PARIS — As Paris Fashion Week returns to physical formats, Belgian designer Meryll Rogge, Los Angeles’ Airei and Shanghai-based Didu are three labels making a mark on and off the official schedule this season.
The word “airei” came to designer Drew Curry in a dream. Looking it up the next morning, he found this ancient Greek word had two meanings, “to cut away” or “to lift up,” which fit because “my process is literally to cut away, reconstructing in an attempt to lift up [the underdogs],” he said.
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Angella Choe/Courtesy of Airei
But it’s not about leaving things unfinished or taking them apart. Curry uses this handcraft-heavy “middle of the process” state as a way of exposing the stories garments contain, using the visible threads as his way of pointing out the important parts in collections leaning toward men’s wear. “But I found a lot of my early customers to be women,” he noted.
The fall 2021 collection was an exploration of “the cotton industry and the people it affected over time — slave, migrant and prison labor,” he said, explaining how he had reworked workwear with handcraft to give it a sense of fragility.
For his follow-up spring 2022 collection — titled “I Like America and America Likes Me” after a famous Joseph Beuys performance involving the artist being locked up with a wild coyote — Curry highlights how two initially hostile parties can come together, using thread to mimic frayed edges, rumpled fabric or ripped seams.
“I can’t alter what’s happening in the world, like racism, but I’m trying to share stories of unity and healing in the hope of inspiring [that path],” he said. The collection will be presented from Sept. 27 to Oct. 4 by appointment in Paris.
His own path is a winding tale that starts in his hometown of Tacoma, Wash., meanders through the Indian metropolis of Kolkata and ends in Los Angeles, where he now lives.
“It’s been a 10-year journey of trying to find my voice, making stuff, failing and then making more stuff,” said the self-taught designer, who learned his trade through observation and working for the “godfather of denim,” Adriano Goldschmied. “It got to a point where I considered quitting, but decided that it was out of my hands. I told myself that I could be 80 and making clothing, if that’s how long it took.”
He didn’t have to wait long. The next few months felt like a heady rush for Curry, whose first collection was picked up exclusively by Dover Street Market Ginza, New York and Los Angeles, and who can already call artists like SZA, Bad Bunny and Kanye West among his early fans.
“I had no intention to start a brand straight after school because I was kind of always afraid to do something on my own. What I was wanting was finding an internship,” said Shanghai-based designer Di Du, whose designs were already being spotted on the likes of Ariana Grande before her 2019 graduation from Antwerp’s Royal Academy of Fine Arts.
Zhongjia Sun/Courtesy of Didu
There was no time for second thoughts after that, because retailers like H. Lorenzo in Los Angeles and GR8 in Tokyo came knocking. So did global names like Kylie Jenner, Cardi B and Charli D’Amelio, who were drawn to her curve-hugging designs that Du intended as “a way to illustrate the female shape, using tailoring to empower the body by strengthening its lines rather than covering it up,” she said over WeChat from Shanghai.
Cue razor-sharp silhouettes where the skin plays peekaboo in unusual places: below the clavicles, or the inside of elbows, through cropped proportions, purposefully cutout panels or simply using the tension of closures.
“I don’t really like to see a woman’s identity as soft. I want her to be powerful, sharp and independent,” Du said, adding that it was a reason why she rarely used embellishments, relying on prints and construction for effect, perhaps the only fixed point in the Didu universe.
“I’m not the type of designer who continues with one signature or with one technique,” she said, adding that she enjoyed the idea of challenging herself to chase every collection with something new.
A sense of gender-fluidity emerges in her collections because “empowerment is not limited to one body shape or a label” for Du, who has built a strong community over “the fair playing field” of social platforms.
Shanghai based is one label she’s keen to shed. As soon as travel restrictions lift, Du plans on relocating to Paris, because she misses her Europe-based creative crowd and because her pandemic-driven return to China now feels limiting in terms of creative collaborations. “Plus I could always find that internship,” she joked.
In the meantime, her first presentation on the official calendar feels like an accomplishment and like sticking it to all those who “called [her] work ‘too naked’ or ‘too odd.’ Paris is the place where my crowd comes together with my aesthetic [references],” like Paris-based Argentine filmmaker Gaspar Noé whose film “Into the Void” inspired the Didu fall 2021 collection.
For spring 2022, she will invite the audience to a “Last Dance of Life” with liquid-looking fabrics and cowboy-inspired lace-up denim — always a winning category for Du. Her Sept. 29 digital presentation is slated at 11.30 a.m. on the official calendar.
When the time came to give a name to her brand, Belgian designer Meryll Rogge considered multiple options before settling on her own moniker. “[Another name] just felt so dishonest or something. There was a kind of simplicity about just having my own name,” she said on a phone call from her family home in Ghent, Belgium.
Jorre Janssens/Courtesy of Meryll Rogge
Another idea she considered simple? “Creating clothes that last a lifetime” because she feels “they can’t be disposable and should have a lasting quality that allows you to pull them out in two, 10 or 20 years.”
A former student at Antwerp’s Royal Academy of Fine Arts, whose childhood dream was to become an illustrator, Rogge ended up moving to New York and switched paint for textile swatches. After working her way up to lead designer at Marc Jacobs over seven years, she was back in Antwerp working for Dries van Noten before going solo.
Even in the unenviable context of a pandemic, her first two collections were well received, garnering an enviable roster of retailers that includes Ssense, Net-a-porter, Bergdorf Goodman, Isetan and Lane Crawford, who appreciated the designer’s sophisticated detailing, bold use of color and retro-chic vibe.
And although she leans more toward women’s wear, Rogge has garnered a sizeable following of men attracted to her clever revisits of classics skating across the gender spectrum.
Giving specific reference points is something Rogge feels fashion should forget. After all, “you don’t need to know the back story or concept to appreciate clothes. Most people don’t even know what a season’s collection looks like when they go into a store,” she said, pointing out that vintage clothes were often more interesting for their mysterious provenance.
That’s also why she called her spring 2022 collection “All Talk” because “the point of fashion is to make people happy, or at least feel something. At the end of the day, it’s good to shut up and let them enjoy [the clothes] the way they want to.”
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