It was perhaps the only New York Fashion Week party where singer Mario rubbed shoulders with designer Kenneth Cole, or where a Russian opera singer played a warm-up set for a fashion show, yet this was the scene at the inaugural show for Antonio Brown’s footwear label-turned-ready-to-wear line, LVL XIII.
The party and runway show, whose proceeds benefited amfAR, took over a massive gallery at Chelsea Piers Tuesday night. While Brown, 31, hurried around backstage straightening models’ helmets, waxed denim and nylon flight jackets, and shoes — the whole show was inspired by Luc Besson's The Fifth Element and the Russian singer was Evgenia Laguna, reprising her role in the film — guests sipped drinks and mingled. But nowhere in sight was Jason Derulo, the night’s marquee name.
Over the summer, Brown announced that the singer — best known for tracks like “Whatcha Say” (his reinterpretation of Imogen Heap’s “Hide and Seek”) and the 2 Chainz collaboration “Talk Dirty,” as well as his penchant for singing his own name at the beginning of his tracks — would sign on at LVL XIII as an investing partner and creative collaborator.
Derulo’s now-signature braided bun wouldn’t emerge until the end of the show, when he took to the stage arm in arm with Brown to catch up with friends and for many, many selfies. Cole pushed to the front of the crowd to clap Derulo on the back and congratulate him, promising to catch up later. (“I’m not going to be touring with him,” Cole deadpanned when we spoke last month. “I will not be in his next video.”)
It was the culmination of Jason Derulo’s summer of fashion. During one week in June, Derulo, a 26-year-old musician with little prior association with the fashion world, appeared front-row at Public School’s Spring 2017 menswear show. Then he performed at amfAR’s New York gala in front of an audience that included Naomi Campbell and designer Brandon Maxwell. The following night, he walked the red carpet at the CFDA Awards, shepherded by Kenneth Cole. Around the same time, Derulo and Brown inked their LVL XIII deal. With that, a new, catwalk-ready Derulo emerged from his Philipp Plein-designed chrysalis.
Between Kanye West and Rihanna, Rita Ora and Grimes, it appears increasingly like a fashion pedigree is not just desirable, but perhaps necessary for contemporary musicians. Front rows have become playgrounds for singers and rappers, and the benefit is mutual: Musicians earn status in a notoriously exclusive world, while designers gain highly visible models with enormous cultural capital.
“It’s very hard to exist in one place and time,” designer Cole explained. The designer first met Derulo at a fashion party last summer, then recruited him to play a short set at the amfAR gala in June of this year in his capacity as chairman. Since then, he has acted as Derulo’s Yoda, helping him navigate the worlds of design and merchandising. “It’s hard to be oblivious to fashion today if you’re in the music world, because it very much defines you,” he added.
By his own admission, Derulo isn’t much of a fashion guy: “When I was young, I wasn’t really into it at all,” he told me earlier this month. But lately, he has felt dissatisfied with the work of stylists, and so he decided to explore styling himself.
“I think there’s a lot of guys just like me who want to be able to look a certain way,” he said. “You want to be different enough, but I’ve never wanted to be weird.” Not even a little bit? I asked him, and he laughed. “I’ve got my things,” he conceded.
But he’s always been, as he described himself, a sneakerhead – he estimated that he owns 1,000 pairs of shoes.
Founded in 2013 and initially produced in a run of just 3,000 shoes, LVL XIII’s exclusive kicks quickly became the footwear of choice for celebrities like Nas, Tracy Morgan, Jim Jones, and Jason Sudeikis for their futuristic silhouettes and exotic materials like stingray and pony hair. Around the same time, Derulo was scheduled for an appearance on Good Morning America, and Brown, somewhat nervously set him up with a pair of shoes for the performance. Derulo’s stage dynamic is perhaps best described as acrobatic, and he pushed those limited-edition LVL XIII sneakers to the test.
“He destroyed them,” Brown recalled. “They were our only samples at that time.”
“I’m not going to lie, yes, I was really pissed,” Brown added. “I was like, ‘This is why I don’t give celebrities footwear.’” Yet the incident also proved to be an icebreaker for the two men. Several years later, Derulo invited Brown to his Los Angeles home; the pair sat on Derulo’s bedroom floor and discussed fashion and music for four hours, Brown recalled, before touring the rest of his house exploring texture and pattern inspirations.
Similar to Derulo, Brown lacks a fashion pedigree except the one he made for himself – no Central Saint Martins degree here, he said he started his company based on a Google search – and that makes them ideally suited business and creative partners. (Derulo’s longtime manager Frank Harris is a third business partner in the venture.)
Still, it’s clear that LVL XIII is still largely Brown’s labor: He makes final creative decisions and Derulo is the acolyte. “He’s a student,” Cole said. “Every day, you get a chance to reintroduce yourself to the world, and you get to do it totally on your own terms. He’s learning the power of that platform.”
But, Derulo still tries everything on, especially when it comes to sneakers.
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