Christopher John Rogers and Law Roach on Creating Joy Through Clothing
Breakout designer Christopher John Rogers sits down with longtime supporter Law Roach to talk optimism, tokenism, and Sesame Street.
Since bounding onto the New York fashion scene in 2018, Louisiana-born designer Christopher John Rogers has become one of the most important voices in contemporary fashion. His expressive color palette and voluminous tailoring challenge the Euro-centric model of what's chic and have ushered in a new era of joyful dressing. In a few short years he's gained a fan base that includes Michelle Obama, Lady Gaga, Tessa Thompson, and Rihanna. In January, he dressed Vice President Kamala Harris on the event of her inauguration, in a stunning purple coat that would've been a star-making moment for the designer, were he not already so clearly a star.
Famed stylist Law Roach was an early advocate of Rogers's work, pulling pieces for big moments before most people knew who the designer was. At the most recent Emmy Awards, Roach styled best-actress winner Zendaya in an iridescent purple and black dress with exaggerated hips and a graphic neckline from Rogers's fall 2020 collection, and the look effectively broke Instagram. Around that same time, Roach dressed Zendaya for the September 2020 issue of InStyle in a billowing plaid look that had also been designed by Rogers.
So who better to delve into Rogers's inspirations — from the colors he picks to his runway casting choices — than Roach? The pair were all too happy to jump on Zoom to reconnect.
Law Roach: I'll tell a quick story: I send flowers a lot, and I always send white flowers, thinking it's so chic and minimal. But when you won the CFDA Emerging Designer of the Year award in 2020, I wanted to send you some, and my office was like, "All white?" And I said, "No. Christopher John Rogers cannot get all-white flowers." So we sent you a very colorful bouquet, because that's what you symbolize! Your work symbolizes optimism, and I can't even put into words the feeling it gives me, but it's so joyful.
Christopher John Rogers: Thank you. I love that you didn't have the words to express it, because that's how I feel when I'm working on a collection. I think that a lot of designers normally start from one reference and then expand from there, but I start with color. It could be a carryout carton from a Chinese restaurant, or graffiti on the wall that has been brushed away, or an archival fashion reference, or anything that gets me going, but I compile those references and see what colors appear. That is what leads me to the development process. But more than anything, I know that optimism is something that people associate a lot with my work.
LR: My work is based on that goose-bumps take-your-breath-away feeling too. I don't know how to express it, but it makes me feel good, and that's what's needed right now in the world.
CJR: I remember the first time we talked, I had just released my first collection in 2018. It was Thanksgiving, and I was in Brooklyn. You DM'd me, and I obviously knew who you were, and I gagged!
LR: I think it was [to do a look] for Ariana [Grande], right?
CJR: Yes. It meant a lot because it was my first body of work after graduating from design school, and it wasn't exactly what I wanted it to be. To have people identify with it and think it could work for someone, that always touches me.
LR: I'm so honored to have a relationship with you now where I can say, "Hold this dress for me. I'm going to make it worth it." As soon as I saw the dress from the fall 2020 collection, I asked you to hold it for me, and I put Zendaya in it for the Emmys. So many girls saw it and bought the dress afterward. That gives Zendaya and me a feeling of pride because then the moment becomes bigger than the clothes or the celebrity who wore them. It's about changing people's lives and their business. It's great to give someone a shot, but it's better when you put them in a position where they can make money. [laughs]
CJR: It's been great to know that people understand where I'm coming from. When I first started, I didn't have many pictures of me out at the time. It was just about the work. So the people who were responding really understood some of the implied references. Certain aspects of my work are informed by my experiences growing up in Baton Rouge, La. Going to church was a big part of my life, and my grandmother was, like, the mother of the church. My family always had to look perfect. Even if we were going to school or just waiting outside at the bus stop, we had to make sure our hair was brushed, we had lotion on, and we matched. We had to look intentional. There's this idea of Southernness, or Blackness, that informed the way I think about presenting myself and my ideas to the world, which is as polished as possible.
