Today, the blueprint for starting and running a fashion brand isn’t black and white. These designers have built strong labels, and they haven’t hit 30. Here’s how they did it.
he fashion business has changed quickly over the past few years, and the blueprints set by designers like Ralph Lauren or Bobby Hundreds are, in many ways, no longer applicable. It’s difficult to say whether younger designers today have it easier or harder than their predecessors, but with stores closing, an oversaturation of product, and consumers’ continuous desire for something new, standing out and running a viable business takes more than a design degree and a lot of money.
To run a fashion line today you have to be an inventive designer, a nimble entrepreneur, and a savvy storyteller. Everyone in the list below is in their 20s, but each of their brands is at a different phase. There’s Esper, 25, from Come Back as a Flower, who only started his line a few months ago but has received early co-signs from Big Sean and ASAP Rocky and is figuring out how to work with retailers in an environmentally friendly way. Then there’s Michael Cherman, 28, who started a successful brand, ICNY, then lost control of it because of an investor. So he introduced Chinatown Market, a line that’s grown quickly and sits in retailers ranging from Urban Outfitters to Browns.
Here, the designers speak about how they started their brands, how they got attention from celebrities and buyers, and how they want to grow their companies.
“I think the best thing I’ve done is have the extra degree behind me, because eventually I do want to be like Kim Jones or Alexander McQueen, and they both have master’s degrees,” says Bianca Saunders, a menswear designer who wants to lead a luxury house someday.
She paid for both of her degrees by sending letters to charities in London that support young people in the arts. Her graduate collection caught the attention of 1 Granary, a London showroom that helps design grads, and was picked up by Machine-A, an influential store in the city. From there, she applied for the British Fashion Council’s New Generation Award and was named One to Watch, which gave her a platform to show at London Fashion Week last year.
Saunders is taking a traditional route when it comes to starting her eponymous brand, which investigates the nuances of black male masculinity through classic menswear pieces including shirts that are updated with ruching and cropped T-shirts with sewn in creases. She works with the fashion calendar to be stocked in stores, but she’s also done unconventional things to get attention, whether that was launching a zine called Personal Politics with an event at the Ace Hotel or working with Adama Jalloh on a film and Akinola Davies Jr. on photographs. “I can’t just depend on my massive degree. You have to put yourself out there to be noticed,” says Saunders.
Saunders currently works out of her house with three interns and uses deposits from buyers to make her line, which is produced in London. “All the money goes back into making the collection for stores,” she says. She’s one of the few black designers in the city, and while she’s working on not letting reviews of her collections get to her, she doesn’t mind being called a “black” designer. “There are so few black people designing and actually getting good press because of their work and not their race,” says Saunders. “So it’s fine, but I don’t like when people only compare me to black designers and not white designers. I want to be compared to everyone.” —Aria Hughes
Hometown: Westchester, New York
Education: Dropped out of Parsons after a year
Stockists: Urban Outfitters; Selfridges; Browns
Mike Cherman of Chinatown Market is probably the most experienced designer and businessman on this list. He’s talked extensively about his come-up, which involved dropping out of Parsons after a year, courting Jeff Staple in an unconventional way to ask for a job—that he didn’t get—and creating the Kith logo. But once he started his first brand, ICNY, a line informed by cycling that was sold at retailers including Urban Outfitters and Colette, the hard lessons began. Not knowing much about the business side, Cherman gave a majority stake to investors who handled the business and manufacturing and made him sign a four-year non-compete that prevented him from working on anything outside of ICNY. Eventually Cherman had no control over the brand and was terminated
“People shouldn’t take money until they know why they’re taking it,” says Cherman about younger designers working with investors. “It’s easier to have someone else focus on growing the business side while you create, but if you don’t go through that process, you don’t understand what it takes to run a business.”
With Chinatown Market, the streetwear brand known for remixing or bootlegging logos and imagery that he launched in 2016, he’s built the business from the ground up, starting with selling product at the first ComplexCon, in 2016, to opening his own 1,200-square-foot design studio and warehouse in Los Angeles—something he says he wouldn’t have been able to do in New York. While ICNY, which doesn’t exist anymore, was his vision for what he wanted people to wear, Chinatown Market is a response to what people were already wearing. Many of the retail relationships he established with ICNY helped him open accounts relatively quickly with stores including Colette, Urban Outfitters, and Browns. He’s received criticism for some of his partnership choices.
