be her chosen medium at the moment, Yeung is also getting into weaving, so expect to see some wearable woven creations in the future.
A. Roege Hove
In 2019, Amalie Røge Hove was knitting bags in the Copenhagen apartment she shared with her boyfriend. Soon, however, the pile of pieces got to a point where she realized — for the sake of her relationship — she needed a proper studio for what was becoming a budding brand. But shortly after investing in a workspace, the world shut down, including shops and factories. “I was forced to slow down and stay in my own creative bubble, which let me focus on developing and experimenting. At one point, I did consider if this was a good idea, but at the end of 2020 Ssense placed a huge order. After that I really believed I could continue,” says Hove of her beginnings.
Known for her knotted diaphanous cardigans and skirts that seemingly float around the body, Hove began as a knitwear designer for brands like Mark Tan and Cecilie Bahnsen before striking out on her own. “The thought of a brand that centered around shaping and creating a full garment, with no waste, was really intriguing,” she says. A self-described textile technique nerd, Hove finds joy in embroidery, weaving, and printing and uses the material as her inspiration source. “There are endless ways to refine and combine yarns and colors,” she says. “We have a lot of fittings to see how knitted panels, through drapings, can be transformed into silhouettes in collaboration with a body.” Nothing is sketched on paper; instead she prefers making swatches on her knitting machines, relying on intuition and referring to older styles in the archives to inform new pieces.
Like her peers, Hove not only uses models of all shapes and sizes, but she also believes in zero waste and green practices, which includes reusing samples to test out new silhouettes or techniques. “Drawing on a rich culture of Danish design and craftsmanship, it’s important for us to ensure the level of quality and sense of responsibility that is inevitable for the future of fashion,” she explains, hoping to create pieces that last in your closet.
While the brand is not 100% sustainable quite yet, she’s working on finding an alternative to its signature nylon yarn. In the future, that’s high on her priority list, but Hove is also excited to partner with other Copenhagen-based creatives including one with jewelry designer Inger Grubber. Look to brooches that interact with the knitwear in unique ways in the brand’s new Spring/Summer 2023 collection.
As a child in China, Zhexin Li (who goes by the first name July professionally) always expressed an interest in fashion, but it wasn’t until an unfulfilling job as a corporate designer in Seattle that she finally took the leap. After working her 9-to-5 gig for a few years, Li decided to enroll in classes at local art schools before heading to London, where she studied at London Art College. It was there that she realized she had found her passion and, in 2019, she moved to New York to enroll in Parsons. But after being forced to take classes remotely during the early days of COVID lockdowns, Li realized that she didn’t need to continue with formal education. Instead, she dropped out and took her biggest risk of all: starting her eponymous brand, July Li, in the middle of a global pandemic.
“I was slightly depressed because I was detached from the world, so I used that emotion. Knitting helped calm me down and for the first eight months, I was just designing and not thinking about the business part. I wanted to have pieces that I felt proud of,” Li says of the process. The result? A slew of delicate (yet surprisingly sturdy) knitwear, including silhouettes combined with other material fabric to create elaborate mixed media skirts and dresses. “Design is like having a journal. I try to understand the emotions. The first collection is based on when I was forcing myself to go to the park every day to breathe and, you know, to get some fresh air,” she says. “My latest work deals with the terrible news in the world, like the wave of hate crimes and women’s rights, especially in China.”
Li’s ability to bring lightness to dark times has drawn a following with fans like Japanese Breakfast and Dua Lipa. Though the brand is still in its early stages, Li has bigger aspirations for the future. “It would be a dream to work with Maison Margiela or John Galliano, but I would love for my brand to be on their level,” she tells TZR. “It’s bold to say, but I want to have an international brand. Beyond that, I hope to stand up for women and minorities.”