I’ve always thought that the ultimate aspiration, as far as getting dressed goes, is to wear only clothes made by people you know. If you were able to do that, then there would always be a reason to get dressed, some kind of higher purpose to the act of putting on clothes—less a declaration of brand affinity than a signal of support, or a pledge of allegiance. Like going to a restaurant where you know the chef, or being backstage at a concert, you would somehow become complicit in the clothes that you wear. You’d be somehow better than the average customer—more connected to the stuff you spend every day in. As a goal, this is not really feasible—Giorgio Armani knows loads of people, but you aren’t likely to be one of them. Nor is it necessarily desirable—the fashion category known as “my friend’s brand” is robust but of dubious quality. But the crux of the idea is that you should wear clothes made by humans who you can relate to and identify with and, yes, maybe even text on occasion. That’s a wonderful notion.
This year, 2021, is going to be glorious in part because it isn’t the cursed year, 2020. But one of the underappreciated glories of this year, once it gets going, will be getting dressed. And that’s because it will be easier than ever to wear clothing to which you have, or can forge, a real, personal connection, There is a wave building, a movement, maybe even a renaissance, led by a few intrepid young designers who have vision, tenacity, and, splendidly, nothing better to do. They will be our guides. They have used the bizarre and scary circumstances of the past year or so to make clothes in admirable and creatively free ways. The names that come to mind—Evan Kinori, Emily Bode, Nicholas Daley, Antonio Congioli of 18 East, Angelo Urrutia or 4S Designs, among others—have struggled, perhaps, as we all have, but they have also thrived. And they are poised to thrive a whole lot more now that human connection—a personal touch, a cool idea from someone you admire—is the most coveted luxury of all.
I bounced this notion off Leah Bershad, proprietor of the San Francisco boutique Reliquary, which might as well be the North Star for soulful, human-made fashion. She introduced the hyper-conscious designer Evan Kinori to the world by carrying his first collection in 2015, and has supported a range of free-spirited fashion enterprises from the Belgian wizard hippie Jan-Jan Van Essche to the late, far-out, Bali-based jeweler Lou Zeldis.
Fortunately, she agreed. “Inevitably this pandemic caused everybody to reassess their values,” she told me. “I find that people are dressing more for themselves.” Working from home allows for that. But one positive side effect of seeing a lot less of other people has been that we’ve gotten to know ourselves a bit better—hopefully, we’ve grown less concerned about how we are perceived by others, and more sensitive to what we need for ourselves.
She describes what’s happening in the fashion world, industry-wise, as a detox. “Especially in menswear,” she says. “Since 2009 men’s has been on this astronomical trajectory and it’s created a lot of fluff. It’s such a big industry, it’s grown so quickly, there’s so much extra.” The salve now, is to look towards things that come from a considered place, she says. “From somebody’s heart.”
Bershad referenced influential philosopher Walter Benjamin’s notion of the aura, from his 1935 text “The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction.” The aura, Benjamin argues, is the human element in art that cannot be reproduced through mechanical means, no matter how perfectly the original is replicated. It’s the magic of something that can’t be faked. It’s why you can’t mass produce art.
Clothes and art follow different rules, but they can be experienced in similar ways. Clothes can have their own kind of aura. It can be big and profound or it can be quiet and subtle, but you can feel it. That’s the difference the human touch can make, Bershad says. It’s not easy to shop for. “We’re searching for meaning and reality and humanity in these things,” Bershad says. “What a year to be dosed with reality.”
The best fashion event I went to last year took place in a small, cavelike basement studio in Williamsburg. It wasn’t really an event, to be honest. I was the only one there. It was more like a meeting—one I set up, via Instagram, with the flourishing young designer Connor McKnight to see his debut collection. He was just settling into his new digs. The scene was not glamorous, but it was inspiring. The walls weren’t yet painted and bolts of fabric were propped up alongside a couple jam-packed garment racks, which contained about 40 garments: the entirety of his output as a fashion designer thus far.
“This is every unemployment dollar that you can think of literally right here,” he told me, gesturing his open arms towards the racks. McKnight is 27. He has long dreads that are tied up high on his head, and that day he was wearing a knit polo of his own design. It draped on him in the perfect kind of way that clothes can when you make them for yourself. Just before the pandemic hit, he was working in production at Bode. When he left that job at the start of 2020, he thought he might do something similar for someone else’s brand—he studied design at Parson’s, and before that did a stint doing graphic design and various projects at Kith. Instead, he sat down at the sewing machine in his apartment.
His beginning was uncertain. “When I first started, I was thinking I probably can't do this for very long,” he said. “I'm going to have to figure out some sort of thing that's going to make me some money.” Then the unemployment checks started to hit. “I was like: Okay, I'm getting paid every week. How can I do something with it?”
