Newcomer Ryan Charlie Puts Politics On the Runway

The Memphis-born designer explains why his first collection was a form of activism

“I’ve always been an activist,” said 24-year-old designer Ryan Charlie, who debuted his first ever collection at this season’s Fashion Gallery shows, an off-calendar event during New York fashion week. “I use fashion to communicate something.”

Indeed, Charlie had a lot to say with “Renegade,” his Fall 2017 collection. Featuring mouth guards, velvet jackets, military-style suits, and berets in a black, red, and green palette, the 14-look unisex lineup was a representation of New York street culture, and aimed to bring those who don’t see themselves reflected on the runway into the fashion mainstream. It was also a response to the current political climate, a theme that was seen time and time again during the Fall 2017 shows.

Pain, especially the social distress of our time, is a constant theme in his work. “I was inspired by the deaths of Trayvon Martin and Eric Garner,” said Charlie, who is African-American. “They had a big effect on the way I view myself as a minority in America.”

Charlie grew up in Memphis, Tennessee and recalls that fashion was a constant presence in his childhood. His father taught him the value of style, and dressing up to go to church was a family ritual. “Religion plays a huge part of people’s way of dressing in the south,” he said. Even so, he remembers trying to fit in during his adolescence by playing football and basketball and running track, even though his interests drew him elsewhere. “I was kind of doing those things to be accepted,” he said. “I always felt more like myself when I was being creative.”

While still down south, he dipped his toes into the world of fashion by participating in Memphis fashion week and starting a line of streetwear called Fliten (“fly” in German) with his friend Devin Mathews, inspired by New York brands like Supreme.

But the designer wanted more, so he started flying to the Big Apple to work as a dresser during New York fashion week. Ultimately, he packed his bags and moved at 21 after being accepted to Parsons the New School for Design. “I did it on a whim,” he said. “I had nothing figured out.” That being said, he quickly found his way, landing internships with Japanese menswear retailer Nepenthes, Burberry, Michael Kors, and the costume design team for Netflix hip-hop series The Get Down. “I literally lived and breathed fashion every day,” he said.

“Renegade” was well received among the independent fashion cliques, earning an editorial on Toksick, an independent fashion publication, and being worn by Starley, an Australian singer-songwriter, in Billboard magazine.

But the young designer isn’t resting on his laurels. Charlie is now pushing his work as a stylist to gather support for his next project, “Repent,” a two-part collection he has just started.

Still, he remains his own biggest critic. “I wished I hadn’t done a runway show because I feel like I didn’t need to at this point,” said Charlie, his eyes facing the ceiling as if looking for a sign that proves him wrong. “I just see my work on an elevated scale, and I’m not at that level—yet.”

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