5 Emerging Designers You Need To Know — And How They Do Fashion Week
In a notoriously exclusive industry, these emerging designers are finding their place in an unconventional way — and making fashion month work for them.
“Democratization” is not a word commonly associated with the fashion industry, yet it has been coming up so often in conversations around New York during the final weeks of summer that make up Fashion Week that it appears to be an emerging ethos, one largely rooted in the legion of industry outsiders who appear at shows and presentations. While the internet-fueled cacophony of occasionally random, untutored content has become something of a turnoff, the web has also enabled new voices to be heard, alchemizing into a kind of return of fashion to emerging designers, often in more intimate, personal, and artistic form.
I spoke with five emerging designers about how they are navigating the fashion industry and finding novel ways to showcase their work outside of the official NYFW schedule with limited budgets and buzz, and also about the role of fashion week and the double-edged sword that is the democratization of the industry. What follows can be seen as a snapshot of the industry-hacker zeitgeist, circa 2023.
Ben Doctor is all about the vibes in the Big Rotting Apple.
Textiles is the name of the game for Ben Doctor’s eponymous brand. I catch him in a state of anticipation, swept up in a flurry of models getting their hair and makeup done shortly before the curtain is to rise on his first show in the intimate confines of a literary venue in the Lower East Side. The collection, Rotten Goodbye, is as much of an homage to a bygone New York as it is a eulogy to the fantasy of a city now facing new and sometimes harsh realities. Drawing on Andy Warhol’s Factory and the 1960’s as inspiration, the collection boasts ginghams, mod silhouettes, and white stockings, topped off with beehives and bobs.
I asked Ben how he was doing ahead of the show. “I feel insane,” he said. “This is something that we’ve been working on for months and months, and I never really believed it would happen until today.” The collection has been in the works for over a year, with the bulk of it having been created in the months since Ben took the leap of faith, jettisoning his corporate design job to work full-time on his brand. “The clothes reflect the feelings of struggling to live in New York: to make it work here, to keep a job, just really struggling to do anything,” he laughs.
On the topic of struggling, Ben tells me about the biggest challenges of being a designer today: “Oh my god, the money. I’m in a lot of debt, as most small designers are. But the community is really what made everything come together today – so much of this was people excited about doing something together. But again, no one is making any money. It’s literally just about the vibes, which I think is a fun way to do things. What makes it all worth it is connecting with people to make something like this come together.”
Part of the collection was inspired by observations Ben had made about the Downtown creative scene. “The characters in New York are emulations of Warhol’s Factory. So many people exude that kind of narcissism, but then there’s nothing behind it. Everyone revolves around these volatile people, but there’s a sort of sedateness behind it – most people don’t actually create work. The Rotten in the title refers to the rotting Big Apple.” While this may be true, he admits he doesn’t believe New York should be what it once was, but is at the same time disappointed that he can’t access the clothing and culture that existed back then.
Social media is a big factor in the changing landscape – in terms of how he presents his work, and as a tool to legitimize his practice. Ben finds something unappealing about the role of social media, and therefore yearns to make the rich dimensionality of the IRL fashion show relevant again. “Maybe that is part of why I wanted to make this event.”
Renea LaRiviere in creating a narrative through fashion.
When I meet with Renea LaRiviere over drinks in the West Village, she’s wearing an ivory “Zeph-dress” – an endearing contraction of her brand Zepeherina. I tell her about the theme of this month’s issue, Hacking It, and without hesitation she declares herself to be a hacker of the fashion industry. “I have always been somebody who goes to the beat of my own drum, creating from my own point of view. My designs aren’t trend-based, and I try to create timeless pieces that the customer will wear for years to come and can be seen as an heirloom.”
The brand is characterized by pouf sleeves, corseted tops, and scrunched bloomers, all reminiscent of a historical silhouette but updated for a modern feel. Named after her great-grandmother, the brand has become a reincarnation of Zepherina, and a sort of character that Renea says functions as a spiritual guide. “I enjoy living life like a movie – I’m creating a character through the clothing. I wear a lot of my own designs, it’s like a uniform. It gives me a lot of energy to wear my own pieces, and feel like that Zeph character is always on my side when I do. Every day is Zeph day!”
