Sometime over the course of this past year, the designer Merritt Meacham experienced a slight — albeit significant — pivot in how he approached his work. As he continued to foster the growth of his brand through the pandemic, churning out hand-dyed, made-to-order garments from his Brooklyn apartment and sending wares to customers across the country, Meacham started to realize something vital to his work’s purpose: “As time passes, I feel more in line with the artistry and not so much the fashion world. And not because of what I make, but because of my relationship to the process,” he recently said.
Of course, Meacham’s label still exists as a fashion brand (it’s inevitable when you make and sell clothes), but it straddles that specific art-slash-fashion middle-ground where the boundaries between starts to blur. Over the last two or three years, there has been a surge of young, New York and LA-based brands that occupy a similar space and ethos; those that are independently wrought with real, singular people behind them like Meacham, as well as other like-minded labels such as Emily Dawn Long, 420 Calories, Lefty, and Feuer God.
Perhaps the simplest categorization for these brands is DIY — the all-encompassing term that describes the use of one’s surroundings and resources to independently create, without permission or supervision. This group shares qualities in their aesthetic leanings, too. Pieces are idiosyncratic, embracing difference and proudly wearing their proof of human touch: fraying edges, organic forms, gnarled knitting, natural dyes, and hand-painted detailing are featured throughout. They are playful and a little tongue-in-cheek, which checks out with these designers’ relative youth — most are in their mid to late 20s and early 30s, young people who have come of age in the hybridized creative era of the 2010s (when, for the first time, you could feasibly be an artist, designer, photographer, etc. all at once, and you didn’t necessarily need the art school diploma to prove it). More so, the current epoch of independent designers can be traced to earlier pioneers of the modernized DIY movement: what have now become household names amongst the fashion-conscious crowd, like Eckhaus Latta, Come Tees, and Online Ceramics, to name a few.
Interestingly, many of these DIY labels have not only survived the pandemic but have settled into an unusual niche of success. We are starting to witness a new era of the domestic fashion economy, where the DIY model has prevailed as a kind of panacea to fashion industry ills that other larger brands have succumbed to; subsequently, there’s more room for these smaller labels to move to the forefront. Designers who fall under this category produce from home or in small-scale studios, selling their garments directly to customers on Instagram and the digital marketplace.
In turn, they forgo the traditional reliance on parent holding companies or big wholesale accounts, as well as sidestepping the slog of producing under the high-pressure seasonal calendar model. Above all, these designers stand out from the rest. They are trailblazing a new mode for fashion brands, distinguishing themselves as a distinct collection of domestic makers that have overcome an unbelievably challenging year, and laid the path for a new frontier.
There are difficulties that come with maintaining an independent brand — designers must simultaneously produce garments, research new concepts, source materials, create social media content, and liaise with customers — but these factors are paired with a special kind of freedom. Not only are overhead costs at a minimum when compared to larger operations, but there’s also some wiggle room for creative expression.
Claire McKinney and Sophie Andes-Gascon, the duo behind the downtown brand SC103 (check out their dazzling hand-woven leather totes), say that “one of the benefits of not wholesaling our clothing collection on a traditional seasonal basis is that we are allowed more time to focus on making new work we feel connected to,” adding that they “benefit greatly from the fluidity of developing new work in the studio that might be time-consuming or tricky. We have found ourselves revisiting ideas we didn't get the opportunity to fully explore.”
More so, the increased popularity of DIY designers seems to be mutually exclusive with the rise of Instagram marketplace. Though the app is now pretty much devoid of its intended social purposes, it has become an essential lifeline for these brands as the majority of our exterior lives — shopping included — has been digitized. And because so much of our idle time is now spent online, we’re in the distinct position of being an exceptionally captive audience. This has become a powerful tool for independent brands, who can utilize an explorative approach to designing more boundary-pushing garments: they’re able to gauge immediate responses from social media, creating a feedback loop of what’s working and what isn’t.
Meacham explains that “there's more room for trial and error at this point. I'm allowing myself to have more fun with it. If people respond, they do, and if they don't, that’s okay. Whereas before I was in my head more, and felt like I had to create things that were very similar to what drew people in [to other brands], and that felt limiting.”
The personalized configuration of Instagram allows customers to better see brands as a labor of bespoke love, with recognition of the actual human behind the designs. When viewed through the lens of designer-customer interaction, the interface recalls the magic of the internet’s earlier days: creating a set of connections through the web, and, over time, establishing a newfangled digital community made up of members supporting one another.
“I love knowing who and where my pieces are going to ... I sign and date each shirt as I would a painting. It’s nice and important that I keep that connection with everyone supporting my vision,” says designer/artist Tony Tafuro, known as much for his acidic painted tees and hoodies (worn by Hunter Schafer on Euphoria, Kim K, and A$AP Rocky) as he is for his experimental 2D work. “I think there are so many more [designers] in the community now than prior to the pandemic. A lot of people are just going for it,” he adds, discussing the support he’s witnessed and received in the DIY fashion world. “That’s all that I did, I just went for it. It’s like anything else, you have to trust your process.”
For once, independent brands are surviving and flourishing — as in, really, truly prospering — during what will likely (hopefully) be the most difficult shared experience of our lives. Perhaps, as consumers, our tastes and consciousness are changing, too. Maybe we are finally breaking away from the tiresome monotony of fast fashion and the big industry machine; a departure from the exhausting, cyclical rotation of coveted trends that become gauche the second you manage to buy it.
In its place, we are yearning for the distinct mark of human touch and tactility in the garments we put on our bodies, the products that proudly wear their evidence of individualized labor, time, thought, and artistry. If we continue to support these DIY brands, we might very well begin to see the dawn of a new and necessary era, one that alters the course of fashion, and the appreciation of human expression, for the better.