how new york's young designers are ripping up the fashion rulebook

A new generation of designers, living, creating and showing in New York are shaking up what fashion means in the Big Apple.

by Lynette Nylander
16 February 2016, 10:28pm

There's something bubbling on the catwalks of New York. Alongside the city's more commercial fashion offerings, young designers are ripping up the rulebook and creating from the heart. The New York fashion scene has been awoken, a new guard of design talent, fresh with original ideas and minds are set on elevating their brands to the big time.

"Honestly I have never really thought about it as a choice," Julie Anne Quay, founder of Soho boutique and online creative community, VFILES reveals, when asked about their early adoption of young talent. "We will continue to champion young designers because it's exciting, there's an incredible energy around them and it's also the right thing to do." Since it launched in 2012, VFILES - alongside other groundbreaking NY initiatives such as Made at Milk Studios - has seen an ever-growing number of young American designers hit international recognition and reap major rewards: from Hood by Air's LVMH prize of €100,000, to Maxwell Osborne and Dao-Yi Chow of Public School's CFDA/Vogue Fashion Fund and International Woolmark Prize wins, and their appointment as co-Creative Directors of DKNY. While the LVMH and Woolmark prizes offer significant financial benefits, there are few prizes geared solely to young American designers barring the CFDA Fund, The Ecco Domani Fashion Foundation and the Design Entrepreneurs NYC program. "I think there are definitely options, but I think that what we do at VFILES, turning a young designer into a global brand in one simple step - with resources and incubation is a good one!" Julie Anne says of VFILES Runway, which offers applicants the opportunity to show at New York Fashion week. It's helped create a new energy in NYC that's palpable and will see young designers soar.

MEET the designers putting the new back into New York

"Is there a sense of camaraderie in New York? There's got to be! It's almost like a union, I suppose," says 33-year-old designer Charles Harbison. "If I know something that a fellow young designer doesn't, I need to tell them about it because they'll know something they need to tell me." After graduating in fine arts, painting, and textiles from North Carolina State University, Charles worked at Michael Kors, Luca Luca and Billy Reid before establishing his eponymous label, Harbison, in 2013. "I hadn't planned to start a label," he confides. "I made some samples for my book to help land me a job, which Vogue saw. I had no business at the time so they said, 'Well, would you like to launch one?' I couldn't pass on the opportunity!" Mixing street style influences with classic tailoring. "I design for a new guard of people who want to navigate the world on their own," he confirms. "They're fragile but directional, easy and curious, supportive yet stubborn. I love the idea of bringing two seemingly disparate ideas together in one person."

Beijing-born Parsons graduate Andrea Jiapei Li is another poster child for a new fashion generation. Moving to the city from China to study for her MFA, Andrea's graduate collection was picked up by Dover Street Market, inspiring her to launch her own label in 2014. "Dover Street was very much the stamp of approval," Andrea says. "I didn't have a job, I just started my label, and other interest came off the back of that." Andrea's oversized, deconstructed silhouette went on to attract the attention of fashion's front runner, and she was shortlisted for the prestigious LVMH prize. "Conceptually we use the same story each season, and build on that," she says of her design process. "The fashion industry is so fast, so I don't want to try to be too different."

Moving from Montreal to Los Angeles before settling in New York, 20-year-old Shan Huq toyed with the traditional route of a degree but went it alone after just three months at fashion school. For spring/ summer 16, he held an impromptu showing of his sporty 90s-inspired separates at St. Marks Church on the Lower East Side. The show was a success and saw the self-taught designer picked up by Free Gallery in Tokyo. "I feel like a US buyer is often not looking for something new," Shan says. "Other designers tell me buyers will often go into a showroom and only want a product in black and navy... That's why it's so great to have the independent stores picking you up. They provide the platform for young designers all over the world, and they actually want to support that."