“I’m not here to build a business to be cool and small,” says Cherman. “Anyone who tells me I’m selling out and building too big of a business is very short-sighted, because don’t we all want to win and see our stuff on different platforms? I have larger ambitions, and if I can create stuff and create more opportunities to do that infinitely, I will go do that.”
Cherman has been able to grow the line despite his use of bootleg imagery, but says he always used them as a way to build energy and design interesting product, not make money. And although he’s received a few cease-and-desist letters, many brands use “remixes” as an opportunity to officially collaborate with him. After the Smiley Company sent a cease-and-desist to Urban Outfitters for selling a Chinatown Market shirt covered with a smiley face, the company reached out to Cherman and he worked with them to acquire the global license for the iconic imagery.
Cherman also runs Six Ounce Studio, a creative agency. Consulting has helped with cash flow for many designers, but as he grows Chinatown, he wants to ensure he has equity or a vested interest in whatever he’s working on. At one point, he was also working on starting other clothing lines, but he’s since taken a step back from that.
“I’ve had to be a lot more strategic about consulting because I realized that I don’t get a lot in return,” says Cherman. “I want to grow this brand to its fullest potential, so I need to focus on this, unless it’s a really intriguing project.”—Aria Hughes
Come Back as a Flower
Hometown: Los Angeles, CA
Education: Studied fine art at ArtCenter College of Design in Pasadena but dropped out
Come Back as a Flower, which Los Angeles native Esper founded only late last year, is the youngest brand on the list, but it’s had some early co-signs from ASAP Rocky and Big Sean, who have both worn pieces the designer has tie-dyed. Named after the Stevie Wonder song, Come Back as a Flower is about sustainability and black spiritualism. Esper uses T-shirts made from recycled cotton he sources from Every World, a factory in Los Angeles, and hand dyes each one. “For me, it’s important to identify CBAAF as black-owned so the consumer understands that the psychedelic themes and nuances are contextualized around the black experience, or lack thereof, in the ’70s, and to send a signal to the black consumer that this is a business you should make a priority to support,” says Esper, who dropped out of art school and spent nine months in a spiritual commune in Northern California where he first started dabbling in manipulating textiles.
Before starting the line late last year, he interned for art director Hassan Rahim, produced beats and built up a network behind the scenes in different creative fields. Esper believes this is how stylists including Matthew Henson found out about him and contacted him directly for T-shirts. Henson, purchased five or six for ASAP Rocky, and Big Sean’s creative director, who Esper went to high school with, DM’d him on Instagram and ordered a few for the Detroit rapper. He asked Esper to tie-dye the Carhartt work jacket Big Sean wore to the Dreamville Fest.
Thanks to this early support and a clear brand message, retailers including SSENSE, Opening Ceremony, and Selfridges have reached out, but Esper wants to make sure he’s working with them in a way that’s sustainable for the environment and maintains exclusivity. He notes that most retailers utilize a resource-consuming supply chain and production starts outside of the U.S. “Most buyers are looking for large quantities of cheap product to turn a profit. However, we create everything by hand here in the U.S. and in very limited quantities of recycled material,” says Esper. “So although it’s better for the environment, it poses a dilemma for the efficient buyer to invest in smaller quantities of a more expensive product. So I will probably end up doing specific capsule collections or limited orders.”
