A Conversation with Kenneth Nicholson, the Future of American Fashion
Kenneth Nicholson is one of the fashion world's most exciting young talents. His unique and innovative approach to designing, especially menswear, has helped invigorate the sometimes stale fashion industry. As such, he has been recognized with numerous accolades for his work, including his recent Council of Fashion Designers of America (CFDA) nomination for American Emerging Designer of the Year. The Quintessential Gentleman's fashion editor Aaron Campbell got a chance to interview Nicholson about his career, latest presentation and fashion's diversity conundrum.
What inspired you to begin designing collections when you were a child?
One of the first images I remember resonating with me was a Calvin Klein ad I came across in a magazine. It was so subtle, but even at the age of about 12, I was very sensitive to the mood it portrayed and fell in love with the imagery. The idea of crafting a garment that reflected a piece of culture and placing it within a context that could effectively evoke a tone or even a way of being was all so fascinating to me.
How would you describe your style aesthetic and what are some of the main influences that permeate throughout your work?
I would describe my aesthetic as modernly artful, where the embrace of reimagining menswear and clothing generally can exist. It's a component of the brand that is still unfolding; there will be nothing forced, and I find that very exciting. What I am endeavoring to do is to create anew. I'm inspired by historical fashion across continents as well as different artistic genres such as music, film, painting, etc. With Kenneth Nicholson, the line that will eventually become an American fashion house, I am currently laying the foundation of something new and inspiring. Some of the main influences that can be found within my work are acknowledgement traditions exhibiting what it means to finally craft a garment, which can be read as a show of respect to the fore-bearers whose work aided in constructing what I now have the opportunity to participate in. I'm also influenced by designers that I grew up watching as early as the age of 11 including Tom Ford, Ozwald Boateng, Alexander McQueen, Jeanne Lanvin and many more, all for very different reasons.
You are known for incorporating untraditional elements, such as pieces typically associated with womenswear, into your menswear designs. What do you think your customer (and today’s fashion consumer generally) is looking for when they shop and how (if at all) has that changed in recent years?
I think, like myself, that our client and perhaps consumers on a broader scale are experiencing a cocktail of emotions. We want to feel comforted and usually, that is achieved by engaging the ease of the familiar. I think it is important for our line to be able to engage society where it is at any given moment; part of the designer's duty is to interpret the times in which they live. I think it's equally important to use this uncommon moment as an opportunity to drive culture forward. I've always believed that the design and ideology behind any line should be able to exist in any space. It is the designer's task to interpret any given seasonal inspiration through their design codes. This peculiar moment has really inspired me to be more bold in my design approach. I'm very much aware of the milestones that we have been able to achieve but I continue to stay focused on the long-term vision.
Can you tell us about the inspiration behind your latest collection and the short film you presented during NYFW?
I am a huge fan of film, not just as a consumer but as an art form as well. I've always wanted to create a short or even a feature film of an original story. With virtual fashion presentations quickly becoming the chosen format as a response to COVID-19, I took this opportunity to lean into this, which felt most natural to me. The meaning of the story is to hold onto that which is rightfully yours, despite any outside resistance. In the film, the lead character, David, is shown literally grasping a small blue stone, at times quite relentlessly. This is his special gift, something that he has had since his boyhood. Behind his commitment to this seemingly useless relic lies the driving idea. As is sometimes the case when we are innocent in our childhood, we feel as though we are superhuman, sometimes making lofty oaths to tame the world and passionate declarations to rule wisely over our conquest. We see it so clearly, for clarity is one of the youths' many gifts. As we mature, we can sometimes find ourselves mid-adventure, desperately clinging to remnants of that which was given to us in perfect form, assuming we haven't allowed outside voices to lure our stone away or we have not willingly laid it aside forfeiting its certain recompense. One of the scenes that speak to how one's sacred item can be jeopardized by others' opinions is the scene where we see the little boy at the dinner party wearing a yellow boutonnière and a man comes and removes it from his lapel. In that moment David is quick to restore the boy's special object unto him knowing that that instant could potentially change the trajectory of his life should the little boy not have the strength to reclaim it for himself.
How (if applicable) has the resurgence of the Black Lives Matter movement and recent racial unrest informed your latest designs or thoughts around creating clothes for your customer?
I think the recent events concerning the Black Lives Matter Movement have made me feel ever more inspired. They have pricked me to move with a particular ease while calling me to continue to be all the more diligent. I've been reflecting on the vast contributions from Black Americans both historically and currently and it brings me a sense of edification that grounds me in a particular way.
There has been a lot of conversation lately around the experiences, often negative, of Black talent in many industries, including fashion. From your perspective, what are some tangible ways the fashion industry can be more inclusive of Black talent and talent from other historically marginalized groups?
One of the ways that the fashion industry can be more inclusive of Black talent as well as talent from other historically marginalized groups is to be in the movement for the long term, this cannot be treated like a trend. We can't forget that these conditions did not happen overnight; they were long in the making. The solutions and remedy will not happen overnight.
Besides our dollars (which are definitely important), what are other ways that we can better-support Black designers and Black brands?
The fact that we are prioritizing space and conversations on the support of Black-owned brands is huge. I think as a community we've been galvanized and there has been an evolution in the discourse from naming the problem to beginning to speak about solutions, and that's phenomenal. I think initiatives like the Black In Fashion Council are doing excellent work in centering Black talent within the fashion industry. Practical steps should be to continue to publish rosters of Black talent, intentionally promoting emerging Black talent, funding initiatives including mentorship opportunities, partnership opportunities and an overall commitment to the growth of Black-owned businesses.
How would you like to see the Kenneth Nicholson brand grow in the future?
I would love to grow the brand by continuing to prioritize the founding tenets of quality, originality and authenticity. I would love to have collaborative opportunities that allow for the brand to be introduced and experienced by a wider audience with shared values. I've always wanted to collaborate on an opera or ballet, something along those lines would be amazing. My overall vision for Kenneth Nicholson is to evolve into a leading American Fashion House.