Think different. If you remember seeing these two words plastered on a billboard somewhere, it’s thanks to Apple, which launched the campaign way back in 1997. Today, Apple’s way of “thinking differently” has revolutionized the rest of us. The phone you carry, the way you watch TV after work, the emojis you send to your mom—thinking differently created a new reality. It takes out-of-the-box creatives to turn a narrative on its head, and that’s exactly how we’d categorize Who What Wear’s class of 2018—five groundbreaking innovators who are reframing a notoriously old-school fashion industry.
Unharnessed creativity and a drive for inclusivity are a fine thread that weaves together the narratives of these five fashion innovators, though each is pushing boundaries both within and outside the industry on their own terms. To think differently requires vulnerability and a sense of fearlessness; a commitment to personal truth whether anyone else gets it or not. And for each of these five, carving out their own creative space and defying the traditional boundaries are what has allowed them to flourish.
Not every innovator sets out with the singular goal of transforming a narrative, but by standing true to personal principles, transformation is inevitable. Read on to find out how these five creatives are poised to change things (for the better).
“I was in Phoenix, Arizona, being bullied and kicked,” says designer Harris Reed. “This who I am, and I have the right to be here and have the right to spread a message I have in my heart.” Though Reed is still a student at London’s Central Saint Martin’s, his designs are earning editorial buzz and have earned a following of celebrities including Harry Styles (who has worn Reed’s suits and tops on his current tour). Harris’s own androgynous look caught the eye of Gucci’s Alessandro Michele, who had Reed walk in the fashion house’s 2019 Cruise show, but it’s in design where Reed’s heart lies.
In line with his own sense of style, Harris set about to create clothes that didn’t ascribe to one gender or another: “It was this very raw interpretation of where I saw masculinity and femininity finding a very beautiful common ground,” he notes. Fashion and politics are not necessarily a pair that inherently goes hand in hand, but to Reed, one cannot exist without the other. “I am an activist, I am a feminist, and I am a huge advocate and part of the LGBTQ+ community. [My work] never does not take on whatever social issues are happening.”
For Reed, the creative freedom to design pieces that break boundaries is in part about allowing anyone to see themselves in his collection, but it’s also about fostering a forward movement and challenging the conventions of others. “People get rude, angry, and upset about things they don’t understand,” he says. "It’s always been a huge part of my design process that anything I do sparks conversation.”
Scrolling through Daria Kobayashi Ritch’s Instagram, you don’t find selfies or pictures of her last slice of avocado toast or latté, as it’s a portfolio of her work as a photographer. “My first opportunities in this industry were given to me because of Instagram. A lot of my work probably still comes largely from Instagram,” she says, describing her love-hate relationship with the social media platform. “My focus has always been on creating and less about how I’m going to make money or how to outshine others. And that is perhaps how I’ve been able to distinguish myself.”
After earning a BFA in photography in 2015, Kobayashi Ritch has set herself apart in an industry that has a long history of providing a male perspective while rarely showcasing the world through the lens of others. “Diversifying who takes images and who’s in front of the camera challenges the cultural projections imposed on us,” says Kobayashi Ritch. In her own work, that means photographing everyone from Solange to her own friends, “I’ve never really been one to get starstruck,”she notes. “I choose which celebrities I work with the same way I choose models or street cast. My best images are the ones where I really connected with my subject.”
Art and creation always leave the creator open to criticism, but for those who pursue new subjects, who push for inclusivity, blowback can feel like a constant companion, especially in an age where posting a comment takes a mere five seconds. “Creating is vulnerable and challenging. Oftentimes I block my creativity in fear of falling short,” still without vulnerability, art, especially the art that pushes boundaries would cease to exist. “Photography isn’t about the technical—it’s emotional.”
Modeling is a notoriously challenging line of work, but Charli Howard has managed to not only overcome but fight back against the industry’s obstacles. She started with unmet aspirations, “I’d applied throughout my teens to agencies with no avail—I was always too short, too big, too average, too whatever,” but despite facing hardships, she persevered and was signed—only to be disappointed again. “I got dropped by my then-agency at a U.S. 2 for allegedly being ‘too big’” she says. “Even at a size 2, I had a tummy. That’s just the way I’m built.” Still, faced with unwanted commentary on her body, she found both success and strength by choosing to go against the current.
After struggling with an eating disorder and her body identity, Howard finally realized the absurdity of the situation, “I didn’t want to starve myself anymore,” she says. Howard’s own journey has led her to become a body activist and co-founder of the All Woman Project, a nonprofit that promotes inclusivity of all women. Howard has in part created a community that doesn’t only promote inclusive imagery but takes a more holistic approach. “I think we’ve been trained to believe women are out to get each other and put one another down for a long time, but I see the opposite in the body-positive community.”
“I think, in fashion, we are taught that there is a finite amount we can do,” says Gabrielle Richardson, a model and founder of Art Hoe Collective. “I think we need to do more and not maybe put in one person of color and say we are done because that’s not enough—it’s barely the tipping point—you know?” Richardson strives in her work to create a safe and nonjudgmental place for people of color, whose work has historically been diminished. “As a child, we are indoctrinated at a young age to idealize what is good art and what is not art,” Richardson says. “I just thought that was really interesting to see art from my culture be kinda invalidated and seen not as art but kind of as an archaeological piece.”
While social media has become a place where Richardson can share, empower, and support, she notes that it’s not always a completely safe space. “I definitely get some mean messages from people when I’m talking about issues and they say I’m being overdramatic, and that’s what the block button is for.” Richardson also notes that part of the journey has been learning to advocate around issues that don’t directly involve her. “Sometimes I only see people talking about women’s rights issues and not really talking anything else,” she says. “Once you realize that things that don’t have to do with you are [just as] important, you become a better person overall.” In fashion, for Richardson, that means continually striving to challenge new boundaries. “Once we set that there’s never enough we can do, we can continue to allow people of all body types, people who are differently abled, people who are nonbinary—people can look different types of ways and still be valid.”
In an age when personal style can feel lost in the shuffle of Instagrammers dressed in the same looks head-to-toe, Blutstein is carving her own path. Her romantic photography and cool styling feel especially fresh in contrast with the posed and perfect shots that once defined fashion blogging. And she’s amassed close to 200 thousand followers who agree, so she’s doing something worth keeping an eye on.
Though she’s only 22, Blutstein is ushering in a new era of inspirational dressing, one in which vintage and secondhand finds deserve just as much time in front of the camera as a designer bag from Gucci. And as a champion of emerging designers that range from Oresund Isis to Eckhaus Latta, she’s introducing a new audience to the designers on the cusp of transforming the industry from the inside too.