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Meet New York’s new underground

With their radical focus on community, their rejection of gender and their authentic approach to diversity, Moses Gauntlett Cheng, Vejas and Vaquera are NYC’s breakout fashion upstarts

Something magical happened this season at New York Fashion Week. The fledgling cult labels of the city’s underground fashion scene have grown up, establishing their places as the must-see collections of the week in the process. For a long time, NYFW has been a dreary schedule of all-too familiar commercial catwalks with homogenous faces and innumerable streetstyle bloggers – a truly boring scene for creative upstarts and young fashion obsessives looking for boundary-pushing statements. Now – hallelujah – all that seems to have been turned upside down, thanks to an extensive community of young, fearless labels, from all parts of the country (and beyond), walks of life and levels of fashion experience. They’re leading by example, with full-fledged visions of uncompromised imagination and a genuine commitment to diversity.

This building momentum reached a fever pitch this season with even newer independent labels like Shan Huq and Gogo Graham joining the growing list of underground brands who hosted their first fashion shows off-schedule, taking NYFW away from sleek studio venues and bringing audiences into churches, dance studios, theatres and luxury furniture showrooms. The young people – artists, musicians and writers – who sit in the front row at these shows are the designers’ own communities, families and peers who spiritually nourish and help them make their visions a reality. By no means are these projects self-sustaining for the first few seasons – all are balancing day jobs or trying to secure their first stockists; some are lucky to have been offered free mentorship and training programs. There are three labels, however, that have truly skyrocketed in their ambitions and trajectories from last season – fuelled by their abilities to retain the same honesty, passion and teamwork as they did when they all started out, just a few seasons ago. They are Moses Gauntlett Cheng,  Vejas and Vaquera.


The VFiles fashion show at Spring Studios in Tribeca got the NYFW party started this season with a “showtime!” style spectacle of dancing, acrobatics and rappers heralding its handpicked line-up of emerging design talent. Moses Gauntlett Cheng’s SS16 collection – lauded as the undisputed climax of the show – was inspired by sexy mature Italian women, who swanned down the runway in all genders, ages and forms to a thumping rendition of Andrea Bocelli’s “Time to Say Goodbye.” With peeks of a cheeky whale tail here and flashes of fashion nipple there, the collection boasted so much sex appeal it raised the room’s collective heart rate.

It will be hard to scrub these looks from our eyes or memories – for the next six months, at least. “Jenny and I went to Italy and we just got obsessed with these sexy, old Italian women,” explains designer Esther Gauntlett. “Everyone was just this kind of sun-drenched, jewel-encrusted hottie.” One completely sheer look was even modelled by Gauntlett’s mum, who is legendary for being a behind-the-scenes, sewing and modelling angel for several other New York labels during fashion week. “Yeah, that was my mum!” says Gauntlett proudly. “My brother’s girlfriend is modelling for us as well. It’s important for us to have friends and family in the show because that’s where we get our inspiration from.”

“We asked Mel Ottenberg his opinion on sending a piece down the runway with a girl’s labia hanging out. He told us: ‘If you’re going to do something that bold, the rest of the collection has to be amped up. It can’t just be vagina lips on the runway’” – David Moses

The sleekness and production value of VFiles’ fashion week offering is a far cry from last season’s Moses Gauntlett Cheng show, which was staged impromptu in a public parking lot and operated out of Jenny Cheng’s caravan home. The change in context and additional support has brought about a serious increase of work and focus for the trio – the collection is meticulously constructed, yet was completed days before the show, an unprecedented feat for the team. “There were some really late nights. We did this all in three weeks,” says Cheng. “We went to work during the day, then worked on the collection until 5 o’clock in the morning. And then went back to work the next day,” David Moses adds. “For weeks. We really amped it up – the quality of the clothing had to be perfect. Last season we had stuff pinned on our models, and this season we had everything beautifully hand-finished and ready.”

They announce cheerfully that they’ve secured their first American stockist – Opening Ceremony, and a handful of useful advice from the industry experts from the VFiles mentorship program. “We spent a fair bit of time with Italo Zucchelli from Calvin Klein – he’s amazing and we’re all obsessed with him because of his accent and Italian-ness,” says Gauntlett. “It was also interesting for us to get criticism from people who are so far outside of what we’re doing.” What was the best piece of advice they got from the program? “We asked Mel Ottenberg – Rihanna’s stylist – his opinion on sending a piece down the runway with a girl’s labia hanging out,” says Moses, completely serious. “And he told us: ‘If you’re going to do something that bold, the rest of the collection has to be amped up, too. It can’t just be vagina lips on the runway – it looks like a mistake!’ That was really helpful.”


Vejas Kruszewski staged his second New York fashion presentation in a private loft-slash-dance studio in Soho over the course of an idyllic afternoon. He wanted his SS16 collection to be a calm and optimistic evolution of his previous collection, which was inspired by horror movie tropes. “I was thinking about a place that’s free from worry, a calm paradise – like the Garden of Eden almost,” says the designer. An artfully arranged formation of rocks, time-weathered leather jackets and heavy metal grommet embellishments offset the designer’s fragilely constructed riffs on white shirting, interlacing jersey pieces that exposed models’ shoulders and thighs and the presence of an adorable infant model. The self-taught designer from Toronto is on an upward trajectory – dedicated to the improvement of his own craftsmanship and the honing of his business, proving a maturity beyond his years. 

