Parsons graduate Connor McKnight launched his eponymous clothing label back in September 2020. The gender-neutral collection, constructed at McKnight's home in Brooklyn N.Y., blends elements of technical clothing and workwear with luxury craftsmanship.
The Washington, D.C. native left his hometown in 2011 with the goal of becoming an engineer but ended up finding a path in the apparel world. His first collection — created to raise visibility for Black-owned brands — draws on both his experience in the industry working for respected brands Kith and Bode and his D.C. upbringing.
I spoke with the designer over the phone and later visited him at his tastefully curated Williamsburg studio. Over a masked discussion, he shared his creative process throughout the Black Lives Matter movements and the influences that helped shape his first collection.
As a young Washingtonian, when did you become interested in fashion?
It’s been a winding path. I’ve been interested in fashion since middle school and I’ve been sewing for that long as well. It was never something that I thought would become my main focus. Going off to college, I was an engineering major and had an interest in designing cars. I also studied business at Fordham University in New York before attending Parsons. It wasn't until senior year of college at Fordham that I really began thinking about a career in fashion.
What experiences working with Kith and Bode unknowingly prepared you for the creation of your brand?
At Kith, I would do store installations, posters and had brand experiences that taught me how to package a product, and that’s something that has stuck with me for a while. With Bode, I learned how to create a consistent product that feels in alignment with myself. I was the Product Manager there and worked with factories all over the world, while also gaining knowledge about how to create a show and manage wholesale. Experiencing those small workings of a business helped me a lot.
How did quarantine and reports on Black Lives Matter protests impact your productivity and creative clarity when constructing the first collection?
February is when I started sampling a little bit. At first, creating a collection wasn’t something I was thinking about but when the riots exploded, I became overwhelmed. I kept thinking, I don’t know how I can get involved — eventually I realized this would be my way to contribute. Seeing differences in the way we [Black designers] approach clothing, I felt like creating this collection was a good way to get us more representation. I had to first create awareness for myself first about how I could define my brand in comparison to what's already out there.
In what ways do you plan on investing in Black professionals for Connor McKnight?
I have been putting a lot of focus on working with Black people and others of color in each of my projects. For the first lookbook, I booked up-and-coming photographer, Yashaddai Owens as well as a team of black models. There's going to be a diverse group of people I intend to work with over the course of my career but it will always be important for me to create opportunities for Black creatives. All it takes is one chance for some of us and I’ll forever be grateful for the few moments where I got the chance.
How were you able to intertwine both workwear and luxury concepts to make a collection in alignment with more personal influences?
My first influence is my own personal way of dressing. I do buy Carhartt as well as other workwear brands and most of the time, these things are inexpensive. I try to think about what could elevate them and to me the best pieces are just 10 percent different from the original concept of familiar items like a standard jacket or trouser. We’ve also seen runways shows for all of our lives which keep us interested in that lifestyle of luxury. I’d say my interests in architecture and design help me create from a unique perspective that lines up with high-low concepts.
You also speak about Black youth in D.C. and their interest in vintage outdoor gear. Which design details throughout the collection best mirror this reference?
The most obvious would be the use of tech fabrics, nylon and fleece. I feel like as a kid I would see that kind of gear everywhere from brands like Helly Hansen and North Face. The most outdoorsy area in D.C. is Rock Creek Park, so as an adult I now think why the hell were teens wearing full ski jumpsuits and hiking gear around town? I notice when a high-end company makes something tech, they miss the mark. Whether it's me ensuring there’s real goose down or nylon, or even silicon tags — it's about creating a product that feels satisfying to that memory and does it justice.
Do you intend to release collections following the fashion calendar?
I'm in the process of figuring that out. It's a little difficult when you're wholesaling and trying to get certain accounts if you're not on the calendar. Selling based on seasons also feels important when considering fashion week presentations, so I’m just seeing how things play out. Part of the connection of buying clothes is buying it from the person who created it. My goal right now is to work with accounts that are understanding of today’s circumstances and open to rolling with the punches.
Why is it important for Connor McKnight to be recognized as a gender-neutral brand?
I find it really weird that we feel the need to gender our clothes. I grew up with queer, gay, and bisexual friends; having people around you who struggle with their identities you don’t want to be apart of that. If you're into something, you shouldn’t have to question if it’s menswear or something you identify as. It's uncomfortable for me to dictate what product fits a person's identity. I’m following in the footsteps of brands like a Telfar that have been inclusive of everyone and breaking down those walls — I feel like I should follow suit.
Each piece in your first collection is made to order. Is that a direct result of factory closings or a sustainable incentive you intend to maintain over time?
It’s a standard I would like to maintain as long as I can. One of the things I don't like in this industry is overproduction; it's actually classist when it comes to production. A lot of us starting out have to front the money for manufacturing, materials, et cetera and you don't know what's going to happen. It's a huge barrier for a lot of new designers who don't have that start-up money. When it comes to a made to order approach, it may take a bit more time and cost a little more but you can rest assured it’s created with fair manufacturing conditions and proper recycling of surplus products in mind.
You’ve just started accepting requests for studio visits. What else is next for the brand in 2021?
I'm getting started on the next season’s collection. We’re also going to be stocked at a few retailers shortly, apart from our coming pop-up at Fred Segal in Los Angeles. I keep reminding myself for my first collection a lot has happened. At the beginning of this, I didn't know if I would get accounts or be in a magazine, but it’s shown me if you take risks sometimes it works out.