“You have to get dressed,” Christopher John Rogers muses on the importance of fashion. Never mind that he has just quoted almost verbatim the legendary New York Times fashion journalist Carrie Donovan, only minus Donovan’s “Well, My Dear…” salutation, and her grand, theatrical delivery.
Rogers radiates an enthusiasm for fashion that Donovan would likely admire. He is one of New York fashion’s current “next generation” celebrated aspirants, determined to find their way in an industry in which roadblocks seem ever more abundant and treacherous. Yet he’s undaunted. “A little delusion is good,” Rogers says. There’s nothing delusional about his buzz factor. On Saturday afternoon at Spring Studios, he will stage his first formal runway show thanks to sponsorship from IMG. He’s a finalist in the CFDA/Vogue Fashion Fund competition, with his next project due in October (no rest for the weary). And tonight he will ring in the official start of the spring 2020 season at Tom Ford’s dinner at Indochine for young designers and international press.
Rogers and I e-met when he sent in a quote for WWD’s feature on the 50th anniversary of the moon landing. Fascinated by the moon landing? Yes! “The ability to imagine life beyond our confines on Earth has always been inspiring.” Would you like to go into space? No! “I have a huge fear of heights and I’ve seen too many movies about people dying in space.”
I loved that he penned something other than the expected cool answer — “Of course! I’d like to blast off yesterday!” — especially since the question doesn’t demand honesty, since for 99.99 percent of the population it will remain, (for a while at least) an unprovable hypothetical. Rogers’ answer displayed both humility and confidence, the former, in acknowledging fear, and the latter, in doing so publicly.
Fast-forward a month or so and we meet for real, at the small but quite nice (renovated kitchen and bathroom) enclave in Bushwick in Brooklyn, where he works with a staff of three, all present for the interview. The scene in the first-floor apartment of the small building feels part business, part “Friends,” recast to reflect the inclusive Millennial mind-set of 2019. Today’s episode: “The One Where They Ready a Fashion Show on a Shoestring.”
The space has been taken over by sartorial manifestations of flamboyant optimism, its perimeter lined with racks, boards, brimming with high-intensity color and bold shapes; if you focus you can find clothes of less spectacular presentation as well. Occupying most of what would be the living space (about 400 square feet of it): two wooden tables from Ikea. What’s absent are any signs of typical at-home comfort such as a sofa or cozy reading corner. Yet, in addition to running his company from here, Rogers also calls the place home, as do two of the three other people in the room, David Rivera and Alexandra “Alex” Tyson, but not Christina Ripley. She and Rivera cofounded the company with Rogers.
The quartet found each other at the Savannah College of Art and Design, class of 2016, and became fast friends. As of last March when he left his post at Diane von Furstenberg to focus on his own brand, Rogers is the only one without another full-time job, although he now consults for another designer. He managed to do two collections while on staff at DVF, a time-management feat that boggles the mind. Von Furstenberg was wildly supportive and encouraged his friendship with print designer Morgan Hill, who now also consults with Rogers. Still, the process proved tough, or as he puts it, “kind of like, scruffy, like get it together, like whatever.” He would e-mail print houses and make runs to storefront fabric suppliers on his lunch breaks and after work, go home and work for himself — with the help of his friends.
Tyson and he were in SCAD’s fashion design program, and took the same classes. She’s now production coordinator for a women’s wear brand. As studio manager, she helps Rogers make the 60 percent of the collection, mostly eveningwear, that’s done in-house, and oversees the studio (read: interns).
Ripley studied marketing, and for her senior thesis did a business plan for Rogers’ brand, as if it were launching with his senior collection. It included a look book and a fashion film. In the Rogers realm, she handles p.r., marketing and art direction as the company’s brand director. “We all gave ourselves grandiose titles,” she says, “but it’s just the four of us.” Because grandiose doesn’t keep the lights on, she works retail and takes on freelance production gigs.
Rivera, the studio director, oversees the running of the studio and is the chief liaison with the factories that produce Rogers’ suitings and shirtings. He went to SCAD for screenwriting and playwriting. He fell in with the fashion crowd, and after graduating early, helped out with his fashion friends’ theses projects. He and Rogers met through Tyson. “Chris would ask, ‘What do you think of this color and what do you think of this fabric,’” he says. “And now, I’m here.” He’s also at 72 Spring Street, where his day job is working in special projects at Marc Jacobs. Is he still mulling a career in screenwriting? “Oh, no, ma’am.” (Ouch.)
Typically, they gather in the evening, “We work very hard,” Tyson offers. “We go to work, we come home, we separate for a little bit, maybe nap, and wake up and it’s the second half of your day, your second job.” That’s the usual routine, but not this week. They’ve all taken vacation from their day jobs to hunker down in Bushwick to make the show happen.
Rogers is grateful. “All in this room want to be here and have sacrificed so much of their time and energy to make this thing happen,” he says. “So anyone we bring on or anyone that we involve, we want to make sure that they actually really are obsessed with what we do.”
