Creative director and founder of Rowena Social Club based in Los Feliz, California, James Ford describes himself as a “gender equal” fashion designer, telling The Queer Review, “I want people to have equal access to masculine silhouettes and feminine silhouettes, regardless of who they are”. His belief in the power and fun of fashion stems from years of feeling uncomfortable, especially at formal occasions, in the clothes he wore before his transition. He wants to share his own sense of freedom, empowerment, and expression of authentic self in dressing through his designs by and for the queer community. As he puts it, his formal wear offers “dignity for people who didn’t know there was an option, who didn’t know that it doesn’t have to feel that bad – you can actually feel really great at a family wedding or at a graduation”. He is drawn to unconventional materials in his work, such as the heavyweight upholstery fabric used in his Utility Grandma Vest, and as a former four-sport athlete, sportswear also informs his approach.
When the chance to take part in the second season of Netflix’s design competition series Next In Fashion presented itself, James saw it as an opportunity to stretch his skills beyond formal wear. Ultimately, he says that the environment created by series co-hosts—designer and Queer Eye presenter Tan France and supermodel and style icon Gigi Hadid—felt like the fashion school he never had and the experience showed him what his “aesthetic could be outside of suiting”.
With all ten episodes of Next In Fashion season two now streaming on Netflix, The Queer Review’s editor James Kleinmann had an exclusive conversation with James Ford about his journey from engineering to fashion, the look he was most proud of on the show, the most challenging episode, having his work praised by guest judge Donatella Versace, why he’d love to design for Harry Styles and Megan Rapinoe, and his favourite queer culture.
James Kleinmann, The Queer Review: It’s been great getting to know you and your work through watching Next In Fashion. You mentioned on the show that you’d initially worked with your dad for a few years in construction and I wondered what the draw of fashion was for you and how that background in engineering comes through in your design work now?
James Ford: “The draw of fashion was there since I was a little kid. I vintage shopped a lot with my mom and I developed a pretty good eye for fabrics, but I never thought fashion was a thing that people did as a career. That wasn’t in my world whatsoever, so it never crossed my mind until I was much older, even though I had a knack for it. I had an interest in it based purely on needing to find stuff that worked for me. I knew that I wanted to have my own business at some point. I’d watched my dad do that and thought that it was something for me because I’m not a very promotable guy. My commercial career in fashion wasn’t anything super spectacular. Although I had a little success, it wasn’t remarkable by any means. I knew that I needed to do things my own way because they were always a little bit different, a little bit weirder. So I was destined to work for myself.”
“When it comes to the engineering aspect of it, it’s the exact same toolkit. Instead of working with raw materials that are concrete, steel, and rebar, the raw materials have different properties; like a really stiff, heavyweight upholstery fabric, which I love to use. You need certain stitches to achieve certain things, like giving the fabric stiffness or not giving it stiffness. It comes down to a basic understanding of materials and material properties. It’s also about project management. It’s about taking something that exists only on a paper sketch and making it in the real world. You also need a really strong imagination. I think I’ve still got that intact from childhood and that helps a lot in what I do now.”
The suit is at the centre of what you do as a designer. Why is it important for you to keep queer, trans, and gender nonconforming folks in mind as you work?
“I started in fashion in suiting because I’d had so many of my own life milestones absolutely ruined by clothing. I look back on photos of myself from about 25 and earlier and to me they’re just useless. Those are all things that happened that I wished didn’t happen. I wish my high school graduation didn’t happen. I wish my college graduation didn’t happen. Family weddings. Everything like that, because it was just so humiliating. So that is why I got into this.”
“At the centre of what I do is making formal wear with dignity for people who didn’t know there was an option, who didn’t know that it doesn’t have to feel that bad. You can actually feel really great at a family wedding or at a graduation. What I did on Next In Fashion, I didn’t even know I was capable of as a designer. It pushed me onto a trajectory where I realized that I really like doing a lot of stuff other than suits when I have the freedom to. Tan and Gigi suspended real life for us. They held back all these day-to-day things like bills and walking the dog. We could just show up to this playground and start creating. I didn’t go to fashion school, so that to me was fashion school. It was during the show that I really learned what my aesthetic could be outside of suiting. I didn’t see any of that coming. I was like, ‘Oh, cool, this is the world that I want to live in!’ So it was really fantastic.”
What was it like working under the time constraints on the show? That’s one thing that’s a bit stressful—and also exciting—to watch as a viewer because it feels like Tan and Gigi are constantly coming in and saying “you’re running out of time”. Then suddenly you have to take everything you need for the runway, even though everyone’s not quite finished yet.
