Connor McKnight is not one to be pushed into a corner. After canceling his New York Fashion Week show due to last-minute funding shortages, the designer this week reveals his new collection: a range of elegant outerwear, knits, trousers and accessories that further refine his vision of Americana as told through the lens of Black history, community and savvy.
While initially gutted by the cancellation of his show, McKnight quickly parlayed that anxiety into opportunity. It allowed him to think about things in a new way — and gave him a few more weeks to get his samples right, to shoot a look book that exceeded his standards, and to present his designs without the numerous distractions and schedule conflicts of NYFW.
“That’s probably one of the best things we got from the change of schedule during COVID-,” McKnight said of his newfound freedom. “There are times when you should wait and buyers are pretty understanding — it helps operations internally and helps your business run better.
“I gave myself extra time this season for samples to roll in and to ship my wholesale orders. It makes a lot of difference to present a very complete collection, which is something I feel really strongly about. We have accessories now, we got to go a little deeper. It sets a strong moment for storytelling and it’s something I couldn’t have done under the usual amount of time,” he said.
McKnight is an introspective type who — contrary to many of his design peers — prefers a low profile. It’s reflected in his designs — which whisper with understated silhouette, fabric and color choices, offering relaxed clothes with a crisp mindset. This season, like in outings past, there are gender-neutral styles as well as select dresses made with self-identifying women in mind.
McKnight had a full six months this season to ruminate over how to best refine his broader vision, but stumbled upon inspiration in an unlikely place. “A couple of months ago, I went on a ‘Twilight Zone’ kick. I was watching it, and they parodied a luxury retailer, a big department store, and they were moving this mannequin wearing the most beautiful jacket with full-length pleats. I just had the thought that it could be really interesting to incorporate that level of craft into things that don’t necessarily often have them,” said the designer.
McKnight’s spring 2023 collection focuses on the notion of leisure and pays homage to the pastimes of his father and two grandfathers. Many of those hobbies were outdoor pursuits — fishing, hiking, swimming, boating and track.
It’s always been McKnight’s aim to elevate the silhouettes and iconography from archival performance-driven clothing. Now building on that idea, he is finessing recycled nylon track jackets, trenchcoats and track shorts with draping and construction techniques more typical of eveningwear.
There’s a line of separates — a rugby Henley and bungee waist shorts — in a fine greenish silver mesh developed to resemble metallic silks. For a new track jacket, McKnight manipulated nylon into ethereal pleats that culminate in a croissant-like swirl at the small of one’s back.
“I went to Parsons [to study fashion design] and am really interested in design and shape and draping. And then where I’m from, the things I grew up with incorporate these gorpy, crunchy materials — it’s an interest of mine to see what happens when you marry them both,” he said of the contrast.
They’ve all been photographed in an artist-made set designed in homage to legendary jazz club Club Caverns in McKnight’s native Washington, D.C., nodding to another favorite family pastime. Caverns in a way recalls the Juke Joint DIY music venues from the Black American South that represent the resilience and resourcefulness needed to create culture in the face of adversity, he said.
McKnight knows that his clothes don’t exist in a vacuum and face competition when packed beside other brands at his retailers, including Matches, Ssense, Mr Porter, Frances May and Colbo. The designer has spent significant time collaborating with factories to improve quality and construction across his collection. This season, he also dug into features that would differentiate his clothes to convert sales.
What he has called a “Gil Back Fisherman Jacket,” based on old fly-fishing prototypes, is stacked inside with pockets to increase functionality. A new trouser shape, absent of a waistband, cascades with pleats straight from the top, allowing a flattering fit between men and women. “We hid a change pocket in one of the pleats,” he said. “I think those nooks are what tells a story and in a way gives the clothes some narrative.”
There are also McKnight’s first bags: A “Bongo” backpack that reprises his pleated nylon motif, and a simple black leather shoulder bag that takes cues from the canvas totes synonymous with the New York City “schlepping” lifestyle. They add additional layers to McKnight’s amalgamation of references — the delicate balance of which make his brand feel so fresh in this frenetic moment.
Now with an intense six months behind him, McKnight feels like there’s only room to move up. “I’d like to do some of the grant programs this year and really focus on driving home this collection. I spent so much time developing it and it generally feels like the direction of the brand I want to build from here. I’ve laid the groundwork,” he said.