In what was his first live interview, Christopher John Rogers chatted at The Met Tuesday night about his fast tracked fame, celebrity dressing and future plans.
Having staged his first presentation in 2018 and won the 2021 CFDA Award for American Womenswear Designer of the Year, Rogers’ ascent has been accelerated somewhat by suiting up such celebrities as Lizzo, Zendaya, Lil Nas X, Lady Gaga, Rihanna and Michelle Obama.
During Tuesday’s hourlong discussion, which was part of “The Atelier With Alina Cho” series, Rogers, 28, appeared to be looking ahead as much as he was looking back. Talking about his next collection, Rogers said, “Lately, I’ve just been thinking about the mark that my team and I are trying to make on fashion and fashion history. More than any one reference, it’s about energy, all the things we’ve done before, and investigating them further. Color is always the starting point for me.”
Rogers said his reaction to winning the CFDA Award last year was “disbelief,” adding that he “tries to not think so much about awards and accolades.” Having gone from cutting $5-a-yard fabric in the kitchen of his apartment with his team to winning a CFDA Award was “just insane,” the designer said.
“I’m acutely aware of the comings and goings of fashion darlings. I try my best not to dip into trends or look too much to what is happening to the left or the right of me, or even what’s happening to me. Some of my favorite designers like Isaac Mizrahi and Todd Oldham have come and gone. Some [have done so] because of business reasons or because they just decided to chop it…which I get,” he said. “I just try to keep my head down, focus on the work and celebrate with people who are actually my friends. Go out to the spots I go to and keep it cute.”
After graduating from the Savannah College of Art and Design in 2016, Rogers relocated to Brooklyn, N.Y., waited tables for a year and then took a job at Diane von Furstenberg and started sewing his own designs at night in his kitchen after work. Although he started his company in 2016, his debut presentation was held at the Martos Gallery in September 2018. Several retailers “tried to place orders, but we were hesitant to do so because we all had full-time jobs at the time,” Rogers said.
Emphasizing the amount of hard work that is required to succeed in fashion, Rogers said he was still working on jobs for others until the beginning of 2020. The arrival of his first check from his $400,000 CFDA/Vogue Fashion Fund win changed that.
In late February, Rogers dressed Meghan Markle for the NAACP Image Awards in a one-shoulder “Cunningham blue” gown (an homage to the late New York Times street photographer’s color of choice). The former Duchess of Sussex emailed him out of the blue. “I was, like, ‘Is this actually you?’ I Googled all the details [on the email] and said OK. She was given my details from Edward Enninful [of British Vogue]. She told me that she really wanted to make a statement after having her most recent child. And she wanted to feel sexy and feel free.”
Fittings were done over Zoom with her tailor and in one instance with the help of her husband Prince Harry, who was holding the phone and turned it on himself to say hello. “Which I love — I love down-to-earth,” Rogers said.
”You love down-to-earth princes,” Cho said to laughter. “So do I.”
Dressing Kamala Harris for her swearing-in as U.S. vice president was another memorable moment for Rogers and his team, who watched the inaugural while eating bagels in his Brooklyn apartment “hoping a rush of this color would flash on our screens.”
While “seeing the breadth of people that can find themselves in the work and feel at home” is the upside of celebrity dressing, the designer said he gets more excited by seeing “real people on the street wearing his clothes.”
Asked about the controversy that Grammys organizers faced after referring to Virgil Abloh as a hip-hop designer at this month’s awards, Rogers said, “I can identify with people wanting to label you or reduce you to something, and stuff you in a neat, merchandised box. I have always rejected that…I try not to make it about how other people might see me or perceive me. I try to make it about the work itself.”
Rogers recalled how kind Abloh was to him at last year’s LVMH Prize finals, offering his phone number and help if he ever needed it. En route back from Thanksgiving weekend in Louisiana, Rogers said he considered texting Abloh to see how he was doing and learned of his death the following day. The late Alber Elbaz is another designer who Rogers admired, largely due to the fact that “you couldn’t really categorize his work, whether it was day, evening or cocktail — the work spoke for itself….”
