Willie Norris Has Some Words For Us

The fashion designer Willie Norris has two fan bases who are apt to recognize her in her Brooklyn neighborhood, show her that they are wearing clothes she designed, and possibly shed tears.

The first fans are tech-savvy men’s wear aficionados who love to bro down with other detail-obsessed fabric fetishists, sharing their outfits and reviewing new garments on online platforms like Reddit and Discord. (They’re mostly men but increasingly women and nonbinary folks, too.) The second are L.G.B.T.Q. creatives whose affection for Willie Norris’s work is fostered by the bonds it highlights among them, the ways clothing is a badge for belief in the dissolution of society’s boundaries of identity. Generally, these two fandoms don’t know the other exists.

The first group avidly collects pieces from Willie Norris for Outlier, the men's wear brand where she has been design director since early 2020. Outlier, founded in 2008 by Abe Burmeister and Tyler Clemens, makes durable clothing inspired by workwear with invented touches like “dreamweight,” synonymous with floatiness, and “bombtwill,” which is an extra-strong denim-like material.

“I do like the rigor that goes with a lot of men's wear purchases,” Ms. Norris said. “There’s a lot of vetting, especially with Outlier. It’s a hobby for these dudes.”

The second group follows @WillieNorrisWorkshop on Instagram, where she shares her personal design practice and releases clothing and objects without any regard for the fashion calendar.

This dichotomy is Ms. Norris’s playground.

Ms. Norris is a master of bringing together. She brings together clothing she deconstructs and reconstructs into something new. She brings together people for actions, like printing and distributing free Black Trans Lives Matter T-shirts across the city. She brings together friends to dance late into the night in Prospect Park for her 31st birthday. She brings together those who don’t even realize they are together in her togetherness.

On a recent evening at Petit Paulette in Fort Greene Park, Ms. Norris described her design process. “Designers should be adding value to their materials,” she said. That applies to materials like fabric but also community and selfhood. As she put it, “I’ve learned to be unashamed about the fact that I am in love with myself.”

Ms. Norris has mid-back-length hair and a masterly understanding of her face. She gets a lot of comparisons to LeAnn Rimes, which feels like a gift for her younger self, who used to sing “Blue” in the back of her father’s pickup truck.

Modeling her in-loveness began with sharing beauty looks on Instagram, and during last winter’s pandemic peak it became a social regimen. (Her favorite lip color is Nubile by Tom Ford Beauty; her favorite nail color is Cajun Shrimp from OPI.) “There’s been gender realizations left and right over quarantine, and, honey, doesn’t that tell us something? she asked. “Gender roles dissolve when you’re not around other people.” In December 2020, she shared publicly that she is a trans woman.

“I realized what I identified with on a spiritual level had a societal assignment,” she said. “When I gave up the scarcity mind-set that was so deeply tied to the gender role that I assumed, I could just live in a state of perpetual creation.”

WILLIE NORRIS GREW UP in New Hampshire and Massachusetts, taught herself to sew using a Brother sewing machine handbook and, at 18, moved to New York to study design and management at Parsons. She dropped out after her freshman year.

“I was paying for college myself,” she said. “And I thought, ‘This is not a good idea.’”

Instead of debt, she accrued proximity and experience. She continued to use the student facilities and started assisting a former professor, Susan Cianciolo, and attending class by “helping” take attendance. The value of school for her, she said, was to build “the groundwork for a career that requires community and patrons. With fashion, you have to make people excited. And you can’t do that without people themselves.”

In 2010, Ms. Norris heard about a job at Isaac Mizrahi Live, the collection the designer sold on QVC. She played catch-up to learn the lingo (stretch bottom, novelty top) and design software. She learned Adobe Illustrator to draw flats, took notes on fittings at the QVC studios in Pennsylvania and updated line sheets for the many, many collections (more than a dozen a year).

