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How a Chance Encounter With a Sales Associate Gave John Elliott the Confidence to Build His Brand

Without any formal training, the cult favorite designer hustled his way to the top of the menswear scene — and earned himself a co-sign from Kanye West.
John Elliott after his spring 2016 show in New York. Photo: Imaxtree

John Elliott after his spring 2016 show in New York. Photo: Imaxtree

In our long-running series, "How I'm Making It," we talk to people making a living in the fashion industry about how they broke in and found success.

The current fashion landscape is such that the athleisure market is booming and luxury shoppers don't bat an eye at spending upwards of $800 on a designer sweatshirt. But when John Elliott launched his label of elevated, well-fitted basics for men back in 2012 — the foundation of which was a slim sweatshirt with zippers up the sides — many thought he was crazy. Flash-forward to today, and his eponymous brand is nominated for the prestigious CFDA Swarovski Award for Menswear and carried in a number of the world's most respected retailers, including Barneys, Bergdorf Goodman, Steven Alan and Mr. Porter. He's also become a prominent figure in the menswear space, with editors at Complex, GQ, Hypebeast and the like singing his praises, as well as one rapper-cum-designer in particular (that'd be Kanye West) showing him unwavering support. 

This may all sound too good to be true for a company that's barely four years old, but Elliott's road to success was a rocky one — and required over a decade of heads-down hustling behind the scenes in order to learn the ins and outs of the industry. While Elliott has no formal design training, he knew from an early age that fashion was his calling. "I was sending Nike letters when I was seven or eight years old of designs," he tells us over the phone from Los Angeles, where he is based, less than a week before Monday night's CFDAs. "I'm super-dyslexic, so school was always tough, but my parents were very supportive in pushing me forward in an artistic space." Growing up in pre-Internet San Francisco, Elliott would look to his city for inspiration — particularly a store called Villains. "It was my view into the truly 'cool kids,'" he recalls. "I would go up to Haight Street and see what was going on — who was working at that store, how they dressed, the way that they walked, the way that they talked, and I thought, I want in."

It was this keen interest in street culture — particularly basketball and skateboarding — that ignited his desire to launch a label of his own. "In the mid-90s, there were these skate startups... two guys would branch off from, like, DC Shoes and it would blow up," Elliott says. "I thought, 'Two friends starting a brand together that's actually working?' That was my ultimate goal." After "barely" finishing school as a sociology major, Elliott wound up begging for (and getting) a job at Villains, where he worked his way up, eventually leaving to become the buyer and manager of a shop called Jack's. There, he met his friend and mentor, designer Simon Miller, who'd built his own men's denim company from the ground up. 

After moving to LA to take a corporate wholesale job, Elliott decided to learn the ropes in design (pattern making, sourcing fabrics, honing a vision) by becoming an apprentice for Miller — for free. For a year and a half, he worked in Miller's downtown studio, while beginning to experiment on pieces of his own, primarily made from inexpensive jersey and French terry. Despite well-meaning commentary from his boss regarding his "goth ninja bullshit" creations, Elliott — along with his business partner and lifelong friend, Aaron Lavee, whose floor he was living on at the time — decided to go all-in on his own line. With an initial personal investment of $15,000 each, Lavee carefully structured the business while Elliott designed a small capsule of denim that they'd bring to a trade show in Vegas.

Kanye West with the designer backstage at his first show. Photo: Craig Barritt/Getty Images

Kanye West with the designer backstage at his first show. Photo: Craig Barritt/Getty Images

On the quality of the jeans alone, the duo was invited to New York City to take an appointment at menswear mecca Atrium, where Elliott would present the rest of his line. "They had us in the basement — a buyer came down and held up the 'Villian' crewneck sweatshirt, and he says, 'What is this? You think you're a designer now?' And at that very moment, one of the sales kids walked down and saw it, like, 'Yo! What is that?'" Elliott told him to try it on, and afterwards he said, "I need this — if I could buy it right now, I would."

