This is part of Image Issue 4, “Image Makers,” a paean to L.A.’s luminaries of style. In this issue, we pay tribute to the people and brands pushing fashion culture in the city forward.
“Fashion and pop culture gave me a space to connect with other artists, but it seemed so out of reach,” says L.A.-based menswear designer Kenneth Nicholson, reflecting on his childhood in Houston. “From elementary through high school, I was severely bullied. At the time, I remember seeing this silver Calvin Klein lunchbox in a magazine. It was a promotional gift for CK One. After I moved here, I went online looking for that lunchbox.”
He holds up the ’90s collector’s item. “I found it on eBay. I’m still carrying that little boy with me — the one that was teased. This represents, ‘Look, we made it. I can protect you now.’”
No doubt, the 38-year-old has come a long way since attending art school in San Francisco, enlisting in the Navy and launching his eponymous menswear label five years ago.
Nicholson is a recent Council of Fashion Designers of America/Vogue Fashion Fund grant recipient, a newly inducted CFDA member, and 2021 CFDA Fashion Awards nominee for American Emerging Designer of the Year. He also dressed British race-car driver Lewis Hamilton for this month’s Met Gala where Nicholson was seen hobnobbing with the likes of Rihanna and ASAP Rocky. Therefore, it’s only a matter of time before Hollywood embraces his zeitgeist-influenced, gender-fluid designs.
“I would love to dress Donald Glover, Timothée Chalamet, Frank Ocean and Zendaya,” he says. “Let’s put it out there.”
From his downtown Los Angeles studio, Nicholson shares how a rich inner life can inform fall and spring outerwear. (These looks include pieces from his spring/summer 2022 Cy Falls collection, which debuted this month.)
How does your design approach differ?
I’m interrogating menswear, full stop. Oftentimes when we have a conversation about menswear the easy thing to do — because of the society that we live in — is to say, “If you’re advancing menswear and this is your approach, then obviously you’re trying to add womenswear to menswear and come up with a blend,” and that’s not the case at all. I want to create clothes so that men can be fully expressed.
What does being “fully expressed” mean to you?
Within masculinity, there is an appreciation for men, an appreciation to emote how you dress, an appreciation for things that are beautiful and soft and might be described traditionally as more feminine. To be a human and to be a fully expressed man is to embody those things. I don’t think I’m redefining [masculinity]. I think I’m trying to speak to the actual definition of it. I’m recalibrating what was already there. David is a biblical character. The Bible describes him as being one who slew the giant, but he also plays the harp and he writes poetry. For me, that sums up this expansive masculinity — that this guy can slay a giant and kill a lion with his bare hands, but at night he can emote and play the harp and write poetry, you know? It’s that world that I want to bring to menswear. I want clothes that move when the wind blows and when I walk down the street. I want something that feels soft on my skin. I want something that feels tactile and something that might have a certain ease to it. But then next weekend, I might want a pair of jeans so I can listen to System of a Down. It’s a full range. That’s what I’m speaking to in my work.
What inspired your latest collection?
I’m drawing from the 1990s, referencing grunge culture but not verbatim. It’s more through the lens of what I’m already doing in the fashion space. I’m a huge romantic. I love velvet ribbon, lace, flowers. I’m creating a mashup of how I would want to do grunge. I’m a big fan of music. I’ve been listening to a lot of Radiohead and Nirvana and everything in between.
What do you love about Los Angeles?
People describe L.A. as laid-back, but it’s actually really productive. I’m into storytelling and filmmaking, so I thought, “I can go out there and I can work on sets and eventually get into fashion that way.” That’s what led me here. I love Wes Anderson and the world that he creates. The film “Romeo + Juliet” from 1996 was great, where you have the vernacular, the style and the culture in that space. And Mr. Tom Ford is a great storyteller. You really can see him in “A Single Man,” but you’re not even looking at the clothes.
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What’s your favorite fall spot?
Griffith Park. It’s beautiful with the turning of the leaves. I like hiking and being in nature. Just walking around, lying on the grass. My fall uniform is really nice-cut jeans with a slight crop top and a layered flannel. That’s going to be my look. Radiohead has this song, “Anyone Can Play Guitar.” If anyone can play guitar, anyone can indulge in the grunge era.
You previously served in the military. What led you to enlist?
I was in the Navy. I needed to get out of Houston, Texas. I received this grant to study [with San Francisco’s Academy of Art University]. It was my first taste of a more liberal setting that was embracive of art. Upon completing the program, I had no money. I had no professional inroads into the fashion space or creative space. I ended up back in Houston. It was really painful to go back, so I made this decision to go into the Navy. It speaks to this abnormal sense of dedication that I have to design. I enlisted and then I was honorably discharged after a year served.
The military probably isn’t a place for self-expression. What was it like?
It was a total culture shock. I remember in boot camp, they took my division and my brothering division to the chapel for [orientation]. A high-ranking petty officer called on a few people and was like, “Why do you want to be here?” One guy said something to the effect of, “My family is traditionally in the military, and I wanted to carry on that tradition.” Another guy was like, “I want to go to college and I want to serve my country.” I raised my hand. I knew what I was about to say would probably label me for the rest of my time in boot camp, but I said, “I want to be one of the best fashion designers in the world.” I felt the need to say that because I was giving voice to why I was there, but I was also saying it in a hyper-masculine setting. So there was a willingness to actually claim what I wanted and where I wanted to go in life.
What’s something people might be surprised to learn about you?
I have a really good sense of humor. I’m really silly, but I can also be super shy — like incredibly shy. Also, I wouldn’t say I’m a great dancer per se but I enjoy moving.
What’s your hidden talent?
My hidden talent would be cooking. I think I’m pretty good. My go-to meal is salmon. It’s always inspiring to go to the New York Times’ Cooking channel. It just looks so nice and romantic — the way that it’s about the process. I like a lot of things. I’m naturally curious, so I’m always looking at things.
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What’s been your craziest or most surreal moment in L.A.?
My most surreal moment in Los Angeles was when I got here. When I moved here, the first time I visited Beverly Hills, I went into a store because I was trying to get change or buy some ChapStick, something really small, and I saw this lady. She paid for her goods and they gave her cash and she took it, but then she literally pinched the dollar like this and then she took it and she threw it into the trash can and used hand sanitizer. She was like, “That dollar was so disgusting.” For me, that was the memory that was like, “Oh, my gosh. This is not Texas anymore.”
What’s your ultimate goal?
The goal is to become even more established as an American pillar in fashion where we can really contribute to not only the American fashion landscape but international fashion landscape as well.
Who’s your style icon?
My style icon is Mr. Tom Ford. He was one of my favorite designers growing up and still is.
How would you describe your style?
I would describe my style as free and fluid and honest.
Kenneth Nicholson white gauze Dorcas tunic with letter and ribbon pocket detail from his spring/summer 2019 collection and vintage black sweatpants. Black classic Dr. Martens boots worn throughout the photo shoot.
Kenneth Nicholson rust Dorcas Mantle piece with lime velvet-covered buttons from his fall/winter 2020 collection and vintage black sweatpants.
Vintage black sweatpants and vintage striped T-shirt.
Kenneth Nicholson cheetah-print, short-sleeve T-shirt with crimson velvet arms and neckline trim and spring/summer ’22 Cy Falls collection chartreuse Harlequin pants.
Kenneth Nicholson long-sleeve, orange-net asymmetrical shirt and black vintage sweatpants.
Spring/summer ’22 Cy Falls collection sleeveless ivory shirt with powder-blue velvet-covered buttons on center front and center back plackets, spring/summer ’22 Cy Falls floral-print pants using vintage fabric.