Historically, fashion is an industry that counts many of the LGBTQ community as part of it. And while in June, when queer people across the globe celebrate their lived experiences during Pride Month, big brands often line up to leverage the annual celebration, using it as a marketing tool. But what may perhaps be resonating more is what’s happening among the growing list of smaller, queer-led brands that are looking inward and creating collections for their community that aren’t just about just slapping on a rainbow flag on a T-shirt.
Many such creators are part of a new generation, who see gender as a social construct and dress as a more fluid endeavor, while others are creating things to fill a fashion void they see in the market for their LGBTQ community.
Ludovic de Saint Sernin: I feel like ever since the inception of LdSS, it’s always been really clear to me that I wanted it to be for anyone who feels they can just relate to the brand’s message and aesthetic. It’s all about the wearer and not the other way around. I create garments that will be worn by human beings and that’s it. As humans we have the incredible chance to be on a journey that constantly evolves with time, with mentalities and society. Today more than ever, I feel like we get the chance to express that through clothing and allow for what we wear to express how we feel, whether it’s about gender, sexuality or simply self expression. I want LdSS to allow this freedom.
WWD: What inspires your collections?
LdSS: I love taking inspiration from really anywhere — it can be from my last trip or from a screenshot on Instagram or sometimes simply from memory. But my favorite kind of inspiration really is real life and experiences. This is where it feels the most genuine for me to search for new ideas and translate them into the LdSS world, if that makes sense.
WWD: There is a sensual element to your work. Can you speak about the relationship between the materials and shapes you choose in relation to the body?
LdSS: I feel like my work really is the balance between dressing the body and undressing it at the same time. This balance of skin and clothing creates the perfect LdSS silhouette. When I look at textures and materials I need to feel it, touch it, drape it and visualize how it would feel on the body. Depending on the mood it will either reveal it or cover it, but always in a way that will enhance its natural beauty and features.
WWD: As a young queer designer who speaks directly to your generation, what is important you and your community at the moment? And how does that influence your creative process?
LdSS: I feel like it’s important to express your uniqueness yet [be] able to belong. If anything, this pandemic has shown us that human contact and love and support for one another is absolutely crucial. It’s fun being online and connected on your phone to friends all over the globe but there’s nothing like a real physical connection.
So the way that it has informed my work is that I now create clothes to celebrate those moments of being finally free to go out, be yourself and be with others.
WWD: You’ve really made a mark with your brand’s visual storytelling on Instagram. What has been the feedback so far?
LdSS: I think the most important thing for me is feeling like I can make a difference and really genuinely touch people’s hearts. I love getting DMs from people on Instagram and they love the clothes but it’s really not just about the fashion and that matters. I love making clothes but I love creating visuals even more and those visuals support messages that are dear to my heart and represent the DNA of the brand.
WWD: You created previous collaborations with artist Jack Taylor Lovatt, what led you do create one specific to Pride?
LdSS: As a queer brand, it’s super important for us to celebrate Pride and have a capsule specifically dedicated to it. The Don’t Ruin My Fantasy T-shirt became viral and Jack and I loved working together on the pieces for e-boy season 1 and we thought it would be really fun to make another one for Pride. He came up with the designs and also the idea of giving a portion of the sales to @lgbtfdn, a charity based in Manchester where he comes from.
WWD: How are you celebrating Pride now that restrictions are being loosened?
LdSS: I feel like we celebrate Pride everyday at LdSS, it’s really a state of mind but it feels really exciting having an entire month dedicated to celebrating being queer openly and in public and being visible. I feel like that’s what important right now is to be visible.
WWD: You previously worked at Google — how did you end up creating footwear?
Nik Kacy: I got into footwear because since I was a child I loved shoes but couldn’t find styles that fit my identity and my feet at the same time. During the time I left Google, there was a surge in queer brands forming to create inclusive clothing sizes but no shoes yet either so I felt it was a good complement to create more community versus competition.