"It changed the whole energy in the room; I felt like that kid was sent from the heavens or something," Elliott recalls. "I owe him my career, really." But more than anything, that interaction gave him true confidence in his brand vision. "I felt pure freedom, wanting to do this since I was a kid and just getting that first order from New York City… I felt like I'd battled the top boss of a video game. I had swag, I thought I was already winning."

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That day, Atrium turned in a sizable purchase order — and the brand racked up eight other stockists that first season — but then the pressure was really on. "It was all on me — I did all the production myself, listened to Meek Mill and drove a U-Haul around downtown LA," Elliott says of the round-the-clock hustle required to build the brand. In the days before orders began piling up, the financial realities of being an entrepreneur set in, too. "It got difficult to the point where rent was a struggle, let alone eating," Elliott remembers. "There were so many moments when the thing was teeter-tottering on existence. I was looking for a job as a security guard in a parking lot." 

But the hard work earned Elliott attention from high places — namely GQ, which named him one of the Best New Menswear Designers in America in 2014. When Men's Fashion Week rolled around in February 2015, he decided it was time to stage his first show, after five seasons in business. "I didn't fully grasp the reality of what a runway show entails, but I wanted to give the brand the opportunity to be represented as something a little more cohesive, rather than just basics," he says. "It was well received, and thank God, because we didn't know what stage we were on — but once Kanye West showed up, that stage became very real."

Elliott and West were acquaintances, but the designer didn't know he would be attending the show until 10 minutes prior to his arrival. "He can't help but know his power, obviously," Elliott says, recalling the dozens of photographers fighting for photos backstage. "It puts you in the situation where you're in the Daily Mail, it makes you a little bit of a household name. For a young brand, it was a tremendous platform. Then your challenge becomes validating the fact that these people know who you are through the product."

The finale of Elliott's fall 2016 show. Photo: Imaxtree

The finale of Elliott's fall 2016 show. Photo: Imaxtree

Seeing this momentum from West as a gift, Elliott made it his mission to blow his next runway show out of the water — in fact, he traveled to Vietnam and literally ran through the country in search of inspiration. "I liken it to music: That first runway show was like our mixtape, and the second runway show — where I truly understood how to put a collection together, how to weave that story through the set, how to cast models, how to create this whole world that's more representative of a singular idea — that was huge for us. That was like our first album." 

Elliott will present for the fourth time at New York Fashion Week: Men's this July, and shows no sign of slowing his hustle. "I always hope that [this] energy will equal that of my first show," he says. "It's like a drug, you always remember that adrenaline rush — it's unlike anything I've ever felt in my life." Another element that drives him to push his vision further is the community of menswear fans that supports him, both online and off. "I can remember in the '90s, being in the Lower East Side and seeing those kids and wanting to be a part of it," he says. "Now you can choose who your 'Lower East Side' is and follow them — you can see what makes them tick. It's truly a beautiful thing."

It's this community that makes Elliott feel that now is a particularly great time to be a menswear designer. "It's never been more accepted to be curious, and that's so important," he explains. "For many years, I think guys felt shackled by what felt socially acceptable; there were negative terms associated with a guy if he cared about the way he looked or the way he dressed. Now, if you're not cultured and you don't dress well and you aren't paying attention to what's interesting in art, music and fashion, it's almost like you're falling behind." 

To drive this point home, he recalled a moment where his 50-something father asked him about Vetements, wanting to have a conversation about what Demna Gvasalia and co. are doing in Paris. "If you told me 10 years ago I'd be discussing these concepts with my dad, I'd say you needed to go see someone — there's no chance," he says with a laugh. But as someone who started his fashion career by collecting vintage T-shirts and Champion sweatshirts sourced from a former prison laundress, and who is now nominated for a CFDA Award that celebrates the industry's most promising new talents, nothing seems too far out of reach.