Fashion

PHLEMUNS is the Denim Designer to the Stars

Fashion

PHLEMUNS is the Denim Designer to the Stars

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SS ’16 Lookbook
Photography: Bennet Perez
HMUA: Lauren Paez Burt
Models: Kira King & Lucas Zeeberg

We live in the age of Internet illusion, when someone’s blossoming business can easily seem like a major, multi-person operation from an outsider’s perspective. Such is the case for rising designer James Flemons of the independent label PHLEMUNS, who’s singlehandedly created pieces for Miley Cyrus, Rita Ora, Kelela, Boychild, Wynter Gordon and GIA all from his humble Los Angeles apartment.

In the past, Flemons has largely asserted himself as a denim designer, but for SS ’16 he strategically worked to break out of this box and showcase a wider breadth of work. His refurbished jeans, which have garnered an online cult following, still have a strong presence, but the designer’s introduced a more well-rounded chapter for PHLEMUNS.

The collection recalls red carpet fashions he remembers seeing during the early 2000’s MTV Video Music Awards; his laced-up pieces look like modern interpretations of Christina Aguilera’s “Lady Marmalade” wardrobe, while the cropped silhouettes and layered styling would’ve had a happy home in Britney Spears’ closet during her Justin Timberlake days. (If Flemons was somehow at this career height in 2001, you can bet he would’ve dressed the pop star couple in those iconic head-to-toe denim looks).

We caught up with the up-and-coming designer to discuss studying at the Fashion Institute of Design & Merchandising, watching all eight seasons of Girlfriends and living in La La Land.

Bring me through your introduction to fashion.

“I’ve been designing clothes since I was maybe around 10 years old, sketching day-after-day; my parents would find me up in the middle of the night, unable to sleep [and] trying to get these ideas out of my head. I’ve always known it was what I wanted to do, but in high school I started to get a little swayed socially.

It all kind of kickstarted again in 2008 when I got a scholarship to the Fashion Institute of Design & Merchandising, which is where I learned to sew. I was the worst sewer in my class, so after I graduated I didn’t touch my machine for a couple years until I started experimenting with denim—trying to practice and at the same time find ways to make denim to my liking. People started to become really interested in what I was doing with denim, so I thought to incorporate it into every collection and find different ways to make such a staple a little more new and exciting.”

You’ve been labeled a “denim designer,” but it seems you’ve broken this mold for SS ’16. Was this intentional?

“Yes, it was 100 percent intentional. I’ve become coined a ‘denim designer’ and knowing who I am, that’s so strange to me because my design identity is so much more than that in my head. I really wanted to take a different approach at showing who I am and what goes on in my head, and not really let my denim pieces overshadow the collection as a whole.”

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What were your central inspirations this season?

“For some reason, all my main references ended up being from the year 2003, which I thought was so random, but cool. I ended up with my main inspiration being the red carpet style of the MTV VMA’s in the early 2000s and transformative clothing that can be worn multiple ways or has somewhat of an illusion of two garments in one. I also watched all eight seasons of Girlfriends while making the collection and was really sucked in by all the styling of the show; I kind of envisioned making different pieces for all four women to wear. I sketched a ton of ideas, started working on the ones I was most excited about, and the process of creating and making mistakes brought on more ideas I ended up being really pleased with.”

What is it about the early aughts that attracts you?

“It’s funny because it’s a time I feel like half the fashion world completely hated and the other half has such a soft spot for. There was something about the 2000s that was so tacky, but also really sexy, playful and carefree. I think a lot of fashion today is so stuffy and non-expressive, and it has become so saturated with an abundance of the same thing over and over. I think the clothes back then had such an identity and I just wanted the expressive extreme of the 2000s to meet me in the present and have a little conversation.”

You’ve been garnering a celebrity following from Rita Ora to Miley Cyrus. What has this experience been like?

“It’s always cool to find out about another celebrity or stylist that has stumbled across my stuff because in today with consumerism at such a height, those figures really take someone like me to the next level, or get me my next order to pay my rent and buy fabric. It’s rare that I ever actually work with any of them in real life, but the reaction I get from supporters who see it really make the moment for me, and occasionally one of the celebs will notice me @ them and leave a nice comment, which is the little cherry on top.”

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Who’s your dream customer?

“I honestly have so many, but Solange and Rihanna are always in the mix every round; [I want to make] more for Erykah Badu, who already has a couple pieces, and I’d really love Travis Scott and The Garden Twins. Mainly I want anyone who really loves my clothes to be my dream customer; if we lived in a world where I could survive giving away my pieces for free I would. My biggest gratification comes from seeing someone wear my clothes—anyone.”

How do you approach the fashion industry as an independent entrepreneur?

“It’s hard—you really have to have money and a team, which I have neither of. Everything comes out of my pockets; I sketch, I buy the fabric, I draft my patterns from scratch, I cut, I sew, I do pick-ups and deliveries with stylists, I make my orders, I ship out my orders, I run my social media; the one thing I don’t do is sleep. It was even more difficult up until recently also working a full-time job, but it’s all very gratifying at times like this when I can finally release all my hard work and there’s no one else around to get credit but me.”

Bring me through your production process.

“I learned the basics of sewing and pattern-drafting in college, but didn’t really learn enough to feel comfortable in my skills taking on whole collections. Pattern-making is so time consuming, so I usually start all pieces off of previous patterns I’ve made. I try on a lot of clothes in my closet to base measurements, fit and proportions off of—mainly vintage pieces i find at the Goodwill. I do a lot of measurements off myself, which can sometimes be dangerous because I’m so skinny. Then I build the new pattern and start to cut and sew.

I’ve started intentionally designing things I don’t know how to make to challenge myself, which also creates mistakes and expands my creative process. If I don’t know how to do something, I’ll look up YouTube tutorials or try to logically think of how it would work and test it out; if that doesn’t work, I come up with a creative solution. I’m not at a place where time and money are on my side, so I don’t get the opportunity to draft and sew up a sample piece, fit it and then make the final garment. Whatever I start has to end up somehow in the form of a final piece for the collection. Repurposing denim has also really helped because I’m able to mess up other garments and really see how something is constructed.”

What is Los Angeles’ fashion scene like? How does the city influence your work?

“The scene in LA is nice; I feel like you get a little bit of it all without style and fashion being shoved down your throat. I also really appreciate how relaxed and easy going style is here. I lived in New York for a year and I personally was just overloaded with fashion and the party scene, it didn’t really work for me. I was my least creative living there because I was so consumed with all of it, I couldn’t think independently on my own and I had literally no space to be creative. This is no hate to NY though becauseIi’d definitely live there again on a bi-coastal basis upon becoming more established. I’m such a ‘Cali Boy’ at heart; I like to relax and be lazy, go to the beach, hide away at home, go dance my ass off now and then, and at the end of the day, be greatly productive and progressive.”