The great thing about New York City is that interesting things happen both above and below ground. When it comes to fashion, we have "underground" designers like Vaquera, Matthew Adams Dolan, and LRS who “all sort of hate fashion," and then we have what we can describe as emerging designers, men and women whose labels are on the very edge of credibly breaking out. It is a good sign that talents as different as these can co-exist more or less harmoniously alongside the really big names during New York Fashion Week and put forward a colorful showcase of style that is singularly American and of New York City.
For Spring 2017, the most exciting young labels on the scene are Ph5, Colovos and Namilia. Ph5's designers are two second-generation Chinese fashion scions who grew up in their parents’ factories. Meanwhile, the husband-and-wife team behind Colovos spent eight years in the industry as creative directors at Helmut Lang. Then there's Namilia, comprised of two rabble-rousing Germans, one a Yeezy Season 4 designer and the other equally as obsessed with American popular culture. Together, these three new labels are adding original, ingenious, and, just as importantly, fun fashion to a jam-packed calendar that is in dire need of thriving, fresh new voices.
Nan Li, 27, and Emilia Pfohl, 28, describe their new namesake brand Namilia as “couture merch,” and they’re only half kidding. Based out of Berlin, Germany, the duo met while completing their bachelor's at the University of the Arts and soon after created their first collection, “My Pussy, My Choice,” which featured references to female pop idols including Nicki Minaj, Rihanna, and Miley Cyrus. Obviously, it was scooped up by VFiles in an instant. The collection they'll show on Saturday at Skylight Clarkson will be Li and Pfohl’s third under their label, but the brand’s first major solo show in New York. Li also simultaneously worked as a freelancer on Yeezy Season 4, which has proven excellent inspiration for his own work with Pfohl.
“It’s about what girl power, feminism, and youth culture means to us,” he said of the season’s garments, which were covered in crying Leonardo DiCaprio holograms, Justin Bieber prints photoshopped on Jesus’ body and Zayn Malik abducted by aliens, plus glittery patches of Donald Trump in S&M bondage. As a whole, the collection is an outsider’s take on America’s willingness to mix religion, celebrity, and politics. “For us Europeans, it just all seems like a joke, but it’s actually really scary!” Pfohl said. In addition to humorous prints, the clothes also have darker references, like mouthless leather masks meant to resemble the Statue of Liberty’s crown and Victorian lace sleeves made with condom latex. And then there’s the Namilia “signature,” which is a penis-shaped bra.
“We took the objectification of women and flipped it to turn the boys of the moment into sexual play things,” Li said. “We were really interested in the power of fandom. We wanted to harness that energy and turn it into a girl gang collection. So, we took took all their power away by turning these boys into decorations.”
Li’s fascination with American popular culture began when a student exchange sent him to Las Vegas at the age of 16 to live with a Mormon family. He’s spent the past 11 years trying to make sense of the experience.
“In Germany, celebrity culture doesn’t really exist,” he said. “Even the word ‘celebrity’ in German has slightly negative connotations. So for us, it’s so crazy! I work for Yeezy as well, so I’ve started to experience it in real life. Like yesterday, we were in the studio and the fans actually started a fire to get everyone out of the building. Kanye become an object; people forget that he’s a person.”
Li couldn’t elaborate much more on his involvement with Yeezy, but Kanye’s team does fly him from Berlin to Calabasas for fittings. And when it comes to Li’s own creative thinking with Namilia, there is no better representation of the melding of religion and politics than Kanye West — although the rapper escaped inclusion in the collection…this season.
“Sometimes, you’re so obsessed with your idols that you even want to kill them,” added Pfohl with a shrug and a smile.
Unlike most of the new names on the Council of Fashion Designers of America's official calendar this season, Nicole and Michael Colovos are industry veterans who started their new namesake brand Colovos from scratch last year. Two years ago, the husband-and-wife team left Helmut Lang where they served as creative directors for just shy of a decade, building the brand into a corporate mainstay. “When we started, it was essentially like starting a brand all over again,” said Nicole. “With Colovos, we’re a very small team, so it’s a challenge, but the good thing is that we’ve done this before, so we somewhat know the drill. We work from home and have three kids, so things are always chaotic, but it’s nice to do things for yourself.”
When Nicole, who is originally from New Zealand, and Michael, who hails from Seattle, first started dating in New York in the late '90s, Nicole was working as a market editor and Michael was in the middle of building his own brand. They gelled creatively from the start, though, and decided to launch their own denim brand called Habitual before they even exchanged vows.
“We were young and didn’t really know what we were getting ourselves into,” said Nicole. But the brand won second-place in the inaugural CFDA/Vogue Fashion Fund competition, held in 2005.
