Toronto-based designer Spencer Badu launched his label a couple of years ago while in university. His modern take on the idea of a uniform features architecturally-inspired clean lines, military fabrics like nylon, and zipper details that accentuate hemlines and change the way his garments fit.
This degree of customization and self-expression is purposeful, a way to subvert a prescriptive way of dressing in order to let your personality shine through. Chalk it up to Badu's experience in Catholic school, where ways to show your personal style in a uniform were limited. His ideas have definitely caught on with the likes of A$AP Rocky, who've been spotted out and about in his trackies.
This interview has been edited and condensed.
Jian DeLeon: For those unfamiliar, your label is a juxtaposition of things you're into, like the idea of uniforms and architecture. How would you describe your codes?
Spencer Badu: I would say the foundations of the brand have always been the same. It's always been about this idea of a genderless uniform. I'm just trying to corrupt a lot of traditional codes and create something that people can translate into everyday life. And I think as time goes on, the more I learn and get exposed to different things, these things start to creep their way into what I do. As a kid, the dominant culture I experienced was hip-hop music. So that's a thing that I really gravitated to, but as time goes on, I'm trying to tell a more personal story and reference things that are more personal to me.
JD: Growing up, there are school uniforms, and in the military there's also a prescriptive mode of dress. In the fashion world, a uniform can mean “this is what I always wear or what I gravitate to.” How has the idea of a uniform changed?
SB: Obviously with the current state of the world, the idea of a uniform may come with a negative connotation. When you think of uniform you think of conforming; you think of order; you think of everyone looking the same. I went to a Catholic high school, so we all had to wear the gray dress pants, a knitted sweater, and a button-up shirt. In a way you couldn't really express yourself besides the shoes you wore, or maybe the way you wore your hair, or makeup. Ultimately I'm really trying to corrupt certain things within a uniform.
When I look at something like a blazer or a jacket, there's so much tradition and there's so much history within that one garment. And for me, it's really about dissecting and challenging that in a way. As a kid, I was very rebellious towards authority, and this is my way of expressing that energy. What I'm trying to do is promote individuality and liberty so we don't all look the same. There are details within the clothes that you can change up and wear in a different way.
JD: What is it about Toronto that makes it such a fertile ground for creative, fashionable types?
SB: I like to coin it as maybe this “outsider” mentality. For the longest time as Canadians, we were looking across the pond to New York and other cities. I wouldn't say that we didn't have an identity, but we definitely wanted to express ourselves. I could use music as an example, before Drake there were a lot of artists that wanted to get international success, but they were either not respected or accepted on a global scale. So I feel there's this hunger that comes from the city, and you really see that with people like [Errolson Hugh of] ACRONYM, Joey [Gollish of Mr. Saturday], and me. I don't think Canada has really reached its point in terms of international recognition. So I think it's more of an underdog mentality.
JD: Going back to uniforms, Kanye West's deal with Gap is unprecedented. In his own way he's also pushed for this idea of modern utility and new codes.
SB: I think there was a Kimmel interview where Kanye talks about the hierarchy or class that people maybe feel superior to others because they're wearing a $5,000 bag or the latest trend. Clothes are important obviously, but I think we're realizing, especially in quarantine, that there's so many other things that matter more than the latest drop or the logo on your chest.
So for me, it's really about creating something that's more consistent for the person that's wearing it opposed to trying to sell a specific image of luxury or fashion. I think that's what Kanye is definitely trying to do, and you see it. With Kanye it's very specific. You think of him, you think of a world. He doesn't really think of YEEZY as only the garments, he thinks of YEEZZY as a universe. And when you think of the YEEZY universe, you think of a uniform — whether that's an oversized T-shirt, some sweats, some moon boots, or whatever.
I think for me, it's not only challenging the garments, but challenging modern day society and creating a lifestyle that's more focused on other things. Hopefully the clothes are a way to simplify your life. I guess a Steve Jobs or someone would just want a turtleneck and go on and conquer the world, but for me, I think I'd want more expression in that uniform, as opposed to it just being very repetitive and boring.
JD: The opposite of a prescription in a way.
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