It was an atypical Thursday night at the Brooklyn Museum, where guests had gathered for Pursuit, an annual event held during New York Fashion Week; sometimes, a model would merely undo a button on their jacket and the crowd gathered would erupt in applause. So you can imagine what ensued when one model stopped at the end of the runway, and slowly coiled their body into a backbend while grabbing the end of their braid: Cue the audience roar. Somebody in the front row even jumped to their feet and snapped their finger while waving their hand up and down in an expression of bliss.
Think of Pursuit not as a rebuke of the Council of Fashion Designers of America's NYFW schedule — which features an array of proudly LGBTQ+ designers including Telfar Clemons, Christopher John Rogers, Becca McCharen-Tran and Rio Uribe — but as an aperitif. The focus here is on creating a breeding ground for LGBTQ+ designers and brands while altering the notion that clothing is somehow gendered.
In its sixth year, the event (which changes names each year) — produced by dapperQ, a leading queer fashion website dedicated to ungendering fashion — helps kick off NYFW despite not being on the official calendar, or even being in Manhattan, where the majority of shows take place. To that end, the energy was more familial than the formality that can often-not-always waft through many shows that are part NYFW proper. "DapperQ is a queer fashion revolution, one of the most stylish forms of protest of our generation," DapperQ's Owner and Creative Director, Anita Dolce Vita, says of the online magazine.
As a Black queer femme, Vita, through her work with DapperQ, is not only challenging the fashion industry, she's questioning the mechanisms of power within queer media, too, which she notes are largely held by cisgender white gay and lesbian people. "Having not seen myself or other queer creatives represented in the ranks of queer media and fashion, I feel that I serve as an example of the power of what could be, providing visibility for others like me who have been rendered invisible and disposable in this industry." (I'd be remiss if I did not mention Anita's final runway walk, which received the loudest screams from the crowd.)
This year, TomBoyX, part of the rapidly growing market for fashion geared toward trans-masculine individuals, is not only showing its collection, but helping to produce the event. "Queer individuals, we share a common bond and deeper understanding of each other, which is why we've continued our involvement as a designer and expanded our involvement as a sponsor," says Fran Dunaway, CEO and co-founder of TomboyX.
And though sexuality might not directly influence design as a whole, gender certainly does — just ask many of the 10 designers that showed Thursday. "My gender identity influences my work in the sense that I am interested in making clothing for all gender expressions, with a main focus on queer and non binary designs," Claire Fleury, a self-taught, Brooklyn-based costume and fashion designer, explains.
For Goorin Bros's Nicky Cutler, their trans-masculine identity is a fundamental part of both their identity and their work. "It influences my work every day as a hatter because I make it a huge priority to take gendering out of the experience in finding the perfect hat. 'Is this a man's hat?' 'Is this hat for women?' is an everyday question at the hat shop," they say. Their response? "Hats have no gender. Please feel free to wear any hat in the shop."
The cofounders of one brand, HALZ, say their initial foray into design was a collaborative response to the fashion industry. Jacob (he) and Martha (she) met while attending the Art Institute of Chicago. Upon becoming friends, they quickly bonded over their shared exploration of dressing in clothing designed for the opposite gender. Jacob loved shopping in the women's section to accommodate his curvy shape, while Martha preferred the cuts of vintage menswear. Like Claire and Nicky's work, each piece of HALZ is meant to flatter neither gender, but the wearer exclusively. "Showing at DapperQ is a surreal experience," Jacob says. "HALZ started in a basement with nothing more than some rough ideas and patterning paper. The opportunity to show to such a vast audience is something that truly surpasses any verbal explanation; it's a dream come true. Showing to a predominately queer audience is an honor because HALZ is clothes for people."
For Tilly d Wolfe, who has been making genderless, transformable clothing for over a decade under their label Cilium, designing nonbinary clothing helped them realize their nonbinary identity. "Questioning gender in clothing first opened the door to questioning it within my own experience," they explain. "I invent garments, like the Upsidowner, that become pants, dresses and shirts changing simply by how you place them on your body," they explain. They also make a point to use natural dyes and environmentally responsible fabric.
Having a platform like Pursuit not only creates a space for queer designers, but it also allows queer audiences access to them in a way that traditional shows at NYFW do not. It's about being appreciated and respected, says Deb Saywell, whose brand Shane Ave. Suiting showed for the very first time on Thursday. Shane Ave's approach to design, according to Saywell, is to work and collaborate with the client to design a suit that allows them to validate their identity and feel great in their chosen attire. And it's that very person who is likely in the audience at the show. Further, it's a vantage point of fashion that's prioritizing the who over the what. It's not a revolutionary concept (hello, Azzedine Alaïa), but it's certainly notable given the bodies occupying these clothes, and how they're often ignored by the industry writ large.
"It makes me feel like I have a role here," Ellen Ford of Sharpe Suiting, L.A., says. "I have a future as a designer for a massive portion of the market largely overlooked, and the support and opportunity provided by DapperQ makes my queer heart sing."