Tie-dye T-shirts were the starting point, but he plans to launch a full collection focused on upcycling and indigenous weaving—he hinted at a repurposing technique he will reveal later this year. “I want to create an American luxury house that’s leading in sustainability, that’s leading in recycling, that’s leading in ways to inspire people to change the way they’re thinking about fast fashion and stuff like that.”—Aria Hughes
Elijah Funk and Alix Ross
Hometown: Ohio (Cincinnati and Zanesville)
Education: Fine Arts at Columbus College of Art and Design
Stockists: Union; Dover Street Market; GR8 Tokyo
Three years ago, Elijah Funk and Alix Ross began selling their hand-dyed Grateful Dead merch in the parking lots of Dead & Company shows on the West Coast. Better known as “Shakedown Street,” this was where Online Ceramics found its earliest supporters, and it came at the perfect time. When John Mayer began touring with the legendary dad rock band in 2015, he brought Deadhead subculture back into the forefront and got friendly with Mason Warner, who runs From the Lot, an Instagram account featuring Deadhead graphics. Warner sent Mayer a package that included Online Ceramics T-shirts and he met up with the designers at a Bob Weir Show. Mayer asked them to tie dye a white Supreme Louis Vuitton Box Logo T-shirt and make an official hoodie for Dead & Company’s Madison Square Garden gig. That year was also when Chris Gibbs of Union Los Angeles heard about two artists in L.A. making some of the illest Grateful Dead bootlegs around. According to Ross these cosigns came out of nowhere.
“John Mayer and Chris Gibbs really took a shot in the dark on us. That was when we were still hand-printing our tags and sewing them in ourselves,” Funk said. “I remember how chaotic it was to make Union’s first order. It fucked our whole system up, but it was one of the best things we’ve ever done.”
Although Online Ceramics is now stocked in retailers like GR8 Tokyo and Dover Street Market, the brand has not left the handcrafted traditions of the Lot behind. Funk, Ross, and three other core employees tie-dye and screenprint nearly 200 shirts a week, and it can take up to 30 days to receive.
Ross and Funk began working together as fine art students at Columbus College of Art and Design in their home state of Ohio. Funk attributes having a well-rounded skill set to his fine arts degree and notes that the brand’s staff comes from a similar background. They haven’t done many collaborations, but worked with Oscar-winning indie film studio A24 last year under their horror-influenced sister brand, Haunted Wagon, on T-shirts for Hereditary. Ross and Funk, both horror film fans, went on a DMing spree to make that partnership happen and eventually connected with Zoe Beyer, A24’s creative director who gave them the go-ahead on making official T-shirts for the release of the film.
Now that they have a solid foundation, the duo wants to expand Online Ceramics into new avenues and bring in fresh concepts.
“I think one of the biggest successes we’ve had is that we’ve been able to run parallel with Union shoppers and Deadheads,” says Funk. “We’ve gotten to build this special community of people who support us and have all these amazing interactions with people. At the end of the day, if we can hook each other up with enough money to pay rent, have a good time, and meet nice people, that’s the biggest success you could ever have.”—Lei Takanashi
Eric Emanuel racked up credit cards to make custom jerseys out of his dorm room at the Fashion Institute of Technology, which he attended to please his parents. “While being there, I realized it actually was the right place to be, but not from an educational standpoint,” says Emanuel, “but because I met everyone that was sort of pivotal in where I am today while I was there.” One of those people was Ian Connor, to whom in 2013 Emanuel gave a Jordan “45” Barons jersey that ended up on ASAP Rocky. From there, other celebrities and athletes started reaching out for custom pieces, which helped grow Emanuel’s following. “It’s really unfortunate, but it’s really important,” says Emanuel of support from celebrities.
While Emanuel still works with celebrities, he’s out of the custom game. He says it was never very lucrative. Instead, he’s focused on his eponymous ready-to-wear line. The custom work, however, did bring him the attention he needed to work with larger companies including New Era and Adidas—Emanuel said both of these opportunities came to him organically. With New Era, he dropped canvas hats in 2016 and eventually a neon line of Major League Baseball hats and apparel—New Era’s first licensed clothing line—in 2018. His Adidas collections started with his take on the adidas Originals Crazy BYW and the Rivalry-Hi sneakers that were released in 2018, and led to a larger line of apparel and sneakers inspired by floral wallpaper. He suggests younger designers working with larger companies look for someone on staff they can trust. “You have to find that one person that sort of understands you and is going to believe in what you do,” says Emanuel. “You also need to know what you stand to gain by working with them.” Emanuel says at New Era he had complete creative freedom and gained access to Major League Baseball license, while at Adidas he was able to utilize their infrastructure to produce a collection within weeks that would have taken him years to make.