WWD: Footwear is known to be notoriously hard to create considering lasts are traditionally gendered, a production can be challenging and overly costly for smaller companies and you are competing with multibillion-dollar corporations. What was the biggest learning curve in the early days of your brand?
N.K.: You bring up such important points that many people not in the shoe or fashion industry don’t understand. My biggest learning curve was to design in a way that can extend the usage of my materials, for example, creating shoes using the same matching leather as my holsters so that I could meet quantity in order to create the kinds of leather I wanted to specifically use. In this way, I also don’t waste leather as much. I also learned to design collections using the same lasts but in varying styles so I didn’t have to create new lasts with each style. I currently use two lasts in 14 gender-free sizes each.
WWD: What inspires the new styles you create?
N.K.: I started with my first collection being masculine of center styles I’ve always wanted to wear but couldn’t find in my size but modernized the aesthetic not only with a gender-free last I designed but also in the style itself. Whether it was a monk strap or derby-inspired design, I added my own unique flair of using fashion as activism since my brand is about walking your own way in whatever gender spectrum or identity you are. Next, I created a gender neutral collection which was based on my own concept of what makes a shoe look genderless. This collection is about not being able to define a gender based on looking at the style. We have a Combat H8 Boot which is about fighting hate and discrimination, which is universal. We also have the Georgios Boot, inspired by the blending of both classically feminine and masculine features of shoes into something undefinably gender neutral. Finally, we recently released the Chelsea Brogue which is also gender neutral in aesthetic. I’ve currently been working on a Feminine of Center collection of high heels in the same gender free size range but with the pandemic it has put that on hold. Finding factories willing to test and create gender inclusive high heels has been challenging because you have to consider the durability and comfort of someone wearing high heels who can be 100 pounds and 5 feet tall to 250 pounds and 6 feet tall.
WWD: You founded Equality Fashion Week in Los Angeles, what led you to want to create a fashion week centered on equality?
N.K.: As a queer designer who participated in a series of fashion shows across the U.S. and even in Toronto, it was noticeable the lack of accessibility for queer brands to participate in mainstream fashion weeks and shows due to the high cost to show. Queer brands are generally small businesses with one or two founders who created their brand to solve a lack of representation and do not have the capital as mainstream brands do, particularly QTBIPOC-owned businesses, we often are using our savings to create our designs. I was also tired of most of the queer specific fashion shows not having the kind of high production value that our mainstream counterparts do. Plus I felt like every time I did a show, we spend a lot of time, money and effort to develop the work but it didn’t have a high ROI. So with EFW, I wanted to include not only the fashion show itself but a platform to generate sales for folks who may have seen something they liked.
WWD: Now that we are coming out of the pandemic are there events lined up for Equality Fashion Week for the rest of 2021?
N.K.: I honestly have not decided yet if we should do a show this year because I would only want to do a show for those vaccinated and as a show about inclusivity, that wouldn’t be very inclusive. In addition, in 2019 we had over 750 people in attendance and with all the hard work required for the designers, models, performers and production team, I wouldn’t want to do it for a limited capacity audience. It just wouldn’t feel the same but I’m open to ideas and thinking about it, letting it percolate because maybe I can come up with a more innovative show that brings the community together in an inclusive way that is safe.
WWD: What advice would you give on how an emerging LGBTQ designer can carve out a place in the industry?
N.K.: My best advice is to be authentic, original and innovative. There are so many graphic T-shirt companies already. I would love to see new emerging designers come up with new, never-been-done-before designs that represent inclusivity and allows people of all identities to wear them as they choose. I suggest looking at the saturation level of different products in the fashion industry and find what is lacking. But be ready to compete with big corporations as they see the value in the LGBTQ market because I’m finding that they don’t realize in their road to become more “inclusive” as allies, they are putting a lot of queer-owned businesses, who were at the forefront of paving the way for inclusive designs, out of business.
WWD: When did you launch the brand and why?
