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How Vejas is changing New York fashion

With his gender-fluid approach to casting, fierce perfectionist streak and creative community, Canadian designer Vejas Kruszewski is heralding a new mood of inclusivity

Taken from the forthcoming autumn/winter 2015 issue of Dazed:

A flight between Toronto and New York City takes 90 minutes. Google clocks the drive at just under eight hours. The bus takes more than 12, but that didn’t stop Vejas Kruszewski from making the trip twice in one week.

The 18-year-old designer left downtown Toronto at midnight, Saturday morning, arriving in Manhattan at noon. Five midnights later, he ran for the reverse, nearly missing his bus home. In between, he’d had a condescending meeting with an assistant to an influential editor, hand-delivered five looks to Beyoncé’s stylist, and reunited with his NYC community for this, the shoot you see on the pages of this feature.

“Had a crazy day involving nosebleeds, caught in the rain, unexpectedly larger paycheck,” Kruszewski wrote to me on Tuesday from New York. A few days later, I learned that “unexpectedly larger” meant $50 more.

Fifty US dollars will buy you 20 decent slices of pizza in the West Village, two general entrance fees to the Whitney Museum, three one-way Toronto-NY tickets on the accident-prone Megabus (if purchased in advance), or one third of a shearling neck cuff labelled ‘Vejas’ to be retailed at Opening Ceremony this autumn.

The week of our two on-the-record interviews, which framed his days in New York, Kruszewski was cool, eating green tea Kit Kats and recounting his hang with stylist Haley Wollens, who had commissioned an outfit from him for R&B artist Kelela. But he wasn’t calm – underslept and overworked, his complexion was ripe with stress, his Toronto Chinatown studio table laden with denim, and he was trying to track down garment samples left over from shoots around New York. He counted aloud: shipping the samples back to Toronto would come to x amount of money, which would cut into the proceeds from y. He needed to buy z metres of orange liner for two bombers on order, and a MacBook charger to replace the one he’d lost in New York. And so on. With the extra 50 bucks factored into his calculations, Kruszewski guessed he had just enough to buy a broom to sweep the fabric trimmings hazardously carpeting his studio floor.

How did an 18-year-old of Lithuanian and Polish descent from Montreal, Quebec, end up here – manning an eponymous brand with retail orders in Japan, and a new press request every other week? “Lack of foresight?” Kruszewski suggests wryly. “Stupidity?” His voice is deep and lolling. I suggest bravery, or mastery. “No!” he laughs. “Yes, it’s some combination of impatience, egotism and gratification.” But, by his own admission, none of this would have been possible without the internet.

Kruszewski was 16 when he started putting his fashion designs online. He’d been sewing since ten (“just little craft projects”), a hobby which his mum, an ethicist at a hospital, encouraged. His first finished fashion garment was a slinky black tee in fine jersey that he still wears now – it looks like something Rick Owens might have created. Kruszewski started building collections with lookbooks soon after. This, of course, was only two years ago. Since then, Kruszewski has moved to Toronto from Montreal, making seasonal Megabus pilgrimages to New York. Before Vejas' AW15 show at NYFW in February, Kruszewski's model/actress friend Hari Nef organised a pop-up – Nef modelled the crowning look, a supersized MA-1 flight jacket shaped after a Japanese kimono. Also at the show was a host of faces from Kruszewski’s self-described “Tumblr circle of friends”, many of whom he met through Marcus Cuffie, his go-to stylist and homebase in New York. Kruszewski met Cuffie in 2013, and through or after him (the connection details are fuzzy for being fast and many) he met Hari Nef, David Moses, Tawan Krm, Misty Pollen and Alexandra Marzella, all of whom helped put on his show.

“Isn’t the idea of being, in body and mind, in constant transformation so appealing? That we are never fully formed entities? How far can we will our bodies and lives to take on the ideal forms we imagine for ourselves?” – Vejas Kruszewski

A hot slice of that Tumblr circle is journalist Anna Soldner, the first person I saw in Vejas. She wore him this April to a Manhattan hideaway called Spain – broad jeans and faux shearling jacket, a patchwork of brown on cream cascading with gold-on-black buckles. The look, at once cosy and tough, implied street-smart safety bonded to glam. “I wear Vejas’s clothes ’cos they make me feel strong,” says Soldner. “It’s also nice to be complimented. Almost without fail, a stranger will ask who made it. I remember standing next to a friend wearing Vejas at the New Museum Triennial opening, and this man walked up and practically offered to buy the coat off his back.” That coat was the Nef-modelled kimono bomber, a sample out on loan, since put into production, and available for sale soon.