The brand started as a side project, but quickly grew into the main act. As it evolved, figuring out how to approach the business aspects of running a brand has been one of the biggest challenges. “My approach to design is quite conceptual, and having to go to the other end of the spectrum to figure out something as concrete as running a business has been difficult. Knowing how to balance the two has certainly been a process, but I’ve also enjoyed the learning opportunity that comes with figuring it out as I go along.”
Renea opted out of partaking in NYFW this year – however, she is planning on hosting a presentation in February. “I decided to design off the calendar because I instead chose to focus on revamping the brand and adding to the collection rather than go in the deep end straight away. It was just about time and having enough of it to dedicate to the craft.” I asked her what we can look forward to with the show: “It’s going to be extremely narrative. Total and true Zepherina.”
Mila Sullivan is collaging with clashing materials and finding the perfect runway.
Anyone who follows New York-based fashion will have seen the stunning images from Mila Sullivan’s inaugural NYFW show Pray for Me. Held in a church in Chelsea, the runway models looked like runaway brides, strutting down the red-carpeted aisle in crochets, silks, and sheer laces. “The show ended with four bridal looks, the last one worn by Brooke Candy, and because of this the church was the perfect location.”
Mila had been scouting the City for an unconventional location to host her debut NFYW show. A PR company told her it ought to be in Manhattan, and as soon as she stumbled across St. Paul’s she was blown away. “I knew it would bring the drama. Since I had a live singer, I knew the church would make for beautiful sound as well as complement the looks.”
Each of the pieces in the collection were inspired by a particular material, which is what Mila uses as a starting point for all of her creations. Through the use of vintage and thrifted raw materials, she combines delicate fabrics with dance-and-sportswear to pair the ultra-feminine with something strong and commanding. Fur football pads and Jeffrey Campbell litas laced with hand-dyed silk ribbons could be seen on the runway. She describes her work as “collaging with clashing materials, giving discarded and sometimes ugly fabrics a new life."
“A lot of young designers will say this, but honestly I can’t afford to wear my own designs, which is such a ridiculous thing to say. I just don’t have time to make myself pieces, but for a special event I might wear my own designs. ”
When taking her bow, she was wearing a dress constructed of reworked pink sports team t-shirts from Long Island, featuring a Swarovski bow. “A lot of times the materials I use are very cheap, so I try to elevate them and weave in a bit of a high-low aesthetic.” On the topic of wearing her own designs, Mila says it’s rare that she does. “A lot of young designers will say this, but honestly I can’t afford to wear my own designs, which is such a ridiculous thing to say. I just don’t have time to make myself pieces, but for a special event I might wear my own designs.”
On that note, Mila speaks to the difficulties of trying to make work that she wants to make but that’s also palatable in a commercial sense and at a price point that’s accessible. “I could spend a week on one garment, but the price I would have to charge for that would be astronomical. Trying to prove myself as an emerging brand is very difficult on a small budget. Especially when there’s so many upcyclers right now. I am trying to distinguish myself from them, both in the sense that I’m not an upcycler because I work solely from raw materials, but also because my work is collection based. I’ve questioned what makes it all worth it. It is a ton of work, and I’ve lost a lot of sleep, but seeing it all come together exactly how I envisioned it is priceless.”
Ella Wiznia is turning craft into a career.
When Ella Wiznia opens the door to her studio/apartment-combo, I am blown away by the organized heaps of carefully crocheted, knitted, and sewn garments. Doilies, granny squares, and patches sewn onto denim and blazers make for a colorful and warm array of one-of-a-kind pieces.
You may have seen her work on various writers and industry insiders captured by street photographers during NYFW. In a recent Instagram post, Ella addresses the trials and tribulations of NYFW for an emerging brand, but also the joy in seeing her work out in the wild. “It’s super exciting. Since starting The Series in 2016, there've been a lot of fashion weeks where I’ve watched things happen and felt like I’m really not a part of it. To feel some sort of hand in a game is really nice, but it’s not by accident that people are seen wearing my work – we have been loaning out pieces.”