Kristina Keenan: Dykeland USA launched in November 2019. The Phluid Project [where Keenan designed omni-gender private label collections and oversaw brand creative vision from January 2017 to March 2020] was partnering with the re-launch of the L-Word Generation Q and when assorting the collection it became clear to me that there was a void. There wasn’t Dyke-centered gear that was tasteful enough to be worn on a daily basis and not just during Pride Month. Lesbian- and Dyke-centered apparel didn’t have space within Phluid’s collection, mainly because it is run by a cis-gendered gay man.
Sometimes in our attempts to be inclusive and democratic, we erase subcultures. At the time, I felt saddened that myself and my community didn’t have accessibility and options. It felt important to me to carve out space given my background in fashion. It started as creating a few graphics, which turned into making Big Dyke Energy masks during the pandemic. A few re-posts from queer friends helped to grow my small following. It’s morphed into something that has a little life of its own.
WWD: What inspires the pieces you create? For example, “Big Dyke Energy” feels like taking ownership and celebrating the identity, can you speak to that a bit?
K.K.: My work is inspired by a reframing of past and present queer culture. Reimagining a world in which dykes, queers and lesbians are normalized, celebrated and thriving, thinking about what our culture would look like if the oppression of the McCarthyism era following World War II hadn’t happened. There is a lot of past trauma our community holds, and for many decades (still sometimes today) the word dyke is used to bully and degrade us. I believe in making space for that anger and trying to reclaim this word is a way to celebrate and empower us.
WWD: What has been the feedback from customers?
K.K.: Feedback from customers has been overwhelmingly positive and sometimes painfully constructive. I’ve added new pieces and expanded size offerings. Visibility is important to me and it’s a fact that joblessness is elevated in the queer community, so I always try to make sure there’s items on sale and my prices remain reasonable. The goal isn’t to make money, the goal is to spread dyke visibility in a culture that is slowly and quietly erasing us.
WWD: Now that things are opening up in NYC, how are you celebrating Pride this year?
K.K.: Taking advantage of queer exhibits throughout NYC and marching in the NYC Dyke March, my favorite event during New York’s Pride month.
WWD: Any advice for a young queer designer about how to navigate launching a brand?
K.K.: Know your process. Do as much as you can yourself when you start. It builds a new appreciation for your craft. I’ve mentored several young designers and I often find the ones who are successful have the right balance of humility, curiosity, creativity and work-ethic. You have to be humble enough to say “I don’t know” and curious enough to always be learning and growing.
WWD: New York nightlife and nostalgia for pop culture have been big influences on your creations. What do you look to now to keep you inspired for your latest work?
Phillipe Blond: We’re inspired by New York City and always will be! Art, film and of course music are also important sources of inspiration. Most recently we love Veneno on Netflix and are of course obsessed with Disney’s new “Cruella” film!
WWD: There has been an evolution in fashion lately around genderless clothing. As queer designers, how would you like to see ideas of gender and dress evolve?
P.B.: We have always believed that you need to be true to yourself! If wearing something sparkly and dressing up makes you happy then go for it! Our message has been the same from the beginning, gender is a construct so wear whatever you want. This younger generation of kids and designers are finally getting to a place where this is possible, however, mainstream fashion still has a long way to go.
WWD: You’ve made pieces for some of the biggest pop divas, like the corset in Beyoncé’s “Upgrade U” video. What’s the creative process when like when developing a design for a celebrity to wear in a video?
P.B.: It is also a collaborative process that depends on several factors. It can take weeks, sometimes months to design and create these looks. Even when it’s a challenge or time crunch we love working with our clients to realize a look that makes them feel glamorous and powerful when on or even off stage!
WWD: How has the pandemic changed or shifted your business?
P.B.: The pandemic really brought the world to a standstill and we took that time to reflect and reset goals and perspective. In the coming years we’ll introduce other facets to The Blonds brand, but for now we are just thrilled to be back at work!
WWD: What do you miss about showing at New York Fashion Week? And any plans to show in September?
P.B.: We miss the energy and creating the atmosphere at our show. It’s never just a show, there is always an inclusive vibe where our communities can come together, celebrate and escape! We’re looking forward to NYFW and may have something special planned, so stay tuned!