CJR: But when I was in design school all the way to when I presented my first collection, what was popular was minimalism — everyone was in black or gray. There was one idea of what chicness was. But my first collection was bright, with lots of color and volume, and the tailoring was strong. A lot of people didn't get it or identify with it, and they saw it as costume. But the people who did get it understood it for a reason. It's a cultural thing. It's cool to know people who have continually supported me because they liked the work and not because they need to fill a quota.
LR: I think your shows, and not just the [diverse] casting but the front rows, are so incredible. You have all the editors but then also the Shea Couleés [winner of RuPaul's Drag Race All Stars, Season 5]! Whenever I get to your shows, looking at the front row before I even see the casting, I just think, "This is how it's supposed to feel. This is fashion."
CJR: Yes! I think the best way to describe it is I don't treat things in a hierarchal way. I don't say this to be funny, but referencing Sesame Street is just as valid as referencing Christian Lacroix from the '80s. It's the way you treat it that's a testament to your taste level. And it's the same with casting and inviting people to the show. I don't invite drag queens to the show because I think it creates some kind of high-low mix. We don't want to dress every drag queen, celebrity, actress, or musician who is famous. It's the people who make sense for the house, who represent our point of view, which is specific, but it's also expansive. You can be plus-size, sample-size, in between; you can fluctuate, you can be tall, short — it doesn't matter. And it's not for optics; it's just the way the world is.
LR: I think a lot of the recent "change" in the industry has been forced, or it was by force. I'm not that optimistic about it. It came with being afraid of being canceled, and I don't think a lot of it is authentic. But that said, I'll take it.
CJR: I agree 100 percent. I've been asked lately about the state of the industry and what I'd like to see change, and I think that a lot of what is happening is tokenism. People are checking boxes. They're making sure they're covered because fashion is built on this idea of trend and status quo. What's acceptable and what's cool? And right now what's cool is expanding the idea of beauty. So in some ways I'll take it, but I think it also depends on the history of that person or brand. Have you been continually trying to expand or improve what you're doing, or is this a last resort?
LR: I also think there's a lot of tokenism, but I'll take that too. We have seen changes. A year ago I couldn't find a Black photographer who brands would approve to shoot their campaigns. Now there have been doors opened for Black creatives, and I'm happy to see it, however it had to happen.
CJR: I've been lucky to work with Net-a-Porter from the beginning. They worked with me because they understand and appreciate what I do, not because I'm a Black designer and they needed a Black designer on their roster. So many stores reached out to carry my brand this summer, but when I looked at the other brands they stocked, it was clear my clothes wouldn't work because of the price point they carried or the specificity of what I do. It was kind of lazy of them to reach out, knowing they can't sell my clothes. But then there are other designers who happen to be Black who would fit that bill, so I hope they're reaching out to them too. It's important to realize that not all Black people, Asian people, trans people, or short or larger-size people are the same. We have to start treating every type of person individually. I think as soon as we can stop treating identity as monolithic, we can start to move forward.
LR: I think this outlook really speaks to who you are not only as a designer but as a person and an overall house. To me, you're one of the most important designers in the world. Not just Black designers or Black New York designers, but in the world. You're so important to me, to the culture, and to our industry.
LR: I've been fighting the good fight for a long time to help elevate the careers of Black creatives, and I'm just really ecstatic that I had tiny role in yours somewhere along the way.
CJR: A big role!
LR: Well, look at us now — at this point, we're sisters!
Photography by Alexander Saladrigas/Cerutti + Co. Styling by Christina Ripley. Hair by Chuck Amos/Statement Artists. Makeup by Ai Yokomizo/Bridge Artists. Manicure by Ada Yeung/Bridge Artists. Set design by Taja Feistner. Casting by Ricky Michiels. Models: Olivia Anakwe/Elite Model Management; Sundari Sheldon/The Identity Models; Sahara Lin/Elite Model Management; Maryel Sousa/Women Management.
For more stories like this, pick up the March 2021 issue of InStyle, available on newsstands, on Amazon, and for digital download Feb 12th.