“There came a time in middle school when I began to share my aspirations of being a fashion designer and people would immediately say “like Kenneth Cole”, and I would slightly cringe, not because of the label they referenced but as any creative knows, you practice your discipline because you long to find your own voice and not to be compared to others.” says the young menswear designer Kenneth Nicholson as he reminiscences about his youth in Alabama. Now, established in Los Angeles, he aims to become a shape-shifter within fashion’s lexicon.
Although describing himself as a literal thinker, his interpretation of the visual world couldn’t be further from that. The designer elaborates an intricate web of influences in his eponymous label - from his grandma’s couch in Mobile, Alabama, to pumped up images of the 90s, to Betty Cooper’s theories surrounding Women’s, Gender and Africana Studies. We talk to Nicholson about those influences, his brand, and what it’s like being a Black designer in today's America.
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Kenneth, welcome to METAL. Since this is your first time in our magazine, could you tell us a bit about yourself?
Hello METAL! I think I have a great sense of humor although I can seem to be incredibly stoic in social situations. I love loud music that fits the occasion. I generally like music and the emotional power that it evokes. I’d love to write articles as a contributor or guest editor for some of my favorite publications. Some of my favorite films are, Baz Luhrmann’s Romeo and Juliet, Brazil and Nowhere to name a few. I’m the the youngest and only boy out of four siblings. I once wore the same outfit for several months straight as an artistic practice to “fade” into a character. Sometimes my thinking can be quite literal.
You come from what might be considered a traditionally conservative environment. Having just launched your eponymous label 5 years ago, this year you even attended the Met Gala. When people look at your brand, what do you want them to see? What does it tell them about you?
Yes, I would say my background definitely leaned conservative. Both my parents hailed from Mobile, Alabama so my childhood was rich with southern tradition. Expectations of a developing Black male can be extremely heavy, the weight has a way of pressing out what should be deposits of carefree innocence, “Black boy joy”. I definitely think my love affair with art and design spared me a lot of emotional distress not in totality but it was made more bearable for sure.
So naturally because I’d been having this internal conversation for years, I’ve since conclude that in fact my design career has been a conversation between God and myself. When the Met Gala call came along, I took it as God quite literally preparing a table for me. It was almost as though the theme of my 'social reject journey' as a youth, which gave way to a sometimes socially awkward adulthood, was by design. Imagine a boy longing for acceptance only to be rejected, finding himself welcomed into arguably the leading creative affair within the fashion industry.
When people view the work of the label, I want them to know that Kenneth Nicholson is a burgeoning American label in its infancy and its current steward takes that extraordinarily seriously.
Speaking of the Met Gala, this year theme was In America: A lexicon of Fashion. Even though we all know that Black culture has always been the blueprint for many of the trends that are 'in' nowadays, there’s still a great lack of Black designers at the helm of the biggest fashion Houses. With people like Virgil Abloh at Louis Vuitton, Olivier at Balmain and Kerby Jean-Raymond as Artistic Director at Reebok, are Black designers properly represented in today’s fashion era?
First speaking to my ability to attend Met Gala, I owe that amazing opportunity to Lewis Hamilton and his team. Not only did he make it possible for myself and two of my peers to attend the event but he trusted me with the coveted task of designing his look for the evening. For someone of his high stature to use his platform to highlight and promote Black emerging design talent is nothing short of incredible. The experience working with him and the abundantly talented Law Roach was a highlight of my carrier and one I will always cherish. Law became like a mentor and advisor to me, I am forever grateful.
With that said, to speak to the question at hand I think there is still a bit of work to be done as it relates to Black talent being properly represented in luxury fashion spaces. The lack of representation could be called taste discrimination, when your design point of view isn't seen as commercially viable to the high-end consumer solely based on the assumption that because of your race you don’t have the ability to discern high-end taste. Of course, we know this as false and yet sometimes it still feels like an up-hill battle to be able to work in a context, worthy of your talents.
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You’ve said before that the ideas for your silhouettes and patterns come from both ancient and modern traditions from different cultures. Still, it all blends together seamlessly. How do you convey the idea of culture diversity through your creations?
I’ve long thought of fashion in its totality both historical and modern as somewhat of a universal closet so to speak. So, I’m emboldened to think of my approach sometimes as a practice of empirical thought. Much like the way we interact with our wardrobe today, there are these items that we’ve collected over time and perhaps we find ourselves pushing them to the back of the closet far away from the light of day for a period of time.
Then one day we receive an invitation that inspires us to excavate our closet going deep into the corners we’ve neglected for a time, only to rediscover that one item that has been made to feel new again simply because of its lack of use. It’s pulled out in excitement and donned. You then feel a renewed point of view about that garment. This is the way I sometimes pull from my own creative points of reference. Its not necessarily that all the silhouettes I use are of my own invention although some are. However, some of these ideas are reimagined in a way that is better suited for today, they’ve just been long forgotten as an option in our modern wardrobe.
Ever since you started your brand, you have portrayed a wider range of expression in menswear, embracing a different viewpoint from which we’ve seen in fashion before. What has been the process like?
