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Designer Christopher John Rogers empowers fantasy and diversity

By Jackie Mallon

Feb 26, 2020

While Black History Month is a time to celebrate visibility, representation, and achievement within the black community, the month-long fashion calendar offers up new emerging designers to be splashed across social media daily, but rarely are they people of color.

Christopher John Rogers seems to have come out of nowhere to stage one of the most talked-about shows in NYFW, receiving standing ovations for his fruit-colored, ruffled, voluminous gowns and separates. A line of fans files around the block for his appearance at The RealReal’s flagship store in Soho to hear him speak on the five years which saw him go from starry eyed fashion student to dressing Rihanna, Cardi B, Michelle Obama, and Lizzo.

Born in Louisiana, Rogers discovered fashion in fourth grade through Project Runway, which inspired him to research the world of design, and devour Youtube for shows of his two idols Alexander McQueen and John Galliano. “Addicted,” he states. After studying at Savannah College of Art and Design, he moved to NYC, began designing for DVF before winning the Vogue Fashion Fund and showing at New York Fashion Week. It’s quite a series of power moves, but that’s what drives him. “I was always interested in the idea of clothes giving someone power, whether that came from comic books and sketching fantasy characters, it was always really appealing to me,” he says, and still approaches fashion in the same way. “I think about my friends. I think of that oversized neon green sherpa coat that spoke to me, that I had to have, growing up in Baton Rouge. But now since I’ve moved to New York I’ve found congregations of people that feel similarly.”

Christopher John Rogers’ success at NYFW

He speaks of a tribe, all “communing around what we’ve found,” of the importance of followers who “identify with your specificity.” One thing is certain, this community believes in dressing up, of evoking the diva glamour of decades past even if you’re only an intern and all you do is run errands. Although Rogers designs womenswear, Gen Z and millennial men wear his garments for self-expression not gender. “We got into fashion because we liked the idea of clothes and fantasy,” says Rogers, “It’s supposed to be fun.”

Although known for high statement looks, Rogers says he loves to put a puffed sleeve taffeta blouse with deadstock denim cargo pants. “In the past designers have only given you full fantasy but we’re trying to merge the pragmatism of 2020 with the fantasy of why we got into fashion.” His small team has been with him from the beginning, offering time, energy, and support, such as Christina from Kentucky, who’s “super polished,” and the many friends who come to his shows in drag. “There’s a commonality among us but we don’t all need to look the same. This is our language.”

Despite diversity initiatives across casting and runway presentations, the fashion industry hasn’t shed its hierarchical attitudes quite yet towards people of color. When buying zippers it is not unheard of that Rogers will be directed to the freight elevator. Finding himself at market appointments or dropping off a garment to Vogue or Elle when no interns are available, he still gets the aloof treatment, despite being the creator of the gown which had just been photographed for the pages of the magazine.

The RealReal promotes diversity during Black History Month

But he believes it’s important to occupy space confidently. “My parents placed me in spaces where I had the opportunity to be around other types of people and my best friends growing up were Korean and Jewish and I had to pronounce their names correctly,” he says. “Not everyone has this opportunity so it’s about allowing people who don’t look like you into the spaces you have access to. Luckily we’re in a time of diversity and accepting people is celebrated but even if it wasn’t we would still do it. That’s how I was raised. This is not news for me.”

The $400,000 Vogue Fashion Fund prize allowed him to get a studio, pay himself a salary, access to making clothes how he dreamed and to go to market in Paris, but it doesn’t come without its pressures. “It’s like gag, now I need to sell some clothes!” he jokes.

Remaining creative, relevant, while not burning out has to be a concern, especially considering both of his aforementioned design heroes suffered enormously from the rigorous demands of the fashion system. Aware that there is a dark side to success, he prefers to dwell on things that make him happy about design, his fixation on garbage bags and the 1970s for example, over what others are saying or doing. “Focus on the things you’re obsessed with and what you want to say as a designer. When everyone else is looking to Celine, look at the things you think you shouldn’t be looking at and obsess about why it is you like them.”

Rogers’ collection sells in a couple of boutiques nationwide, but mostly through Net-A-Porter. He believes the expectation to produce fresh, feasible garments can be challenging rather than limiting, and explains, “My customer is quite intelligent. They don’t need to be told what to wear. I can propose something which may feel more advanced, but now that they can see how people are styling this less familiar thing, they feel more empowered to try it. I don’t need to make a simple black trouser when The Row is doing it better than I could. I don’t need to be someone else or reference other people. People are interested in the specific, and the thing that takes a lot of time to make and is responsibly crafted.”

Addressing the many students in the audience who can only dream of a trajectory such as Rogers has enjoyed, he advises patience, perseverance, and even cold-calling and emailing. “What you think will happen probably won’t,” he says, recalling his own experience. “We studied the designers who succeeded right after school, like Proenza Schouler, and did everything they did. We emailed buyers our beautifully shot lookbook, and thought we’re doing this all correctly, people are going to buy it. And no one responded.”

Instead he took risks, sneaking off on his lunch break from DVF to ship his own garments or to network during work time with stylists and editors. When he applied to the NYFW calendar he and his friends were still making clothes in his living room, and when he was let go from his job, he was forced to get a summer job in order to be able to afford to make the collection he would submit for the Fashion Fund.

“You try to do the right thing,” says Rogers, “but make the sacrifices to be where you want to be.”

Fashion editor Jackie Mallon is also an educator and author of Silk for the Feed Dogs, a novel set in the international fashion industry.

Photo: FashionUnited & Christopher John Rogers AW20/21, Catwalkpictures