For the Taking the Lead series, we asked leaders in various fields to share insights on what they’ve learned and what lies ahead.
When Christopher John Rogers was an aspiring designer in middle school in Louisiana, he came across the work of the Belgian fashion designer Dries Van Noten. One runway collection in particular, with a segment of “algae green” fabrics, stuck with him.
Now 29, and with three critically acclaimed runway shows to his name, that influence can still be seen, and felt, in the way Mr. Rogers synchronizes his electric colors with high-sheen fabrics and occasionally clashing prints to great effect.
Yet until joining a video call in early November for this conversation, the men had never met.
Mr. Van Noten, 64, was calling from his studio in Antwerp, where his company has been based since its founding in the mid-1980s. (In 2018, after three decades of independence, Mr. Van Noten sold a majority stake in his brand, though he remained as chief creative officer, chairman of the board and minority shareholder.)
In 2020, Mr. Van Noten helped spearhead an open letter urging a “more environmentally and socially sustainable” schedule of deliveries and discounting in fashion — an industry where the appetites and budgets of conglomerates seem to set the calendar for all fashion companies.
Mr. Rogers joined the call from his home in Brooklyn, where he moved shortly after graduating from the Savannah College of Art and Design in 2016. In 2020, he spoke out about the tokenization of and discrimination against Black designers, having become one of the most visible after his early success. (By then, he’d already won the prestigious CFDA/Vogue Fashion Fund award and dressed Michelle Obama.)
Now, Mr. Rogers is working to expand his company of just seven employees, who release two women’s wear collections annually. He hopes it might someday resemble Mr. Van Noten’s, which has 160 employees who work on four annual collections, along with accessories, swim and beauty lines and nine directly operated stores around the world.
This conversation has been condensed and edited.
What do you look for in a design team?
DRIES VAN NOTEN For me, it’s very important that they bring something new to the table. Putting colors and flowers together — I know how to do that. Do something else. Surprise me. I like to give them a few ingredients of the dish we want to make, which is a collection. But everybody still has to bring their own element to add to the dish.
There’s so much happening in the world, and they see it with different eyes, and also, in my case, with younger eyes. So in that way, it’s very important that they feed me, too.
We have several people who have been here for 25 years — which of course makes things easy and practical, because you have history and archives that you can refer to. But on the other hand, I don’t want to live in the past. I want to look to the future. So we have a lot of young people who, two years ago, were still in fashion school.
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CHRISTOPHER JOHN ROGERS I’m kind of the opposite. Obviously we’ve only been around for a short period of time, but a lot of my friends from school work for me now. I’m looking to expand our viewpoints and bring people who are much more experienced into the fold, to re-contextualize what we’re doing and help push it forward.
I’m still trying to figure out the best way to communicate my point of view to my team in real time. I’m very specific with the way I like things put together. But I’m also learning how to open up, and find ways to explain why I like the things that I like, even if it doesn’t necessarily make sense. Contradicting words or phrases used in the same sentence doesn’t always make sense to people. But the more I do it, the more they get it.
Ultimately, I want to make a place where people feel comfortable to express themselves, to learn, to create, to challenge me as well. Because I feel like that’s how, so far, we’ve gotten the best product and the best work.
VAN NOTEN The people who work with you in the beginning often are friends, and, especially after a few years, it can become quite tricky.
VAN NOTEN You have to see that your friendship survives — and that also you as an employer also survive. The friends, little by little, maybe leave the company and start to take their own steps, and then you start to have more normal employer-employee relationships.
How do you stay inspired?
ROGERS Lately I’ve been trying to navigate inspiration. I used to be inspired all the time, and I think now I’m experiencing a little bit of — what’s the word? — a roadblock, or something.
VAN NOTEN I think it’s not a problem, once in a while, to have a creative block. Or to start a collection, with all the colors and fabrics on the table, and say, “Oh, my goodness, what was I thinking? How can I get out of this?” Because you committed already. You bought the fabrics; it’s an investment. And then your team takes you by the arm and says, “Let’s go drink a glass together. Look at it on Monday through different eyes.” Quite often, those are the most interesting collections.
ROGERS Dries, when you feel like you want to take your work in a divergent direction from what is expected of you, how do you cope with that? Do you push through and deliver what you know you should, or are you propelled by that uncomfortable feeling?
VAN NOTEN I try really to start with a blank page in front of me for every collection. The “rule” of a lot of houses is “This sold very well last season, so let’s make a new version of it.” We always say if it sold very well last season, everybody has it, so we have to surprise them with something else.
It’s not because people expect to see colors and flowers at Dries Van Noten that we’re going to give them that every time. Forget it. No. I also need to surprise myself. Otherwise I would give up. The collections would become one big blur.
Why stay independent?
VAN NOTEN When we started in the ’80s, designer fashion was a new concept, and designer fashion coming from Belgium was completely unknown. It was very difficult.
Staying independent in the beginning years was the only way of surviving. There was no Kering or LVMH or Prada Group who wanted to invest in you. It happened only after the late 1990s, when those companies bought Jil Sander or Alexander McQueen, that brands started to find a home. We started to ask ourselves, is this the future for us? Then we put everything on the table and we looked at it, we talked, and we said no. For us, it’s going to be better to stay independent, which we did until 2018.
ROGERS Did you have a lot of conversations with people? Did you think that you would never find that perfect fit?
VAN NOTEN We had quite a lot of different possibilities, and each potential partner offered a completely different way of continuing our brand.
I’m very happy that we found the right partner who respects what we are doing, who doesn’t push us to do things we don’t like to do. And they gave us possibilities of creating perfumes and beauty [products] — so it’s a happy marriage. In late age.
If I can advise you, I wouldn’t do it too early. I think it’s better that you have built your own thing and you really know exactly what you’re standing for, and also the person who wants to invest in you knows exactly what you want, who you are, what you stand for, because otherwise they are maybe going to be too tempted to mold you into something you don’t want to become.
JESSICA TESTA Christopher, you also could be personally recruited by bigger brands as a creative director — one of the prescribed paths of career growth for designers these days. Would you want that?
ROGERS Never say never. I think it would be interesting to take my point of view and insert it somewhere else. There are other parts of my aesthetic that I haven’t yet fully mined that would be nice to play with in another arena. But is it something that I feel like I need to do? Not necessarily.
I’m really happy. We don’t have any investors right now, so we’re able to just focus on ourselves and the singularity of what we do, and grow at our own pace. That way we can be here in 30 years, and still be creating work that feels impactful and intentional and honest.
What excites you about working in fashion right now?
ROGERS Ooh … hmm.
VAN NOTEN [Laughs.]
TESTA OK! Well, there’s a flip side to this, because I also want to ask you what frustrates you about working in fashion right now.
VAN NOTEN I will start with what frustrates me the most. After a career of all these years, you never can take, like, six months off. Or even two months off. It’s the dream of every designer to just, at a certain moment, to be able to skip one season.
The good side of being in fashion is you can’t stop. Even after a collection which you are not so happy with or which was not received very well, you have no time to sit somewhere in a corner and say, “Oh, poor me.” You have to move on. You have to forget. You have to start again. And I think that’s amazing. That’s quite addictive.
TESTA What’s the longest break that you’ve ever been able to take?
VAN NOTEN Me? Two weeks.
ROGERS Ugh! The most has been a week and a half, so far. But I was hoping for more.
What frustrates me the most? I think the same thing. The continual pace, the need and desire and requirement to continually churn things out, or to imagine, or to dream. It’s frustrating to have to continue to move, but that’s also what I love. You can’t really rest on your laurels and your last collection.