For his own line of basketball shorts, which launched in 2016, Emanuel went on the New York Garment District website, and knocked on doors until one factory owner was willing to take a chance on him. He wanted to make clothes that were accessible to different types of people. “Inclusiveness has now become this thing that brands prey on or whatever, but inclusiveness is actually what I believe in,” says Emanuel. With that in mind, he cautions aspiring designers against producing prohibitively expensive goods. “I think the No. 1 thing for young people is they try to price everyone out. Just because you made an expensive product doesn’t mean anyone is going to buy it. It’s OK to have a cheap product.”
For now Emanuel wants to keep production in New York, and only sells capsule collections to a couple of retailers. “My product is not scaled to wholesale, because it’s made in New York, so it leaves no room for me to make money,” says Emanuel, who mainly works with one other person day-to-day and 10 sewers. In June, he will launch the first pop-up he’s operated by himself, but his main piece of advice is to take things slowly. “The internet is your friend,” he says. “You don’t need to be in a store or have a store to get attention. And you probably aren’t going to make money in the first two years, and if you do, the line will be extremely short-lived.” —Aria HughesPOST CONTINUES BELOW
Hometown: Elmhurst, New York
Education: Studied digital media at Baruch College
Stockists: Gr8 Tokyo; Mr Porter; Detail; Cherry; Barneys Japan. Collab with Virgil Abloh at select Off-White stores
Everard Best grew up in New York and learned everything he knows about garment construction from his father, who runs a tailoring shop on Long Island. Best formed his first line, Lease on Life Society, in high school, around 2010, and then went to Baruch College, where he studied digital marketing. When he wasn’t in class, he was spending time downtown being a hypebeast and building a network. Although Lease on Life had some buzz—it was covered frequently on Four Pins—because it wasn’t picked up by retailers and he matured as a designer, Best decided to abandon that project and introduce Ev Bravado, a denim-centric line focused on color and embroidery, in 2016.
Best started by selling his first drop, “Make America Suck Again,” which released in July 2016, on his own e-commerce site, and released his second collection through Grailed. A big break for the brand came in 2017, when Best approached Heron Preston at the Public Hotel in New York and Preston then visited a pop-up Best was hosting. From there, Preston worked with him on a customization pop-up in Paris and connected Best with Virgil Abloh, who tapped the designer to collaborate on denim for the Off-White spring/summer 2019 collection.
“Working with Virgil did bolster my career and my overall impact, but with the power of social media, you don’t really need anyone besides yourself,” says Best. “You can maintain a large following with a lot of engagement without a co-sign.”
Having a presence in Paris—in January, he had a tie-dye workshop with VOS Paris—has helped transition Ev Bravado into a fully functioning brand that’s been picked up by major retailers.
Best says the current challenge is clearing up confusion between Ev Bravado the brand, which has no investors, and himself, so he will present “WHODECIDESWAR by MRDRBRVDO” in Paris this June as a rebrand of sorts.
“Operating the brand as a namesake label has been great, but it’s time for the art to live and breathe on its own,” says Best. “And no matter where you decide to showcase your work, the most important thing is to tell your story, demonstrate your innovation, and leave your mark.” —Scarlett Newman
Stockists: Soon to be stocked at Dover Street Market, Nubian Tokyo
The day Kristopher Kites found out he was rejected by the Fashion Institute of Technology’s menswear program was the day Vogue.com covered his exhibition/pop-up at Congruent Space in Chicago. It was last year when Kites, a recent high school graduate who was working at NikeLab and making clothes here and there, decided to debut his jewelry—a playful collection that places superhero figurines and toys in clear cubes attached to plastic Cuban-link chains. That eventually led to a DM from J Balvin, who Kites made custom pieces for and collaborated with on a glow-in-the-dark collection at ComplexCon Long Beach in 2018. “That was the first person who gave me a big check,” says Kites.
