Wednesday 14th October

| BY Paul Toner

Ten Meets Christopher John Rogers, The Louisiana-born Designer Bringing Opulence Back to NYFW

This year’s Video Music Awards were rather odd, to say the least. Coronavirus meant a live audience was swapped out for giant Zoom grids, dotted with giddy teen fans who watched from their bedrooms across the globe. Miley Cyrus performed, as did Doja Cat – but the night ultimately belonged to Lady Gaga. Despite taking home the most wins of the evening – five in total, including the first-ever ‘Tricon’ award – as well as performing alongside Ariana Grande, talks instantly turned to her fashions, and the wacky masks she paired with them.

In what turned out to be several outfit changes throughout the night – which included an Iris Van Herpen 3D-printed gown and a Haute Couture sparkling bodysuit courtesy of Valentino – one look stole the show. An emerald green silk taffeta ball skirt and cropped kimono blouse dubbed the “Baja Blast” was just one of 40 opulent looks that sauntered down the Christopher John Rogers catwalk this past February at New York Fashion Week. “One of the women who‘ve singlehandedly inspired me the most and allowed me to dream about what fashion can be, and what fashion can do, is wearing something my team and I dreamed up just a few months ago,” wrote the Louisiana-born designer on Instagram, seemingly overcome with emotion.

When we caught up two weeks later, Rogers is still in disbelief at the “most insane” moment. Gaga joins an already chunky list of celeb admirers of the designer, including Lizzo, Cardi B, Tracee Ellis Ross and the former first lady, Michelle Obama. Most recently, Zendaya made history at the Emmys as not only the youngest recipient of the outstanding lead actress in a drama series award for her role in Euphoria, but the second-ever Black actor to do so – wearing one of Rogers strawberry-shaped taffeta gowns. 

“The fact that all these different kinds of people can find themselves in the work is what’s most exciting to me,” explains Rogers. He speaks to me over the phone from New York, where merely 24 hours before he was announced as the American Emerging Designer of the Year at this year’s CFDA Fashion Awards. The 26-year-old talent found out a month prior and had been impatiently sitting on the secret ever since.

The CFDA has been integral to the Christopher John Rogers success story. Last November, the designer was awarded the CFDA/Vogue Fashion Fund, which included a year of mentoring and a whopping $400,000 grand prize, which has been staggered over the past 12 months. The steady flow of funding has allowed Rogers to move his studio out of his cramped Brooklyn apartment and into a proper set-up in SoHo, where he has been able to invest in better fabrics and hire a full team (in the past, his friends were helping out for free).

“We were constantly, even during the pandemic, getting an influx of cash which was really amazing, so we weren’t super stressed financially. The universe somehow worked in some great way for us,” he says. “Luckily, the work that we’re was so individual and specific that we weren’t necessarily competing for shelf or store space with any other brands.”

You’d think the fact that voluminous eveningwear dominates Rogers’ design lexicon would’ve hindered the designer during a year most clubs remain shuttered and parties are forced to shut down before midnight. Quite the opposite. “We noticed that people were still buying feather bustiers and fully-crystalised shirt dresses at full price during the pandemic,” confirms the designer. “There is still that customer that wants to take up space and express themselves with fashion and aren’t necessarily looking to only wear sweatpants.”

In a similar fashion that Christian Dior revolutionised Haute Couture post-World War II with the New Look, the extravagant, over-the-top designs Christopher John Rogers sends down the catwalk, in luscious hues and electric prints, make him an architect of escapism – ideal in the age of Coronavirus. Though whilst French couturiers are predominantly dressing the top one per cent, the exuberance of Rogers’ clothes feels democratic. Designed with the many in mind, as opposed to the few.  

Growing up in Baton Rouge, Rogers engrossed himself in the fashion worlds buried within Tumblr, drawn instantly to the likes of John Galliano and Alexander McQueen. “Those designers really brought a sense of storytelling, a sense of craft, a sense of themselves to the clothes,” he says, also revealing he’s a Rick Owens fan, admiring the esteemed designer for his “commitment to the aesthetic.”

Like Michèle Lamy is to Owens, Rogers found his first muse in his best friend Julie, an “incredibly honest” person in both the way she moved through the world and how she dressed. The duo would take road trips to New Orleans to attend parties during high school. “She was wearing mini-skirts and high heels to history class one day and then the next some converse, jeans and a cropped 1980s prom dress she made into a top, the next,” he says. “It wasn’t her trying to be different, it was just her trying to be herself. I’ve always been attracted to people who know who they are and feel comfortable expressing that.” The pair even went as far as starting a brand together – deconstructing thrift store dresses, turning things inside out and upside down, figuring out how to make trousers in the process.

Whilst Julie stayed in Louisiana to train as a nurse, Rogers made the move to New York with another friend, Eric. The budding young designer’s first few months in the nocturnal city were spent waiting tables and sleeping on a mattress plonked on the floor, before eventually landing a job on the Diane von Fürstenberg design team. “I knew that I wanted to have my own brand and I’m quite impatient by nature, so I would take weekends and go buy fabric then make clothes,” he says. Reluctant to let Christopher John Rogers exist merely as an Instagram brand, the designer began meeting with the CFDA and got accepted to the official NYFW calendar – “the people who were at higher positions at DVF were surprisingly not upset with me doing it. I somehow got away with it, I don’t know how, but it was definitely a struggle.”

Properly launching his eponymous line in 2016, Rogers began with made-to-order designs. From the beginning, he has consistently referred to mid-century couture, looking to the punchy hues which no longer dominate the catwalk and remixing them to feel in tune with the present. His research often takes unexpected detours, whether it’s studying trash bags or obsessing over chipped paint jobs inside old buildings which have deteriorated over years of neglect.

“I try to be honest with myself when I’m designing, like what do I want to see, what do our customers find exciting and they’re usually one and the same,” Rogers clarifies. “I think that’s why people gravitate towards the work because it is inherently emotional, that’s where it comes from, it’s not me trying to be anything.”

Rogers’ spring/summer 2021 collection peeled back the opulent shapes his brand is synonymous for, in favour of simpler silhouettes. “I feel like now there is a renewed interest in pieces that are super special but don’t necessarily have to be made out of silk or use 15 yards of fabric,” he says. There’s neon suiting with razor-sharp shoulders, buttoned-down shirts accented with crystalised rainbow swirls and Bert and Ernie jumpers; the brand’s first foray into knitwear. Many of the pieces come in a Sesame Street-esque palette, inspired by Rogers’ days in lockdown, where he would doodle with Crayolas for hours on end. 

The designer is keen to point out the more relaxed turn of the brand isn’t a direct reaction to our new working-from-home lifestyles, but to push CJR to its most fully-fledged form, without ever straying from the brand’s joyous nature. He’s here to make opulent clothes, designed with women of colour in mind – the sort of treatment once reserved for the white and wealthy.

“From the beginning designing allowed me to think about pragmatism, or the fact that pragmatism doesn’t necessarily have to mean boring or simple,” explains the designer. “When I put certain shapes on certain people, it’s not necessarily political as it is my reality. I think the more we see different types of people in different scenarios and garments, the less it will have to be political. For me, I’m not necessarily trying to be radical by putting someone of colour in something that feels opulent, it’s just my truth.”

Images: Christopher John Rogers AW20, photographed by Emmanuel Sanchez Monsalve.