American Dream: Fashion gets personal at The New Yorker Festival

Every year new emerging designers flock to the fashion capital of America, New York City.  Desquval found out the personal stories behind this season’s big names at The New Yorker Festival’s Fashion Forward discussion, led by journalist Judith Thurman. On the panel were Phillip Lim, Maria Cornejo, Naeem Khan and Rag & Bone designers David Neville and Marcus Wainwright. Marina Kolobova reports.

From left to right, Marcus Wainwright, David Neville, Naeem Khan, Phillip Lim, Maria Cornejo

“We wouldn’t have been able to achieve what we have if we did it in Britain,” says British designer Marcus Wainwright, “Everything is in New York.” Rag & Bone’s flagship store stands at the heart of New York City’s West Village.

The Rag & Bone story began in Kentucky in 2002, when Wainwright and his colleague David Neville began learning how to make jeans. The company went on to sew American denim in U.S. factories, which use traditional, 50-year-old techniques, the Rag & Bone website proudly announces. The two designers have even collaborated with America’s most established manufacturers- take for instance, Waterbury Button, the oldest button maker in the U.S. But they’ve never forgotten their roots.

Rag & Bone’s cool American grunge is undercut by a British tendency towards tailoring and hard lines. A dark tweed jacket that would make the Queen of England and her corgis proud appears on the stage of The New Yorker. Yet true to Rag & Bone style, there is a bleak and sinister edge to this item. The designers lets us in on the story of the jacket, which they says is about “exploring the world.” “This is inspired by a man who mounted Everest wearing a tweed suit,” says Neville, “He never made it back down but his body was found in 2002 and they re-fabricated what he was wearing.” “It’s a cute jacket, yes,” he adds, “But if you can tell the history behind the fabric, there is something very special about that.”

Look from Rag & Bone’s Fall Collection

The puritanical look, with its leather boots and knee-high socks, was also formed through years of tough military schooling. “Growing up with tailored clothing was a huge influence on Rag & Bone,” says Neville, “And growing up in a school where you were surrounded by military figures was a big influence on Rag & Bone,” he adds. As the model shows Rag & Bone’s fall season deep green shorts, it becomes evident that every detail is shaped by the designers’ past.  “British boys have to wear shorts until they are ten,” says Neville, no British sarcasm intended, “Seriously!”

Look from Rag & Bone’s Fall Collection

Two other Fashion Forward panelists have a special relationship with America, creating some personal and imaginative designs.

“I grew up in California and it was like two worlds to go to school and speak English and go home and speak Chinese,” says Phillip Lim. Tough New York beauty Debbie Harry inspired one of his fall garments on display today. “I was looking at Blondie and there was always a context of severity around her,” says the designer, who replicated the austere geometry of New York’s punk princess in a skirt layered with trapezoids.

Look from Phillip Lim’s Fall Collection

Indian-born designer Naeem Khan mixes the cold urbanity of the American city with his personal history. A shattered window he saw became an inspiration for a hand-beaded design, says Khan. “I am taking something modern like a broken window and infusing Indian culture,” he says. Pouring his heritage into the piece, the designer explains that an item can take up to 300 hours to make using traditional Indian artisanal techniques. The inspiration board he displays at The New Yorker Festival shines with color, inspired by his recent travels. “I had been spending a lot of time in Miami!” says Khan.

Naeem Khan’s Inspiration Board

In New York’s melting pot, the designer-panelists have fused genders as well as nationalities and locations. “My mom is a doctor in London,” says Rag & Bone man Marcus Wainwright, “She always wore trouser suits but was very feminine. That juxtaposition was very feminine.”

Maria Cornejo, whose clothes are straight and masculine around the shoulders, concurs “I took a picture of my shadow and it was very manly and that’s what inspired this collection,” says the womenswear designer. Her personal experience of women’s clothes have deeply influenced not just the look but the feel of her designs. “I hate getting dressed up,” she says “I dress like a man half the time. Just because you dress casual does not mean you are not feminine. Now fashion is catching up to that.” Cornejo looks at her designs on a model. “She is wearing a graphite coat and sweater,” says the designer, “It is something you would wear every day, because that’s my lifestyle.”

Now a Michelle Obama- favorite, Cornejo too is a foreign-born designer in New York. Exiled from Pinochet’s Chile at the age of 11, Cornejo had an unusual childhood, she told the Huffington Post. A decade ago she launched Zero + Maria Cornejo, opening three stores in New York. “I like producing in New York,” she says, “You get to be part of the process.”

Once production is over, the designers await the public reaction. Phillip Lim says he wants to have contact with his customers and to make them feel confident and comfortable. “I wish I could always be there assisting people, seeing how they react,” says Lim. “The worst thing is to create something and see it on the sales rack,” he reflects. When an item is well received, on the other hand, the designer is elated. “The ultimate form of flattery is seeing someone in the street spending their hard earned money on a Rag & Bone product,” says Marcus Wainwright of Rag & Bones.

They often say that in America the streets are paved with gold. In New York the same is true of the runway. However, as always few make it. Take it from those that did: “New York is a very open city. Everyone can at least have a go,” concludes Maria Cornejo, “Doesn’t mean you succeed, but you have a go.


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