Wearing a baseball hat and a black Dries Van Noten suit, Rogers said his obsession with the color-focused Belgian designer’s work started in 2007. Mizrahi, Oldham, Marni’s Consuelo Castiglioni, Christian Lacroix and Madame Gres’ Alix Barton are other favorite designers. Becoming a creative director of a European fashion house is one of Rogers’ dreams and goals, but he declined to identify the three to five he has in mind as dream jobs.
His candor provided some of the lighter moments, such as a habit of interviewing himself in the shower by imagining questions journalists would ask. “I believe in manifestation and I always want to be prepared. One of my favorite pastimes — still to this day — is watching archival designer interviews. I love looking on YouTube and finding archival interviews with [Emanuel] Ungaro or [Karl] Lagerfeld, and seeing how they used words to explain the inexplicable.”
Watching ones with “people like Rei Kawakubo, who rarely give interviews” has been insightful, according to Rogers. How they allow “for gray areas to be enough and being comfortable in those little spaces” have been among the takeaways, he said.
Born and raised in Baton Rouge, La., Rogers said a fourth grade hobby of creating comic books piqued an interest in fashion, after a friend noted how female comic book characters never change outfits. “We started sketching looks and considering what color and proportion meant for a character,” he said.
Within the next three to five years, Rogers aims to create “a place where people can come to feel free, support themselves, come up with ideas and have them be listened to.” Noting how in the fashion industry, especially in relation to design, people can feel as though they are being herded into taking action based on specific directions, Rogers, who has six full-time employees, wants to avoid that.
One of Rogers’ designs — a boldly striped voluminous gown with a texture inspired by trash bags — had prime placement in the first installment of The Costume Institute’s “In America: A Lexicon of Fashion.” And a white poplin one that was part of the exhibition’s recent refresh also has prime real estate in the gallery.
Fans of the vibrant dress that he designed for “Gossip Girl” actress Jordan Alexander to wear to last fall’s Met Gala will be able to buy two different versions of the skirt in his next collection. Asked when that will debut, the designer said, somewhat hesitantly, later this summer. Designs from Rogers’ spring 2021 runway collection were featured in the HBO Max show and he created clothes for some cast members.
”Something I am always trying to do with my work is to make something that combines a lot of different references so it feels timeless or anti-time, if that makes sense,” Rogers said.
After Cardi B wore one of his coats to the 2017 BET Hip Hop Awards, Rogers said that was the first time he realized the power of Instagram. His base of 7,000 Instagram followers — at that time — gained 5,000 more in one day. (Rogers now has 261,000 Instagram followers.)
While his father, who works in technology, impressed upon him the importance of using Instagram as a tool, and his late grandmother inspired his predilection for monochromatic ensembles, Rogers said he is inspired by many different things, including other designers, art and music. He also said he wants the work that he puts out “to be undeniably me and informed by all different little nuances, idiosyncrasies and things that I love.”
His parents instilled in him the belief that “hard work will take you anywhere you want to go,” Rogers said. Noting how he envisioned making an amazing senior collection that would be immediately picked up by stores, Rogers said, “That never happened.” Speaking of the importance of surrounding yourself with “people who can see your light and understand that you have something to offer,” Rogers said it was a friend who insisted that he save his first paycheck to buy an industrial sewing machine, “Who knows what would have happened [otherwise]?”
Asked about his zeal for color, the designer said it is the way that he sees the world. “I like to treat color as an object.” As for “Sesame Street” characters Ernie and Bert being among his style icons, Rogers explained that is due to “their sense of humor, love for one another, and for stripes and color and crazy hair.”
But inspiration can spring from anywhere, noting how he once drew some from a piece of plastic that he found on the ground. Post-it notes or even food stains could lead to color choices. “It’s leaving your mind and eye open to anything to be inspired and not saying, ‘It has to be this picture or this sculpture.’”