Katrina Orsini invterviews Joshua Jenkins, creative director of the Hartford-based fashion label demuerte.
There is a low current of trend influence in the latest collection, although unlike trend chasing brands your reclaimed version of the "fanny pack" and "neck scarf" sit perfectly in your aesthetic. Can you talk a bit about the pressure the speed of fast fashion puts on a designer to keep up with the latest trends and how you fit them so comfortably in your own work?
For any emerging designer, I imagine a large concern is viability: "Can this idea sustain on its own?" I think balance is a very fundamental perspective we consider when making design decisions. Of course, we want to offer products that people actually want but I enjoy initiating the conversations around what we wear and why we wear it. The pace in this industry can be very overwhelming, but this is related to my admiration for impressionist and the idea of forming identity. I thought following suit to fashion’s calendar would even the playing field for us, but how does that increase our efficiency when our operative practices are very unique and very small? Are there ways to understand the formula but manipulate it to your own advantage? But of course, it’s all trial and error.
I feel really excited about are upcoming campaign for 2018 titled "Neglect". there is no declaration of s/s or a/w, just one theme. And using our judgement to decide what we should make next. I would like to be much more intentional behind our releases.
It feels quite a bit like you are slowing, and grappling with intentionality. As you mentioned, you reference impressionism with this latest collection. Looking through it, you wouldn't see the traits normally associated with the art movement. Can you tell us what part of your cut and sew process you feel most evokes the movement of the 19th century masters?
When we first started to explore Impressionism and its relationship to this collection, I found things I clearly identified with. It felt very radical and independent. I started to feel connected by the idea of exclusion - or more so I could empathize with the transition of caring too much to caring very little. The 'Paris Salon,' for instance, I view as an institution for its time: political, powerful. But then how democratic things began with the introduction of 'Salon des Refuses'. I can see parallels in terms of hierarchical systems right now, the fashion industry for instance. From the beginning, my approach to not necessarily garment design but more so the approach to illustrating my brand and ideas felt very academic. There was no formal education for garment construction for Ky and I. With that, I felt I came into this with a disadvantage. I did a lot of research but as I see now, for the wrong reasons; like playing catch up as if I slept through an entire semester but still wanting to prepare for finals. The idea of seeking association - not for the accolades but to be included in the conversation simply by doing things your own way - is what left the biggest effect on me by the Impressionists.
It seems you related to the exclusion of the impressionist movement, both chosen and forced. Do you ever think your lack of formal education has served as a positive? Does it free you of the need to approach garments the "correct" or traditional way?
I think I just approach design in my own way. I’m still learning the ways in which my lack of formal training hinders me as well as helps me. Lately I’ve felt much more familiar with how I think - more specifically exploring the idea of metacognition. I’ve always knew I’ve been pretty optimistic and I think to have optimism you must have a very strong connection to your imagination. I was talking with my partner recently and somehow I started drawing parallels to the large amount of television I watched growing up and how that has conditioned me. While knowing that about myself, I usually can predict or catch myself when I’m being naive when problem solving. But with every issue we face, there's the opportunity to add a new page or new layer to our techniques and aesthetic. It’s exciting to look back at our older stuff and take our "mistakes" and use them as a source for inspiration.
When talking about your work, how loosely do you use the word "menswear?" Obviously, you are comfortable dressing women in your pieces. Is this word being used to describe the traditional shapes of menswear? Do you consider all of your pieces gender neutral as far as wearability?
My thoughts behind menswear are broad but I use the term very intentional. I already have a tough time articulating myself; I think I have too much imagination to pigeonhole a word to one definition or one usage. When I use menswear, I think about it in the most classical sense. There's so much of everyday convention that can still be manipulated and discussed and for the sake of conversation, using the term menswear has a very straightforward domain in my opinion. When I think of menswear, I think of gender conventions: what men are supposed to wear. I think it’s fascinating to look at rules and standards from a foundational perspective and use analysis and thought to change how we approach it and talk about it. Conversation is very important to me and I think standards that we’re all familiar with is a great starting point for connection. In terms of wearability, I think that’s solely dependent on an individual’s level of comfort. Being a male, I can't help but want to explore a narrative that comes from a male perspective: what it feels like to be told to do certain things because that’s what men do. I think these are conversations women can identify with as well but I’m not sure if it’s my place to speak on their behalf.
So for you it seems the term menswear is not what is problematic, but the containment we've created with a narrow (and narrow minded) definition of it. Do you think the way you challenge that definition in your garments is reflective of the way you approach the conversations you start in other aspects of your life?
Definitely. I don’t think we examine the grey area enough between our constructs and conventions. Curiosity plays a big role too. People have such a strong emotional attachment to what they believe in, so when it comes down to something as simple as style of dress, there’s a thin line between "ok that isn't the most flattering because the color, how it forms to the body, etc." versus "men shouldn't wear that". Of course, we live in a time where acceptance for another person's individualism is at an all-time high. It’s just interesting to then look at how conditioning affects our subjectivity with something as practical as getting dressed.
It seems you use subtle styling mechanisms to open a dialogue between traditional workwear shapes and contemporary cut. How do you see contemporary workwear being able to move beyond utility and durability and play a larger part in fashion's role in society?
I see workwear as a symbol. Dress codes are kind of a confirmation of association. There's a different kind of dialogue when you refer to someone's uniform. I think it becomes a little more personal when someone’s livelihood is involved. What got me particularly interested with workwear was its correlation to themes like construction, development, manual labor. I identify myself behind the mechanics of how we produce our garments but also exploring the narrative of someone like my grandfather for instance (who worked at Pratt and Whitney) with machines in a very industrial setting but with the objective to provide stability and opportunity for his family.
I love the idea of crossover in fashion. One of our first principles at our conception was to make apparel that's suitable in variety of settings – or at least pieces that identified with one’s style and that also lands of the cusp of particular dress codes; like professional standards or something more social. There are plenty of examples of designers approaching workwear in their style. My association with it is coming from an immediate connection and interest to intersect the identities behind our clothes and the environments they supposedly belong in. The familiarity is what’s fascinating to me. I always like to use concepts like these as a timestamp for our creative process. I think how it grows past its practical usage is if it’s presented in a different context but it needs to be available first so the right audience how can relate to its properties and find its connection. It’s another way of association confirmation.