“It was running joke as a kid, that all I wanted to wear were cut-offs and T-shirts,” says Ilana Kohn. “My mom would buy them by the pack, and I would cut the sleeves and the neck.” Of course, Kohn is now known as the creator of a rabidly collected, Brooklyn-based, cult-favorite clothing line, so was fashion always the master plan? Sure, she was interested in clothes, she says, but her teenage self would be more than a little surprised at this turn. At 18, she says, she did not want to be a “fashion person,” intending rather to study fine art and spend her life of painting. But after high school — in a move that would appease parents who worried about her making a living — Kohn left her native Virginia for New York City to study illustration at Pratt.
She made Brooklyn her home, and, after graduating, worked for nearly a decade as an editorial illustrator. Then the recession struck. “Publishing went off the edge of the cliff”, she says, “and illustration was the ball attached to its ankle. Literally overnight I was left twiddling my thumbs.”
Was this the moment she rekindled her love of cut-offs and customizing tees? No, instead she headed back to school for a historic preservation degree. But it was then that she began sewing clothes for herself, born out of restlessness and boredom. She started selling the odd piece, and on a break between classes one day, Kohn told a friend she was going to make a batch of dresses, asking the friend to shoot them. She hasn’t looked back since.
Today, Kohn runs the label from the apartment she shares with her boyfriend in Brooklyn’s leafy Clinton Hill. They moved in a year ago, turning one bedroom of the two-bed into Kohn’s studio. Is she the type to roll out of bed and work in pajamas? On occasion “I do! I did today! I was drafting patterns in a tank top and no bra,” she admits. “The goal is putting on nothing more than required. One step above completely unpresentable.”
That laid-back attitude may be why there’s such an easiness to Kohn’s designs, generous riffs on simple silhouettes that carry her eye-catching fabrics. “I am striving to create fashion for people who are not fashion obsessed,” she says. “The idea for the garment shapes is to simply to let the textiles speak.” Her years spent as an illustrator are put to good use: Each season begins with the prints, drawn by hand, scanned and then adapted on the computer.
Kohn is part of a wider landscape of indie fashion designers carving a niche in the market, relatively free of outside investment. She is proud of the label being sustainable both in terms of production and economics, and she says the industry has been very supportive. “The number of truly awful people I have come across I could barely count on one hand!” Fashion, she has discovered, is nothing like her 18-year-old self imagined.
Most people, if given the luxury of a third bedroom in a house they share only with a spouse, might choose to turn it into a guestroom, or a studio, or maybe a study. Kristen Lee, a stylist and co-owner of L.A.’s fashion and design emporium TenOverSix, turned hers into a walk-in closet. Step inside and you’ll discover rolling racks of designer and vintage, scarves tossed carelessly around a dress form, shoes lined up in neat little rows, a steamer in the corner, and accessories spilling out over the dresser. And yet for someone so clearly attuned to and obsessed with fashion, it’s not the clothes you first sense when you enter the Ed Fickett–designed, mid-century, Nichols Canyon home she bought last year with her husband and then “renovated the shit out of,” as she says. It’s the incredible proliferation of art. Stephen Shore, Banksy, Leopold Seyffert, Nan Goldin — and that’s just in the living room.
If you were somehow unfamiliar enough with the London fashion scene that you’d never encountered the work of David David, née David Saunders, a primer in his background certainly wouldn’t help much. Saunders is best known for a whirlwind rise to prominence that began with a job as head sculptor in YBA Tracey Emin’s studio, stumbled into a fashion line that won him a coveted spot in London’s Fashion East runway show, and now entails an obligatory mention of fans like Kanye West, Agyness Deyn, and M.I.A. each time it comes up in conversation. It’s not that it’s much ado about nothing — we were huge admirers of Saunders’s line by the time we ended up in his flat last February, a block away from our favorite London boutique Darkroom — but all that star power conveys very little about a charmingly blithe collection consisting of a handful of wearable silhouettes festooned with hand-drawn kaleidoscopic graphics, except maybe how he ended up with it in the first place.
Christian Wijnants attended the fashion program at Antwerp’s prestigious Royal Academy, and upon graduating, won the Hyéres prize, the Dries Van Noten prize, and a coveted assistant spot in Van Noten’s atelier. Then, two years after starting his own line in 2003, he banked 100,000 euros as the winner of the Swiss Textile Award, beating out Giles Deacon and Charles Anastase. “I never thought I would even be nominated,” Wijnants told i-D magazine at the time, before proceeding to watch his collection trickle into all of the world’s most respected boutiques and department stores. He was just being modest, of course — the man has unmistakable talent, especially when it comes to his imaginative textiles and knits — but there is something surprising about his success, when you think about it: In a country whose fashion scene skews towards all things experimental, nonconformist, androgynous, and/or dark, the cherub-faced designer is known for both his colorful, feminine aesthetic and his charming geniality. He’s almost too perfect to be cool.