“I really struggled with the time because I didn’t have a good understanding of my own pacing yet, I had no sense of how long things might take, but you learn really quickly. The time constraints were certainly stressful to say the least. You don’t have a guide for timing because everyone is working on their own things and they all have different skills and abilities. You just have to stay focused on what you’re doing and on the pieces that you’re creating. When it came down to it, I always found that sixth gear and sewed faster or figured out a way. A lot of times I would get right up to the end of the time and start figuring out other ways that I didn’t expect to close seams. You just you figure it out and a lot of good design choices actually came from that. I like being hemmed in and being told: ‘you’ve got these things to work with’—whether it’s time, money, or different types of materials—’see how crazy you can get from there!’ I work well with parameters, so I learned to love it.”
Which look were you proudest to put down the runway?
“The thing I’m most proud of is that point blank I would wear everything that I created on the show. That was my litmus test. If I couldn’t see me in it, knowing my personal style now, then it didn’t come from a very truthful place. I’m proud to say that I really enjoyed and would wear almost everything that I put up there. I really liked the jacket from the first episode. I still dream about that quilted fabric! I can’t stop thinking about it. I’ve got asks into fabric mills all over the place trying to get more of it. It was a cream quilted fabric with printed crests or family shields on it.”
I loved the big pink puffy collar on that jacket too.
“Yeah, the big collar was very silly! It needed it to add some regalness to it. It needed some sort of royal stature to it. That was a last minute save that wasn’t in the original plan, but it worked out. Another thing I really liked was the quilted set I made in the vintage competition. I repaired a lot of tears and stains on that set with pieces from the scrap quilt. I tried to match it up and it totally blended in. I thought that was pretty cool. If you’re going to be sustainable, that’s probably the best way to do it; not buy anything new.”
Going back to the first week, your inspiration was pop royalty and specifically Harry Styles. Is he someone who you would like to design for?
“I would love to design for Harry Styles. He’s probably at the top of my list along with Megan Rapinoe. Those are two people who I would love to dress one day. With Harry Styles, I Ioved his suit era. It was very like Mick Jagger-esque. He’s got a really playful approach, I think that’s very evident. I also have a very playful approach. I don’t think either one of us are taking ourselves too seriously in the fashion space. Truly, at the end of the day, this should be fun. We’re getting dressed, it’s child’s play. You can have a lot of fun with it and that’s what I want everyone to experience. I know how painful it was to get dressed for a long, long time and now I’m on the other side of it and I know just how much fun it is. So I try to make sure that I’m still having fun getting dressed all the time and in my designing and Harry Styles does the same thing. I’m pretty sure that guy is not taking himself too seriously at any time in any clothing. He’s a really free dresser.”
I think seeing people dress freely like that makes us as the people consuming those looks feel a little more free too. Even though our choices might not be quite as extravagant, but maybe I’ll wear my silver sneakers or something like that, that’ll be my own touch.
“There’s a phrase I like to use which is gender equal dressing. I think it’s really important. I’ve never felt that gender neutral was a term I really resonated with. If we all neutralized gender, then that would be a big disservice to me because then my tools of dressing in a masculine way are taken away from me and they’re very helpful tools for a lot of people. So I want people to dress gender equal: equal access to masculine silhouettes and equal access to feminine silhouettes regardless of who you are. Harry Styles also does that very effectively. If I can dress in a masculine way and inspire people to have fun in their clothing and not be afraid of it anymore, that’s the whole goal for me. To show people that it can be done. You can have fun and have equal access to whatever you want to wear and not be afraid of clothes anymore.”
You had a fan of that first look in guest judge Donatella Versace who told you, “when I saw it come down the runway, ‘I said I love it, I love it, I love it’“.
“Can you believe that?!“
What was it like interacting with her and getting that kind of feedback?
“I was honestly speechless. A year ago, I was a below average worker doing normal office fashion work and then Donatella Versace says ‘I love it’ three times to my face. There’s no way to prepare for a moment like that. All of the gratitude that you’re experiencing, you try to reflect that back to that person and let them know how much that means to you. I think she meant it. I hope she wasn’t pranking me! It didn’t seem to be sarcastic. So I took it to heart and it was remarkable. It’s hard to describe what that’s like, but my big takeaway from that is that I’m far more capable than I ever thought I was. All these crazy ideas that I’ve had, where I was like, ‘that’s kind of cool, maybe I’ll do this’, now I’m like, ‘no, let’s definitely do that, people are going to respond to it’. It’s satisfying to get a creative idea out and have someone say, ‘I get it and I like it, do more of it’ and you’re like, ‘okay, you got it!'”
