For stylish people with a signature look—one that’s timeless, off-trend, and wouldn’t work on anybody else—what they wear is a reflection of what they do. That’s because style is a form of intuition (and why those with flair always claim that getting ready is a cinch): These people know what works for them, and they go with it. We asked 10 New York–based designers, who were pinpointed for their very specific appearances, about their clothes. The conversations that ensued spanned politics, empowerment, history, wisdom—in short, some of the most heartening interviews Surface has ever done. If there’s anything to be learned from stylish people, it isn’t about confidence or breaking the rules; rather, it’s that self-awareness further inspires perception, creativity, and ways of interacting with the world that are uniquely yours.
Meet 10 New York–Based Designers Whose Sense of Style Goes Beyond What They Wear
For these creatives, personal fashion becomes an extension of their larger body of work.BY TIFFANY JOW
PHOTOS BY CHRISTOPHER GARCIA VALLE November 21, 2018
Why she’s the coolest milliner we know: Lee creates ingenious hats for Madonna, Lady Gaga, and Lauryn Hill, among others. She studied graphic design and art at RISD (Airbnb’s Joe Gebbia and Brian Chesky were in her graduating class).
On her trippy Endless Echo hat: “I feel like Mickey Mouse when I wear it. I make each one to order after taking a 3-D scan of the wearer’s head. Every jewel on the Swarovski Endless Echo hat is placed by hand. It’s a labor of love that transforms the wearer into a work of art.”
Where her clothes come from: “Andy Warhol hit up flea markets for research and development every Sunday. He was always searching for the next idea. Similarly, I find exploring antique sales and eBay keeps my eyes sharp.”
MICHELE OKA DONER
What she does: The 72-year-old artist’s versatile work—which includes furniture, sculpture, jewelry, video, and costume design—uses organic forms as its common thread, and often incorporates marine flora and fauna from her native Florida. One writer aptly called her “a cross between Georgia O’Keeffe and Martha Graham.”
On her draped dresses: “In a strange way, [a uniform] is about the process of elimination. You have to want very few things, otherwise you get seduced. Peter Rockwell Kent used to make my dresses. Now it’s Han Feng. He used light, Shanghai silks, but hers has a little tooth and doesn’t crease as much. I have it in four colors: black, gray, navy blue, and white. I like the white best. As it ages, it turns ivory, and then it’s even better.”
Why she likes to draw: “Every summer I do what I call ‘summer mischief,’ which is when I do what I’m not supposed to be doing. Drawing brings me back to the start of my practice. And mark-making is so much a part of our DNA. I like having different materials for different aspects of living. I find that variety wonderful, and never understood why artists say they use this or that. I suppose we’re in the age of specialization, so that’s why.”
The Skinny: He’s a British fashion photographer, artist, and designer known for his painterly prints that come in the same moody hues as his clothes, which he makes from upholstery he designs. Thompson buys his ’70s shoes exclusively on eBay and accessorizes with knee-high socks by Boris Bidjan Saberi.
About his hippie-pirate look: “I think self-expression is important. I’m also very shy, so clothes are a way of protecting myself when I go out. Or they act as an ice-breaker. It’s also a bit of a sexual, gender-y whatever statement. I really believe that being queer is not being heterosexual, and I like to express that in who I am as being different.”
On the Age of Aquarius: “In my twenties, everything was being exposed—the whole boys-dressing-as-girls thing was happening. Then it shut down in the eighties. To see it happening again is thrilling. ‘The Future is Female’ is the Age of Aquarius, because it’s all about feminine energy usurping masculine energy as the major force in society. It will happen, and it will be major. Donald Trump represents the epitome of the old era. But it is finished.”
Why we love her: The Peruvian-born light artist makes weird, winding installations that explore her interest in nature, technology, and people. Over the summer she presented “Hedera,” a monumental sculpture made of glowing red-and-white tentacles that covered a ceiling of illuminated orbs, erected in Brooklyn’s Prospect Park.
How she organizes her clothing: “I have uniforms for traveling, for lectures, and for the studio. I don’t know if people who visit me here realize I’m actually wearing the same outfit all the time. I have it hanging in my bathroom, so it’s easy to put on. The uniforms began when I started traveling a lot. They are useful because you have more time to focus on work. I love that I can get dressed in two minutes—maybe five, to be generous.”
About all those rings: “I sleep with my jewelry on. I always wear it on all of my fingers and never my neck—I have necklaces, but they are itchy and get stuck in my hair. I used to have beads, which were given to me by spiritual leaders from temples I visited in Asia. But they became very common, and lost their spirituality for me, so I stopped wearing them.”
What she’s famous for: Inventing the sleeping-bag coat, the high-heeled sneaker, Farrah Fawcett’s red swimsuit, and athleisure before it had a name. She is also the first designer to have an eBay store and, even at 73, can probably work out harder and longer than you.
Why the Kardashians are famous: “I just watched Keeping Up with the Kardashians for the first time and I totally get why people are obsessed with them. It’s Instagram that doesn’t stop. The genius is that they’re so perfectly suited for it—it’s not difficult for them to be out there and that’s what everybody wants to see. Trump is just like a Kardashian. He is what we chose, whether we voted for him or not. So he’s president, the Kardashians are running the world, and we’re like, ‘Okay.’”
