On paper, Billy is a menswear line. It's cut and fit for a man and it's named for a man, yet the pieces are intended to be genderless. Billy came to my attention, as many things do, by way of a paparazzi shot of Kim Kardashian West, who does not identify as a man. In the photo, KKW wears a pair of slim-fitting sweatpants in classic heather gray with neither visible branding nor statement-making adornment. They are perfectly anonymous, right in line with stylist-turned-designer Holly Jovenall's ethos of "not having to proclaim who you are all the time."
"I would say that my design aesthetic is simple, and it's minimal," Jovenall explains by phone from Los Angeles, where she and the brand are based. "For me, if you're cool, you're cool, and it should come from the inside out, not having to say, 'Hey, I'm here. This is what I'm wearing, I'm trying to impress you.' I want the people wearing my pieces to just feel good about themselves," she continues. "Be in a coffee shop and look so cool without having to say what designer they have on."
Fall 2017 marks the label's debut collection, following a small summer capsule which came after two years of catering exclusively to private clients as a vintage source. Very few things are cut and dry with Billy and Jovenall; both have built recognition by slow boil rather than instant flash, though it can seem like the latter when pop culture's reigning queen is waltzing about in your sweats. Other celebrity fans of the label thus far include Justin Bieber, Ty Dolla Sign, Wiz Khalifa, Tove Lo, Luka Sabbat and The Chainsmokers, which is impressive for any up-and-coming label — let alone one that's been in existence for less than a year.
Jovenall grew up in the greater Pittsburgh area, where her father, for whom the label is named, had a 60-acre horse ranch and a construction company. "I definitely grew up one-hundred percent a child of the forest," she says. "I loved going to work with my dad," she adds, which inspired her early business acumen. "I've always wanted my own business, like from the age of 12 — even then I knew I'd love to have my life as a career."
Fashion came into the picture in college, when Jovenall attended West Virgina University. "When I tell people [I went to WVU] they're like, 'No way,'" she laughs, "because it's so different from me." The designer was on track to pursue dance after high school, which she had been practicing since age five, when she thought, "What am I going to do with dance?" Seeking evolution, she followed her best friend to WVU. "I went my first semester for physical therapy and [it was] miserable," she says. "I saw that there was [a fashion program at WVU] and started going to class and I was just like, 'I've found my love.' You know when you start something and your heart starts beating and you get goosebumps? I was like, 'Yes! You can do this for a career?! This is fucking rad!'"
Upon graduation, it was not the East Coast fashion world of New York she took off for, but Los Angeles. "I moved [to LA] when I was 22 going on 23, with $2,000 and two suitcases," she recalls. "My first job was with Kitson, and I did not even know what Kitson was," she says of the retailer, which was a one-stop shop for celebrities in search of super-trendy fashion in its 2000s heyday. "I started pricing stuff with Fraser, the owner. My work ethic is really strong, so [he] and I connected because I was there on Saturday mornings at 8 a.m.," she says. "I went to him two months in and said, 'I need something more creative.'" He asked if she had ever done storefront windows. She lied and said yes. By Friday of that week, she was handling the window displays and was quickly moved up to a creative director position.
She also began styling while at Kitson, working mostly with private clients who were moms and businesswomen. "I loved it because I got to connect with a human," she recalls. "I got to keep them feeling themselves, but take them out of their comfort zones." Here she further refined what would become a signature mix of high fashion and gritty cool, mixing Rick Owens and Margiela with black Converse and a vintage T-shirt.
Vintage became a formative part of Jovenell's path to designer, and where Billy began. On weekends, she would hit the Rose Bowl flea market in pursuit of gems for her clients and her growing archive. "I would go at six [in the morning]... That's where you would see the most amazing people," among them, Isabel Marant. "I was buying these thermal long johns, and I was telling one of the [vintage vendors], 'Oh my god, I love these. They look exactly like these Isabel Marant ones that she just did,'" she says. "And she comes up to me and she's like, 'That is me, that is me! I'm Isabel Marant.'" The designer had been trailing Jovenall around the market. "She [said], 'I've been following you, I love your taste.' I was blown away. Those moments will forever be cool to me."
Another important person she met at the market, a vintage seller named Taka, became her mentor. "I'm so shy sometimes, I wouldn't say anything, and I would just buy one piece here, one piece there, because he's very standoffish, too. We finally started talking and we just connected. He invited me to have a private meeting with him." The two spent hours poring over the details of vintage clothes, discussing the machinery, fabrics, and details of decades past. "He has taught me beyond what you could ever learn in school," she says.
Billy's first incarnation was as a vintage source for stylists, editorial and celebrities. It's been laying just below the surface, loved emphatically by those in the know — streetwear fanatic Bieber among them. "We source a lot of vintage from... stylist-run stores in Los Angeles," Bieber's stylist Karla Welch told Harper's Bazaar in 2015, naming Jovenall. "Last night he wore this '88 T-shirt, from her place — she has perfectly picked over, worn-in pieces."
She eventually began reworking the vintage items and decided to hold a pop-up at Barracuda on Melrose a year and a half ago. "I called my stuff Billy, and I put it in with Sharpie — everything I sold I just wrote inside the thing 'Billy.'" Basics, like plain white T's from the 1960s and military pieces, were the foundation of this early collection, and remain the backbone of the brand. The pop-up ignited a spark in Jovenall to start the fashion collection that had always been in the back of her head. "I was just like, 'It's time.' I was already designing and I just knew," she says. "I could see it so clearly, and I just started sketching, drawing, creating... going through my past, digging really deep, super-late nights till 6 a.m. just writing and digging into my past — ex-boyfriends, lovers, best friends," she says of that period. "I designed the collection and I took it to New York, and here we are."
The first collection — which includes tees and sweats, some emblazoned with the name Billy, that range in price from $90 to $265 — was picked up by a handful of niche boutiques across the globe, including Restir in Japan, Linde Le Plais in Bologna, Machus in Portland and LCD in LA. But direct-to-consumer is where her heart is. "I like the personal aspect of being able to sell online," she says. "I have this little gang of kids in Japan that I'll DM with and sometimes my assistant is like, 'Holly, you get one hour to respond to all these,'" she laughs. "They'll be like, 'Oh my gosh, what is this pocket detail?' I'll try to teach them about the process. They get so excited," she says. "I want them to go and buy it, I want them to experiment as much as I did. The coolest thing is they'll be like, 'Okay we tried, but we just need to order from you because we need the Holly touch.'"