In the months that followed, McKnight hunkered down in his Brooklyn apartment and got to work. “I like being inside anyway, so I was like, let's just get weird. Let's see what happens,” he said. “It really was slow, going through the process. When you first start you're like, what the hell am I doing here? Which is part of it. Having that much time was so necessary cause all the times where you're doubting, you have time to work through that. Under normal circumstances, I probably would've put it aside.”
Thankfully he didn’t, because McKnight emerged months later with a shockingly good first collection of high-waisted trousers, voluminous outerwear, big-bodied knits, and old-timey shirts. He cites technical outdoors gear as a big influence—and that’s there, to be sure—but all the strongest pieces look like they were hand-selected by a high-paid stylist from the best thrift stores on earth for Brad Pitt to smoke and drink coffee in. McKnight himself favors cropped tops and wide pants, so that’s the look. (He name-checks former Celine designer Phoebe Philo and Miguel Adrover, the Spanish designer who blew a hole in the fashion industry 20 years ago, as influences. Go figure.) It’s not for everyone, but that’s exactly what makes it so good. Nothing good has universal appeal.
McKnight’s business is small right now, but it will grow. He’s already got some big wholesale accounts lined up and recently won a couple significant fashion awards. That’s all encouraging—important milestones for a young designer on his way, especially a young Black designer breaking through at such a crucial cultural moment. But McKnight’s primary focus—and mine, too—is on the clothes. His are nuanced, personal, quirky, meticulously made. Which is to say: they’ve got an aura.
The designer who gives me the most hope for the year ahead is Camiel Fortgens. Everything he makes looks like it’s just about 90% finished, like the sewer got up for a beer and never returned. There are lots of raw edges, unfinished hems, and errant stitching. Zippers are uneven and pockets haphazardly placed. These are clothes that appear to be in progress, but not in a confusing, art-school way. They’re simple, easy to wear, comfortable and cool—normal, even. (More on that in a second.) By confronting us with the raw materials in this way, by exposing us to the loose warp and weft of the fabric, the fuzz of exposed batting, they reveal themselves to be exactly what they are. There’s something more honest about experiencing clothes in this way: as...human-made objects, rather than vessels for hype.
So I Zoomed into Fortgen’s Amsterdam studio to ask: what’s the deal with all the unfinished clothes?
He says that he struggled with the idea of making clothes at first. “There's enough shit—cool and nice stuff—around. If you make something, then it should add in a way, or it should question some things,” he said. But fashion has been questioning things for decades. What was there left to ask? “I felt like all taboos in fashion have been broken. One of the biggest taboos now is being normal, or being human, or being imperfect.”
Fortgiens’ clothes have uneven hems and raw edges, he explained, because we have uneven hems and raw edges of our own. His clothes admit that they aren’t perfect, and so they feel more human. He’s also showing us his hand, letting us in a bit on the process—fashion, he reminds us, doesn’t just appear on a rack in a department store. It has to be made by someone.
“I'm very impatient,” Forgens said. “So when I just make something and it's fucked up, I think, well, maybe this is actually nice. There are so many interesting and new things in errors because you can't plan errors.”
But it would be difficult to build a healthy fashion business entirely on errors, no matter how interesting they are. Fortgens happens to be extraordinarily good at making the simple kind of clothes you want to wear every day, without the errors—jeans, hoodies, tees, basic jackets. So moving forward he’s dividing his collection into three parts: there’s the mainline, raw edges and all; a line of cleaned-up basics (with finished hems) called Good Products; and a radically experimental range he calls Research.
“The Research pieces are made in the hours that other people have gone home, I'm alone in the studio. Put the music on, drink too much Coke. And then just go about with what I can find,” he said. He hacks up existing pieces and Frankensteins them together to make weird new things. I don’t know of another fashion brand that does this—let their designer indulge, experiment, play, totally free from market considerations. But it should happen more. “I want to look beyond what we already know and see if we can find new shapes, new ways.”
I know a few designers. That happens when you work at GQ. So a lot of what I wear was made by people with whom I have shared meals, or had long conversations, or traveled around the world. That might not be the case for you. The point isn’t that you need to make friends with a bunch of designers. (Although, you might. Fire off a DM or two and see what happens.) The point is that you can relate better to people than you can to faceless brands. You don’t have to know someone personally to feel connected to their work. That’s the case in art and it’s the case in fashion. You just have to be open to the possibility, maybe even seek it out, and it will happen.
But designers are cool, so if you don’t know one, meet one. Or better yet, become one.
Originally Appeared on GQ