Like an invitation to a questionably distanced end-of-summer barbecue, the beginning of New York Fashion Week, following months of upheaval and uncertainty across the city, can feel a little unsettling. This season, editors and buyers will be scrutinizing the Spring/Summer 2021 collections through a screen as flashy celeb-filled front rows are nonexistent. However, a dose of something beautiful, imaginative, and exciting is far from unwelcome right now. And for the new designers at New York Fashion Week, it’s still important to participate for this exact reason.
While New York’s shows have historically included under-the-radar, fresh-out-of-design-school talents, it’s also known for big star power like Marc Jacobs, Michael Kors, and Ralph Lauren. Last month, when CFDA released its official Fashion Week calendar, these names were absent but a slew of new ones could be found. Among them, a sustainable denim label based in Harlem, a colorful collection out of Brooklyn inspired by the designer’s Jamaican roots, and a fresh, contemporary line of beautifully draped silhouettes from an industry vet.
“We are excited to see 15 new American brands on the schedule — many for the first time — who might not have had the opportunity to share their collections to a global audience without access to RUNWAY360,” says Steven Kolb, Chief Executive Officer of the CFDA, in a press release, referencing the digital platform where NYFW will take place.
For some designers, seeing their name on the calendar is a dream realized. So, despite the extra procedures and precautions to produce a lookbook or stream a runway show, these emerging labels are showing up in 2020, even if the audience is staying home. And that's not the only reason they're worth paying attention to. Ahead, meet some of the most exciting additions to NYFW this year, and hopefully, for many seasons to come.
NYFW's New Designers: Oak & Acorn
“Presenting this year is met with its own incredible challenges, however this is an opportunity for designers to use the activation to showcase something completely original,” says Miko Underwood of Oak & Acorn, the first sustainable denim brand based in Harlem. She’s welcoming this challenge — the virtual conversation, the shared screens. “We have been thrusted into the technological future.”
Oak & Acorn, however, is unlike most other denim labels. With a strong emphasis on social impact and education, the brand is not only a celebration of style, but also of the American history of denim. “This moment calls for us to learn parts of American history that we have not been exposed to,” Underwood tells TZR of the state of the world in 2020. “With understanding and openness we can actively listen, come together, and work to rebuild a new infrastructure that is culturally accountable and responsible to our collective community. I believe this moment has shifted us so profoundly. It will impact how our intentions and actions move us forward.”
Oak & Acorn already stands out for its bold silhouettes and unique offerings that are made-to-order to ensure responsible production. Its story is representative of a changing fashion landscape that’s becoming more intentional in how it consumes. In essence, NYFW is giving the brand another platform for like-minded folks to discover it. “It’s an incredible accomplishment for my brand, I feel really humbled and grateful to be a part of the official calendar,” says Underwood. “I’ve dreamt about this since I was kid."
NYFW's New Designers: Duncan
For Michelle Duncan, forgoing this NYFW was not an option. “As a New York City-based brand, I chose to move forward with debuting a [Spring/Summer 2021] collection as a means of continuing to provide a story and garments for women. Times are exceptionally difficult but our point of view is not to stop and sit out, instead we have to pivot,” she says to TZR.
Duncan will debut her collection with a special video that includes music by Ladytron. “Without our family of partners and friends, Duncan would not exist, so we took every precaution necessary to ensure the safety of the team while developing the collection and shooting it,” she adds of her production.
The brand itself includes classic, refined pieces that have a dose of goth influence and for Spring/Summer 2021, Duncan was influenced by the monotony of the past several months spent at home, repeating routines outside our usual pattern. “The rigidly repetitious becomes so unbearable there is no choice but to have insanity turn towards the light. You experience the release,” as the designer describes. “This is what the collection is about. An exploration of the personal journey from the longest night into the dawn.”
There’s a sense of optimism in how Duncan is moving forward, especially as a young brand that’s been able to survive a pandemic and subsequent economic crisis. “A secured spot on the NYFW calendar remains critical for brand awareness,” Duncan points out, “but also as an allegiance to our peers and friends at the CFDA and New York Fashion Week.”
NYFW's New Designers: Theophilio
Not only will Brooklyn-based Theophilio make its NYFW debut, but the brand will also be featured in IMG’s Black in Fashion Discovery Showroom this season. Lead by designer Edvin Thompson, Theophilio takes inspiration from Thompson’s home country of Jamaica. Signature themes include bright colors, playful fringe, and lightweight fabrics such as mesh and chiffon. Thompson is also a champion of upcycled materials and the idea that fashion should be an expression without limitations or exclusion. In this way, the brand has one foot steeped in tradition and another propelled into a more inclusive fashion future.
NYFW's New Designers: AKNVAS
AKNVAS is a new brand founded by Christian Juul Nielsen that’s filled with modern silhouettes, easy draping, and an optimistic color palette. The Danish designer, who also works as creative director for Hervé Leger, had only presented his line in small appointments to buyers and press before this season. But, inspired by a sense of togetherness over the last few months, Nielsen felt a responsibility to do something different with the Spring/Summer 2021 collection.
“If I, as a new brand, just give up on Fashion Week, then it’s just going to be just a couple of big brands running Fashion Week in New York and that doesn’t create a lot of diversity or newness in the collection,” Nielsen explains to TZR. “We support it and want to be part of it.”
During his time slot on the calendar — for the CFDA and IMG — Nielsen will release two lookbooks for AKNVAS: a women’s line that was shot in-studio with a very limited team, as well as his first foray into menswear, shot via Zoom with and by model/photographer Daniel Van Der Deen. The styles, mostly conceived of during the pandemic and fitted over Zoom, will have elements of comfort, such as elastic waists and oversize shirting.
“At this point AKNVAS doesn’t need a runway show,” says Nielsen. He says the decision to present digitally is better, financially, for his young brand. “I do think that actual contact with people is important,” he adds.
NYFW's New Designers: C+plus SERIES
Taiwan-born and Shanghai-based designer C.T. Liu will be debuting his line for the first time this NYFW, as part of the IMG and CFDA calendars. During his time slot, Liu is planning to release a campaign video and lookbook to showcase the newest chapter for a line that’s recognized for its unconventional silhouettes, commanding fabrics, and adventurous use of texture.
NYFW's New Designers: Colleen Allen
Though her line officially launched in 2015, Colleen Allen will debut her collection at NYFW this September 14. Having studied at Parsons and Central Saint Martins, Allen’s focus is on menswear. Her designs meld classic with the unconventional, while displaying hints of deconstruction and nostalgia. Though intended for men, she’s been vocal about her fluid views of gender and adds a welcome, fresh voice in fashion going forward.
NYFW's New Designers: Frère
Frère has already made a huge splash in the fashion industry with a celeb following that includes Jay-Z, Michael B. Jordan, and Chris Paul. But for real-estate-agent-turned-designer Davidson Petit-Frère, the next chapter of his brand is launching a women’s line this New York Fashion Week. He’s already teased an image on his Instagram of what’s to come, and the designs will follow in the footsteps of his impeccably tailored and timelessly sleek men’s suiting.
NYFW's New Designers: Maisie Wilen
Maisie Wilen is on the IMG and CFDA calendar for the first time this NYFW, but will be a familiar name (if not, aesthetic) for those who follow the wardrobe choices of Camila Mendes, Keke Palmer, and nearly every Kardashian or Jenner sister. The pieces are eye-catching and memorable, thanks to the use of bright shades, figure-hugging materials, and not-for-the-faint-of-heart silhouettes. Created by Maisie Schloss, a former womenswear designer at Yeezy, the Spring/Summer 2021 collection will be presented as a lookbook.