Theophilio Designer Edvin Thompson Brings Jamaican Flair to New York Fashion
“I chose the name Theophilio for my brand to pay homage to my family,” says designer Edvin Thompson, who is known for his carefree, Caribbean-infused aesthetic. “It was my grandfather’s name, and it means ‘to be loved by God.’ ” Thompson moved to the United States from Jamaica in 2002, at the age of 9, with his mother and siblings; his father followed shortly thereafter. “I’ve always wanted to celebrate Jamaica’s past, present, and future through my clothes,” he adds. “Jamaica is everywhere—it’s easy to draw inspiration from the cultural diaspora. There are beautiful Caribbean communities all over, and I wanted to help build a bridge from my country to the world.” The traditional mesh tank tops one sees at a Jamaican Carnival are recast in Theophilio collections as cropped knits in softer textiles. The Jamaican flag colors of green, black, and mustard yellow—what Thompson refers to as the “Rasta Pantone”—appear in every show. And then there is his very deliberate casting: gleaming Black goddesses with knee-length braids who carry themselves with ease.
Joan Smalls, a friend of Thompson’s since he charmed her on a photo shoot in 2021 for Black Fashion Fair, a platform that promotes emerging Black designers and Black-owned brands, connected immediately with him, noting his passion and pride: “As a fellow Caribbean, I’m just so proud of how Edvin highlights his heritage in his work and stays true to his culture,” says Smalls, who is from Puerto Rico. “On top of that, he uses upcycled fabrics when possible, which speaks to his desire to make a difference in this fast-consuming industry.”
Thompson held his first fashion show in 2016 with his friend Bobby Day, a fellow designer, in a garage on Atlantic Avenue in Brooklyn. The show, filled with upcycled pieces including denim, leather, and oversize cotton shirts that alluded to fun in the sun—core pieces he has refined and evolved over the years—was explicit in its island references. Thompson was operating out of his apartment, as he still does, and handling all aspects of the business himself, occasionally offering his wares at pop-ups and events in and around his Brooklyn neighborhood. In time, his designs gained a following with musicians like Chlöe Bailey and Summer Walker, and they started selling out on sites like Ssense. Then, in 2022, Thompson got a call from the model Imaan Hammam’s stylist—Hammam was, unbeknownst to him, a fan, and she wanted to wear Theophilio to that year’s Met Gala. (The theme was “Gilded Glamour.”) The black semi-sheer frock Thompson designed for Hammam recalled Jazz Age flappers, with a Caribbean twist: Intricate beading created a simulation of peacock feathers, a nod to traditional Carnival costumes. The look was topped off with a beaded net cap and feathered accessories. “I did my sketch for that look the night after I received the request,” says Thompson. “It didn’t even feel like work to me.”
The day after the previous year’s Met Gala, Thompson had found out about his CFDA nomination for the American Emerging Designer of the Year. “I had lost my voice. I was in shock. It was just crazy,” he says. Two months later, he won the award. “They said my name, and my soul left my body.” As he made his way to the stage to read a short speech written on his phone, he looked around. Staring back at him from the audience were Tom Ford and Anna Wintour, “like proud grandparents.” Ford, who sent the designer flowers after his win, was actually an early influence. “He really helped me understand what it is to be very sexy and sophisticated at the same time,” says Thompson. You can see overt nods to Ford’s Gucci in the logo-emblazoned thong Thompson showed in his spring/summer 2022 collection. Other inspirations include the films City of God, Belly, and Blade, all of which share a dangerously glamorous appeal. Anime and comic books are also points of reference. “I wanted to be a cartoonist and comic artist as a kid,” he says.
Akon Changkou at the Theophilio spring/summer 2023 show.
Dosha Deng at Theophilio’s spring/summer 2022 show.
Thompson has plans to continue expanding Theophilio’s reach with a wider palette, new textile compositions, and more intricate beadwork. But fabric isn’t the only medium the designer intends to manipulate. “I’m working on something you don’t have to put on your body,” he says. “One hint: You can drink it.” Last December, the designer partnered with the estate of Jean-Michel Basquiat for the exhibition “King Pleasure,” at the Starrett-Lehigh building in Manhattan. Working with Black Fashion Fair, Thompson and eight other creatives were given access to Basquiat’s artworks and commissioned to make ready-to-wear apparel and accessories that would be in conversation with the late artist’s practice. Theophilio’s contributions included two full looks: a high-necked gown with a matching mask, and an embroidered blazer and leather trousers inspired by Basquiat’s work, plus a limited-edition T-shirt. “That’s a collaboration I never saw coming,” he says.
Thompson’s dreams seem to come to him before he has time to dream them. But the backing he needs to sustain them has been slower to materialize. “I develop my collections in their entirety in New York, which is very expensive,” he says. “Maintaining your agency and integrity while getting real financial support is no easy feat. But I’m not afraid. I’m actually really, really excited.” Then, tapping as always into his Jamaican roots, he quips, “Tings don’t run we; we run tings!”
Hair by Dylan Chavles at MA+Group; makeup by Mimi Quiquine for Maison Quiquine at She Likes Cutie. Model: Joan Smalls at IMG models. Photography assistants: Jupiter Jones, Nikolai Hagen; fashion assistant: India Reed; hair assistant: Olivia Mairead