With a co-sign from Balvin, and support from Chicago natives like Don C, Joe Freshgoods, Fashion Geek owner Alonzo Jackson, and Virgil Abloh—who commented on a pair of pants Kites made and posted on Instagram in 2017 with “Super Dope”—the designer doesn’t feel like his location has prevented him from opportunities. In fact, he says he’s able to stand out more in Chicago. “L.A. and New York are too saturated. It’s the same thing over and over again. You hear the same story: The small-time designer went to New York and makes it big,” says Kites. “I want to put on for Chicago. But you really have to work for Chicago love. They won’t support you just because.”
Kites, who got the money to make his jewelry by refraining from buying new shoes and opting to take the bus instead of Ubers, will sell some of his pieces at Dover Street Market, but because they are handmade and retail for around $300, he’s not too intrigued by wholesale. “My chains sell out on my site, so I don’t really need stores,” he says. Self-sufficiency is important for Kites, who thinks all designers should invest in themselves. “I bought a sewing machine so I didn’t need anyone to print my T-shirts—I was just sewing everything. Thread don’t cost shit, and I would just go to the thrift store for fabric. Everyone would be looking for like manufacturers and I’m like, ‘Shit, I’m the manufacturer.’”
He also doesn’t believe he needs a big job at a fashion brand even though that used to be the dream for many aspiring designers. “I feel as if my ideas are better than theirs, and in any creative environment where a creator doesn’t own their ideas, I feel like they are just being used.”—Scarlett Newman
Places + Faces
Hometown: South East London
Education: Media production, but didn’t want to mention school
Stockists: Selfridges; Nubian Tokyo; HBX; CNTRBND; Worthy Dubai
Imran Ciesay and Solomon “Soulz” Boyede were influenced by photographers like Janette Beckman when they launched Places + Faces in 2013 as a Tumblr blog that showcased their intimate snapshots of hip-hop’s finest. Back then, Ciesay said he would sneak into shows when rappers like ASAP Rocky and Travis Scott were still on the come-up. Some would let him take a picture; others wouldn’t. But when they saw that same kid with a camera was at their shows in London, Paris, and New York, that familiarity led to trust.
Clothing was never part of the picture until the duo decided to make some hoodies serving as “business cards” for themselves to wear and people wanted them. Ciesay spent £300 to make his initial run of hoodies, made some profit, and decided to make more. Five years later, P+F chooses to work with retailers like Selfridges on capsule collections and hosts pop-ups throughout the world rather than delivering product to stores each season. He says a lot of these partnerships, including his collab with Guess and A Cold Wall*’s sister label, Polythene Optics, come from relationships.
For example, he met Nikolai Marciano, the creative director of Guess Jeans, at an ASAP Rocky x Guess Jeans pop-up in London in 2016. They kept in touch and released a line last year that felt authentically Places + Faces with its reflective details and gritty photo campaign. “All of our collabs were moments for us rather than another cash grabbing clothing collab,” says Ciesay. “People liked it a lot because it was something new for everyone and it hasn’t been seen before. We planned the shoot, chose the locations and had people in our circle involved in it.”
As for current obstacles and goals, Ciesay says it’s important that Places + Faces isn’t defined as just a streetwear brand. They want it to be a complete lifestyle line. When P+F collaborated with Medicom last year, for example, Ciesay opted out of the streetwear cliche of making a branded Bearbrick and chose to design products like couch cushions with Medicom’s Fabrick line instead.
“We want to just keep doing stuff to the point where it becomes like a conglomerate,” says Ciesay. “We can have our own TV channel or our own airline and people wouldn’t look at us differently.”
He believes Places + Faces success and ability to move into different categories has come from the story they’ve told.
“The internet has created this world with no rules, and anyone can do anything,” says Ciesay. “But having a narrative that you stick by, that people can appreciate and follow, is what makes things latch.” —Lei Takanashi
Hometown: Jacksonville, Florida
Stockists: Selfridges; Barneys New York; Notre; SSENSE
Reese Cooper didn’t go to a prestigious design school. Instead, he cut his teeth at the Bape store in London and worked his way up to an internship with Craig Ford’s anon*, a PR showroom and distribution agency that launched Bape in the U.K. “I was just trying to figure out why [these clothes] cost so much money,” says Cooper. “That led to me being super curious about the construction of everything, and I decided I should try this myself.”
