For the Taking the Lead series, we asked leaders in various fields to share insights about what they’ve learned and what lies ahead.
When Christopher John Rogers was an aspiring designer in high school in Louisiana, he came across the work of Belgian fashion designer Dries Van Noten. One runway collection in particular, with a “green algae” fabric segment, stuck with him.
Now 29, and with three critically acclaimed runway shows to his name, that influence can still be seen, and felt, in the way Mr. Rogers pairs her electric colors with high-shine fabrics and occasional prints that clash to great effect.
Yet until they joined a video call in early November for this conversation, the men had never met.
Mr. Van Noten, 64, was calling from his studio in Antwerp, where his company has been based since it was founded in the mid-1980s. (In 2018, after three decades of independence, Mr. Van Noten sold a majority stake in his brand, although he remained as creative director, chairman of the board and minority shareholder).
In 2020, Van Noten helped spearhead an open letter urging a “more environmentally and socially sustainable” delivery and discount schedule in fashion, an industry where the appetites and budgets of conglomerates seem to set the schedule for every company. fashionable
Rogers joined the call from her home in Brooklyn, where she moved shortly after graduating from Savannah College of Art and Design in 2016. In 2020, she spoke out about the tokenization and discrimination of black designers, becoming one of the most visible after her first success (By then, she had already won the prestigious CFDA/Vogue Fashion Fund Award and dressed Michelle Obama).
Now, Mr. Rogers is working to expand her company from just seven employees, who release two womenswear collections a year. He hopes that one day he will resemble Mr. Van Noten, which has 120 employees working on four annual collections, along with accessories, bath and beauty lines and nine directly operated stores worldwide.
This conversation has been condensed and edited.
What do you look for in a design team?
DIES VAN NOTEN It’s very important to me that they bring something new to the table. Combine colors and flowers, I know how to do it. Do something else. amaze me I like to give them some ingredients of the dish we want to make, which is a collection. But everyone still has to bring their own element to add to the plate.
Many things are happening in the world, and they see with different eyes, and also, in my case, with younger eyes. So in that way, it’s very important that they feed me as well.
We have several people who have been here for 25 years, which of course makes things easier and practical, because you have history and archives to refer to. But on the other hand, I don’t want to live in the past. I want to look to the future. So we have a lot of young people who, two years ago, were still in fashion school.
Special Section of Fine Arts and Exhibitions
CHRISTOPHER JOHN ROGERS I’m a bit the opposite. Obviously we’ve only been around for a short time, but a lot of my friends from school work for me now. I’m looking to broaden our views and bring people who have a lot more experience into the fold, to re-contextualize what we’re doing and help drive it forward.
I’m still trying to figure out the best way to communicate my point of view to my team in real time. I’m very specific with how I like things together. But I’m also learning to open up and find ways to explain why I like the things I like, even if it doesn’t necessarily make sense. Contradicting words or phrases used in the same sentence does not always make sense to people. But the more I do it, the more they get it.
Ultimately, I want to make a place where people feel comfortable to express themselves, learn, create, challenge me too. Because I feel that this way, so far, we have achieved the best product and the best work.
THEY NOTE The people who work with you in the beginning are often friends, and especially after a few years, it can become quite complicated.
THEY NOTE You have to see that your friendship survives, and that you as an employer survive as well. Friends, little by little, maybe leave the company and start to take their own steps, and then you start to have a more normal employer-employee relationship.
How do you stay inspired?
ROGERS Lately I’ve been trying to find inspiration. I used to be inspired all the time, and I think now I’m experiencing a little bit of, what’s the word? – an obstacle or something like that.
THEY NOTE I think it’s not a problem, once in a while, to have a creative block. Or start a collection, with all the colors and fabrics on the table, and say, “Oh my God, what was I thinking? How can I get out of this?” Because you’ve already committed. You’ve bought the fabrics; it’s an investment. And then your team takes you by the arm and says, “Let’s have a drink together. Look at it with different eyes on Monday.” Often times, those they are the most interesting collections.
ROGERS Dries, when you feel like you want to take your work in a divergent direction from what is expected of you, how do you deal with that? Do you push through and deliver what you know you should, or is it driven by that uneasy feeling?
THEY NOTE I really try to start with a blank page in front of me for each collection. The “rule” of many houses is “This sold really well last season, so let’s make a new version.” We always say that it sold very well last season, everyone has it, so we have to surprise them with something else.
It’s not because people expect to see colors and flowers in Dries Van Noten that we’re going to give them that every time. forget it No, I have to be surprised too. If not, I would quit. The collections would become one big blur.
Why stay independent?
THEY NOTE When we started in the 80s, designer fashion was a new concept, and designer fashion from Belgium was completely unknown. It was very difficult.
Staying independent in the early years was the only way to survive. There was no Kering or LVMH or Grupo Prada wanting to invest in you. It was only after the late 1990s, when those companies bought Jil Sander or Alexander McQueen, that the brands began to find a home. We begin to wonder, is this the future for us? Then we put everything on the table and looked at it, talked about it and said no. For us, it’s going to be better to stay independent, which we did until 2018.
ROGERS Have you had many conversations with people? Thought you’d never find that perfect fit?
THEY NOTE We had many different possibilities, and each potential partner offered a completely different way to continue our brand.
I’m so glad we found the right partner who respects what we do, who doesn’t push us to do things we don’t like. And they gave us possibilities to create perfumes and beauty [products] – then it’s a happy marriage. In late age.
If I can advise you, I wouldn’t do it too early. I think it’s better if you’ve built your own and know exactly what you’re standing for, and also the person who wants to invest in you knows exactly what you want, who you are, what you stand for, because otherwise they might be too tempted to mold you into something what you don’t want to become.
JESSICA TESTA Christopher, you can also be hired personally by bigger brands as a creative director, one of the prescribed career paths for designers these days. do you want that
ROGERS Never say never. I think it would be interesting to take my point of view and insert it elsewhere. There are other parts of my aesthetic that I haven’t fully extracted yet that would be nice to play with in another realm. But is it something I feel I have to do? Not necessarily.
I am very happy. We have no investments at the moment, so we can focus only on ourselves and the uniqueness of what we do, and grow at our own pace. That way, we can be here 30 years from now and still be creating work that feels impactful, intentional, and honest.
What excites you about working in fashion right now?
THEY NOTE [Laughs.]
TEST Ok! Well, there’s another side to this, because I also want to ask you what frustrates you about working in fashion right now.
THEY NOTE I’ll start with what frustrates me the most. After a career of all these years, you can never take six months off. Or even two months off. The dream of every designer is just, at a given moment, to be able to skip a season.
The good thing about being fashionable is that you can’t stop. Even after a collection that you’re not so happy with or that wasn’t very well received, you don’t have time to sit in a corner and say, “Oh, poor me.” You have to move on. You have to forget. You have to start over. And I think that’s amazing. That is quite addictive.
TEST What’s the longest break you’ve been able to take?
THEY NOTE me two weeks
ROGERS Phew! The most was a week and a half, so far. But I expected more.
What frustrates me the most? I think the same. The continuous rhythm, the need and the desire and the requirement to continuously produce things, or to imagine or to dream. It’s frustrating to have to keep moving, but that’s also what I love about it. You can’t rest on your laurels and your latest collection.