Interview / Next In Fashion Season 2
"I hope to set an example for getting dressed for my customers, but really I hope fashion labels start looking to me and what I do with Rowena to learn how to serve the needs of the LGBTQ+ community."
March 14, 2023
With season 2 of the Netflix reality design competition show Next In Fashion proving to be as big a hit as the first season, TNC spoke with one of the standout designers from season 2, James Ford. Almost as soon as James walks into the workroom, viewers are hit by his charisma, his upbeat positive attitude, and his unique and inspiring joie de vivre.
Hi James, thank you for talking with The New Current. Congratulations on the release of Next In Fashion Season 2, have you been taken aback by all the amazing responses the shows been getting?
I’m stunned, honestly. I thought I might have a little flash-in-the-pan moment, but both my story and designs have been connecting with people in exactly the way I hoped - the most meaningful messages are from parents of trans kids who watch the show and can see a future for their kid. I’ve also gotten a lot of messages from trans kids who used my story to explain themselves to their family. I didn’t know this big an impact was even possible. Taken aback is an understatement, I’m speechless. I haven’t been able to catch my breath or even thank people for their nice responses.
Of all the looks you were able to send down the runway during Next in Fashion, is there any one that you are really proud of?
Yes! I loved the Childhood look, actually. Those shorts I did on the show inspired me to make a suit with shorts instead of pants. There is a much more refined version of those shorts on my site now and people are loving them. Also, people have been begging me to make a version of that shirt - the A-line striped shirt with neon piping and rib trim. What a weird shirt? Who puts knits with wovens like that? I do. It’s me. It ended up so comfy and weird and cool. I could have used that outfit 25 years ago for Easter you know! That’s tough though because I do wish I could have those quilted pants back from the Thrifting episode, they fit me perfectly and who doesn’t want to wear a blanket as pants and still look good?
How important was it to get the feedback you got from the guest judges, including Donatella Versace, and how much did this help motivate you going into the next challenges?
I thought I might be eliminated in the first episode. I didn’t know if Donatella Versace would understand the subversive Prince who spends his time at the pool. She’s so elegant and regal, and I served something a little naughty? I can’t believe she liked it! I assumed she loved everyone’s look, but after watching the episode, I think there was something about mine that really struck her. I’m in awe that someone who has seen so much in fashion, saw something new. I think that’s remarkable and I’m really proud of that. I definitely believed in myself a bit more after the first challenge. It felt like someone saw exactly what I was saying, and said yes, more of that. Get weird, get loud, and add a spritz of lime.
One of the most powerful episodes was “Childhood” Ep. 4. What made this episode so touching was that it felt very genuine the way you spoke about being transgender and the care Tan and Gigi took in listening and understanding your story. Looking back at this episode, did you realise that your story, and experience, would have such an impact on audiences within the trans and queer communities?
I expected a surprise. I knew that people would be surprised to learn that I was trans because I pass as a man. I think the most important take away is that trans people can be whoever they want. Just because I now fit into the mold of what society expects a man to look like, doesn’t mean that all trans, non-binary, and gender non conforming people aim for that. I think it opened a lot of people’s eyes to believing trans people when they tell you who they are. Being trans is a gift I was given, I wouldn’t trade it for anything. I hope that some of the things I recalled from my past resonate with people who need it, and know that they aren’t alone in those thoughts. Sharing my story was a small step in trans representation, and a really large step for people outside the community. People were able to connect with me as a designer and as a person first, and find out that I happen to be transgender second. I certainly didn’t expect so many people from outside the community telling me that they were moved by my story. There’s more compassion in the world than you think.
Has it always been important for you to be able to use your platform to be a champion, voice, and supporter for LGBTQ+ issues?
Well to be honest, this platform is quite new to me. I considered myself a role model in the queer fashion world because a lot of younger people in my city have expressed interest in styling themselves similar to me. But now, my audience has grown. I’m honoured and flattered to be able to champion the issues that my community faces, it’s a huge responsibility that I don’t take lightly. This is really just the start and I think you’ll hear a lot from me in the future on how to serve the fashion needs of trans, non-binary, gender non-confirming, and queer communities. I hope to set an example for getting dressed for my customers, but really I hope fashion labels start looking to me and what I do with Rowena to learn how to serve the needs of the LGBTQ+ community. The more brands who can effectively produce gender-affirming clothing, the stronger society will be. It sounds grandiose but it isn’t, small steps like using clothing to feel secure and empowered add up and make for stronger people, friends, partners, employers. It’s one less thing to worry about so you can bring your best self to your life.
I’ve always done that in small ways with my platform, now I just get to reach people I may otherwise not have found. Gender-affirming clothing is not a new concept. Since the dawn of time people have been affirming their gender with “menswear” or “womenswear”. A new concept is just permitting people to affirm their gender however they see fit.
There’s no “Mens” and “Women's” categories at my brand, and there never will be.
What was the most valuable lesson you learned about yourself and the work you want to do from appearing on Next In Fashion?
