Sitting in her Bushwick studio, fashion designer Gerlan Marcel looks like a 14-year-old out of a ’90s hip-hop video: she has two high-top braids on the side of her head, five-inch hoop earrings, wedge sneakers, a drawstring backpack and a black sweat suit covered in logos.
But Gerlan, who’s actually 37, doesn’t see her style as particularly youthful. “I think it’s sad that things like print and color are always equated with youth,” she said. “Like who’s to say that only young people should wear these things?”
Gerlan’s eccentric sense of style is evident in Gerlan Jeans, the fashion label she founded in 2009. Her pieces have been worn by the likes of Lil’ Wayne, Katy Perry, Beyoncé and Kelly Rowland, and she’s teamed up with Solange Knowles and Puma to create a sneaker line. While Gerlan Jeans is taking a break from the runway next season to reevaluate the direction of the brand, its founder isn’t slacking. She has several collaborations on the horizon, including another line with Puma and Solange.
When we paid her a visit last month, Garlan was working out of a temporary office that was surprisingly bleak and plain, aside from a rack of her eccentric pieces and a project board with the word “RUBBER” scrawled across it. She’s using the space this fall as she heads up his design and sample production team for Norwegian artist Bjarne Melgaard’s first menswear collection.
Meanwhile, she has also teamed up with the Philadelphia Museum of Art to help curate two exhibitions dedicated to one of her main inspirations, the late-‘80s African-American designer Patrick Kelly.
“Kelly was real,” Gerlan said. “There isn’t a lot of realness today. It was clear that it really came from the heart. At the end of his shows he would come out and everyone would be sweating, crying, hugging and laughing. You can’t make that shit up.”
“Patrick Kelly: The Runway of Love” is an exhibit of works from Kelly’s short-lived career. A congruent exhibit, “Gerlan Jeans Loves Patrick Kelly,” features Gerlan designs in keeping with Kelly’s colorful aesthetic. Both will be on display until the end of November.
Kelly’s designs are filled with bright colors, bows, heart prints, buttons and controversial imagery, such as golliwog dolls, a racist children’s toy that was popular in the 1970s. Gerlan’s designs are just as bright, if not brighter. Her past collections have included bright magenta denim jumpers, teal rompers covered in bows, and a neon green slime dress. Despite the similar designs, Gerlan had not seen many of Kelly’s pieces until the museum called. “It wasn’t like I was designing as a direct reference to Patrick’s work,” she said. “There really was an aesthetic that we just shared.”
Gerlan Jeans has obvious ’80s and ’90s influences, the eras in which she grew up. “I’m a firm believer that when you are shifting from tween to teen you develop what your sense of style is,” Gerlan said. “That’s where a lot of your foundations are formed as far as aesthetic. I think that although my inspiration comes from ideas of fashion that I developed in those decades, it’s never about regurgitating an ’80s reference. It’s about taking it to a different plane, using the language that was already envibed with these reference points and using them to tell a new story.”
After graduating from Central Saint Martins, Gerlan went on to work with Jeremy Scott, the outré designer who shares her love of prints. “I felt incredibly lucky to have a job where I didn’t have to sacrifice my aesthetic at all,” said Gerlan. “At that point it was a really small company, it was just Jeremy, me and two other interns, so I was able to have that hands-on experience. There was this idea that if you believe in something, it could happen. Without that, I don’t think I would have been brave enough to jump off the cliff and begin my own label.”
With a mother from Liverpool and a father from Brooklyn, Gerlan had a very diverse upbringing. Her mother worked as a dorm director at Oberlin College, so she grew up between London and Ohio. While fashion may have been prevalent in London, the only place to go for it in Ohio was the mall, where Gerlan spent most of the late ’80s and early ’90s.
“What really turned me on to [fashion design] was going to the mall in Ohio,” she said. “This was the heyday of the mall. Let’s be honest, the mall is about to become nonexistent. Now you go to High Street and it looks like H&M, Zara and Forever 21 are all riffing off the mood board that was on style.com, which was originally from Prada, or Céline. But back then every single store had this really hyper-realized brand. Even Banana Republic would have a big safari theme and there would be a Jeep inside of the store. I was totally obsessed with all that stuff. Everything was transported. You had access to all of this design in the middle of Ohio.”
Gerlan’s designs are not all about playing with fun prints and colors – they can have a message too. Her focus is on redefining the stereotype of what a strong, powerful woman is. Her summer and spring 2013 collection, “Gerl Power”, which also served as a collaboration with Disney for a Minnie Mouse time capsule, was directly about this. “It’s not like you’re only a strong, powerful woman if you’re butch about it,” Gerlan said. “There are so many different types of strong, powerful women: that girl who is outside the club wearing her slutty dress, she is so fucking empowered. It’s about really empowering yourself through all of these different ways. The styling and casting is a huge part of telling that story.”
While she wants to create cultural messages, she isn’t looking to make any huge political statements. At the end of the “Gerl Power” show, three models walked out in masks and ball gowns, which many took to be a reference to the Russian protest punk rock band, Pussy Riot. “I started that collection seven months before Pussy Riot was a household name,” said Gerlan. “Obviously people were going to [equate] it to that, but my real point was that you could wear a ball gown and still be a hardcore powerful woman. It’s not about just one type of person, it’s about celebrating the differences between people.”