The Series came about in 2016 while Ella was in recovery from an eating disorder. While in treatment, it was common to learn how to crochet or knit during group therapy. Ella picked up embroidering on jeans, since it was one of the few things she felt comfortable wearing in her recovery. Eventually she took a class at a sewing school, which further exposed her to the sort of craft commonly frowned upon and viewed as “women’s work”. “It started off only shopping at second hand and vintage stores, sourcing denim and fabrics. I would see these granny square blankets that I knew would take 18 to 20 hours to make, and now they were being sold for a dollar. All the work that had gone into that wasn’t being valued. All of this craft requires brilliancy, math, and pattern making. I gained more and more appreciation for those different craft types, and knew that I wanted to incorporate them into my work in some way. ”
The history of the craft and the materials are what make The Series. ”When studying architecture in school, I was drawn to the idea of spaces that have all these layers of time to them. That’s how I feel with all of these materials. It kind of gives it purpose.”
This type of craft became popular amongst a younger generation during the pandemic. Tutorials on TikTok on how to make a granny square balaclava turned into people starting small businesses, selling pieces in a similar vein to The Series. “When I started there weren't as many people doing this stuff. There was just less competition. The materials have gone up a lot in price, even on the second hand market. Most of the time what people are doing on TikTok is great, but when they’re not respecting the material it’s not great – I often see people tearing quilts in a way that doesn’t honor the construction of the fabric.”
Ella says TikTok and social media is a double edged sword – while it contributes to oversaturating the market, it is also an important tool for her to present her work. Not only is it valuable when industry insiders wear her work during Fashion Week and get photographed, but there’s a direct correlation between something going viral on TikTok and online sales going up.
What makes it all worth it is being able to engage with the materials and the history of the craft. “If this wasn’t my job, it would still be a hobby. From the first time I picked up an embroidery needle, I wasn’t doing fashion. It’s all craft for me.”
Helen Jade is making an impact with small things in a new arena.
Helen Jade hadn’t planned on going into Creative Direction when she was approached with an offer to step into the role for the emerging Texas-based watch company BREDA. “It was never my goal, but I’ve been really lucky.” I meet her at a suspenseful time, moments before guests arrive to view the stunning array of new watches being presented from BREDA’s latest collection Relic at a rooftop bar in Bushwick.
The size of the pieces has been one of the main challenges when presenting BREDA’s work in a physical space. Photography and film has been the default method of showcasing timepieces, and figuring out a way to participate in NYFW has been no easy feat, especially as a Texas-based company. “Obviously fashion week favors apparel, but we are excited to test the waters. BREDA is solidifying itself in the fashion space, and NYFW is an opportunity for us to see what we can do as watch designers – you could say that through our participation we’re hacking the fashion industry. It would be incredible to collaborate with an apparel brand at some point.”
The new collection features five colorways in gold and silver, with red, blue, black, and ivory dials. A subtle playfulness with peaks of skin peering through the wristband suggests unearthing something mysterious and forbidden. “The collection is about journeying back to our roots, through our timeless and spirited approach to watch design, but also about revealing where we sit in the jewelry space.”
With a background in photography, venturing into a design space has been a natural next step for Helen. “Photography has allowed me to understand not only the beauty of simplicity, but also how to leave in symbolism and motifs in the details to create layered narratives.” With its Texas origins, BREDA leans heavily into the intimate artistic community of Dallas. “The brand was built on a tried and true grass roots approach. It was a priority of ours to include the Dallas art scene in our work, through employing members of the community and highlighting various creatives in an interview series we publish on our website. BREDA was built on that community, and we will always honor where we came from.”
The watch industry is strongly rooted in history, where gendered designs have been the dominating mode for centuries. “We’re taking a generalist approach to how we design our watches – we don’t want them to be feminine or masculine. This commitment came about in 2020, and it felt really natural for us. It’s exciting to break barriers in highly traditional spaces. You could say BREDA is in its teenage years; we’re getting a bit louder and a bit more rebellious.”