A constant stream of visiting friends, fans and press attended the event, some unmistakably wearing Vejas’ designs. An uncanny blurred line seemed to form between the audience members and the models – a tribute to Kruszewski’s ability to assert his unique aesthetic into his pieces and create an instantly recognisable and coveted, yet also realistic and nuanced brand. “I was thinking a lot about how Comme des Garçons has created a successful business – how the clothes are so recognisable to the people who know it,” says Kruszewski. “The way they finish their seams carry through in all of their pieces – if you tried something on inside out and it had no label attached, you’d still be able to tell that it’s Comme. I really want that.”

“There’s no point being a martyr and sucking everyone down with you – I’d rather compromise a bit on the size of the collection and make money so I can pay everyone who helps me so much out of the belief in the idea”

As a designer who wants to establish his label as a luxury brand, Vejas invests an incredible amount of energy into creating the collection’s complex patterns and keeps a personal eye over its careful construction, down to the last denim top-stitch. “It’s really important for Vejas that he touches everything and that there is a high level of craftsmanship,’ says his business partner and stylist Marcus Cuffie. “Production is kept really close because he wants to know that every piece is ideal and really well made.” For Vejas, the next big goal is to build a legitimate business with what he has and move the entire operation to New York. “Not everyone gets paid,” he explains. “Right now I pay the basic necessities like the rent of the space then funnel most of it into production. There’s no point being a martyr and sucking everyone down with you – I’d rather compromise a bit on the size of the collection and make money so I can pay everyone who helps me so much out of the belief in the idea. If I want to continue this, I have to make money and it’s going to have to work.”


Designer Patric DiCaprio of Vaquera was still locking down a show venue the day New York Fashion Week started – but he had a vision of exactly what he wanted the experience to be, and it made all the difference. Vaquera showed its SS16 collection in the Church of the Ascension, a beautiful and quiet little church near Washington Square with dark wooden pews, sandy stone pillars and a gorgeously painted panoramic relief of the Ascension of Christ on the back wall. “The concept of the collection really came out when I was trying to pitch it to the churches,” he explains. “I started by telling people that it was a silent performance about meditation and spirituality in order to spin it for the churches – but began to tell the truth more and more as I was speaking to these people and they were like, ‘Oh! A fashion show? Why didn’t you say that outright?’”

After being turned down at churches all over New York City, DiCaprio finally found this one and decided to let the truth save the show: “I told them that this was a fashion show about celebrating people who are marginalised by the fashion industry. It’s about eliminating the money factor, it’s about the art of making clothes and that, for me, making clothes is a spiritual practice and something that I do as a form of therapy. As I was saying this to him, I realised it was true and was like ‘Whoa, ok. This is getting a little intense for me.’” DiCaprio grew up in Alabama and had never connected with Christianity back in school – it had even been a negative thing for a long time – but the experience might even have shifted his feelings. “Someone asked me if I wanted to come to church and I was like ‘Yeah.’ This church is beautiful. And it was meant to be, because my friend Bunny was reaching out to this church at the same time I was and it just happened independently. This was the one! If I needed another sign, that was it.” 

“This brand isn’t about making something to be sold in stores – obviously I’d love that – but it’s all about the fantasy” – Patric DiCaprio

Vaquera’s SS16 collection mixed steampunk’s romanticism, cosplay’s coquettish drama and a costume club’s nerdy dedication to historical details: ruffled lace sleeves, voluminous cotton bloomers, peasant shirts, french berets, harlequin pins, apron ties, kooky hats and a final bridal look worn by DiCaprio’s muse and mistress, New York writer Tyler Sayles. There was even a nod to the age-old tradition of women who hang their lost husbands’ portraits around their necks in hopes of finding them one day, except in this case, the black and white portrait was of Edward De Lacy Evans, the first trans man in Australia. The collection was DiCaprio’s personal exploration of the concept of “involution” which he studied during a class called “Millennial Culture and the Inhuman” about the kind of futures addressed in sci-fi movies: clones, vampires and the idea of eternal life.

“It’s about imagining a future that isn’t on the path of 2001: A Space Odyssey or The Jetsons. Involution is about the circular trajectory of humans. What if we didn’t go into neoprene, spandex and tech clothes and instead moved backwards instead, looking at Raphael and Baroque paintings, wearing lace and canvas?” He’s not shy of his collection making a possible bid for the case of the most stylishly dressed person at the Ren Fair, or a gang of punk kids who work and play dress up in a costume shop together. “You know how people are always saying, ‘Oh, I don’t want to look too costume-y!’ For me, it was like we’ve got to go all the way costume-y. This brand isn’t about making something to be sold in stores – obviously I’d love that – but it’s all about the fantasy. Vaquera’s final product has always been about the show.” On coming into his own as a designer alongside his friends Moses Gauntlett Cheng and Vejas this season, DiCaprio adds, “This season is magic, I swear. Last season was really the starting point when we all started getting press, so we went ‘Okay, let’s turn it up!’ It feels good.”