The show allowed me to carve my aesthetic really. I knew my visual signature was in there, but I hadn’t flexed that muscle as hard as I did on the show. I left everything I had on the sewing room floor each challenge, and it resulted in very potent “James” looks. I think you know which look is mine as soon as it hits the runway. That’s key for a designer. It also taught me to push, finish things, find a way, solve it. My best ideas came from constraints. You can’t let Tan and Gigi down, you have to finish things and stand behind your choices. I didn’t have that extra gear before the show, and I found it. More importantly, I trust it. To have Gigi Hadid and Tan France encourage my concepts, my storytelling and my style choices was a dream come true.
Where did this desire for fashion come from?
It came from absolute necessity. I needed clothes that I liked. I’ve never considered myself an artist. I’ve always considered myself an excellent problem solver though. When things don’t work for me, I don’t back down. When I know it’s wrong, I want to fix it because you don’t have to live in discomfort. I started in fashion because I was sick of not finding clothes I wanted to wear amongst a million brands and a million shirts. How was there not a button down that worked for me? I also loved style. I’ve had an eye for designer clothes since thrifting with my mom. I can pick out the nicest coat at a Goodwill in 4 seconds. So my desire for fashion is two parts problem solving, one part aesthetic. It’s a satisfying feeling to bring something to life that you dreamt up in your head. That’s a creative person’s mission in life.
Did you ever imagine that your background in engineering would/could lead you to becoming a fashion designer?
Hahaha no I didn’t see this coming. I don’t think engineering led me here, I think again a need for clothing led me here, and then I added my funky taste on top of it.
There is still a lot of engineering in fashion designing, so has this experience given you extra insight into what you can do and how far you can push your concept?
I don’t insert much wild engineering or pattern-making into my looks. But I do think that a good fit is really important first, I can tell if a neck width is off by a centimetre. Then, I push my concept with texture, colour, and storytelling. My strength is creative direction. When I design, I know exactly who is wearing it, where they’re going, why, who they’re with, what they’re carrying, where they live. I like to take favourite moments or memories from my life and design the perfect look for that. I think you can make people’s lives more vibrant with a strong story. So that’s how I push my concepts further - rich world-building. Give someone a story they want to jump into.
You have just launched the Rowena Social Club collection has been going really well with some items selling out (I actually wanted the Gummy Bear necklace). What has it meant to you to get this type of reaction to the collection?
I know how cool is the gummy bear necklace. Real pearls!? I think people want to live in the world I’m building and that is reflected in the demand. The world of Rowena is approachable, it’s chic, it's fun. It leaves room to dance. I used to say my personal style was “ready to play a game of football at any moment”. There’s something sporty about it, but not activewear. I think there’s a sense of being outside in all my clothes. They just feel really alive and awake and I think people are responding to a breath of fresh air. It’s a very humbling experience to have an idea, share it openly, and have people want to participate. The biggest goal with anything that has Rowena on it - is that if you see someone in Rowena, they’re friendly. That’s a big ask of my customers, but it really is a community first, clothing second. We play nice with each other, and pump each other up. There’s no room at Rowena for making someone feel badly about themselves.
Through design, manufacturing, and retailing, will the queer community continue to play a vital role within your brands and the work you create?
VITAL! It’s vital to collaborate with people who get the aesthetic. At every stage of design, manufacturing, and retailing, bigger voices will (and have) tried to label this menswear, or women’s wear, or make it more commercial with softer colours, make things matchy-matchy etc. No. You have to resist watering it down. A queer supply chain means I spend less time explaining or defending myself. And they bring in their own great ideas to improve things. You’re always adding, or subtracting from the design. So I partner with people who add. When my vendors are excited, I know I’m on the right track.
Who inspires you creatively and are there any celebrities you really want to design for?
Elliot Page, Harry Styles. John Mayer. Megan Rapinoe. Sue Byrd. Childish Gambino. Phoebe Waller-Bridge. Creatively, I love Mark Maggiori. He’s an oil painter and does a lot of American Southwest landscapes. I find his renderings of clouds and horses to be breathtaking. It’s one of the only painters whose work I get lost in. He’s a master of his craft, and has a specific visual signature. Chef’s kiss, no notes.
How would you best describe what a suit means to you?
My first suit meant armour. It meant confidence at formal events because I no longer looked and felt silly or infantilised. I’ve been wearing suits for a while now, and as a fashion designer you’re constantly tweaking and iteratively upping your own taste and sensibility, my suits now are more free. I’m comfortable walking around in a suit covered in cute little daisies because I know who I am and I’m not threatened or embarrassed by wearing femininity. So a suit now is something more reflective of me, meaning it fits well so I can be taken seriously, but it’s totally playful.
And finally, what message do you hope people will take away from your designs?
I hope they find joy and playfulness. I hope they put my designs on and feel confident. When you feel good, you’re a magnet for good. I think the biggest takeaway is that “cool” is out, the new cool is to be earnestly enthusiastic about what you’re wearing and why you like it. There aren’t enough days in your life to wear all the awesome outfits that are available to you - so don’t waste any.