“In retrospect, that was the perfect first job,” Ms. Norris said. She left only to “take the computer out of the equation” of her work and get her hands in some fabric. (“I was lusting for it,” she said.) She took a product development role with the designer Maria Cornejo, known for exquisite drapery and fabrics that make the wearer feel personally swathed.

After Ms. Norris started at Zero Maria Cornejo, Mr. Mizrahi tapped her to help with his personal wardrobe. She enthusiastically took on both jobs.

Ms. Norris helped execute Mr. Mizrahi’s designs. “He brought me on to create his favorite elastic-waist merino wool jogger pants, his favorite T-shirt with a perfect little whipstitch pink detail on the back,” she said.

She did the running, going to fabric stores and bringing back samples to his apartment in Greenwich Village. When they couldn’t find a satisfactory gold cast button, she had buttons made in the jewelry district. She estimates that they made close to 100 garments over the course of a year.

Ms. Cornejo remembers Ms. Norris as a “joyful” presence in the studio. “For me what really stands out with Willie is how, without going to fashion school, she’s found a way to use her voice,” Ms. Cornejo said.

Ms. Norris began working at Outlier in 2015. A few years later, she came across an archival photo from an ACT UP protest of an activist holding a sign with the words “Promote Homosexuality” on it. “It was such an arresting thing,” Ms. Norris said. “It made me uncomfortable in just the right way. What if we put it on a T-shirt?”

It was a two-word manifesto that became an armored chest-piece, a poetic proclamation and an Instagram-able token for, Ms. Norris said, “hot people.”

“When I say I designed that T-shirt, I mean it,” she said. She picked a hearty typeface that made the words declarative and secure and placed them on crew-neck shirts on the flat cotton plane across the sternum.

“It’s not asking for debate, it’s not asking for reaction,” she said. “It’s asking for unity, in a way.”

Hunter Abrams, a fashion photographer, describes the “Promote Homosexuality” text placement as “walking with your yearbook quote right under your living, breathing face.” Mx. Abrams had asked Ms. Norris to print a white denim jacket with the entirety of Susan Sontag’s “Notes on Camp” to wear to the Met Ball pre-party in 2019. (The theme was, of course, camp.) “Marc Jacobs loved it, Sally Singer was in love with it,” Mx. Abrams said. “She’s a design genius when it comes to text.”

FOLLOWING THE TEES, Ms. Norris created more provocations, which included reworked Nike socks printed with “Love Me Tender” on one sock and “[Expletive] Me Hard,” on the other; T-shirts that said, “What is Heterosexuality and What Causes It?” There was even a T-shirt printed with a Yelp review of Bagelsmith, a bagel shop in Williamsburg. The SNL cast member and comedian Bowen Yang saw the Bagelsmith shirt.

“I have never purchased something on the internet so quickly,” he said. “The full arc of it is so beautiful.” Mr. Yang’s favorite lines are: “You’ve lost me” and “Goodbye once again.”

“There’s something a little bit perturbing to wearing clothes as literal and clear and unmistakable as Willie’s clothes,” Mr. Yang said. “The messaging or signaling to people that this is something essential about me. I wouldn’t have had that without Willie’s clothes. There’s political utility in wearing them.”

By the time the shirts were recognizable on the streets of Brooklyn and all over Instagram, Ms. Norris had worked her way up to design director at Outlier. She began to see them everywhere. “I thought, ‘Oh, this thing is going to ride itself out.’” She stopped making them.

You can find knockoffs of the “Promote Homosexuality” screenprinted shirt on Amazon, but you can no longer buy it from Willie Norris Workshop. But Ms. Norris says you are welcome to make your own. “I want to be doing this for the rest of my life, so I need to set things up to look forward to,” she said.

Things to look forward to: another runway show for Willie Norris Workshop. Her first, in June 2019 at La MaMa Galleria, was a banner breakout. It was the runway debut of Aaron Philip, the first Black, transgender, disabled model to be represented by a major modeling agency.

