Menswear designer Chelsea Grays had just returned to the states after designing in Paris when we caught up on Zoom. The 28 year old designer first studied psychology at North Carolina Central University. She went on to get her masters degree in fashion design at the Academy of Art University in San Francisco. After a year spent in Paris doing an extended study at École de la Chambre Syndicale, her latest collection was one of our favorites this past fashion week. I spoke with Grays about her design process, inspirations and the new digital world of fashion.
Maria: Hi Chelsea, my first question is why menswear?
Chelsea: I actually started with studying womenswear. In my final year when we got to make a collection for New York Fashion Week, I was drawing clothes on men. It came natural. I thought it could be a unisex collection, but then that kind of merged into menswear. I really had to sit down and process why I did that. When I was younger, my mom would wear men’s clothes a lot. She would buy clothes for her and her younger brother, so she would buy oversized men’s clothes she could wear and then pass down to him. I think that played a huge part in terms of why I chose men’s wear. I also think men’s wear has a bigger possibility for change and new ideas. It allows you to be more innovative and creative.
The spotlight on menswear feels new to fashion. I remember walking in department stores and men complaining about the same blue button-down shirt every season. So let’s play with color, let’s play with shape, silhouettes, let’s experiment with print, details, and closures –maybe even use some references from womenswear. The world is open to having limitless options when developing pieces for men.
You describe yourself as a “political designer.” What does that mean to you?
When I first started studying, I was making a lot of collections based on different political issues. It came natural to me, from when I was studying psychology. I loved this whole political arena. I wanted to make a change. Every campaign I do now is based on some type of social issue in hopes of raising awareness. Since last year, a lot of people are focused on political issues, which I think is great. It’s something that has always been a part of my brand’s DNA. People may be uncomfortable talking about it, but if it’s on your shirt or articulated in fashion, people may be more comfortable with approaching that issue in hopes of having a positive conversation.
What is your design process like?
I’m a little bit of a hippie in my way of thinking. It’s never a set, organized way. It’s always different. These issues are always relevant and on my mind. I’ll use my recent collection as an example. In 2020, there were a lot of protests and government issues. That’s something I really wanted to talk about and express in the clothing. I wanted to do it in a way that’s indirect. I used old historical images and the voting issues of the 1950s to relate to current day issues. I get inspiration from images, but sometimes it’s more conceptual based. I start with the feeling it brings up and translate that into clothing. It’s always different.
When designing this collection and looking at these issues, was it ever hard to work through those feelings?
I didn’t try to work through it. I just accepted it for what it was and made the collection. That’s why everything feels sad or mad. I completely encompassed that and ran with it. I didn’t try to overcome it. If this is going to be a sad time, let’s not change that. The world was going through it, let’s accept it for what it is. Then, maybe in the future, we can look to overcome it.
You mentioned your mom inspiring you. Where else do you get your inspiration from?
A lot of people in my family are artistic. My mom herself is an artist. When I’m designing, I love using art inspiration. In my first NYFW collection, I used Jean-Michel Basquiat as an inspiration. Every time I make a collection, if I’m not doing art myself, I’m looking at other artists to help me get an idea of color, shapes and silhouettes. Also, I use military references a lot. This really utilitarian feel. My grandfather, father and uncle were in the military and that plays a role in my designing and the details I decide to use. All of this just sits in my subconscious until I bring it to the forefront.
We’ve seen fashion go digital in the last year. Most, if not all, fashion week presentations were done via video. How do you see video as a means of communicating a message or communicating fashion?
I absolutely love fashion films. I don’t know what it is. I think in this virtual world, film is a perfect way to get your message across. There’s no need to go to shows. The message is different compared to a runway. It’s a good way to get your vision and your message across because you’re in control of the whole process. Not only are you being a fashion designer, but you have to be a director. You make sure all the creative content is provided to deliver the message correctly. It’s a perfect way to show clothes. Because I’m alway trying to do something political and raise awareness, video is a better way to reach people. There’s no limit on who can see it.
Any advice to other young designers?
I would say network. It’s a perfect time for emerging designers because it’s a level playing field. Everyone is using social media as a means to show their creations. Whether it’s an established brand or emerging designer, everybody is using the same platform, so this is the perfect time. I would tell them to go for it and be confident.
Looking forward, what do you hope to create?
Most of my collections I created before have been a bit sad, or heavy on the heart. I still want to talk about these same issues, but with a different approach. Instead of angry, sad moods in the videos, I’d like to do something happy and uplifting. That’s where I’m headed in terms of expressing my creative ideas.
Anything else to add?
I’m excited where I’m headed in the future. Thus far, I’m really appreciative to everybody who has helped me and assisted me. I think I’m in a great position to continue to build my brand and show my designs and creativity. I’m just happy to push forward.