Fashion is a volatile industry. Trends change so rapidly that your wardrobe may seem like it’s constantly changing. Major houses are often visited by designers who arrive with the intention of shaking things up. However, they leave the scene after only a few seasons. Although there are some hints of change, toward sustainability and inclusion, the pace of change is slow. The next generation of emerging designers won’t play by the old rules. The next generation’s most talented designers don’t just create beautiful, unique clothing (although that is true, it is also possible), but their entire approach to fashion and what it represents is completely different. Clothes are made for each individual, regardless of their gender, size or color. The collections are presented holistically and at a pace that revolves around the creative process, rather than the other way round.
Fashion can leave you feeling exhausted or worse, even apathetic. The disruptors have your back. Five changemakers discuss the realities of starting their own businesses, and how their visions have helped them to become the designers and brands they desire. These designers are not only making waves in an industry where the why is as important as the what, but they’re also doing it on their terms. Here’s the answer to your question about the future of fashion.
Lukhanyo Mdingi claims that he has been working under the radar for seven years, creating the identity and foundations of his fashion brand. Mdingi won the LVMH Prize in 2021. He was also awarded the Karl Lagerfeld Prize along with Rui Zhou, KidSuper. His collection was launched at major retailers Net-a-Porter (and Ssense). It’s an exciting year for the Cape Town-based designer.
He explained that his label was “under the radar” before the prize. “We had more time to work on seasonal collections, and there was not as much demand. It was actually a blessing, because it allowed us establish relationships with our tailors as well as our patternmakers and others involved in the productions and factories. This allowed us to strengthen our foundation which is crucial as they are the heart of the making.”
Mdingi uses words such as essential and classic to describe his line. However, he notes that a strong artisanal sensibility has become a hallmark of the products he creates. Mdingi works with artisans and local tailors as part of his team, who all have invested in his vision. It’s not easy to find the right manufacturer because not all manufacturers have access to the right machines. “There is a shortage of infrastructure in our country which makes it difficult to produce the capacity you want. For Net-a-Porter or Ssense, units are currently being built at 500 yen. That’s not enough. However, I am in a situation where I have done a lot more begging.”
Mdingi still finds that telling his story and working locally has helped him to get people in his corner. “People feel the honesty, they’re willing and able to help because they feel the passion,” he says. This brings up the importance of relationships in Mdingi’s work. He says, “Even though Lukhanyo is the name of my organization, I want people to see that it’s not just a group of people. It’s a community made up of people.” Mdingi is optimistic, despite not being able to predict the future, pointing out that seven years have passed “without us finding our signature. If we do the right thing and know who we are, we will continue to be of service to each other through the spirit and craft of design, business and craft. I believe we are on the right track to steadily reaching our full potential.”
Robert Wun says that he likes to mix two abstract things. Both futuristic and soft, his designs often explore the juxtaposition between two areas of interest to see how they can co-exist. He explains how the inspiration for the Fall/Winter 2022 collection’s stiff plates and delicate pleating came from. “To manipulate armor’s idea, I use fabric. It’s soft enough to look like a small piece of pleat. These resemble feathers and bird wings.”
Wun, who was born in Hong Kong, says that his childhood love for nature inspired him to be creative. He used to catch lizards and draw sea creatures. “My family knew I was going to be a creative person when I was a child. Like any other Asian parent, they thought I could become a biologist…something a little more legitimate.” Wun recalls the first fashion moment that caught his attention: Milliner Philip Treacy created feather- and bird-embellished heads for Alexander McQueen’s 2008 Fall/Winter collection. “I was inspired by my passion for nature and I thought fashion could be as beautiful as that.”
Wun has created his own unique interpretation of clothing. This has attracted the attention of famous people whose styles range from classic to subversive, including Willow Smith and Issa Rai. Wun was also one of the entrepreneurs who has seen rapid growth in the past year and a half. He noted that Wun’s Fall/Winter 2020 collection, which he presented last March, was a pivotal moment for his brand, having attracted more attention than he anticipated. He says, “We were very busy. I think the benefit of being small-scale and independent is that we managed to navigate through the entire lockdown because it was just me and two assistants. It’s been wonderful for us this year, which is something for which we are very thankful.”
“The act of optimism is the courage to create something new and unheard of before.”
Wun is optimistic about the future, both in his designs (he is going genderless), and in his outlook. He says that futurism is simply optimism to him. “Most movies, animations and animated shows that I love and grew up with are based on science fiction or futurism. Even The Matrix has a lot of optimism. It’s dark and grim, especially when machines take over. It does talk about human bonds and social issues. Although there are many dark and grim topics, the only way forward is to face them and move forward. This is what I consider optimism. Sometimes, I believe that the act of being bold enough to create something new is itself an act of optimism.
Meryll Rogge is the Antwerp-based designer seems to be in a state of constant flux. It’s almost as if nothing could possibly faze the designer who launched her brand in March 2020. “It was really fortunate that people came to our showroom and we were able show the collection to buyers.” She says she thinks they had 75 appointments. Dries Van Noten and Marc Jacobs were among the old colleagues who came to visit, and even his partner. “It was literally lockdown all over the place a week later.” Rogge found that every factory in Europe had closed suddenly, making it impossible to deliver her collection. “We did find solutions, but it took a few months to get there. I did cry.”
