Kenneth Nicholson - Blurring The Gender Lines In Fashion

Kenneth Nicholson is an American fashion designer whose focus is to broaden the narrative of menswear. 

Growing up in Houston, Kenneth Nicholson wasn’t into the competitive side of sports, so when it came time for him to choose what he wanted to play, he chose based on the uniform. “I didn’t want to play baseball, but I was really into the socks,” he says. “That was a telltale sign that I was interested in apparel.”

But his journey to become a fashion designer was far from direct. In the summer of 2001, right after Nicholson, now 33, graduated high school, he received a scholarship to study at the Academy of Art College in San Francisco. There he lived in a hostel and met travelers from around the world. “In a way it was foreshadowing,” he says. Soon, he found himself back in Houston and says he felt a need to get out. So he enrolled in the military. (His father had also served, and Nicholson had spent time living on Army bases as a kid.) “I went into the Navy because at the time I thought they had the best uniforms,” he says.

He wound up at boot camp in Chicago, where he made the most of his experience by painting and sketching, finding inspiration in the city and the rigid structure of his barracks. “I saw the repetition, which is an element of art. I can vibe on that,” he says, noting that Jean Paul Gaultier used Navy imagery in his work. Soon he found himself on a ship dropping off Marines on the coast of Iraq. Nicholson had time to sketch while he was in the Navy, but ultimately the draw toward creative pursuits was too strong.

“The Navy was a chapter in my life, but it wasn’t the place for me,” he says. After a four-year enlistment, he received an honorable discharge and went back to Houston. Eventually he would move to Los Angeles, where he lives and works today.

Nicholson’s experience traveling the world informs his design sensibility, he says, which doesn’t rely on Western ideas of men’s silhouettes. “I don’t want to stick to basic pants and shirts. I want my common ground, my starting point, to be more interesting. My approach is starting with something that is a little more elevated based on my experience.” He likes to include a familiar quality in his designs because in order to break men’s wear out of its sameness, he says, he has to win over a following before he alienates them. “This is my visual language,” he says. “I want to enter the conversation being somewhat familiar. I don’t want to just speak a different language and expect people to join me on this journey.”

In Kenneth Nicholson’s world, men would have as many options as women when it comes to style.

They could wear tunics and skirts, and bracelets and dangling earrings without so much as a second glance from strangers. It’s not that navy blue or gray suits aren’t fashionable. But men should have choices, lots of them says the designer.

“There’s a lack of options in men’s wear,” he says. “I think masculinity is important and something to be celebrated. If one is to limit the options of men’s wear, that can be taxing and imposing.” The tunic he designs, he says, may at first be more familiar to women, but, he points out, it’s a silhouette that in different times and places in world history has only the most masculine connotations. “It’s not like a completely new concept,” he says. “It’s just seeing things in a different way.”

Nicholson is among a number of menswear designers pushing the boundaries of what men wear. Take, for example, Bode, a New York line that’s positioned as a menswear brand but appeals to women with floral patterns and bright colors. Then there’s Eckhaus Latta, which showed men in puffed sleeves and women in oversize tuxedo pants at New York Fashion Week. Even actor Jaden Smith wore a skirt for Louis Vuitton spring/summer 2016 ad campaign.

“When you watch the red carpet for award shows, how many times do they go on about what the women are wearing but nothing really about the men?” Nicholson said. “Women have always been able to steal from men’s closets, but only in modern day is it frowned upon for men to do the same.”

As a designer, Nicholson said his goal is to adorn men, not make them feminine.

“When I make men’s clothes, I don’t think about how to feminize men,” he said. “I want to adorn them. I want to give men the adornment that so many women are able to do. Men have a wide range of emotion. If a man wants to wear a tunic, he should be able to wear a tunic.”

Nicholson, who launched his collection in 2016, showed his designs for the first time at New York Fashion Week last summer with a 40-look runway show. The show mixed 18th-century dress with military-inspired accents and a touch of glam from the 1970s.

It was divided into three chapters: The first was white and featured linen long-sleeved shirt dresses, lace shirts and a brocade jacket with a skirt. The second chapter was influenced by the 1970s with striped shirts, a blouse with ruffled sleeves and denim shirts. The last chapter featured black with a swing coat worn over a skirt and a velvet shirt with lace ruffles.

Nicholson will be one of five U.S. designers featured in the Council of Fashion Designers of America’s “Project” trade show this month in Las Vegas. The council selected the menswear designers for their creativity and ability to produce and deliver their collections, according to Women’s Wear Daily.

One of Nicholson’s standout pieces is an embroidered vest called the “king’s brocade armor.” It’s made of cotton brocade fabric and more than 4,000 crystal beads that took several hundred hours to finish. Houston Ballet’s Harper Watters recently wore the vest, among other Nicholson pieces including a peplum top, for a feature in the Chronicle’s Luxe magazine.

“We all want to feel like a king or queen,” Watters said about Nicholson’s garment.

Nicholson said he hopes to inspire conversations about style, much in the way of Kanye West or Virgil Abloh, the creative director of Louis Vuitton menswear. He also hopes his show for the fashion designers council next month opens more doors, much like it has for designers such as Zac Posen and Proenza Schouler.

“I feel like now we live in such a time you can do anything,” he said. “There are no rules or roles in fashion.”

Article Credits: New York Times & Houston Chronicle

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