At the intersection of genderless fashion and sustainability, you’ll find designer James Flemons. He’s designed clothes for some of Hollywood’s biggest names, like Billie Eilish, Lizzo and Solange.
One of his most recognizable styles is arguably his western-inspired red outfit for Lil Nas X worn on the cover of Time magazine in 2019which Flemons described as taking recognition of his work “to another level”.
But it all came years after he was simply working as a store associate at Opening Ceremony, a since-closed fashion hub for trendsetters and celebrities.
“In these retail spaces, you never know who’s going to walk in. From my teenage years, there were celebrities and fashion people, who I ended up talking to, helping or calling out of the blue,” said Flemons said. “My time in retail really helped evolve my presence and was the gateway for me into the fashion industry.”
The Fashion Institute of Design and Merchandising graduate launched his own brand, Phlemons, in 2013, but his big break came after he was unexpectedly let go from Opening Ceremony in 2015.
“At first it was a bit shocking to me. And then I said to myself, wait, I get unemployment. I can do whatever I want,” Flemons recalled. “It was the first time I could really fully immerse myself in creativity. And after that, I released my Spring/Summer 2016 collection, and it was a collection that really caught my eye.
Ironically, this collection was picked up by the very store that fired it. It also launched his working relationship with Solange Knowles, someone he first met while working at Opening Ceremony.
“I would say the biggest and most pivotal period of my career was my kind of creative relationship with Solange. And it was like, really, at the height of my visibility,” Flemons said. a custom for ‘A Seat at the Table’ for ‘don’t touch my hair.’”
But after some of those early big wins, Flemons said he noticed attention to his brand stalled. But with the racial reckoning following the May 2020 murder of George Floyd, there has been a rush to recognize and promote Black-owned businesses and brands.
“I mean, I don’t know how many DMs I’ve gotten from white women all of a sudden adding my mark, like, ‘watch out for that black guy…’ – all the lists I was on!”
Flemons said attention was like a double-edged sword.
“At first it was really fun, then it got a little crazy and a little performative,” he said, “but it introduced me to a lot more audiences and it expanded my business. “
Phlemuns, which emphasizes clothing that doesn’t conform to traditional gender rules, follows a general shift in how people identify their gender and sexual orientation. A recent Gallup poll found that 7.1% of American adults are LGBTQ, twice as many adults in this group a decade ago. This figure is augmented by the large share – 21.5% – of 18 to 25 year olds who are LGBTQ.
“It was really important to me to create a safe space of genderless or non-binary clothing that simply speaks to your identity and allows anyone to feel comfortable exploring that – whether they’re gay, straight, non-binary, Black, white, brown, whatever,” Flemons said. “You can find something that fits into this world that you can express yourself in.”
Flemons said part of creating this space was making sure people could afford his designs.
“I wanted to create a brand that could still sit with those high-end, mid-range and high-end luxury brands. But it was accessible to people who come from my background and my identity and who were there to support me.
Despite all the success, Flemons said he wouldn’t even be a designer if it weren’t for the pioneers who came before him.
Following the deaths of fashion icons André Leon Talley and Virgil Abloh, Felmons felt strongly responsible for continuing his legacy in the fashion world, pushing the boundaries of what is possible.
“America has a kind of… very rigid idea of what a black man is supposed to be or what he is supposed to do. And I think the two really broke that mould,” Flemons said. “There’s a lot more that comes in this package from a black man or a black designer, and I wanted to be there to show that the world is limitless.”
CORRECTION (February 20, 2022, 10:23 AM ET): A previous version of this article was incorrect when Lil Nas X wore one of James Flemons’ designs on the cover of Time magazine. That was in 2019, not 2021.