Rogge, who had always longed to create her own line of clothing, bootstrapped the brand. Rogge explains that she was able to learn from her past experiences working at renowned fashion brands, and also saved money for her own venture without the need for investors. She says, “I didn’t want to waste my money or take responsibility for what I was doing.”
Rogge believes that the core of the brand is a modern outlook. Rogge doesn’t mention the inclusive or sustainable aspects, as she “doesn’t want false promises.” However, these issues are an integral part of her work. She explains that “We stand for diversity and good values in the areas of sustainability and inclusion.” “When I was young, I couldn’t afford to buy anything from other brands. I liked their images at least. To people who are interested in seeing the images we create on Instagram and the shoes we make, I always say, “You are welcome to look and maybe one day you will be able to purchase something.”
Rogge also explained that her team is small so she can connect with people who are passionate about the brand. “I manage Instagram because there is no one else.” She says she can see who has tagged us, the comments and the direct messages. Rogge says, “I see which stories are successful and which don’t.” However, she doesn’t place too much emphasis on cracking the code for performance. It’s about sharing her message.
Edvin Thompson’s success was not easy. “Before I joined, I worked there. Red Lobster has been my employer for over a decade.” He says that he would only have two days a week to create. This is his experience in building his brand. Theophilio is ready to make a splash with a CFDA nomination as Emerging Designer of Year and a Spring/Summer 2022 runway presentation.
This Jamaican-born designer has made a name for himself in New York. He’s been there seven years and is surrounded by a close-knit circle of fashionable friends. He left Gypsy Sport to start his own business and was surprised at the support and interest he received. He says, “I’m just a youngster here in New York. I’m just starting out in fashion. Playing with this space.” He also mentions that he sent Lady Gaga a request in his first email. “How do I navigate this? I want to be a fashion designer, but how do I go about it?/;
Thompson’s persistence has been proven by Lady Gaga’s early custom requests and Lewis Hamilton’s invitation to the 2021 Met Gala. His September runway show featured bold colors, sheer netting, and even a snake, but this was not the beginning. He explains that he came from Jamaica and thought ‘I don’t want to be bright, I don’t want to make very vibrant colored clothing.’ But he found his way back to it. “I thought I was a European designer. Even Theophilio… It’s a middle name of mine, Theophilus which means to love God. Thompson realized that his style and that of his community allowed him to design something that would be popular in Europe. He says, “I’m colorful.”
Thompson believes creativity is more than just designing from a whim or inspiration. To build a brand and bootstrapping a young company, it required a lot of creativity. He describes his visit to New York’s fabric district to find sustainable fabrics. “I felt like I should go this route. I came up with new design ideas by working with deadstock fabric and other sustainable materials. It was never something I considered as missing out. He says that his time off over the past year and a half has allowed him to think ahead and consider what he would like to do to grow and innovate. “I have fabrics I intend to use from four to five collections. This is a sustainable way to create clothing. It’s not that I throw away all the scraps in every collection. Instead, I reuse it and re-use it for a new collection.”
Maisie Schloss, founder and designer of Maisie Wilen, explains Kanye West’s approach to her to receive his first fashion incubator grant. Although she was creative at a young age and has been able to launch her own highly saturated fashion brand, supported by one of the biggest stars in the world, it wasn’t how she imagined things.
Schloss laughs, “I joke that since I was 12 I have been training myself to be fashion designers.” She is a Chicagoan, based in Los Angeles. Her experience was gained at independent New York labels such as Vena Cava and Opening Ceremony. After graduating from Parsons School of Design in 2005, she worked as a swimwear designer for Target and Walmart before becoming an assistant designer at Yeezy. “It was the lowest point on the totem pole when I first started there.” She explains that she was a low-ranking assistant and that the challenge of working in a corporate environment made her happy. “Even though my day-to-day tasks were not the most creative, I was able to contribute.”
Building a brand is a complex art. Schloss, who is up to be the CFDA Emerging Design of the Year Award in 2021, is quick to point out that building Maisie Wilen requires constant exploration and adaptation. She laughs, “I don’t mean to sound absurd.” It’s nearly impossible for me to recall what I was thinking at the beginning. Because I have a consistent, long-standing aesthetic, many things are the same. I love bright colors, prints, and loud, maximalist designs. My evolution has been largely a response to the customers and how women who wear it perceive it. I can see the reactions people have to the clothes, especially with social media. It surprises me often.”
“With social media, it’s easy to see what other people do with their clothes. It surprises me often.”
As an example, she points out her first season’s perforated legs. She says that “these are the strangest, least commercial thing” and explained that she originally envisioned them as a layering piece for dresses, blazers, and skirts. Customers, including Kylie Jenner, have begun to wear them alone. It’s a testimony to Schloss. If she does it, it’s because it’s something she loves. Even if it seems unlikely that others will love it. She’s not afraid to be wrong.