James Flemons, Founder + Designer of PHLEMUNS
WORDS BY: ZARNA SURTI | PHOTOS BY: TAYLOR RAINBOLT
As a self-proclaimed “visual perfectionist” growing up in the heart of Los Angeles, designer James Flemons launched his collection, PHLEMUNS, in 2013 and is the designer behind all of our favorite Solange and Saint Heron looks. What’s next? Everything.
We sat down with James Flemons to chat about everything from his latest denim-inspired collection to making Solange’s epic lavender SXSW look in less than 24 hours to his androgynous design ethos.
All of the denim patchwork in your latest PHLEMUNS collection is so beautiful. Tell me more about it.
It’s been really awesome releasing it as a project of mine and I’m excited to have the opportunity to finally work on something else. I hated denim for so long, but after college I started practicing my sewing skills and techniques on denim. I don’t really know what made me go to denim other than the fact that I didn’t like it and I kind of wanted to find a way that I would like to wear the textile because it’s become such a staple.
You went to school at FIDM in Los Angeles and San Francisco. Are you a “school person?”
I loved being in school. I loved being in fashion school and especially having the opportunity to go to school and only doing things that were directed to my field of interest, which I feel is not an opportunity many people have because you have so many prerequisites and all these courses you have absolutely no interest in. I’m also self-taught in so many ways and to be there to expand these things that I already learned a bit naturally, and learning the meaning behind certain things, and how to enhance this and that was great.
Yeah! So I went to school and my senior portfolio was—I mean, I don’t know if it still is because that was so long ago—but after I graduated, my senior portfolio became the template for everyone in my program for how their senior project is supposed to be. However, I did leave wishing I learned more.
Mainly the proper construction of clothing and pattern-making. So much of that I’ve had to learn on my own, like self-taught trial and error, and through YouTube videos. But then I’ve gotten to the point now where I’m like, “Well I probably wouldn’t have this point of view that I do if I would have learned all these things.” Like, so much of my creativity and my style and the way that my brand comes across, is from me not knowing a lot of these things, and trial and error, and figuring things out and developing as I go. So, I look at the bright side and the upside of not learning as much as I wanted to.
Taking it back a bit, when did you start making clothes? Have you always been into fashion?
Yeah, always. I think I started sketching in elementary school around the second grade. I grew up really asthmatic, so I was an indoor kid, I didn’t really get to go out and just be rambunctious and crazy. So my parents really just helped navigate me in that—they put artistic things in front of me and I gravitated towards drawing and coloring, and they saw that I was really enhanced in that, so they fed me all of the tools I needed to grow. It’s so cool to have supportive parents, especially being someone in the arts.
I love that.
Yeah, it was pretty cool that most of my childhood was doing that. And I was always known as the kid who designed clothes. I always had my folder full of designs everywhere with me, and people would be looking through it in the middle of class, and the teachers wouldn’t really get mad because they thought it was pretty fascinating as well that this young kid was so heavily into this thing that was so far removed—especially where I grew up and my surroundings, it wasn’t really a field of interest like it is now. Fashion is such a big thing that crosses so many groups, and back in the 90s and early 2000s it wasn’t really as much of a commonly talked about interest.
So what was the first garment you actually made ever?
Well I guess the first was a tunic for my sister’s Barbie when I was first learning! I learned how to hand sew when I was a Boy Scout, and then my mom helped me sew together some little tops and stuff. But the first garment I constructed myself and sewed together on a sewing machine was in college. I think it was just my first sewing class. And then on my own, it was a pair of jeans.
So after you graduated, you worked at Marc by Marc Jacobs in San Francisco and then moved to New York. Why’d you make the leap to the east coast?
I got a phone call from a friend and they were like, “We know you’ve always wanted to move to New York, we have this extra room, we’re moving, do you wanna come? It’s in Bushwick, it’s $400,” and I was like, “Ok!”
$400 in New York?! That’s insane!
Haha yeah, I was like, “This seems like a rare opportunity, I’ll take advantage of it.” I was there for a year and I moved back end of 2011. So I’ve been back here now for five years. I kind of lived there under weird circumstances—unlike most people who had like three jobs trying to pay for rent—I was getting paid really well so I wasn’t really struggling financially, my rent was really cheap, and right when I left I had two tax returns because I delayed one so I had all this money that I left New York with.
I’ve never heard that in all of my time interviewing people, “I left New York with a ton of money,” that’s great.
It was really bizarre. So I came back here with a cushion and I was like, “I’m going to see what it’s like not to work for a while” because I’ve had a job since I was 16—like as young as you’re able to have a job, always been in retail. So I just re-explored being a young adult in my own home city.
Is that when all of the Saint Heron collaborations started happening? It’s been so influential.