“The audience was living for it,” Ms. Philip said. “I will never forget that moment: ‘Queer Capital’ on my shirt and on the back of my wheelchair … She added: “I remember coming off that runway with so much pride. I think I cried.”

THIS SEASON, FOR OUTLIER, the front row is a metal stool at Willie’s desk in Brooklyn. It’s the afternoon of Outlier’s most recent presentation, “Ideas for Fall.” Instead of holding an event, the “show” took place on Discord, the online chat app where groups and communities hold live conversations with text and voice. Think of it like a galaxy of virtual event halls, one of which was rented for “Ideas for Fall.”

The Outlier Discord was created a year ago and has around 1,200 members. Outlier has a history of direct communication with its customers on community-sharing platforms. In the early 2010s, the Outlier team saw that it had a lot of online traffic coming from a subreddit called Male Fashion Advice. There, men were trading notes on clothes and brands. A lot of advice was to get into Outlier.

The day before the July show, Mr. Burmeister, the Outlier co-founder, plopped a secretive invitation into the forum: “Martians Go Home,” it read, with artwork by the sci-fi artist Frank Kelly Freas. (The collection included a collaboration with his estate.) Guessing that the invitation was an announcement for a new collection, the Discord fans mobilized. One said they laid out their outfit to attend the virtual show the night before “like for the first day of school.” Another made a Bingo card with their favorite Outlier-isms, which fans call “Willie Specials,” written in the squares.

“Willie Specials are hidden details you would never be able to see on the website or fully explain,” Ms. Norris said. “A hidden fifth pocket. Beautiful finishing on the seams. I always think of them as amulets.”

A year ago, Ms. Norris had started popping into the Outlier Discord. She realized she wanted to share the collection with its biggest fans first, and she approached her bosses to hold Discord’s first fashion show. Ms. Norris cast and styled a photo shoot of looks in which models walked on a stationary treadmill. Then the photos were released into the Discord chat, one every 30 seconds, until the “show” was over.

The first look dropped in the chat was a photo of the model Olly Eley wearing a white denim jacket with a hand-painted swan by the artist Hannah Lee. “Is that a treadmill?” one user asked. It was a tiny treadmill Ms. Norris found on Amazon. “Runway is an energy,” Ms. Norris said, “even if you’re walking in place.”

As more looks were revealed, the commentary bloomed. “Pump that into my veins!” one user said, using an expletive. “I’ve never been to a runway show, but I imagine this was way better,” another said.

One look was modeled by an actual Outlier customer, Eddie Yu, whom Ms. Norris cast to wear pieces he put together himself using archival Outlier fabrics Ms. Norris sent him. Her instruction for his contribution? “Go off.”

Not everything in the Discord show will go into production, and the audience understands that. Some pieces are already with the factory, and some may be produced based on the audience’s response. This is why Ms. Norris titles these collections Ideas. They’re meant to lead the customer somewhere, not just to give them something to buy now.

“I love trying to itemize my inner dialogue even if it’s not a product product product,” she said. “You get the idea! It’s not going to be perfect. But perfection is capitalism.”

One fan who bridges both communities is the designer Christopher John Rogers, who owns pieces from Willie Norris for Outlier and Willie Norris Workshop.

“In New York it feels like people put you in this traditional American camp, making pragmatic, straightforward clothes, or you’re underground,” Mr. Rogers said. “But that feels reductive or hackneyed. I’m liking and feeling energized by designers like Willie who are not in their camp.”

So what does Mr. Rogers think of his pink linen Outlier shirt? “It’s one of the best cut pieces that I have,” he said.

Ms. Norris plans to continue to propagate herself. “My goal is never to grow by a metric that’s easily understood in dollar terms,” she said. Soon she will introduce Willie Norris Reworkshop, a New York atelier where people can bring garments they care about and want to live on with, to be reworked.

The first set of clothing she will rework will be “a capsule collection of my boy clothes!” she said. It’s going to be called Boy Clothes For Sale, Heavily Worn. Value added.

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