Of the half dozen young, boundaries-pushing labels that made their debuts at the VFiles runway show during New York Fashion Week last September, none received louder applause than Moses Gauntlett Cheng. This was partly because the three designers — David Moses, Esther Gauntlett and Jenny Cheng — seemed to have more friends in the audience than anyone else, and partly because they were already well on their way to something big. Opening Ceremony had bought their last collection, which would hit the sales floor the next morning, and a little-known reality TV star named Kim Kardashian had worn a top.
The three designers met while interning at Eckhaus Latta in early 2014. Gauntlett, the cutter and sewer of the group, had recently graduated from RMIT in Melbourne, and moved to New York after winning the Green Card lottery. Cheng, a Long Island native and former pre-med student at USC with a talent for knitwear, had recently graduated from the prestigious Rhode Island School of Design (RISD). David, the PR darling who's since gained some notoriety for his friendship with Lily-Rose Depp, was studying at FIT. (Though he recently left the label to continue his studies, Gauntlett and Cheng said.)
Moses Gauntlett Cheng's clothes have a homemade, adolescent quality that makes them very compelling. While the garments tend to show a lot of skin, they read as vulnerable rather than conventionally sexy, and they clearly aren't concerned about making the wearer look skinny or powerful. On Sunday evening at Milk Studios, the designers showed their fourth collection as part of Made Fashion Week — yet another sign that they are on the way up. Sitting, standing and slouching along one wall on the eighth floor, models — and not your typical models, but an assortment of the designers' male and female friends, representing a range of body types — sported skimpy knit bra tops, herringbone jackets and attractively loose knit leggings. The space was crowded with the well- and extravagantly dressed, but the models wore the most interesting clothes in the room.
Three weeks before the show, I visited Gauntlett and Cheng in their cluttered Williamsburg studio, where they were in the early stages of developing the collection. Both have day jobs: Gauntlett sells body-care products at Aesop and works as a freelance stylist, and Cheng as a freelancer knitter. They gather at the studio with friends in the evenings, a bottle of wine shared between them.
How did you decide to launch a label?
Cheng: David was like, oh, let's make clothes together, so we decided to make clothes. [Esther] was in a car with Zoe [Latta] and David [Eckhaus] and Zoe suggested [she] join. And then we pretty quickly threw together our first season and decided to have a show. We didn't think about starting a brand, starting a business, and we didn't anticipate it to be anything after the first season. And then Opening Ceremony contacted us, a bunch of people saw it, and we felt really energized.
How did Opening Ceremony discover you?
Cheng: [CEO and co-founder] Carol [Lim] said she saw us on Tumblr, and she came to our first show and bought the second season.
Gauntlett: It was a much bigger order than we anticipated, 140 pieces that we made all ourselves. We didn't work with a factory. We used to do that for Mike and Zoe, when they couldn't meet a minimum for a factory. It's not particularly enjoyable work.
What makes Moses Gauntlett Cheng different from everything else out there?
Gauntlett: All the clothes have some kind of fabric treatment or manipulation. We're interested in natural fibers, we love wool and paper and things that feel homey. When something gets very weird, there's always something domestic or comfortable about it.
Cheng: These are clothes that can be worn all the time. You can wear them to sleep, then go out and wear it.
Gauntlett: The clothes to us are about expressing some kind of aspiration or anxiety or response to things that have happened in our lives or our environments or to our families or our friends. We work that out through making our collection. I think this brand works when we get all the clothes together, put them on the people who inspire us, and together with the drama of the show communicate something emotional.
Can you talk to me about your approach to gender and casting? You don't use typical models at your shows.
Gauntlett: I don't put a body in the clothes when I'm drawing it. There's been a few pieces where I've been like, damn, these would look good on really big boobs, but we're not consciously trying to blur gender boundaries. It happens through casting, with an individual's relationship with the clothes.We cast our friends and families in the shows. Our clothes don't work on super-skinny 16-year-olds; they come alive on people.
Is it true that Kim Kardashian was the second person to buy your clothes?
Cheng: That was a knit piece from our collection. A stylist had pulled it for her and they kept it.
Who would you like to see wearing your clothes?
Cheng: It would be awesome to see someone we don't know wearing them on the street.
Gauntlett: Kylie Jenner maybe.
How are you thinking about the label's future?
Gauntlett: After the first season we were like, yes, let's do this seriously. Our goal is to support ourselves doing this. We don't necessarily want to do perfumes or handbags, but we do want to have a practice that can sustain us both creatively and also financially.