Yeah, so Solange and I first connected on a project where she had some Saint Heron artists she was featuring for the website—this was back in 2013. One of the artists was based in Los Angeles and they needed a stylist for the shoot, and she was heavily connected with people who own and work at Opening Ceremony, where I was working, and they reached out to me. I styled Moses Sumney and Solange loved it and was obsessed with the images. That’s kind of where we first started our connection with each other. A couple years later, I had just put out my Spring 2016 collection, which is kind of the main one that catapulted everything and when people started to pay attention to what I was doing.
Was that the one with the ties?
Yes, then it was that dress that I posted, and every time I posted that dress she always saw it and commented on it saying, “I love this dress, I’m obsessed!” And I was like, “If you want it, you can have it! You’re Solange, you’re amazing!” So I made one for her, and then a few months later, Armina from Saint Heron reached out and said, “We’re doing this web store and we’d really love if you collaborated with us.” And I was like, “Of course I will!” It was just interesting timing because that collection was the first buy I got from stores, and it had just been placed in Opening Ceremony, and within the next few days or a week, I had my first fashion show at LA Fashion Week. That same day was the launch of the Saint Heron shop and Solange wore one of the collaborative dresses to the release party. So it was like all these bombs dropping right at once that were really awesome. I think being affiliated with her and Saint Heron has been really, really amazing and has definitely put me in a lane of taste-makers that I am very appreciative to be around and are in the type of direction that my vibe, line, personality, and spirit are all connected with. It’s been really cool to have the open arms from them and for them to keep coming back to want to work with me. I feel very privileged and honored to be recognized.
Wait, you did the SXSW lavender outfits for Solange and her band, right?
Yeah, I did her band’s outfits. What I’ve picked up is that she pulls from her music. For example, in Cranes in the Sky, when they all have that draped dress on in the mountain—her color stories are all kind of referencing her music videos. So yeah, and then she just kind of had a bit of a uniform of design and silhouette that she wanted and they sent that over to me and then the fabric, and I just went to work and pumped them out in a day.
In a day?!
Actually, it was 12 pieces in under 24 hours.
That’s amazing. Also, you created pieces for men and women bandmates. Tell me a little bit more about the unisex aspect, because I feel like a lot of people do just women or men’s clothing—not both.
My whole basis for making clothes is kind of off of me as a person. I mean, honestly, I design clothes for myself and not really for other people. Probably since I was 18-19 when I first started discovering buy, sell, trade stores and getting really into second-hand clothing, I’ve always worn women’s clothing. For a slender guy like me, tailored pants and jackets just fit me better. And who says you’re supposed to wear this or that anyways? So that’s where it came into me making clothes, where I was just making stuff that came from both points of view. And I’ve always been a bit more into women’s clothing than men’s, and I would always see things and think, “Why can’t I find this in the men’s section?” Or some things wouldn’t necessarily be my size and I’d be like, “I want to wear that, can’t they just make that for a guy too?” It’s just the cycle of how I design, everything always starts at womenswear, that I generally reference silhouettes and style lines and details, and then I translate that to how I would like to portray that for a guy. And then, I re-work it again back to how I would like it for women. So it’s kind of this back and forth, and through the filters, it just comes out the way it comes out.
I just like the idea of just dressing really for yourself and not having to think about like, “Oh I’m supposed to wear this cause it says I am” or “I’m a guy so I’m supposed to wear this,” or, “I’m a girl so I’m supposed to wear this,” or, “This isn’t in my section so I can’t wear it.” But it’s just like, if you feel it, if you gravitate towards it, if you really like it—then just wear it. It’s as easy as that.
So true! I love that.
Yeah, I kind of feel like we kind of live in a society where you dress for other people almost. It’s become such a thing—mainly I think because we have such an interactive society now where everyone is able to see each other. I do feel like we’re starting to move away from that idea of dressing for a reaction or for other people. But I think as style and fashion has grown over the past ten years, dressing for people is the mentality a lot of people have and it’s very trend-driven. I’d like to just go back to like, “This is me, this is what I want. I don’t really care if you like it or not.”
What’s next? Making more lavender suits, I hope.
Haha yeah, exactly! It’s been nonstop since I finished my last collection and I just kind of have a new element to the line which is my web store and everything, so it’s like there are new things that are on my plate. But I also newly have a few people working for me and helping me out which is nice. I think next is really having all of those things catch up to where exposure has gotten me, because I’ve gotten a lot of exposure in the course of 2016 and not everything has really caught up to that whether it be a team, or finances, or a studio. So I’m trying to even things out a little bit so that I’m not so crazed everyday. I finally took a day off yesterday and it was so refreshing to feel like a normal person and not pay attention to my email or run errands to meet with a stylist. I was like, “This is what life is like!”