Behind the Atelier is a fashion-focused series that examines the unique backstories and design processes behind the fashion industry’s most captivating talents. Pulling back the curtain on each designer’s creative space and practice, Behind the Atelier will highlight and give an inside look into the industry’s most exciting names.
For the seventh installment of the series, HYPEBAE sat down with James Flemons, the founder and designer of the Los Angeles-based brand, PHLEMUNS. In a candid conversation, James shared how the art of archiving and collecting imagery has influenced his creative practice, how his inclusive designs and bespoke creations fuse the worlds of fashion and music together, and ways he is using his platform to vocalize the fashion industry’s wrongdoings and invoke change for marginalized communities.
Growing up as a youth in Los Angeles during the late ’80s, James Flemons bore witness to the Information age and saw firsthand how the digital revolution could foster his unbridled sense of creativity through collecting fashion, music, and cultural relics of the past, present and future. Harnessing the self-taught practice of archiving imagery to fuel his imagination, the designer and artist has been steadfast in cultivating a forward-thinking, fashion and lifestyle brand that champions diversity, inclusivity, representation, and community above all else.
After graduating with a degree in product development from the Fashion Institute of Design & Merchandising, James launched his namesake label in 2013 as a way to make fashion accessible and create space for marginalized, underrepresented communities that historically, have been excluded from the industry. It wasn’t long before the music industry embraced the California native’s sleek, design sensibility which led him to construct bespoke garments for musicians (before they hit their big break) like Lizzo, Rico Nasty, Kelsey Lu, Lil Nas X and Kali Uchis. Eight years later since PHLEMUNS’ inception, the visionary design talent and artist has released five collections that highlight his highly-skilled hand and penchant for utilizing deadstock fabrics (he hauls from his go-to spots in LA’s fabric district), brightly tinged colors that evoke joy, and an unmatched ability for constructing timeless, of-the-moment silhouettes that cater to all genders and bodies.
Expressly combining juxtaposing, color combinations with reimagined, signature silhouettes PHLEMUNS has become known for, James devised a range of ever so stylish separates as part of his Spring 2021 drop. Imbuing each garment with a sense of poetry and refined fluidity, the resplendent collection — which is reflective of James’ bright and animated nature — boasts psychedelic pink and rich brown, backless tees with a U-shaped cutout, a body-hugging, asymmetrical cut dress (that enhances the form in all the right ways), lime green, flared pants, a whimsical “Pink Cloud” printed-puffer jacket, and coordinating, cloud-printed pants along with long-sleeve shirts and jersey leggings that fit like second-skin. Through using fashion as a force for good, James has been successful in creating a brand with intention and purpose by masterfully shaping inclusive, imaginative garments that are attuned to the needs, and wants of his community.
To get to know the designer, HYPEBAE sat down with James Flemons to discuss the inspiration behind his Spring 2021 drop, how personal style and the art of self-expression influences his design practice, tokenism in the fashion industry, and why building a long-lasting community is an integral part of his brand’s DNA.
Talk to me about the ways you exceed the definition of a traditional designer.
Since my work is a natural extension of myself as I step outside of myself, and look more outwardly-inward, I’m able to learn about who I am more and my process within what I create. The most recent discovery — I’ve had in conversation with myself — is that I’m an artist who just happens to be a designer. I’m an artist in so many different ways and through so many different fields of creativity, and designer is just the one that stuck earliest on for me and that I followed through with. Fashion has been the catalyst in bringing all of these different elements of my creativity together and I use my brand as a way to create my own conversation and dialogue and interaction with society, peers and community.
Describe the PHLEMUNS ethos and all that it represents and embodies.
PHLEMUNS is the bridge between fashion and community and showing how they can intersect and connect and create this gateway of making fashion accessible, especially when it’s not accessible to a lot of people — my brand has always been about inclusivity. I myself, was one of those fans of fashion who never saw where I could fit into the equation. It only made sense that PHLEMUNS would be this car that can navigate and fill those voids of style, gender, identity and so on.
So I went through the navigating, the hardships and the struggles of figuring out how to create a world that invites everyone to be able to participate, a place for the people that feel like they’re unseen or the underdogs. A lot of people are intimidated by fashion and are scared to test out different styles or feel that the clothes will wear them. I try to find a way where my designs are able to translate to anyone, even if it’s through one type of garment that allows people to use self-expression and be a part of this fashion community.
Through your designs, how have you been able to capture and form a connection between the worlds of fashion and music?
I find it interesting that my design world became so heavily involved in the music industry. It wasn’t really intentional, it just happened organically. A lot of my inspiration was derived from the music industry and from watching music videos. I fell in love with style before I fell in love with fashion. Seeing the way musicians presented themselves on stage, in music videos and on their album art, was always so inspiring to me because of how you can use clothing and personal expression to [present a message].
It’s so cool that the music industry naturally embraced me and that I’ve laid a lot of the groundwork in developing the identity of new, up-and-coming musicians or with musicians right before they’re big. I was a part of these artists’ big break — not necessarily because of me — but I’ve always liked seeing how my clothing and my artistry can provide a narrative or serve this purpose that a lot of artists need and see eye to eye with. It’s one of the pillars of my brand and I wouldn’t be where I am without that component.
You’re an archivist with an avid appreciation for collecting. How does this process and your passion for imagery influence your creative approach?
