Despite being confronted by his custom threads in Solange's new video for "Don't Touch My Hair" — those burnt orange daisy dukes worn by the avant-soul singer and her backing dancers — the name James Flemons is still unfamiliar to most. He's only been doing his label Phlemuns for two years. Still, in that short period, the LA-based designer has outfitted many one-name celebrities like Tinashe, Kelela, Miley, and Solange.
His interest in fashion caught on early. Growing up "smack dab in the middle of Los Angeles," he struggled with severe asthma as a child. One traumatic episode when he was eight nearly resulted in death. Instead of hitting the block with the other kids, he stayed indoors and channeled what energy he did have into designs using his sister's Barbie sketch kit. He later attended the Fashion Institute of Design & Merchandising in LA, graduating in 2012 from the Product Development program.
The 27-year-old still flicks through his sketchbook from those formative Barbie years when coming up with new androgynous designs. He sees himself in line with peers like up-and-coming New York designers Shan Huq, Vejas, and Moses Gauntlett Cheng. However, choosing LA as his base has been both a blessing and a curse. "It's a bit different because being in LA," he says. "I'm not surrounded by as much of the fashion world. There aren't really that many people here who are doing what I am. I've become a go-to for a lot of people, which is beneficial for me."
His reconstructed, frayed denim often repurposing thrift store finds has gained him a dedicated following. A mix of silver grommets, laced-up trousers, and zippered tops in his collections often result in Instagram comments like "Aaliyah vibes." That early-00s look is exactly what he's aiming for. He cites Kelis and Andre 3000 as inspiration, along with the late Princess of R&B. "Aaliyah's outfits really burned an image in my mind and helped shape my taste and interest in the design process," he says. To now dress the future stars of the genre, Kelela and Tinashe, is an honor. Similar to those Aaliyah looks, he's hoping his garms one day reach that icon status. "I've thought about that somewhat recently, about these moments in music history. That's a rewarding thing that — I don't know if it'll ever happen — but I like to think of that maybe happening."
Flemons has enjoyed a steady leak into the mainstream and emphatic love from the press, but he's still taking side jobs to pay the rent. Most recently, he did some temp work for contemporary artist Sterling Ruby, helping to sew some samples for an upcoming exhibit. "It's interesting when I run into people and they see me after not seeing me for awhile, and immediately they think that things have blown up so crazy," he explains. "From an inside perspective, my life is exactly the same. I still work out of my living room, eat the same food, go to the same places. Not much has changed for me other than the awareness."
As a young designer, it can be crushing when outsiders don't realize your public persona has eclipsed your income. Many eventually throw in the towel three or four seasons in at their own label, joining more established labels or leaving fashion altogether. Does Flemons ever feel like selling out? "Every designer goes to that mental state of wanting to say, 'Fuck it,' and just giving in," he says. "This isn't a simple career and you never know when you're going to peak, and if you are, how long it's going to last. I think that's why I've been OK with the fact that I haven't had overnight success. It's this gradual progression, which makes you feel a bit more comfortable for the longevity of everything. Sometimes when you shoot up too fast, it's easier to crash and burn."
As a black designer in a predominantly white industry, a lot of doors that would usually fling open to white privilege are doors Flemons will invariably have to kick down. He tires of being a mouthpiece as a person of color in the industry, but only because "it still hasn't changed; it's something that still needs to be talked about." Rather unoriginally, he's been pegged as an "urban" designer — a label he doesn't refute, but the term, he says, is used as "a backhanded way to talk negatively about something. It's like the idea that comes along with it that certain types of people would turn their nose up about. It's funny that things like that are still being used."
"It's dispelling these ideas of how you're supposed to fit in the fashion world being black and getting the recognition we deserve. People like me are experiencing things differently in the fashion world than non-black fashion designers."
To add to that singular experience, Flemons has zero interest in gender binarism, and would love to see his womenswear worn by men and vice versa. It's all the more exciting when a rapper like Young Thug spits in the eye of gender norms by wearing a dress on his Jeffery album cover. "I thought it was awesome!" says Flemons. "It's just interesting to me that people have such an issue with a guy wearing a skirt. Prince used to perform in assless pants. But now Thug wears a ruffled skirt and it's like, 'Oh my god! This is insane!'"
He's up against a lot, working out of LA with no support, but Flemons has a palpable zeal. Phlemuns is basking in the successes of co-signs from some of the biggest acts in music and centralizing LA as a new fashion capital. But don't get it twisted. "It's still just me," he says, laughing. "It's kind of crazy."
Text Trey Taylor
Photography Daria Kobayashi Ritch
Styling Juliann McCandless
Make-up Amy Strozzi
Hair Whitney Schield