Anything you buy of Vejas’s now will be touched by his hand, if not cut, sewn and packaged entirely by him. The operation is small – six in all, among them set designer Jessica Kwok, business partner Meghan King, part-time production assistant Dino Tinapay, and full-time assistant Kane Turner, plus Cuffie and Kruszewski.

Let’s talk about talent. How alluring it is. How people glom to it. This is why, I suggest, Kruszewski has such devoted, low-to-unpaid help, which he feels so guilty about. People want to be near him. He wants to pay them. So far, most money made goes back into the brand – into production materials, studio rental, lunches and other little necessities, like brooms.

Talent can seem mystical, innate, like Gaia-given good fortune. But what we call ‘talent’ is often hard work. “I know a lot of young people working in fashion right now,” says Cuffie. “But hands down, Vejas is the hardest-working.” Kruszewski puts in the hours, up to 12 a day, and rarely takes time off. When he does, it’s out of necessity; his body has to be commanding him to bed. Even then, he’s never far from email.

As a draftsman and businessman, Kruszewski is self-taught. He has a Quebec high school education; that is, up to grade 11. Learning to make clothes, he admits, “didn’t come easy”. He persevered through fuck-ups and frustrations, putting in hours upon hours of solitary drafting, cutting, sewing and fitting – “all for the satisfaction of having this – a perfect top-stitch, the finished product… The object, tangible but still fantastical.”

Kruszewski perceives flaws in all his objects. “The stitches are a mess!” he’ll say, where anyone else would see fine, straight lines. “The sleeves look like swinging testicles!” Back to the drawing board. Everything can and will be better. This is Vejas’s skill. He’s a material perfectionist, assiduously dedicated to his craft (one of his signatures is a 30-piece pair of trousers).

Such idealism also graces Kruszewski’s politics and metaphysics. Without making a thing of it, the designer represents in his model casting sex, gender, and racial diversity. To him, it’s natural: these people are his friends, his loved ones. With them, he shares a love of fashion’s aspirational freedom: the potential, through dress and show, to embody one’s own fantasies. “Isn’t the idea of being, in body and mind, in constant transformation so appealing?” he says. “That we are never fully formed entities? How far can we will our bodies and lives to take on the ideal forms we imagine for ourselves?”

“Youth is oversold. It’s gimmicky, like clickbait.” – Vejas Kruszewski

That’s an average soliloquy from Vejas Kruszewski. During our time together, he sets forth ideas on religious subjectivity, Toronto as a “subsidiary” city, the unlikely demise of capitalism, and the ideal sexiness (through “strength and vulnerability”) of Sigourney Weaver as Ellen Ripley in Alien. He speculates on the future of gender blur, and whether Miuccia Prada maintains socialist business practices, given her political background.

Vejas would rather not talk about his age. “It’s too conveniently packaged,” he says. I don’t press him, but I suggest others might. Baby genius, wunderkind, teen prodigy – the cliches are readymade. “Youth is oversold,” he says. “It’s gimmicky, like clickbait.

He doesn’t want attention on his age, or on him at all. His work should be the first focus. Like what he’s into now, the SS16 collection: “It’s a continuation of last season’s fetishising of femininity on boys and girls, but now that’s tied to our anxieties about the business side of fashion. About money. So: Eden, trouble in paradise, escape from the garden. Artificial nature. We might serve pickles.”

See more of Vejas Kruszewski's work here

Hair Paul Warren at Art Department using René Furterer; make-up Ingeborg using Ilia cosmetics; models Rebecca Leigh at IMG, Genesis Vallejo at Trump, Gogo Graham, Vejas Kruszewski, Matt Holmes, Jessica Kwok, Meghan King, Marcus Cuffie, Samuel Houston, Kane Turner, Anna Soldner, Rivkah Barringer; fashion assistant Eric Lawrence; digital operator Joseph Bourdin; casting Noah Shelley