Cover Designer Conner Ives

The rising star on American fashion today, working for Rihanna—and what it takes to be sustainable

American style has taken the fashion world by storm—again. Even the Met Gala celebrated the stars and stripes: the event returned in 2022 with the theme “In America: An Anthology of Fashion”. Alongside the many established names at last year’s Met Gala, themed “Part One: In America: A Lexicon of Fashion”, was Conner Ives, whose graduation work made its way into the Metropolitan Museum of Art’s Costume Institute exhibition for 2021. The American- born, London-baseddesigner was invited by Anna Wintour to dress model Natalia Bryant and attend fashion’s biggest night out—but this was not his first Met experience. In 2017, top model Adwoa Aboah wore a custom-made Conner Ives dress to the ball. “It felt really surreal to be able to be there by the time I was 21,” Ives recalls, “and then attend four years later myself with one of the dresses I am most proud of.”

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After Rihanna saw that first dress, she employed him for her brand Fenty. By the age of 22, while still a student at Central Saint Martins, he was presenting his sketches directly to the singer and fashion mogul, who he calls “the best boss ever”. “I was on a team with people in their 30s and 40s— we were all treated the same, and she knew everyone’s name in the room,” says Ives. “In fashion, that kind of kindness in big companies is quite rare, so I cherished the opportunity.” His eponymous label was established soon after graduation, with his signature reclaimed patchwork T-shirt dress winning over celebrities. Ives became known for his nostalgic yet energetic style, as well as his focus on sustainability, and he was named a finalist of the prestigious LVMH Prize, which rewards young fashion designers’ outstanding creativity, in 2021.

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In his autumn-winter 2022 collection, which marked his London Fashion Week debut, Ives dedicated 26 looks to what he called “American archetypes”. He put a personal spin on his childhood sources of inspiration, from Noughties TV personalities to the girl cliques he encountered in high school, and named every look accordingly. There was “the Vogue Girl” opening look of a coordinated baby yellow pea coat and cap ensemble, a nod to the character Andrea Sachs from The Devil Wears Prada. The “America’s Next Top Model” featured a reconstituted T-shirt and bootcut jeans; while a modern “Jackie O” walked out in an A-line cream gown with a quilted patchwork star in the midsection.

Ives is a massive fan of Noughties pop culture—but sustainability wasn’t necessarily part of that generation’s consciousness; it very much is part of his. Almost all the materials from the collection were sourced from deadstock and vintage garments, which made many pieces one-of-a-kind and demi-couture. “Seventy-five per cent of what we produce is made from vintage, second-hand or deadstock materials,” he says. In his north London studio, Ives and his team might go through 700 T-shirts to find the perfect combination to upcycle into an outfit. “There is a large market of wholesale vintage, often coming from America to be sold in European vintage stores,” he says. “It’s crazy finding T-shirts in the middle of England from small liberal arts colleges my friends from home went to.”

Ives has also decided to show only once a year, an anti-trend that is spreading across many brands. “I don’t know how long we’ll do this, but it made sense at the moment and I hold true to the fact that you need to go at your own pace,” says Ives. Browsing the brand’s website, each collection goes by a themed name rather than a season. “I like the idea that we are working towards a goal; I love what I do, and that makes every day so easy for me. The faster it [production] goes; the more stressful it becomes and can lose its sparkle,” he says. 

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This brand DNA of environmental responsibility comes from growing up in Bedford, upstate New York, which Ives describes as the most beautiful place he has ever been to. “I think when you’re surrounded by such immense beauty like that, you become so fraught to think of a future in which it is in jeopardy,” he says. “I want my kids to see the same things I saw.”

While sustainability can be a source of stress to designers who are just getting started, to Ives, the challenge only fuels him: “I love a challenge and to feel I have to prove myself in what I’m doing. I also love the notion that what I’m doing is having a positive effect on fashion.” He adds, “I think to not work sustainably in some way in the 21st century is highly dismissive of the current state of the world. I only do what I do [design] because of the way in which we do it [ie upcycling]; I wouldn’t be making clothes if I wasn’t making them from other things.”

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The upcycling approach to design does pose one significant problem: producing one-of-a-kind pieces means less stock for customers, which could pose a threat to a business’s bottom line. The team at Net-A-Porter, one of the earliest stockists of Conner Ives believes there is still market potential. “With upcycled pieces, we have to be mindful that as the design is taken from reclaimed products, the end product may differ, or stock may be limited in quantity,” says Libby Page, senior market editor for the fashion retailer. “We foresee the fashion industry will continue to explore solutions that work best for both our customers and the planet, which is why designers, such as Conner Ives, who champion upcycling will continue to be in demand—making our wardrobes work harder for us and ultimately contributing to a circular economy.” 

In fact, Ives might very well be redefining what the American Dream is today. “I see my work as a continuation of lifestyle design; and I have the utmost respect for American lifestyle designers. I really want to emulate that,” he says, pointing to the chic simplicity of Geoffrey Beene and Calvin Klein as prime examples. Striving for sustainability and telling all-American stories—how cool is that?

 

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