We have the March 2000 issue of Vogue to thank for designer James Garland’s prodigious career. The son of an accomplished ballerina mother who trained in ballet himself, Garland was perusing the Lincoln Center Barnes & Noble after class and picked up the issue with Amber Valletta in a plunging coral Versace number on the cover. “I loved ballet, but I hated performing, and my mother said, ‘OK, if you don’t want to do that, you have to be passionate about something else,” the Brooklyn native recalls. “To this day, I cannot tell you why I picked up that issue of Vogue, but after I showed it to her she made me research all of the designers and brands. I really started looking at all the images and the garments—I couldn’t put it down. I told her that fashion was going to be my next passion.”
Garland is, truly, one of the most diehard fashion obsessives I’ve ever crossed paths with, able to recall Tom Ford Gucci looks and Tim Blanks’s Style.com video quips on a dime. And his passion led him to design jobs around New York and a key role in establishing Hood by Air. (Old photos of him with the HBA crew populate moodboards to this day.) In 2019, Garland faced a now-or-never moment: He was ready to take the leap and set up his own brand. He found a factory in Italy, moved continents, and began designing. The onset of the pandemic postponed his debut until now. “It feels surreal simply because it kept seeming like two steps forward and 10 steps backwards,” Garland says. “But I do think having the extra time with the collection has been a benefit in the end.”
Dropping today exclusively on Ssense, Garland’s first foray into men’s and women’s ready-to-wear is a fully realized lifestyle concept with garments for every occasion. “I want this to be functional. I want it to be practical. I want these clothes to work in people’s lives,” he says. Model Anok Yai, Garland’s longtime friend and muse, models his womenswear. A sexy, sliced on the bias dress shows the right amount of curve and skin, and a teal snakeskin dress is inspired by the luxury of Tom Ford’s Gucci days. That’s a vibe that continues into Swarovski crystal-strewn jeans, jackets, and even a baby carrier. Menswear hinges on loose trousers with a sharply pleated knee, graphic tees, and trucker style jackets in denim and leather.
The collection’s star is a durag dress in rich purple. “It was the first piece I designed,” he explains. “I’m obsessed with John Galliano, and I love the idea of how all of his dresses were cut on the bias. Growing up, I always wore a durag, and my mother would always say, you can’t wear those certain places. I kind of wanted to make a dress that was in the language of silky, bias, body-con, but had the durag as its integral piece. This is a durag dress for the red carpet.”
The dress is literally suspended from the durag, wrapping around the body and ensuring its wearer looks hot from every angle. It’s one way that Garland is rewriting the rules of style, celebrating his heritage and his own aesthetic icons. Aside from Yai, for whom he makes custom pieces, he counts as inspirations the ballroom voguer Daesja Mizarahi LaPerla Jourdan and rapper Foxy Brown, “the stylish women they don’t teach you about in fashion school. You know, I didn’t hear about them at F.I.T.,” he says pointedly.