I’ve always been a collector for as far back as I can remember. I was collecting stamps, race cars, pens and baseball cards — anything under the sun — and if I could put it in a box and collect it, I would collect it. Coming up as a late ’80s and ’90s kid during the Internet age, there’s this world of exploration and early on, I saw how the worldwide web can be this endless sea of discovery. Being a visual person and a visual learner, I started out collecting images of my favorite musicians and I was introduced to high fashion towards the end of high school. I think [collecting] has made me a better designer because the visual passing of it through my brain helps me regain or regurgitate it naturally as opposed to making moodboards, that’s not really my process.
Let’s talk more about your design process. What is your methodology when creating a new collection or custom garments for musicians?
My process is always based around color and texture. Those elements make my brand and [what I choose] is always from my eye and my hand — which makes it hard for me not to wear so many hats — because the brand really does rely on that personal touch for me. Sometimes it’s the fabric that I find and I’m like okay, what pieces or garments want to be made out of this fabric? If it’s a new design or an old design that I’ve done in the past or it’s a specific silhouette that’s been seen throughout history — whether it’s in fashion or a utilitarian piece — I think, how can I reinvent this and let it speak something different?
At the core of my brand, I also like making people reconsider or like something they wouldn’t necessarily like. For instance, the [Spring 2021] drop was pink and brown and those are not colors that people would generally put together — some people even steer away from brown. I see people [on social media] saying “I hate pink, but I would wear this” and that’s exactly what I sought out to do — change your perception and the narrative around it. With custom designs, I love that it takes me outside of my normal creative path and that I’m able to go in a different direction that I wouldn’t necessarily find on my own. [My process] starts with this back and forth conversation I have with myself and then, the archival rolodex in my brain will light up and start going off. I tap into that energy and most of what I create just comes naturally.
Community and fostering relationships is at the core of PHLEMUNS. Can you discuss the importance of expanding and creating a lasting community?
I really believe that community is the lifeline of my brand. Sure, I’m the catalyst and the driver, but it’s not easy to survive running a brand. We see big fashion houses that are closing or have already closed. There were many times where I didn’t know how I was going to continue and somehow, with the support of my community I was able to pull through. Especially in fashion, it’s a dog-eat-dog world. There’s little communication between people and no one wants to give each other resources and help. What is this narrative we’ve created and why does it have to be this way? I want to go to the person next to me and see how we can all support each other. But, there’s more behind what I’m doing than just having a brand and presenting my work. It’s about being able to touch people [through my designs]. I also don’t come from privilege so, it really only makes sense that that community aspect is enriched, ingrained and nurtured because it’s who I am as a person.
What do you hope to achieve for PHLEMUNS in the years to come?
If I’m being real — financial stability is at the top of my list. That would be a dream come true to not have to chase money anymore. It’s a trickle-down effect from there, and I want to be able to spread my wings so I can relinquish my creativity. There’s so many boundaries around my creative freedom and I have to make clothes that are also sellable. PHLEMUNS is a lifestyle brand — whatever that means in terms of my empire or my world — and I get little tastes of [success]. A few weekends ago, I had my first physical buy with a Japanese store and we curated a small space at the store’s front and my friend was like “there’s an energy in here that feels like you and it’s so cool to see this.” I’ve never really been able to do that before.
I want to be able to live my creative dreams, but they are grossed out by finances. That independent or no financial backing aspect is a really hard hurdle to crossover. I want to really let my brand live on. I want to make coffee table books, physical objects and we’re trying to go into pet clothing and launch an online store for that. I want growth and expansions for PHLEMUNS and I want to tap into these creative entities that are deep within me.
The fashion industry is still lacking in diversity, inclusivity and representation and it places a great deal of importance on luxury fashion houses, rather than creating resources and tangible opportunities for independent or smaller brands.
When it comes to these placements or financial aid prizes like the LVMH prize, there’s still tokenism within the industry. It’s interesting to see this occur, and navigate through it because in order to “check off that box” or make it look like the industry is doing the “work,” the spotlight will shift to focus on whoever is the Black or brown designer [of the moment]. Even with the features I’ve received in publications, it’s generally a corner of a page or one page. Why haven’t I gotten a full editorial story? How many Gucci or Louis Vuitton editorials do we need? What purpose is that serving for fashion consumers who are reading these publications? Not even just for me — but for other small brands — why are we not being featured?
I’ve been “emerging” for five years, when am I going to break outside of this emerging platform? It’s so easy to give [smaller brands] features and showcase our work to the masses. Who cares if you don’t sell as many magazine copies or get enough likes on Instagram — [independent designers] need it more than big fashion houses do. There’s been conversations around this over the years, but I think 2020 was illuminating in the sense that more people had the opportunity to get a lot off their chest and force the hands of change a bit more by holding the editors, publications and establishments accountable for these injustices against marginalized groups from within the industry. All I can do is continue to hope for change by staying true to myself and calling out the wrongs when I see them.
How do you harness creativity and fashion as a mode to spotlight or address ongoing issues within the industry?
Being based in Los Angeles has given me an advantage and that’s because I’ve been able to build a substantial foundation without necessarily having to participate in the fashion industry to succeed. I’m not a part of the scene. I’m not at the parties. I don’t meet the editors. Living in California has given me more leeway to talk sh** about the industry. When it comes to addressing these topics and calling out what’s wrong, I’m okay with taking the brunt and I’m happy to go through hardships, take on the weight of the world and make it easier for the next person — whether it’s through representation, accessibility to resources or fighting against these systems that are set in place.
When you’re in these positions, it’s about finding where you do have privilege and exploiting your privilege so it can be used in the most positive way possible. I believe in myself and my creativity, and whether you like what I have to say or not, you’re not going to be able to get rid of me. I have artistic expression ingrained in me, so whether I’m in fashion or not — I’m going to be creating, sharing and visible in some way, shape or form.