In high school, Norris designed costumes for every theatrical production, and dreamed of being a fashion designer. And he dreamed of getting out of his homophobic community in Gloucester, Mass., where he desperately “tried to be anything but gay.” As the song goes, you can’t always get what you want. But if you try sometimes…
Tonight, June 13, at La Mama Galleria in the Bowery, Norris will debut his own label, Willie Norris Workshop, in a runway show dedicated to the queer community that has embraced Norris here in New York. “It’s a party for me,” he says with pride. Helped by a Kickstarter campaign that was oversubscribed in a matter of days, Norris will present nearly 20 looks, featuring real-world wearable clothes that play on the notion of basics: jeans, t-shirts, and really tall platform shoes. Closing the show will be model Aaron (pronounced “A-ron”) Philips, a trans, disabled woman whose signing with the Elite agency last fall was hailed as a much needed sign of progress for queer and disabled representation in fashion. This will be her first runway show as a model, just as it is Norris’s first as a designer with his own label.
A few days shy of his 29th birthday, Norris has already amassed an impressive design resumé He has worked for conceptual artist and designer Susan Cianciolo, designer-to-the-stars Maria Cornejo, and in fulfillment of a childhood dream, for Isaac Mizrahi himself, on Mizrahi’s mass-market QVC brand, IsaacMizrahiLIVE!. For a year and a half, Mizrahi tapped Norris to be his personal tailor, giving Norris the chance to work one-on-one with his idol. Currently, Norris is one of two apparel designers at the influential Brooklyn men’s apparel company, Outlier, where he applies the company’s legendary obsessiveness to cuttingedge fabrics like “injected linen” and “paper nylon,” sourced from every corner of the textile industry. All of which is to say that there’s not a lot of boxes left for Norris to check off.
“I’ve always had an inkling in the back of my mind to do my own thing,” Norris says, “but I didn’t really know what that was.” Last year, when Outlier leased an industrial ink-jet printer suitable for apparel, things started to fall into place. “It was the immediacy,” Norris says of working with the printer. Being able to try out ideas and see the results right away fired up Norris’s creative energies. Printing held a particular appeal as well because of Norris’s longstanding fascination with the design possibilities of text. “I’ve always loved words and text, seeing how you can play with that as an aspect of clothing,” he explains.
Text is integral to the collection Norris will debut on Thursday. For example, the white t-shirt with heavy, black printing that he wore on a recent evening at his Bed-Stuy studio. It has word “QUEER” above a thick line, and below the line, “CAPITAL.” “Queer before capital,” he explains, and the shirt is both a visually arresting image and a statement of Norris’s business ethos. “I am engaging with money,” he acknowledges without hesitation. “The idea of queer capital is: What do queer people as a community have combined between all of us that we can use as capital? How can we use what we have to get what we want?”
It’s not an exclusive vision—“I would never say only queer bodies can wear my clothing, that’s really dismissive and unnecessary”—but Norris’s goal is that everything he does builds up the queer community, whether by providing jobs, exposure, or just a supportive voice. “Queer Entrepreneurship as a Means of Defense,” Norris summarizes, quoting another t-shirt from his collection.
This approach stands in marked contrast to what Norris calls the “rainbow capitalism” on commercial display during this month’s Pride celebrations. Norris is quick to emphasize that his issue is not with Pride, or the rainbow flag. “I think the history of it is amazing. I really respect it and love and hold queer history like that really closely. But it’s a little ridiculous right now. Every brand is fabricating narratives about their product and how it integrates into the queer lifestyle,” he says. “There will not be a single rainbow flag in my collection.”
What there will be are complete looks that exemplify Norris’s design philosophy. “Building on what we have” doesn’t apply to just the community he works with, but the materials he uses. “There’s so many clothes in the world,” he says, “it boggles my mind.” Rather than add to the stockpile, Norris scouts for products already being manufactured, whose marginal impact on the world is negligible, but that he can turn into something unique. A pair of jeans in his collection, for example, comes off-the-rack from a mass market retailer, but will appear on Norris’ runway modified with more pockets, zippers, and other careful touches. Where an existing product doesn’t provide a sufficient canvas, Norris uses so-called “dead stock” fabrics—material discarded from larger jobs that would otherwise go to waste. The products embody Norris’s vision in what they are and how they are made. Model Aaron Philips describes Norris’s work as “provocative in thought and nature.”
These aren’t one-off, high concept runway pieces, but everyday, wearable clothing. Think denim, practical leather accessories, t-shirts. And lots of pockets. “I’m obsessed with pockets,” Norris says. “If I had a book, it would be called The Psychology of Pockets.” Everything is meant to be a product. T-shirts will be available for sale at the show itself, and then based on audience reaction to the designed pieces (“I’ll know,” he says with a confident smile) Norris will put the best ones into production and sell them on his web site.
Asked why someone should come to the show, Norris hesitates. “I don’t want to prescribe anything.” Eventually, he says, “Look at my Instagram. If any part of my brand or my messaging makes you feel seen, then that’s why you should come. So you can see it.”
You can see it tonight, June 13, at La Mama Galleria, 47 Great Jones Street. Doors open at 7, show starts at 8. Music will be “angry glamour,” courtesy of DJ Anthony Dicapua. Admission is free, but RSVPs are strongly encouraged to email@example.com.