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Phlemuns AW16 lookbook
PHLEMUNS AW16 lookbookPhotography Bennet Perez

PHLEMUNS is the label breathing life into LA’s fashion scene

Inspired by thrifted clothing and 90s pop icons, James Flemons lifts the lid on his demographic-defying brand

James Flemons, the designer behind Los Angeles-based, demographic-free label PHLEMUNS, creates pieces that both embody the eccentric spirit of the 80s and 90s and have a timeless, futuristic-vintage feel. The former Opening Ceremony employee battled with asthma growing up and was thrust into art as a result of his inability to be active, picking up a pencil and becoming interested in sketching and design at the age of ten.

His brand, which draws major inspiration from pop icons of the past like Xtina, Lil’ Kim and Deee Lite, is not driven by trend or the direction of the market, but rather focuses on creating unique pieces that will remain wearable throughout the years – and has won fans in style trailblazers including Solange, and Miley Cyrus. We caught up with Flemons to discuss giving a voice to black artists in the community, how he is inspired by the "ugly", and how PHLEMUNS is deeper than the denim he’s previously been known for.

Did you have a creative upbringing, were your parents interested in the arts?

James Flemons: Yeah, actually. It was neither of my parents’ main focus as raising a full house and making sure wheels kept rolling was a priority, but they both definitely had an artistic influence on me. My dad drew a lot when he was younger and gave me some of his sketchbooks from the 40s and 50s that I still hold close to this day. I grew up with my mum being a big sewer. She made all her clothes throughout high school and throughout my childhood she was constant reupholstering furniture or making quilts or our Christmas stockings or matching family outfits. 

When did you first realise that you wanted to be a designer?

James Flemons: I grew up with really serious asthma and since I wasn't very active, I gravitated towards drawing. My parents noticed I excelled in it, so they did anything possible to enhance and encourage it. The flair for design first started when one of my older sisters got a Barbie fashion kit for Christmas when I was about ten. It came with a lightbox, three Barbie body figure stencils, and papers full of outfits to trace on. I somehow got my hands on the body stencil but instead of tracing on the clothes from the papers provided, I would draw outfits I saw in music videos. Since then, I was always known as the kid who designed clothes.

Your approach feels rather DIY – what’s the significance of recycling or repurposing to you?

James Flemons: I think it started from my love of vintage clothes. Before I began my line, I would take vintage pieces and alter them to help me practice sewing – it was a crash course in understanding how garments are put together. I also see how much damage the fashion industry does to the environment, especially with the rapid rise of fast fashion – it’s kind of my way of easing the load and not feeling so bad about my contribution.

“There are too many rules in fashion and I try not to follow them” – James Flemons

Why do you make your clothing non-targeted and demographic free?

James Flemons: It happened that way on its own, just from the nature of who I am. I think I see through the lenses of both the younger and older audience. I always question, ‘Will my mum like this?’ while creating a piece. Also, I have such eclectic interests that influence what I produce. I never really reference one particular type of style, I like punk, I like skate culture, I like sci-fi, I like hip-hop, I like vintage, I like high glamour, I like really ‘ugly’ obscure things, and it’s just the way my brain kind of spits it all out. And I think it’s a cool challenge to appeal to every type of person...there are too many rules in fashion and I try not to follow them.

What and who inspires you and your work?  

James Flemons: Like I mentioned before, my parents have had a huge influence on my creative process. I reference old photos of them all the time and hold on to a lot of their old clothes. It’s mainly a vintage thing that influences me. I only really shop at thrift stores. I also have a book of maybe 200+ designs from elementary school to high school that I reference a lot for inspiration. Some pieces in my collections I actually designed when I was 12 or 18.

How does the fashion climate vary between Los Angeles and New York?

James Flemons: You definitely have to find it here in LA as opposed to it constantly being in your face in NY. I do believe it exists here though, there’s just a different approach – things are seen through a different lens. I also think creatives in LA feel they have a platform here to be seen and recognised and I decided to take advantages of my resources and make my own. When I lived in NY, it was probably the least creative time in my life. I just don't know where people find the time and space! The only thing that does bug me about being a designer in LA in comparison to NY is the lack of a ‘designer community’, I think there's a strong cool bond between designer and creatives in NY that I wish I would experience more of especially being young and broke.

Why do you think someone like Solange embodies the spirit of your brand?

James Flemons: I think we both stand for similar things, are vocal about the way we feel and want to be seen and respected as black artists just the same as the non-black people that dominate the creative industries. A lot of it is about visibility and the lack thereof. I feel like a lot of us are there and struggling with our creativity because it seems like industries only want to give one of us shine at a time in an attempt to make everyone feel like there is diversity when there isn't. I've been working at this hustle for a while now, been in magazines, been on countless celebrities and it just seems as though it takes a little longer for us to get our shine.

“When I lived in NY, it was probably the least creative time in my life. I just don't know where people find the time and space!” – James Flemons

Your past collections featured a muted and earthy palette. Why did you decide to work with loud patterns and bold color this season?

James Flemons: I've always been a little intimidated by working with colourful prints and patterns but I make a lot of pieces based off of what I wear and there is a lot color and print within my wardrobe, so I decided to take the plunge. It was also something so fitting for what was heavily influencing me at the time, being Deee-Lite. I'm constantly trying to challenge myself and work outside my comfort zone and I think the results have been turning out pretty good.

How does PHLEMUNS defy trends?

James Flemons: A big factor has just been keeping myself at an arm’s distance from everything else going on in the fashion world and working with elements of design that I see as timeless. Of course, as a designer I have to be tapped into what’s happening, but I came to a realisation when I was in college that I was so consumed with what was going on that none of my designs had their own identity. Everything felt like a direct reference of other people’s work. My heavy influence on vintage and secondhand clothes really keeps me on a non-trend type of path too. Whenever I go thrifting and find a piece I love, I take it home and rework it through my point of view, which kind of falls in line with my whole idea of recycling.

What do you hope to achieve through the brand?  

James Flemons: I've always wanted to make clothes that bring a realistic approach to a somewhat conceptual idea that isn't intimidating to the everyday person. I think that's a reason why PHLEMUNS has been able to appeal to so many different types of people. Clothes you wear can be such a physical expression of your emotional state and I just want to present clothes that bring people happiness. I want to have my label attached to that piece of clothing in someone's closet that they feel like wearing when they're in a really good mood and want to express it.