In March 2020, Patric DiCaprio and Bryn Taubensee were riding high after a meeting with Adrian Joffe in Paris.
The Comme des Garçons chief executive officer was considering investing in the brand through his Dover Street Market Paris development division. It was just what the sublimely subversive but cash-poor young designers needed.
Inspired by fashion provocateurs Miguel Adrover and Martin Margiela, DiCaprio and Taubensee had been at work since 2015 in New York, earning a reputation for their conceptual designs, commenting on wealth disparity with a minidress fashioned to look like a Tiffany & Co. jewelry pouch for fall 2017 or on domesticity with a human-sized bow-tied hostess gift for fall 2019, and being tapped by Hulu to design a conceptual, not-for-sale collection inspired by “The Handmaid’s Tale.”
But financial success was harder to come by.
Then the pandemic lockdowns hit.
“We were afraid to ask [Adrian] if it was still going to happen,” DiCaprio said of the investment, during a meeting at the brand’s Brooklyn studio. “But they said, ‘Of course, we’re still going to do it; it’s more important now than ever.'”
The partnership has changed Vaquera’s trajectory.
DSM manufactures Vaquera’s outerwear and handbags in its CDG Shirt factories in Turkey, France and Portugal, handles the brand’s sales (stockists include Nordstrom, Selfridges, Matchesfashion, FortyFiveTen and H.Lorenzo) and stocks it in its DSM stores.
“They didn’t ask for any ownership of our company, and it’s not like every month they’re saying we will give you this if you do x, y, z,” DiCaprio said. “It feels natural, because young designers need money and obviously we’re the first to say that, but you also need help with resources, production and sample-making.”
“We struggled because we got so much attention from press, but we started as an art project,” Taubensee explained. “We always had so much faith in ourselves and knew we’d be big but no one else could see that or manifest it. Dover can make that happen because they can see what we need.”
The designers met the DSM team for the first time in Paris last fall, and were set to host their first Paris runway show under their wing at the DSM exhibition space at 5:30 p.m. on Monday. “We want the clothes to speak for themselves. We’ve stepped it up conceptually and commercially, with new categories like belts, wallets and bags, puffer coats and more advanced outerwear,” DiCaprio said.
“Loosely it’s about love, what do you sacrifice, is it amazing or limiting and how do you express that through clothing,” DiCaprio said of the fall collection, sitting in front of a mood board pinned with photos of Kiss, Cruella de Vil and the 1996 vampire film “Irma Vep.”
“We’re definitely interested in American tropes, fashion tropes, and thinking about power, money and fame, which we put on a T-shirt once,” Taubensee said. “Those things are still very much in our minds but in a more subtle way. This is fashion fan fiction where we imagine different characters, and it’s more in our heads than overtly in the clothing.”
Commercialism is something they’re coming to terms with.
“We talk about that all the time, how are we going to keep this going and keep it at this level where it’s about expression and artistic vision.…” DiCaprio said. “You have to make certain sacrifices to continue, that’s the reality. I was out with an artist friend recently who said I miss the old collections. I miss them, too, but you have to understand that it’s the same, it’s just a new version that allows us to keep doing what we’re doing and not work second jobs, which we did until earlier this year.”
What’s been selling well for the brand? “Runway Star,” “I love New York” and Vaquera T-shirts and hoodies; oversize “Baby” cuffed jeans and skinny scrunch jeans, Teddy Bear accessories, denim and outerwear. “During the pandemic, our website became a huge source of revenue for us,” he said.
Vaquera’s studio is in an eclectic building on Park Avenue in Brooklyn with an indoor skate park, where Bode also has set up shop, alongside artists and Hasidic shipping companies.
The designers are very much the fashion counterculture. But they are keenly aware of New York’s limitations to helping businesses like theirs survive, much less flourish.
“There’s always small brands coming up, but it’s always who is going to last because they are not supported by the fashion industry. Dover Street Market is doing something great, and the fact we’ve survived is a sign of that starting to happen, so hopefully that will continue to happen,” Taubensee said.
That said, even with the bigger international platform, the designers are committed to sticking to their values.
“We don’t want to mass produce clothes, slow fashion is still important to us, and being sustainable in that way, making something you will keep forever,” DiCaprio said. “We like to exist outside the trend cycle.”
And if Paris is a good fit, who knows?
“We might move here someday,” DiCaprio said. “We love the cheesy vibe, and New York is losing that energy. Our favorite place to hang out is the Sacré Coeur steps. It’s a funny scene — we always buy beers; they’re these French dudes who are obsessed with Americana and they play Bob Dylan and wear suits, it’s always a good time.”
“You look down on the city, and see people getting married, or pickpocketed,” Taubensee added. “We really are just kids from middle America and to have this dream, achieve it in New York and then go to Paris, it’s just fun and surreal.”