What Rogers does is rooted in a love for color and freedom of expression, which he articulates in a charming-smart crossover of deep-thoughts and what-the-heck terms. “It’s basically encouraging people to take up space, to step into their them-ness,” he describes his aesthetic. “Like, whatever makes you you, all the subtle nuances. If you happen to be the ceo of a company, but you still love watching cartoons in the morning and you also eat Lucky Charms, but you also love tennis, like, all of those things maybe don’t go together, but they’re you. So embrace them.”
Yes, he can bring the various juxtapositions into a straightforward fashion context. “One day maybe you’re wearing this huge puff top with denim jeans and the next you’re wearing a silk charmeuse slip in an acid color. All of those things can exist in the same world.”
In the same world, and the same closet, absolutely. Yet a runway show generally calls for obvious cohesion. Rogers has thought about that, too; he knows there’s a good deal riding on his runway debut, and he wants it to be more than a mishmash of disconnected delights. “For me, it’s showing the same idea of a silhouette in multiple ways throughout the collection, but staggering them,” he explains. “So maybe the first few looks are puff and the next few looks are slinky slip and then it’s puff with slip.”
But he won’t overplay the connective threads. “It’s like, ‘oh, this plaid matches this stripe and those two plaids have black and red, so those are the colors of the season,” he notes. “I work more emotively. It’s kind of like, ‘oh I like this, I like this, I like this.’ And because I like it, it makes sense [together] because that’s the world.”
Rogers grew up an “art kid,” and credits his parents for their support in encouraging his goals and his grandmother for her keen eye and proactive manner. Rather than chiding him as a child for zoning out and drawing in church, “Granny” suggested that he be tested to see whether he had real talent or was just bored by the preaching. That led to art classes, where he discovered fascinations such as “red plus yellow equals orange, and you can add black and make it a weird brown.” He remembers that thrill of discovery, and tries to imbue his clothes with a similar sense of joy. “Whether it’s brown tulle over blue tulle,” he muses. “How does that look? Is it weird? That’s fine, because it’s gorgeous. It’s just discovery and figuring it out and playing that I’m trying to encourage people to still embrace in their adulthood.”
Of course, making it in fashion over the long haul is anything but child’s play, and Rogers knows he’s got a tough road ahead. Going into his third self-financed season, Rogers has no retail accounts. He works direct-to-consumer in the organic sense. People see an editorial or hear about him word-of-mouth.
“They reach out and we make them things,” he says, “we” meaning himself and Alex. “There’s my sewing machine, in the kitchen,” she indicates. While he’s not celebrity-obsessed, he has attracted some pretty fancy names — Tracee Ellis Ross, Lizzo, Tessa Thompson and, most exciting of all, Michelle Obama, after her stylist, Meredith Koop got in touch. “We made her a custom suit for her [book] tour — a cerulean, cyan, iridescent tailored suit, four buttons, slim cut. Michelle loved it.”
The next step, he says, is to make inroads at retail, with “wholesale partners that align with our vision and can sell the clothes. We’re not trying to get stuck in a store where we’re just sitting on a rack.”
Rogers has high hopes that his first runway show will help build his profile. For the most part, it’s what he calls a “plug and play” setup. “You bring your collection and everything is set up for you, which is nice.” On the other hand, the casting is his own; he’s working on it with Ricky Michiels. While “diversity” is one of the buzzwords of the moment, for Rogers and his contemporaries, it’s not a trend but a personal and generational reality. “It’s just based on emotion,” he says of his approach. And he deadpans, “people that can actually walk, displaying the clothes as opposed to the person. What we’re about is a synergy between displaying the clothes and the person. So regardless of how people identify, whether gender-wise, racially, whatever, we’re just casting people we love. It will be friends and people we’ve used in the past two seasons [for his presentations] and a few industry models I’ve always wanted to work with.”
About a range of body types, Rogers doesn’t have the luxury of early fittings or remaking something last-minute. But he certainly does have plenty of amply cut silhouettes, “clothes that look good on a variety of bodies,” he says. “That’s also a challenge, but I think it’s quite modern.”
Another challenge: creating the kind of clothes he loves — clothes for “effortful” dressing, he calls it — in an era of hyper-casual days and rented eveningwear. That’s where the delusion come in, he offers — or at least not overthinking those realities you can’t control. Yet he believes there are women who love “getting dressed,” and he gives them credit for knowing how to interpret an editorial look for real life.
“I don’t think customers are as stupid as [many people] think,” he offers. “A lot of people are like, ‘oh, they’re not going to understand it.’ If I understand it, there’s obviously a woman who can break down the look and say, ‘I love this top, and I’m wearing it this way.’ She’s definitely a fashion person,” he continues of his customer, “or an art person, someone who understands that what they wear is important to them.”
She can navigate her way through all the ruffles, froth, tiered tulle and ebullient color, but just in case, he wants to give her some low-key moments to consider on Saturday night. “It’s about that conversation between fantasy and the pragmatism that comes with living in New York — ‘Oh, I actually have to have shoes I can walk in.’”
He gets it, and he wants potentially interested retailers to get that he gets it. “Thankfully, with the runway, people can sit down and see, like, we’re making clothes! Like, we’re not just 25-year-olds over here living a fantasy. We’re trying to make our fantasy a reality.”
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