Thanks to Opening Ceremony and VFILES, and the arrival of Dover Street Market on Lexington Avenue in 2013, many young designers have the opportunity to debut on a directional and global stage. What they need now, however, is the buy in of the major New York retailers and department stores, many of which have the floor space and the budget to make a significant difference to their businesses, yet all too often, lean towards championing more established overseas talent, rather than designers on home soil. "If anything it's an advantage - to be in the know and in the middle of things that are about to happen," says Julie Anne on the risk involved in buying new brands early on. "You can never know enough about what's being created or worked on, what ideas are becoming valid!"

Chicago-born designer Matthew Williams would like to see stores take more risks. "I believe in less stockists, more volume," he says. "I want to stay loyal to the stores who have supported me since the beginning. There are so few stores willing to take a risk nowadays, people just want to bet on a sure thing." Matthew cut his teeth working as a Creative Director for Lady Gaga and Kanye West and working closely with Nick Knight before launching his own high-end womenswear label Alyx in 2015. "It's ultra feminine, for the sort of girl who may have grown up in California, mixed with a downtown chic and made with finest Italian fabrics," Matthew says. "Brands today aren't given the luxury of time to grow. Look at Dries Van Noten, for example. He worked for years. It doesn't just happen with a 29-year-old's first collection. Let's see ten years from now. If we do a runway show, it can't compete with the likes of Prada, but we are still expressing an idea. Fashion is a place for misfits, for counter culture and nightlife, and to me imperfection is beautiful. We need the time to develop."

The lack of American-born initiatives pushes a lot of New York-based designers to look for funding and prizes in Europe. "The [American prizes] often require you to be in a certain year of your business and have a certain amount of revenue," says 29-year-old German designer Melitta Baumeister. In her conceptual designs Melitta melds together textures such as leather, vinyl and velvet to create garments with a desirable tactile quality that has already lured the likes of Rihanna and Lady Gaga. "I think that there should definitely be more support," she says. "There really is nothing. We've been deserted. That being said, I think New York has changed in the last few years. There is something new coming, and it is exciting. We need to be sensitive to what is in the air, and what is working out right now."

The struggle to stay afloat, together with the search for investment, means that many young designers feel pressurised to run before they can walk. "I get emails from people all the time, asking, 'Can I see your pre-fall collection?'" Matthew Dolan reveals. "I'm like, 'There isn't one!' It's not an option at this stage, and it's nice not to have to think about it." 28-year-old Dolan has seen his denim-focused line picked up by the likes of Assembly, Opening Ceremony, "and a few stores in Japan and Korea." Absence of investment means that Dolan plays the role of designer, PR, sales agent, marketing manager, merchandiser and even intern. "I still pretty much look after everything," he confirms. "If something needs dropping to a shoot, I will do it. It's a lot of work, but it means I get to talk to people personally and build relationships." Thankfully, the demanding pace of the industry doesn't daunt him. "I like it because I have ideas all the time. It's a bit like when you have a new video game, you just want to play it all the time. I don't find [the pace of fashion] annoying or frustrating because everything needs structure; there are rules for a reason."

While New York - much like London, Paris and Milan - can be a merciless city for young creatives, New York designers such as these, act as an important reminder that our young fashion designers are our industry's future. While the unpredictability of the industry is unsettling, one thing is certain: we need to nurture the next generation of designers to keep cities like New York alive. They set the agenda, coming together with young stylists and photographers to turn raw talent into real success.


Text Lynette Nylander
Photography Cass Bird 
Styling Carlos Nazario 
Hair Tamara McNaughton at Management+Artists
Make-up Frank B at The Wall Group
Nail technician Megumi Yamamoto at Susan Price NYC
Photography assistance Jon Heller, Clay Howard Smith
Digital technician Anthony Miller
Styling assistance Kenny Paul, Yuiko Ikebata, Michelle Veal
Hair assistance Erin Herschleb
Make-up assistance Akiko Owada, Mikako Shojima
Production Paula Navratil
Production assistance Ashley Suarez, John Daniel Powers
Casting Walter Pearce
Models Grey Sorrenti, Arsun Sorrenti, Andre, Brieta, Walter, Luca, Christian, Sahara, Andrew and Osiris.

young designers