Today, Nicole and Michael are able to take their time with Colovos, which is in its third season. Although they hoped to do a full-fledged presentation for spring, their Wednesday time slot was taken by none-other than West’s Yeezy Season 4, so they opted for private press appointments instead.
“We’re in the midst of this massive industry change right now, so we left and took some time off to get back to what it is we love most about fashion,” said Michael on returning to the calendar. “I’m really finding my passion again. Our work is very personal — we like to design what we can’t find out there for ourselves. We used to do these huge collections, and now we’re doing it slow and small.”
The Colovos pieces are designed with luxury materials and minimalism in mind; one could find them in the closet of a chic Tribeca mom or a downtown girl who likes to shop at The Line. One dress pattern features a blown-up print of a photograph Michael took in the Christopher street ACE subway tunnel while taking his son to skateboard camp.
“If you’re going to do minimalism, you also have to have an element of design that makes it notable,” said Michael. “Fast fashion has come in and really monopolized basics. I think Zara does a good job, actually. What they don’t do though, and where they can’t compete, is quality. It’s sustainable for your business to make clothes that last.”
Since their time at Lang, the industry has changed considerably. But the Colovos couple wanted to wipe the slate clean and see what they could come up with on their own — keeping in mind, however, everything they learned along the way about what can make or break a brand.
“The questions being asked three to four years ago, are still being asked now,” said Nicole. “I don’t really feel like anyone has any more clarification. I think delivering fall clothes in June and July is ridiculous, personally. But for us, we’re focusing on making our clothes season-less and throwing in knits and outerwear at the right time of the year.”
At the end of the day, Michael’s summation of the Colovos look rings true for its survival in the fashion industry as a whole: “It’s about finding the balance between too much and not enough.”
Mijia Zhang, 26, and Wei Lin, 28, both grew up in China surrounded by fashion — Zhang at her family’s knitwear factory outside of Hong Kong, and Lin in her parent’s vintage retail and tailoring shop. The two girls crossed paths years later through a mutual friend, who set them up as roommates in New York's Financial District. Lin, who graduated from Babson College in Massachusetts with a degree in business, was working as a consultant in the area while Zhang was finishing her degree at Parsons School of Design when one day, Lin got a call from her mother telling her the family business was struggling back in China. “Why don’t you come back and see what you can do?” she said.
“I had to think about what the next step was for a knitwear manufacturer,” Lin said. “I knew there were two routes: I could shut down the factory, pack the whole thing up, and move to Southeast Asia and restart. A lot of my friends who are also second generation did that. Or, I could do what Italian factories do, which is move upstream and build a brand based off of the factory’s capabilities. I chose the second route because I knew that if I moved the factory, not every worker and their family could come with us, and I owe a lot to both my own immediate family and the factory people, who helped support me to go study abroad. We built this together.”
Lin is a self-described numbers person who wasn’t born with that special “thing” designers have, so she enlisted the help of Zhang, who did her Parsons graduate knitwear collection in Lin’s factory and went on to work for both Christopher Kane and Nike.
"I’m a very nerdy girl,” said Zhang of her designs. “I care about the technology and the craftsmanship behind clothes. And knitwear is all about that — you have to pay attention to each stitch. We do computer programming for the patterns. Like, it’s coding.”
With knitwear, the more color in a pattern, the more difficult it is to produce. And one of Zhan's sweaters features around five different colors, splashed together on different translucent panels, each of which took around ten hours to complete. Another of her pieces even crashed the program because it was so intricate.
“I think what’s so unique about the brand is that one, Mijia speaks Chinese and can work with technicians who only speak Chinese,” explained Lin. “And two, we actually stay in the factory and work with them long-term on ten to twelve different trials to develop one piece. With a lot of our old factory clients, we would send them a prototype in New York, they make comments, and then send it back. That’s a lot of shipping time and things get lost in translation. That’s why knitwear tends to be a lot safer for brands because it takes a long time. We’re proud that we’re one of the few who can do complicated pieces.”
Azzedine Alaïa and Angela Missoni are two knitwear designers who inspire Zhang and Lin, but they’re hoping to reach a different market with Ph5. “I think that for the younger, sportier young profession, we have a place in the market,” said Lin. “Something is missing in that knitwear world.”
“I would be really happy to see real people wearing our clothes,” added Zhang, who emphasized the fact that her clothes were not only reversible, but also have pockets and can be machine-washed. “We want to make a really amazing product that’s still affordable.”
For the brand’s spring presentation on Thursday afternoon, Zhang and Lin had fresh-faced models pose in in faux art frames, which were each painted a different color. And much like an actual art show, the clothes required a studied, up-close view.
“In the end, though, it’s not art; it’s apparel,” said Lin. “You should be able to wear it and be comfortable in it.”