When it came to the childhood themed design episode, it seemed like Tan and Gigi were sensitive and realized that it was a particularly difficult challenge for you. What was that week like to navigate and what are your thoughts on the work that ultimately came out of it?
“The work that ultimately came out of it I liked. That thing that I made, I could have used something like that in my closet as a little kid on an Easter morning when I needed to get dressed for a family event. So I’m really proud of that. That accomplished the task for me. At the end of the day, the goal for me became don’t lose to this again. It became very personal. I relived that moment so many times, of getting dressed in clothing that was totally inappropriate for me, and so I didn’t want to end up making something that was totally inappropriate for me to wear. Tan and Gigi definitely saw me struggle. I didn’t get to design from a place of joy and playfulness and fun anymore, which is like what I do now, I had to design from a place of extreme uncomfortableness, extreme distress and try to make something that’s joyous. Instead of going from zero to fun, I had to go from very negative to very positive. So I would say that I had a bigger leap to take than most for that one and while I don’t think it was my strongest look, I still got the job done. Those shorts are actually really cool. There were some fun details in there once it came to life a little. The way that I design is, if there’s an idea, I start building and see what happens. Once I got on the right path then it opened itself up to me and I was like, ‘okay, I know what this is, I got it, I like this, I would wear this’. As soon as that was locked in, I was like, ‘we’re good, just keep going’.”
I really liked the detail of that neon thread.
“It was cool, right? It was weird.”
We saw you collaborate on the show on the nature challenge as a group and then also with Godoy as a pair. Was that your first collaboration?
“Definitely not my first collab. The majority of my career prior to that had been working with others, either in a team setting or a partnership setting. That’s how commercial fashion works. You’re always working with people. You’re working with tech designers; your head designer; your creative director; your product development team; your production team; and your marketing team. You’re working together all the time. So that wasn’t an unusual spot for me to be in at all.”
Your new Rowena Social Club collection has just launched. On the Utility Grandma Vest description you mention that it was made by family—sewn, designed, and screen printed by the queer community—what’s the importance of that queer involvement in the design and fabrication of your work?
“I make clothes for my community in mind period. I’m designing with bodies in mind, clothing that I really needed. That vest is probably one of my favourite pieces I’ve made recently. It is made from upholstery fabric, so fabric that belongs on a couch, but I think it’s really cool. The graphic on the design is by me. The screen printing factory I use here in Los Angeles is queer-owned by two gals who are absolutely fantastic. The sewing was done by a sample maker here in Los Angeles; they are lovely and I work with them quite a bit. They’re really talented and they’re also part of the queer community. I’m very specific in keeping it for the community and in the community. If other people like it, that’s fantastic, I’m so flattered, but it is designed with my community mind because that’s who needs it. I think collaborating with my community adds to the design for sure.”
Tan got very emotional when you left the show. What was it like to leave when you did and how do you reflect on the experience now that some time has passed?
“Reflecting on it now, I think everything played out exactly the way it should have. I think the people who kept going, kept going for a reason and that it was my time to go for a reason, and that’s all good. That day, as soon as I saw different looks going down the runway I had a feeling, I was like, ‘oh, I don’t know if I nailed this one’. So that’s a pretty good indicator. Like I said, my litmus test is, ‘do I like it when I wear it?’ And if it doesn’t pass that test then it wasn’t meant to be. But it was sad.”
“Now some time has passed, I do feel that I had quite a bit more to show people, but what’s great is that I can still do that. I’ll tell you this much, if I’m ever in a creative rut, I will set a timer and try to make something as quickly as I can, even if it’s utter and complete nonsense. That is a very helpful tool that I stole from the show that I use in my arsenal to this day. It works.”
One last question for you, what’s your favourite piece of LGBTQ+ culture, or a person who identifies as LGBTQ+; someone or something that’s had an impact on you and resonated with you over the years and why?
“That is such a great question. I’m going to preface this by saying that I am super bad at pop culture, I know almost none of it. But Villanelle from Killing Eve is one of my favourite characters of all time. I did a portrait of her that I still have hanging in my office. When that show came out I was totally enamored with it.”
“The other person I think is super important—and I mentioned her earlier—is Megan Rapinoe. She does so much strong work for the community and she’s got fantastic style. I love her attitude and the way she moves through the world. I think she’s a really fantastic role model for queer strength.”