IDA 2021 Fashion Designer of the Year
Kyle Denman is a designer whose mission is to use his own platform and privilege to create social change, share cultural narratives, and humanize the experiences of underserved communities. Currently, Denman teaches fashion design and art to at-promise youth in Los Angeles, California. Many of his students have experienced trauma, such as trafficking, homelessness, gang violence, incarceration, domestic violence, and substance abuse. Through the lenses of fashion, art, and design, Denman teaches these youth much more—a former student explained that his programming saved her life.
What do you see as the strengths of your winning project and what does this award mean to you personally?Premiering at New York Fashion Week, “mul·ti·po·lar—ex·ist·ence” was inspired by the interconnectivity and the multidimensionality of the human experience. I personally think some of the strengths of “mul·ti·po·lar—ex·ist·ence” are the unique silhouettes (featuring profile-views of faces in most of the looks), the creative construction techniques, and the emotional significance. I believe my work is relatable to most people, as “mul·ti·po·lar—ex·ist·ence” can best be summarized in just six words: soulmates will always find a way.
Creating “mul·ti·po·lar—ex·ist·ence” was deeply emotional and personal for me. I had worked on this project for over a year before it was showcased on an international stage. Winning the IDA 2021 Fashion Design of the Year Award and three additional Gold Prizes for this collection was special and humbling. To receive such a prestigious award alongside well-known and established companies was incredibly validating. When I first found out that I received the Fashion Design of the Year Award, I could not believe it! I am proud but am also so thankful for the award and the experience.
What was most important for you when planning the project and what were the biggest challenges you faced?
By far, the biggest challenge I faced when designing “mul·ti·po·lar—ex·ist·ence” was experiencing self-doubt. I continued to place doubt in my own head, feeling as if I was not worthy of showcasing a collection at New York Fashion Week. While planning my collection, it was important to tell myself that I deserved that spot and I had the chance to show my art and designs on a global stage.
It was incredibly important for me to surround myself with people who believed in me and my work. My team (my “cheetah pack” as I call them all)—friends, my parents, mentors, and students—all provided me with so much support and feedback as I planned and created my collection. At one point when I was really doubting myself, one of my “cheetahs” told me it would be a shame not to share my art with the world. Just this short statement and the small gesture meant so much to me and propelled me to complete my collection.
What is your guiding design principle?
As a designer and an artist, my mission is to create wearable art while also using my own platform and privilege to create social change, share cultural narratives, and humanize the artistic and creative experiences.
Where do you get motivation and inspiration for your work?
I am inspired by peoples’ stories. I do my best to relate my runway collections’ themes to the audience. Even if someone does not necessarily directly relate to the collection, I hope that they can connect emotionally with it. I am always motivated by hearing different people’s interpretations of my work, too. I think having discourse and conversation allows my work to evolve in ways that I could never imagine.
I am also very fortunate that I have a strong friendship with one of the first models with whom I have worked. Not only is she the perfect fit model, but she is also my muse who continues to support and inspire me.
How/when did you discover that you wanted to work in design?
I have always loved art. My parents have told me that I could draw before I could talk. However, I have also loved politics and law. When I was in high school, I was the Youth Mayor of Cincinnati, Ohio and attended national conferences on policy. When I was completing my undergraduate degree in Political Science, I was working with the Scripps Gerontology Center and was supporting them with research on the effectiveness of art on people who have dementia, Alzheimer’s, and other neurocognitive disorders. Here, I truly began to understand the impact of art and creativity in people’s lives. I decided to pursue fashion design, as I saw it as an expression of art in everyone’s lives every day. I guess my passion for art never left me!
Tell us about a project which has been your greatest achievement?
Presenting “mul·ti·po·lar—ex·ist·ence” at New York Fashion Week has been my greatest achievement so far. After seeing the models walk down the runway in my clothes, I was incredibly proud. This is one of the most defining moments in my career because I truly began to feel confident in myself.
