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Backstage at Barragán SS17
Backstage at Barragán SS17Courtesy of BABYHOUSE/MADE

How important is selling clothes to New York’s new gen?

New York Fashion Week’s emerging designers are quickly shedding the city’s commercial rep – but that’s not to say they’re not interested in selling

To a young designer with a wild aesthetic, the term ‘commercial’ can equate to the muzzling of creative freedom and artistic expression. But just think: if ’Ye can sell a million dollars’ worth of Life of Pablo merchandise in two days at a NY pop-up shop (which is more than the Pope sells when he visits, I’ve been told), a t-shirt or hoodie with the right message in the right place and context can legitimately be worth its weight in gold – and fund many, many more collections and projects.

It’s immediately apparent from Victor Barragán’s SS17 slogan tee emblazoned with ‘Money Makes Me Cum’ that this season’s designers at emerging talent showcase MADE New York had a very firm grasp of the fact that none of their precious ideas could be spun from straw. Some certainly tried – at Ottolinger, Cosima Gadient and Christa Bosch successfully commercialised trash, reimagining scraps from the fabric bin into unexpectedly desirable clothes. Their concept was to challenge the idea of what clothes can be: “It’s about beauty and ‘misfit’ – we love to change perceptions of classic styles and play around with it,” says Gadient in response to a jacket and skirt from their collection, where literal chunks of fabric have been cut out or shredded to pieces. “It’s a fascinating exercise for us, trying and find a balance between commercial pieces and the creative process.”

Peppering collections with ‘streetwear’ alongside showpieces has been one way young designers inject instances of wearability into their collective visions. It’s a practice that’s clearly a commercial move – but increasingly an unconscious one, given the popularity of sportswear. “We definitely didn’t feel that we needed to create a collection that would sell,” says MISBHV’s Thomas Wirski. “We didn’t even look, but there was maybe one t-shirt out of 16 looks, one hoodie. It really wasn’t to sell, but to show the vibe we’re about.”

“Streetwear is becoming very interesting,” adds his design partner, Natalya Maczek. “I’m not offended when people call our label streetwear, because I feel like this is really what fashion is about right now. It’s not about being like Supreme – yeah, Supreme is one of the best brands ever – or about graphic t-shirts, it’s about how people dress in the street, how they feel and what they want to say with clothes.” That’s not to say that MSBHV are leaving the branding out completely: “We have a swimsuit with our monogram that is a play on the Gucci monogram, a letter ‘M’ in a gothic font. It was the only purposefully commercial thing we did,” explains Wirski. “Gucci is obviously huge right now and everyone is wearing it, (so) why wouldn’t you wear our Gucci?”

When thinking about designers with a clear vision of their branding, one name comes to mind: Telfar. Since its inception, designer Telfar Clemens has always been able to promote his brand identity in the right ways – from the evolution of the ‘T’ logo across bags, shirts and jewellery to his latest hook-up app inspired, mobile swim concept shop on Fire Island. Telfar’s SS17 runway show was his interpretation of the current way people dress in real life. “We split it up into three categories: casual wear, sportswear and streetwear, and we wanted to blur all of those genres and make it singular,” says Telfar Clemens. “It’s our take on what we think subculture is right now, which is a complete jumble, a clusterfuck of nobody knowing exactly what the thing is. That’s the true definition of style, to integrate all different types of clothes into an outfit – people aren’t just wearing 100-per-cent designer clothes. It’s more like they’re wearing this one weird thing that they’ve found and one out of those two things is designer, and then something from Old Navy.”

Clemens makes the point that commercial fashion is very much integrated into our generation’s subcultural language, dating back to the popular brands from high school. Taking inspiration from corporate 90s brands like Polo, Tommy, Gap and Nautica for his collection, he remixes and integrates banal commercial staples like board shorts and capris and even riffs on a classic polo shirt in no less than 12 different ways – halterneck polo, backwards poloneck dress, raglan sleeve polo, spaghetti-strap polo... the list goes on. “I never understood this kind of attitude of ‘I don’t wear that because it’s so available’ because actually I think everybody’s wearing things that are just available.”

“Gucci is obviously huge right now and everyone is wearing it, (so) why wouldn’t you wear our Gucci?” – Thomas Wirski of MISBHV

On the flip-side, the Vaquera team’s approach this season was something of a reaction to fast-fashion’s enterprising on certain ideas or aesthetics: “We were referencing all these really overused images – because we felt that stuff we have been doing in the past is getting done way too much now,” says Bryn Taubensee. “Like, if ‘romantic’ stuff is at Zara, then we need to move on to something that is too uncool for anyone else to want to touch. The pendulum swung all the way to the other end, with reinterpretations of uniquely American things one might find in your typical strip mall back home – ‘Vera Bradley’-esque acid-green paisley accessories, Hot Topic pins to Little Italy restaurant-worthy grapevine prints from a Jo-Ann Fabric and Craft. “It’s our take on what should be American, versus the whitewashed Abercrombie version of American. There was none of that college label-type bullshit.“

Design duo Eckhaus Latta, who have discovered a Zara knockoff of their own recently, have started stripping back their clothes to find the essence of their brand. “We’re pulling frills off certain things,” says Mike Eckhaus. “This season we were excited to make clothes that were more accessible, but not in the sense of commerciality.” Zoe Latta continues, “The emotionality of wearing clothes is so much more important than having clothes wear you and being this peacock. We aren’t like that, and we don’t wish that on anyone. Obviously we want to make interesting, beautiful clothes but we’re more interested in investing in what that feels like, especially from the inside out. And that goes down to the make and the fit and not necessarily the end goal.”

There was no better example of democratic fashion than at 69’s MADE presentation at Milk Studios, where guests entered into a room full of uncannily familiar faces, all wearing the brand’s signature blue denim and 69 print. Stars including Rihanna, Boy George, Snoop Dogg and Howard Stern were present, mingling with the crowd… even Prince? “He lives!” someone is screaming. The celebrity impersonators, hired as models to present the collection in full 69 outfits, were a truly authentic reflection of what the “non-demographic” brand is all about: representing everyone. “It’s so awesome, because it really proves the universality of the brand,” says designer Amber. “Like, Boy George could wear that, Prince could wear that, Rihanna can wear that, Cher would fucking wear that… and Barbra Streisand would wear that! And they all look so good. We had a stylist, but they picked their own things!”

Taking a page from yet another enterprising Kanye concept (he didn’t miss an opportunity to sell merch at his SS17 show on Roosevelt Island either), fashion week attendees were given a chance to pick up their own ‘designer merch’ at FYI – MADE’s very own retail pop-up shop across the street, featuring their entire roster of designers, including Chromat, Barragán, Andrea Jiapei Li, MISBHV, 69 Denim and Maison the Faux. It was a similar scene at Red Bull Studios, where the front desk has been appropriated into a Vaquera SS17 merch stand and Greek life shot glasses, ‘Pi Alpha Beta’ tube socks and white-and-navy varsity shirts can be purchased after the show. Who knows? Hopefully they’ll make as much as the Pope – if not Pablo.