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Art of Style

Christopher John Rogers on fashion’s need for radical thinking

Christopher John Rogers photographed with two models wearing dresses from his SS20 collection for NET-A-PORTER’s Vanguard initiative

The CFDA-award-winning designer talks about emotional dressing, the fashion industry’s racial reckoning and why diversity and variance in body type has always been a part of his brand DNA. As told to JESSICA C ANDREWS

Fashion
Rogers modeling one of his own creations

“My earliest fashion memory is picking out what to wear for my fourth-grade school picture. I chose head-to-toe yellow: a Nautica waffle-knit shirt with a shearling vest and matching pants. I felt very autonomous at that moment and in control of how I presented myself to the world. I always loved standing out. Growing up in Louisiana, people were expressing their queerness outwardly and felt comfortable doing so. I was around people of different races, religious backgrounds, shapes and sizes, and I’m so grateful to my parents for putting me in that environment.

I never set out to be a part of the American fashion establishment. But it is starting to recognize people who lie on the margins and who are more radical in their thinking

“There weren’t nearly as many Black faces in fashion design, so I realized that if I wanted to have a presence, I needed to work twice as hard to get half as far. If someone asked me to do 15 sketches, I would do 30, to make sure that I was always pushing. I never expected that I’d one day win the CFDA’s Emerging Designer of the Year Award. I never set out to be a part of the American fashion establishment. But it is starting to recognize people who lie on the margins and who are more radical in their thinking, not only in terms of business structure, but also with the product they’re making. It’s exciting to be a part of that new guard.

“Before the industry embraced my work, the red carpet did. I’ve never paid for celebrity placement or reached out to stylists; it’s always been organic and natural. Michelle Obama, Rihanna, Lady Gaga, Tracee Ellis Ross, Zendaya: it’s great to know that all these different types of women gravitate towards one brand. It shows the myriad ways that you can exist as a person who wears Christopher John Rogers.

The Christopher John Rogers FW20 runway show

“I draw inspiration from everywhere. Some of the most far-fetched sources have been trash bags and the colorful debris throughout the city, which I actually find really beautiful. I think often of synthetic references like fast-food logos with bright color combinations: Dunkin’ Donuts pink and orange, or McDonald’s red and yellow. For the spring/summer 2021 collection, I found inspiration in the optimism and innocence of little kids’ drawings. It’s beautiful and natural: kids just express themselves without really knowing what they’re doing. I tried to capture that same energy in the clothing. It led to this idea of essentialism in terms of color so there are a lot of primary hues in this collection. There are ball gowns, beautifully tailored suits, easy cotton dresses and great separates that people can wear for daytime or evening events.

“The pandemic highlighted the fact that people are still interested in fashion, in emotional clothes that don’t necessarily have to be evening-oriented. They want quality and intention. They want a piece they can cherish for the rest of their lives. I don’t think that has to mean something simple or basic. It could mean a strawberry skirt that turns into an heirloom. We’re leaning more into designing clothing that will last forever and that you can pass down: a piece that can become future vintage, as opposed to designs that just work in 2020.

I’m glad that there’s finally a chance for designers, writers and creatives of color to get the access that white people have had for years

“Alongside the pandemic, the fashion industry is in the middle of a racial reckoning. I hope it has a lasting impact. I’m glad that there’s finally a chance for designers, writers and creatives of color to get the access that white people have had for years. I hope that moving forward, we’ll get opportunities that have nothing to do with examining race or catering to white people’s obsession with rectifying their past transgressions. There’s so much more to us than race. The more that we are able to focus on our specificities as individuals, and present that to the public, the more people will see us as something other than a skin tone.

“Diversity and variance in body type is a popular trend right now. It’s necessary for brands to adapt to survive, so everyone’s adopted the same language. But for me, that’s always been a part of my brand DNA and the way I see fashion. It’s incredibly real to me, not a performance. I’ve always welcomed inclusivity on my runway. All these different hair textures, bodies, chest sizes, heights, ethnicities and genders are a part of my truth – my community, my friends, and my family – so why not put it on the runway? If someone is major and I love the way that they look and they inspire me and make me laugh, why not put them on the runway? We’re actually increasing our size range – I’d love to go up to at least an 18 or 20 – so that people of different sizes and body types and gender identities can see themselves in my work.”

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Three showstoppers from the Christopher John Rogers SS21 collection

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The models featured in this story are not associated with NET-A-PORTER and do not endorse it or the products shown