How she defines beauty: “Confidence and self-esteem are incredibly helpful in the aging process. There are many beautiful women who are insecure, so they do stupid things. They’re afraid to express themselves. We all have our individual look, but they want to have the same lips or butt as everybody else. That’s a sign of someone who’s not feeling good about herself. When a woman feels good about herself, she’s the next president. The woman we’re hoping for, the woman we really look up to and respect, is a woman who feels good about who she is.”
The next moment for men: “In the seventies, half my clients were men wearing women’s clothes. Not drag—just men wearing women’s clothes. Then they stopped. I think AIDS had something to do with it. So for my latest women’s collection, we’re photographing men in the garments. It’s women’s clothes that men can wear, which is far more provocative than [androgyny] or anything else out there. I am convinced that this is not a trend, but a real [emergence] of another way to dress. To me that’s the real story in fashion.”
Claim to fame: An actress turned knife-maker who learned the trade from her late father, who was a blacksmith and carpenter. Daniel Humm, Massimo Bottura, and Jeremiah Tower use her blades, which are made from horseshoe rasps. She only knows of one other woman who makes knives.
Why the biker gear?: “This is my work gear. When I’m not in the shop, you probably wouldn’t recognize me. I love short skirts, high heels, and costumes. There was a time when I felt like I had to dress tough because I made tough stuff. But that wore off pretty quickly.”
Roughest cut: “You can see how the sparks go directly onto my legs when I’m working. They burn out on contact, but I need full protection. Early on, I had an accident where a knife came off the belt sander and went right through my foot. I don’t wear steel-toed boots or overalls, but try to keep my most sensitive areas covered now, as well as eyes, ears, and nose.”
The man behind the moustache: After designing costumes for the likes of Britney Spears, RuPaul, and Rihanna, the Pratt Institute grad launched his eponymous fashion brand in 2013. His cat-eye Last Lolita sunglasses, first made in collaboration with Le Specs in 2016, were an instant classic.
Blue-jean daddy: “I always wear vintage Levi’s 505s. I search for them on eBay and in thrift stores. There’s one [very organized] shop I’m obsessed with where I can just go in and find my size, so it’s easy to run in and get them. This look started about 15 years ago. I had a really big pompadour and a mullet back then. I’d wear either really tight or really baggy jeans and cinch them at the waist, and that was my look. Eventually I cut the mullet to nothing.”
The story of his ’stache: “People say the moustache reminds them of their dad, someone they knew, or a certain celebrity. It’s fun to hear who people pinpoint. [Olympic swimmer] Mark Spitz inspired mine. I had a life-size poster of him in an American flag Speedo that I was obsessed with. I shaved off my moustache about four years ago, just to see what was going on. I grew it right back. It was like losing my mojo. People take me more seriously with it.”
What he makes: The 33-year-old is best-known for his cheeky hand-painted wallpaper and custom murals, which he translates onto folding screens, wallpaper, textiles, and clothing. He launched his studio, Voutsa, in 2013, and has a penchant for standing in front of one of his designs wearing the same pattern on his shirt.
The perks of being a wallflower: “Once I wore a black tuxedo to a New Year’s party, and felt totally awkward. I wanted to be in a gown! Or a pink tux. When it’s not drag, it’s boring. When you work for yourself, the conventional signifiers of ‘professional’ quickly render themselves as meaningless. Same with gender and power—it becomes part of a language defined by your own rationale. There’s no one to report to. It’s lonely, but it’s free.”
On showing his clothes to buyers: “When I started making clothes, presenting them to a store felt like dating: I was 30 and my assistant was 25, and we’d have these 65-year-old conservative people in suits telling us what their customers wanted. The world has really loosened up. Buyers tell me to send them whatever I make, and pick what they like. No men’s or women’s. So from a merchandising standpoint, it’s much easier.”
KAI WILLIAMS AND CHEN CHEN
What they do: The duo are masters of material innovation. If you’re lucky, you might find half a stone—leftover from their Geology tables—laying somewhere around Brooklyn, with the outline of a penis and the words “Rock Hard!” etched into its surface by Chen, who answered our questions. They also regularly create uniforms for their studio, and hand them out to friends as swag.
Why the uniforms? “We started making uniforms because it was something different and more fun. Everyone already has a million tote bags. Our next ones are sweatshirts. The idea was to make our version of a contractor sweatshirt, but it evolved into a skull-cat graphic that combines two objects that are ubiquitous on Canal Street. Both objects are obviously hand-painted, which is something you don’t typically associate with mass-produced objects.”
Duck Dynasty connection: “When getting dressed, we think about what’s practical—and also about branding. We consider that more than others in our field. Our haircuts are kind of locked in: Kai has long hair and I have a shaved head. It’s a more impactful look. I’ve been digging into really weird gear. Recently I got into hunting base-layers, like the Duck Dynasty guys. They are some of the gayest-looking prints you’ll ever find.”
ELLEN VAN DUSEN
Why she’s the princess of prints: Her parents are architects and her brothers are coders, so perhaps she has a gene for geometry. When the D.C. native was a student at Tufts University, she studied neuroscience and art—basically, color and the brain. She launched her clothing and homewear brand, Dusen Dusen, in 2010.
The secret to her crazy patterns: “I like to start with a rule. For a print in my spring 2018 collection, I used seven types of lines found in a two-by-one-inch rectangle: one diagonal, one straight, and so on. Using only those elements rotated at 90-degree angles, I connected the lines end-to-end to create a pattern.”
Guilty pleasure: “I allow myself one pair of Marni shoes a year. They’re my number one thing to wear with anything: They’re chunky and usually a little weird, but still feminine and sleek.”