Cooper was born in Jacksonville, Florida, but grew up in Atlanta before moving to London at 11 because of his mother’s job—his mom, who is based in London, is a lawyer and serves as the chief executive officer of the line and handles the finances. After two years of learning about the fashion business in London and mapping out a one-year plan for his own line, at 18 he left for Los Angeles, where he operates his eponymous label today. The move helped him dodge the excessive costs involved with producing a label in London. L.A. also gave him access to the Gianetti Factory, owned by his friend Charlie Gianetti’s father, Steve Gianetti. But before settling in with them, he worked with other factories to learn the process and produce his first pieces.
“There’s no course about how to walk into a factory that doesn’t want to talk to you in the first place and convince them to work with you,” says Cooper. “Then, during production, everything possible is going to fuck up, and mistakes are expensive. You have to do everything over two or three times, but then you’ll never make those mistakes again.”
For “Lone Pine,” his first fully formed collection, he traveled to Paris in early 2018 and, with help from a PR agency, set up showroom appointments with buyers. The collection, which featured half-zip flannels, varsity jackets, and graphic sweatshirts, was picked up quickly. His early success with key retailers led to Barneys New York reaching out for an exclusive capsule collection, “Against The Wind,” that dropped earlier this year and features updated takes on workwear staples. Cooper says because Barneys offered him creative freedom, he was open to the partnership and they will also have the exclusive for his debut fall 2019 womenswear collection.
“I don’t like to work on commission of someone else’s ideas,” says Cooper. “It’s a good platform to express more ideas, create some special product, and reach a great audience.”
His recommendation for young designers is simple: “This whole thing is an endurance test. Keep going no matter what.”—Mike DeStefano
Education: Olds College (Calgary, Canada)
Stockists: SSENSE; Back-door; soon to be stocked in Take Out Shop NYC and Notre
Spencer Badu studied apparel technology with a major in womenswear while at the Fashion Institute by Olds College, but was inspired by the varying identities of the peple around him, so he created a unisex brand.
Shortly after graduating in 2016, Badu started the line, which features streetwear basics such as track pants and graphic T-shirts, along with more involved pieces like bomber jackets that convert to backpacks. He used money he earned from selling clothes and bartending on the side. He estimates that launching your first collection on a small scale will range from $5,000 to $10,000. A friend of his owned a factory, which enabled him to produce some of his intricate pieces, and he found other factories by Googling, cold calling, and knocking on doors with samples.
In 2016, he traveled to Los Angeles and walked into the H. Lorenzo store to meet a buyer but randomly bumped into Matthew Henson, ASAP Rocky’s stylist, who complimented Badu on his pants. They exchanged information and when Henson visited Toronto, he stopped by Badu’s studio and pulled another pair of pants that Rocky ended up wearing in 2017.
Starting in 2017, he worked with a showroom in Paris on his first two collections. From that, he learned how to prep all the materials needed for appointments and what retailers were looking for, but because that generated no sales, the next season he invited buyers, press, and stylists to an Airbnb, which landed him his first retail account, Hudson’s Bay. “I don’t have a sales team because I feel like I had to set a foundation for the stores we are going after,” says Badu, adding that he believes the wholesale model has to evolve. “I think wholesale based just on units that’s presented on a rack in the midst of a bunch of other stuff is dead. It’s leaning towards curated experiences.”
Badu credits Instagram and celebrities with helping get his brand out there, but he also attributes some of his early success to his stylist, Bobby Bowen, who he works with on lookbooks and the collection. “A stylist is important,” says Badu. “They should breathe some fresh air into the collection or even offer visual references to make the collection more rich.”
Badu started with a more commercial line to build brand awareness, but eventually presented more fashion items. To avoid the industry boxing everything together as streetwear, he recently divided his line into S.P. BADU, a streetwear line, and Spencer Badu, a more fashion-focused assortment. “Streetwear didn’t represent our progressive or more developed pieces, so instead of trying to do everything under one umbrella, it made sense to draw a line in the sand,” says Badu.
He tells young designers to be their own advocates. “Not everyone is going to understand your work or like it, but that’s OK. The goal is awareness. Tell as many people as you can and spread the word, because no one else will.”—Scarlett Newman