I usually describe myself as someone with a very rich interior life. In my head, I am completely free. I long to produce work that simply gives men more options to emote or express via their sartorial options. Pardon my digression but this world, this life, our personal and collective experiences and the possibilities there are boundless. Conventions only exist and stay where the failure of exploration triumphs. I remember as a kid seeing a shirt that had a strawberry on it, it was clearly marketed for a girl. I thought to my self “so, are girls only allowed to eat strawberries? Certainly not!” I thought.
The literal thinking emerges yet again. I don’t mean to imply that there should never be a uniformity across gender expression, on the contrary where all things take on identical expressions we cut ourselves short, and with it lose the diverse array of beauty that can only be found in the richness of collective complexities. Men are as complex as much as any other one of God’s creations. Nature patterns this. Perhaps I am here not to change the way the modern man approaches apparel, yet to reveal its array which lies beneath.
Being a rebel yourself, it only seems fitting your new Spring Summer 2022 collection, Cy Falls, takes its raison d'etre from one of fashion’s biggest non-conformist eras: nineties grunge. Even My Hero by Foo Fighters was on the soundtrack for the runway. Still, your approach differs from what we usually expect when we hear ‘grunge.’ What led you to reimagine it?
There was a simplicity at work about the 90s point of reference paired with the work from the label. I wanted this to feel very matter of fact. Again, when you look at what has been conventionally acceptable for men concerning apparel it’s usually accompanied by an outdated context. The grunge inspiration is what I authentically felt for SS22. As I mentioned before, I’m a huge fan of music specifically all the way “turnt” up. There was a particular ease that grunge and that period in time offered. The mood of the person was just as much apart of the outward expression and the clothing.
It was almost as though I had stumbled across the perfect context to show our unique point of view of mensware. The show casting was done in-house by Brooke Ochoa, and it really helped to drive that grunge point of view. After having several creative meetings on the presentation, she began street casting specifically looking for skaters that naturally had a sense of ease in their personality.
We see lace, flower motifs dresses and sleeveless shirts with a semi-open peplum attached to the hip in your newest collection. Yet somehow, what appeals to the eye is a Calvin Klein lunchbox-like purse. Apart from CK, what are other designers that inspire you?
I’m deeply inspired by so much that takes place in and outside of fashion. Other designers I like to name a few are: Tom Ford, John Galliano, or Alexander McQueen. I love the photography of Nick Knight and Irving Penn. I also enjoy being challenged by extremely heady topics that veer all the way off into academic territory..
Talking about academic territory, are there other inspirations outside from the fashion industry that help you express your ideals?
Every now and then I find myself falling down these intellectual internet holes where I spend hours consuming lectures or very intense discussion panels occupied by some of today’s foremost intellectuals such as Cornel West, or bell hooks.
One of my faves is Dr. Brittany Cooper, she is self-described as being a healthy mix of both the formal and informal. She has a mastery of making some of the most complex and hugely contested arguments understandable. I remember watching one of her panels as she riffed on the epistemological problem facing society, after tapping the left arrow several times, which is a common habit of mine when consuming content such as this, to fully understand the depth of what was being said it was kind of mind-blowing. It’s funny how one can feel a particular way but not posses the language to fully express the experience but that doesn’t mean the experience is nonexistent or any less valid. For me, some of her work speaks directly to that thing that we sometimes feel like we can’t name.
These past 2 years have been so hectic; have you found yourself reshaping or needing to reformulate your creative process?
The past 2 years have moved me to design with a renewed sense of propose. It also gave me time to slow down and allow time for me to be even more methodical in assessing how I am stewarding; not only the label, but the conversation that we’re having within fashion. We are developing in a very public forum, I’m keenly aware of this and take the responsibility evolving our label with a recognisable visual language very seriously.
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Earlier this year you launched Division 332, a capsule collection for the online fashion marketplace Depop. Being mostly known as an app which connects second-hand and small business sellers with a niche audience, what made you collaborate with the platform?
I had been an admirer of the platform and their concept since their launch. I started designing in high school by reconstructing pieces obtained from secondhand stores. It was great to be able to not only work with Depop to launch a capsule using dead-stock fabric but to engage their user and introduce them to the brand in an obtainable way, this was very exciting for us.
So far, we’ve focused on your fashion label. Nonetheless, designing isn’t your only craft. In 2020 you included filmmaking on your CV as you presented a short film called Grasp co-directed with Stefan Colson. Is there another project like that on the near future?
I would love to write and direct more film projects. I love what it offers as well as the process. I’ve always been interested in creating worlds and using other senses to help drive the vision. I do plan on many more congruent projects in the near future.
Finally, what can we expect from your label moving forward?
The label is continuing to carve out our own space within the fashion lexicon. I have nothing but the highest hopes for Kenneth Nicholson and Humble Elite Group LLC. I’m very excited to see the coming evolution of the label and the way we continue to play our part within the landscape of American fashion. One of the many thoughts on my mind is we must continue in our arch toward high-end luxury in our own unique way. How does our current visual language create a path toward that greater vision? Long term I see our brand continuing to grow and thrive by way of creative thinking and innovative approaches to business. Creatively, I see the company being more involved with other genres in the creatives sector such as film projects, art initiatives or innovative strategies.
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