After Fashion Week, I flew back home to Los Angeles and received a phone call from a stylist asking if one of my pieces (Look 008: Homeostasis) could be worn on the red carpet at the New York City Ballet Fall Gala. After being in New York City for two weeks for Fashion Week and then back in Los Angeles for two more weeks, I flew back to New York City for the Fall Gala and another presentation of “mul·ti·po·lar—ex·ist·ence” to an additional audience. This was certainly a whirlwind of a time for me! I was exhausted but so grateful for everything.
Which designer in your field do you most admire and why?I am deeply inspired by the late couturier Cristobal Balenciaga, Dutch designer Iris van Herpen, and Japanese designer Issey Miyake. All three designers have really pushed the envelope when it comes to design. All three have experimented with architecture and silhouette, which is arguably the aspect of fashion design that I enjoy the most. They are also each incredibly avant-garde in their design philosophies and evoke such strong emotions through their work. The first time I saw work by any of these three in-person, I think I was left speechless.
How do you feel fashion design has evolved over the past years and how do you see it evolving in the future?
Fashion design has evolved substantially over the past few years. There is more social and cultural awareness and a stronger emphasis on sustainability. I think this sensitivity and eco-consciousness are driving positive change in the fashion community. The fashion industry, like most industries, is globalized and built on both a resource supply chain but also a social supply chain.
What’s your creative process and what creative software do you use?
If I am working with a client, I want to ensure that I listen to their voice. I do my best to set my ego and personal needs aside and just provide feedback based on my own skills and experiences. For instance, it’s important to communicate with a client that all fabrics have to be treated differently from one another and each type of fabric will not work for all silhouettes or designs.
If I am working on a runway collection or a personal project, I begin my creative process with a question. I ask myself, “What story do I want to tell?” Once I have that answered, I begin my research. I find quotes and images relating to my chosen story, research historical events and literature if applicable, and place my findings in an inspiration journal. Then, I will start finding fabric swatches, begin sketching, and drape silhouettes.
In my process, I also write a short essay about the theme and intention of my collection. This allows me to refer back to what I wrote as I get deeper into the creative process and ensure that each look in the collection remains relevant and coherent with the overall theme.
What kind of culture or structure needs to exist to foster successful team collaboration?
In any industry, field, or workplace, there needs to be a level of empathy and understanding in order to foster successful team collaboration. I would say this has become even more significant the past couple of years during the COVID-19 pandemic during which so many people have been separated or displaced. Humans are social creatures and interpersonal connections are vital to our existence. I believe that art and creativity drive empathy, and that is why I think design is so important.
From my experiences, I have learned that fashion design is one of the simplest yet most complex ways in which people communicate with the world and themselves. In order for the fashion design industry to truly thrive, there needs to be an understanding of how people affect and are affected by the industry, from start to finish and from design conception to the last wear of a garment. In a way, the fashion industry itself is a form of globalized team collaboration.
Tell us about a time when a client disliked your work?
I have almost always received the same criticism for my work—my clothes are “too weird” or are not marketable. Sometimes people have told me they “don’t get” my work. Before presenting “mul·ti·po·lar—ex·ist·ence” at New York Fashion Week, I shared some of the designs with some mentors and friends. At first, some of the criticism was the same that I have always heard. It was disheartening, to say the least, to hear negative feedback about such a personal project.
However, I really tried to think objectively about my work. It is always important to listen to others regarding my work so I know how to improve. After some editing, one of the most controversial looks in my collection became one of my favorites and one of the most praised! I had to remind myself that it was my goal to create walking and wearable art, and I don’t know if I would have been able to fully achieve my goal if it wasn’t for that negative criticism.
What are you working on, what is in the pipeline for you?
Besides working with individual clients, I am currently working on my next collection—for which I am very excited. Like my past work, it tells a deeply emotional story. However, this collection is much darker in tone and imagery than “mul·ti·po·lar—ex·ist·ence.” I am having a lot of fun coming up with new silhouettes that I haven’t seen before. I think this collection may end up being a bit more controversial, but I have to continue to ask myself, “What art isn’t controversial?” And I’m definitely not afraid to make some waves.