“I’m shocked that we were uninterrupted for this long,” Michael Freels, one half of the 24-year-old designers behind the label Lorod, said as the doorbell rang for what would be the first of many times on a recent morning. As usual, it was one of the 10 or so packages he and his co-designer Lauren Rodriguez receive each day for their brand, though it could just as easily have been Rodriguez’s boyfriend, an artist who keeps his studio on the second floor, or one of the pair’s many, many friends who often drop by, whether to lend a hand in running Lorod or simply hang with the pair and Paisley, Rodriguez’s giant Great Dane (who reliably barks pretty much every time said doorbell rings).
Lorod’s studio, you see, is kept on the fourth floor of the expansive five-story townhouse in Lower Manhattan where Rodriguez also happens to live. And it’s this type of nonstop yet friendly hustle and bustle that also happens to pretty much sum up the ethos of the brand, which the pair proudly runs as something of a family operation—even when it comes to the fact that, just three seasons in, Bella Hadid (or simply “Bella,” as Rodriguez calls her, since her boyfriend grew up knowing the supermodel) is already a well documented fan.
Spend just a bit of time with Rodriguez and Freels, though, and it'll quickly become clear that the phrase “mutual friends” is practically unavoidable; over the course of an hour in Rodriguez’s living room, some iteration of it was said at least eight times. Rodriguez, it turns out, has hometown connections of her own, too: She grew up in Santa Monica with the model Paloma Elsesser, who, when they both moved to New York, introduced her to pals like Jane Moseley, who starred in Lorod’s lookbook for its second-ever collection, and Stella Greenspan, the stylist whom they now consult even before their collections are made.
It’s Rodriguez's close connection with Freels, who had admittedly something of a less starry upbringing in “small town, rural Indiana,” however, that’s been by far the most fruitful, and as well as perhaps the least expected, given that the pair first met on their first day of school at Parsons School of Design in 2011 and were pals for their full freshman year. Like practically all first-year friends, though, they gradually split apart, in part because Rodriguez opted to study fine arts, having decided that “the whole fashion world seemed nasty and catty and not my vibe,” while Freels stuck with fashion design, which often put him on the school’s then uptown campus.
As fate would have it, though, in 2015, mutual friends–there's that phrase again—led the the pair to run into each other at a Halloween party thrown about six months after graduating, where Rodriguez, to Freels’s excitement, told him she wanted to start a fashion label, with just the sort of references, price points, and particularly customers he’d also had in mind. (The label is named after Rodriguez' childhood nickname.)
“We wanted to make clothes that our friends could wear,” Rodriguez said of their original idea—one they’ve clearly succeeded with, though they’ve had to up their original ideal price points, since they also then decided they wanted everything to be made in the U.S.
Part of that decision was because, at that point (and, by the way, still) in their early twenties, neither had started a business before, “so it’s really nice to be able to hop on the train and go to midtown and see the production line,” Rodriguez said. (All of their clothes are produced in New York’s Garment District, which the pair is dedicated to supporting, and the fabrics are all sourced from either the U.S., Italy, or Japan.) But their decision to stay local also goes much deeper than that—and straight to the brand’s core tenet: “Elevating the culture of hard work.”
“Even since we’ve started this, we’ve seen so many businesses struggle and try to fight to keep what they do alive, and they’ve been doing it for generations,” Rodrigruez said of the storied Garment District, which got its start in the late 1800s but lately has suffered from brands choosing to outsource their production abroad. “We’ve made so many amazing relationships with factories and sewers and pattern-makers there, and we really care about their wellbeing and their families.”
It’s this intimacy with the reality of production for retailers and factories that in part led the pair to early on decide to only do pre-collections; this way, their designs are available at full price for a longer period of time—and don’t end up “at the bottom of the totem pole” when factories are slammed during Fashion Week, as Freels put it, though adding that they’ve also been pleasantly surprised with having “carved our own niche in the pre-collection market.”
The designers find inspiration in the subjects of the photographers Dorothea Lange, Lewis Hine, and William Eggleston, whom they gamely admit are known for capturing working Americans. Some might take issue with their appropriation of these social realist images, especially when their takes on classic workwear retail far upwards of $500, but for Rodriguez, it's "a nice story." "It helps make your brand more recognizable, when you can feel the essence of the garment relate to like a Dorothea Lange photo of someone holding like a pitchfork or whatever,” she continued.
Their prices, though, are both deliberate and well intentioned: “It’s nice to be able to feel like we’re part of this cog that’s able to give this person a fair wage and help them live and make sure that they’re treated fairly in their workplace,” Rodriguez said, going back to the Garment District. What’s more, their support is now being appreciated—or at the very least spread—by the likes of Hadid, who’s been an early pioneer of their Canadian tuxedos and best-selling Carpenter jeans, as well as all three sisters behind Haim, who showed up on Saturday Night Live in Lorod earlier this year.
The latter was just a month before Lorod had its first-ever runway show, for their third-ever collection, this summer, in the basement of an arts supplies store where Rodriguez and Freels used to go as students. At that point, however, the brand had already achieved even more milestones outside of “It” girls: Though they hadn’t even done press on their first collection, spring/summer 2017, with their popular zip-around jeans, they’d already been picked up by high-profile stockists like Opening Ceremony and Assembly by the time they’d rolled out pre-fall 2017. (That was thanks, again, to mutual friends, though also definitely to their further reworkings of vintage workwear, studded with new and even more eccentric bestsellers like a pink corduroy suit.)
When they unveiled their latest collection, spring 2018, which featured a lime green take on a pantsuit and a burnt orange one-piece with a pocket positioned at ankle-level, it was on more friends and artists, plus newcomers they met on the street and on Instagram. “Community is something really important to the brand,” Rodriguez said, pointing to the models she and Freels had chosen for this story as more specific examples of “people we have personal relationships with, who inspire us, who we see wearing our clothes in the street.”
In addition to Elsesser and Greenspan, there was also Kelly McGee, a curator and gallery director who became “super super fast friends” with Freels after meeting him through mutual friends, and Adinah Dancyger, a filmmaker whose latest feature stars one of her “best friends,” India Salvor Menuez, and who met Rodriguez also through mutual friends during their freshman year. In other words, their community isn’t just made up of models like Hadid: Just like some of those who appeared in Lorod’s only runway show to date, Greenspan, McGee, and Dancyger had never modelled professionally before this shoot.
Elsesser, however, who is a plus size model signed to Muse, and was cozied up in one of the pairs of pants they’ve made her, was also eager to point out how rare the brand’s approach is: “Her belief is really inclusive,” she said of Rodriguez, whom she went to middle school with. “I’ve been over here for fittings and she’s made pants custom to my body, which is super amazing and special. I can order a 12 from Lauren, and let alone her being my friend, I feel like she really believes in and really supports that.”
“Whoever wants to wear our clothes should be able to wear our clothes,” Rodriguez said, extending the conversation over to gender, too. “I can’t say they’re unisex because tailoring is so important to us, and the darts and taken-in waists are fitted to a female form, but it’s not like it’s a womenswear brand. I love that anyone can wear our clothes.”
“If a boy loves the fit of a super cropped fitted jacket, then go for it,” Freels added. “There’s no reason he shouldn’t.”
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