A ‘Youthquake’ Is Redefining American Fashion

Designers from disparate corners of social media all convened Monday evening — their attendance and nominations at this year’s CFDA Fashion Awards seen as the final mark of insurgency into fashion’s traditional channels.

There’s a new wave of designers now defining American fashion. It’s been described by some as an “era,” a “changing of the guard,” or more diplomatically “new energy,” reflective of a post-COVID-19 America where independent, creative thinkers are, “juiced up with the tenacity to be more of a hustler. There’s a mentality of all engines turned on,” said newly minted CFDA accessories designer of the year Raul Lopez, founder of Luar.

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For the first time in a while, American fashion is pumped with excitement. In the room Monday evening, look toward one corner and see Emily Adams Bode Aujla whose brand of flea market opulence and Americana has influenced a large portion of Etsy’s maker community; across the room, LaQuan Smith has advanced his take on new age sultry in the form of Lenny Kravitz, dressing the rock star in plunging velvet, leather and feathers. And Elena Velez was a stand-in for a real-life Goth dress form, in a deconstructed muslin-colored gown and black lipstick.

If that sounds like a random bunch, you’d be right — that’s the point of new American fashion. That wide breadth is representative of myriad backgrounds, born from a generation that grew up entrenched in internet culture. They spent hours combing through niche corners of the digital world — happening upon aesthetic and ideological micro communities that now influence their many varied brands.

“It’s the wild west over here,” Puppets and Puppets designer Carly Mark, a former conceptual artist who was nominated in the emerging designer category, said of the American landscape.

Where some designers are inspired by post-emo malaise (Vaquera) or the bridge between Afro-Caribbean culture and early 2000s excess (Theophilio), Mark looks to create a dialog between peculiar, nihilist themes and fashion — translating into sculptural, oft-quirky clothes.

“It’s almost like the pandemic was a controlled forest fire and from that fire came all new growth,” she added of the explosion of fresh talent.

In a year when the class of nominees was among the youngest in CFDA history, a publicist for numerous emerging designers attending the awards event posted on Instagram that it felt like she was dropping her “kids” off.

The list of brands helping define American fashion in this moment is extensive. In addition to CFDA nominees like Luar, Bode, Telfar, Brandon Blackwood, Puppets and Puppets, LaQuan Smith, Willy Chavarria and Christopher John Rogers, there are countless others: SC103, ERL, Commission, Theophilio, Denim Tears, Interior, Connor McKnight, Judy Turner and Black Boy Knits — all of them unafraid to represent something outside the boundaries of traditional fashion structures. Some of them were founded more than a decade ago, but have come into their own — and the wider public spotlight — in the last two years.

While most of their businesses remain small when compared to say, Ralph Lauren, the group’s combined influence lays out great potential for the future — a diversified fashion industry that thrives in the online space and speaks to a loyal community of followers.

“I feel like with the internet now, kids in Europe are like — ‘These designers are what represents American fashion,’” Lopez said.

The sheer number of new labels to emerge post-COVID-19 has not been seen in New York since the years after 9/11 where out of darkness came an outcropping of talent like Proenza Schouler, Derek Lam, Libertine, Doo-Ri Chung and Behnaz Sarafpour, among others, which led to the establishment of the CFDA/Vogue Fashion Fund in 2003.

“It was sort of a similar vibe — coming back from a dark moment and a moment of hardship for a lot of people,” Proenza Schouler’s Lazaro Hernandez said at Monday’s awards.

“[When we started] it was a different moment in time obviously, but I think the struggles are the same. Trying to get your brand off the ground is tough. The hurdles are the same, but I think how you do it is different,” Hernandez said.

Social media, has of course been the primary tool to help even the playing field of success between large houses and today’s young upstarts. Lopez thinks that the pandemic helped accelerate that. “Everyone had to take to the internet for two years — in a way, that was a gift for a lot of young designers who now finally have a voice in the community of fashion,” he said.

“You open your phone now and see all emerging brand and subculture brands, you’re not seeing great American heritage brands — they have faded into the back. When you open your phone, you see me and you see us,” he added.

While Lopez founded his brand in 2012 after cofounding Hood by Air, he has only in the last two years begun receiving wider recognition — hybridizing online culture and commercial strategies he observed from larger brands like Michael Kors to launch his own “It” bag in 2021.

Brandon Blackwood, who rose to viral prominence in 2020 with a democratically priced tote bag that proclaimed “End Systemic Racism,” also knows a thing or two about social media. He has developed an emotional bond with his online followers and shoppers, who he calls “my cousins.”

“I’m very community-driven, everyone has fostered their own following that genuinely cares about what they are doing — it’s more than just the pieces we make, we are creating stories,” said the nominated designer. While some of this year’s nominees are more artful in their approach, Blackwood has excelled by going after the wider commercial market. He arrived at the CFDA’s in a custom-made Schiaparelli couture suit — clearly his strategy is working.

“Diana Vreeland coined the term Youthquake in the 1960s, and you can say the same for the current landscape of American fashion. The past few New York Fashion Week seasons were about discovery… The post-COVID-19 group of designers, while facing the challenges of a supply chain and retail shut down, had an opportunity to focus on creativity and ideas,” said CFDA chief executive officer Steven Kolb. 

“We all come from such disparate identities, everyone’s come in with a story about where they’re from, and then what they want to see out in the world,” Elena Velez, emerging designer of the year, said of the diversity of ideas and communities represented.

“Willy [Chavarria] does such a great job of like bringing his Chicano culture to his work. And I love to think that I’m a champion for recontextualizing regional craftsmanship. There are just so many things that you can try or have a conversation about, or bring into your life in different ways. It’s fun,” Velez added.

But in this economic and competitive climate, the new generation has learned one thing — strength in numbers. This crop of designers has broken with tradition by leaning on each other for the sake of community and support. “We all hang out in the same parties and uplift each other, whereas the older community is maybe more clique-y,” Lopez said. “There is space for all of us — what I do is not what Brandon does or what Telfar does, you can buy all three of our bags — just like you can own Gucci, Fendi and Prada.”

Blackwood, who said his bestselling bags post-pandemic were ones laden in rhinestones, said: “One new brand will pop up way slower than multiple. We are allowed to be grouped together, it propels us all forward.”

The fashion’s industry’s upper eschelons, which in pre-pandemic times had been slow to adapt to cultural shifts at the hands of social media and technology, is racing to catch up. Stores like Bergdorf Goodman, Nordstrom and Saks Fifth Avenue — now competing with online giants like Ssense and Mytheresa — are in a Pac-Man-like frenzy to scoop all of the new brands up. But the labels, many of which have strong direct-to-consumer sales, hold many more cards than before — and are declining exclusivity terms and demanding order deposits to protect their businesses.

“This is a new era and we need to accept that,” said designer Sergio Hudson. “We are on a mission to put American fashion back on the map like it used to be. We want to show in New York and entertain people. We want that energy here.”

Launch Gallery: A ‘Youthquake’ Is Redefining American Fashion

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