We seem to be in a paradigm shift in pop culture. In the past few years, black music has expanded its borders and been introduced to new audiences, reminding diasporic West Indians of the sounds that once wallpapered their homes — queue slides of Rihanna as Queen and Drake as a notable member of her royal court (Sorry Drake, yuh nuh from dere). On the socio-political spectrum, films like Moonlight, and national tragedies like the Pulse Nightclub Shooting, have forced communities of color into conversations around sexuality and acceptance. That’s where Edvin Thompson, the creative genius behind Theophilio, comes in. At 24, the Jamaican native has caught the attention of girl group Fifth Harmony with his raw, disruptive designs and had his clothes featured in publications like Fucking Young and Cakeboy, all while Vogue street style photographers praise his personal, colorful style. But don’t be fooled by his quick tongue, rude boy phrases, and unassuming presence — he stands squarely at the crossroads of this archetype, stitching the politics of identity, race, and sexuality directly into his head-turning garments.
Using raw, easily customizable materials like denim, lace, leather, and chains, Thompson has evolved from a teenager archiving his sketches on Tumblr, to a published designer whose manipulation of these fabrics is attracting the likes of the downtown fashion crowd, pop chart megastars, and the finicky Brooklyn art world. Each piece from his collection tells its own story — Edvin’s story, to be precise. His journey into the fashion world has been one with its own obstacles, moments of resilience, doubt and unanswered questions. Edvin is posing those questions through his garments and forcing his community, and the fashion industry at large to answer them.
Theophilio began as a bit of a coping mechanism. “I’ve been painting and doing art since I moved here when I was six years old. You know, adjusting to a new life and a new place,” Edvin explained on a sun-drenched bench outside of the Bed Stuy fashion-crowd-coffee-shop, Sincerely, Tommy. “My sophomore year, I was introduced to clothes and styling by my peers. There was a group of us who you would call ‘the cool kids,’ and every week we would come up with a different theme — seventies or goth, and we would all wear it.” Sipping his iced-coffee, he explains his decision to finally take designing seriously. “It wasn’t really provoked until my art teachers said, ‘Why don’t you become a fashion designer?’
Now, Edvin isn’t just a designer, he’s a tastemaker and a conversation starter. We caught up with the designer to discuss his artistic process, redefining masculinity in the gay and black communities and his obsession with “the culture.” And of yeah, we spent a lot of time talking leather and chains.
Where does the name Theophilio come from?
Theophilio is derived from my middle name, Theophilious, meaning ‘God’s Loving,’ I wanted a name that was classic, a name that will carry my brand.
What motivated you to become a designer?
Tumblr really inspired me to put forth fashion design. I watched a lot of shows each Fashion Week on YouTube just to gain knowledge about the industry. In 2013, when I came to AfroPunk and saw that the energy was crazy, it inspired my move to New York. I think I’m still finding myself as a designer, but for right now, I do it for the culture — for people to have actual conversations about what’s going on in the world. Homosexuality, being black — the worst thing ever is being ignorant.
When I think of the quintessential Tumblr kid it’s a white, indie –but still cool–person. How did that stereotype play into figuring out how you wanted to represent your culture?
It’s kind of embedded in me. I was fascinated in that sense because I do have a very emotional connection to [Tumblr]. Definitely, because it is an art form, and all the designers I’ve read about, all the shows I’ve seen — just like, the history Tumblr has gave me. It really gave me the knowledge and a sense of individuality. I’m in a good space.
What is a good space when you’re a designer?
My livelihood comes first. I have to have a home base I can lay my head at night. And a job. I’m actually a server and a bartender at Red Lobster in the Bronx, and I commute an hour and 30 minutes back and forth to work every day — I have to get those things out of the way because my home has to be taken care of. I pray about my blessings and I go get them. I can’t just like sit and let it happen. But, a good place is just slightly having my sanity.
How do you feel about copycats?
I did see Kendall and Kylie were doing some release with grommets in the top and grommets in the pants on their website. But I released my collection the September before the Jenner’s. I wasn’t offended by it in the least. You know, people do get upset when other folks copy them. But, when you’re a genuine artist and you have all that up here [in your head], you’re accessible to anything. I’m saying you can [see ] that it’s coming from a real place. And when I saw that I was just like, ‘Wow this is really good tea.’
Do you consider it shady?
It’s shady — it’s a dirty call. One thing I love about social media is it’s making people more conscious. It doesn’t really credit the industry of modeling and for a lot of these kids, this is their outlet. Just like Tumblr — it’s how they start to get out to the world.
What are your thoughts on the current state of the fashion industry?
The fashion industry is content with how the industry has always been. Like, you have to be skinny, you have to be light-skinned, and with these dark-skinned girls, it’s propaganda — it’s always propaganda. I really want to be honest with my brand, with the message. I don’t want to jump on black models because everyone all of the sudden loves them. I feel like Gucci did that with their all-black campaign. It was a big deal — the ‘70s and how it was just all black. But their show had literally three black models in it. It’s a problem. Even with homosexuality, it’s just propaganda. You have these people who support it in this light, but behind the scenes, it’s a very different story. Like with Katy Perry and Migos on Saturday Night Live. That’s why I want to be very transparent. I want to keep the conversation going about the culture.
What has your experience been as a young designer in New York?
New York forced me into the person I knew I was going to be. I’m trying to live in New York and I’m trying to be a designer, but I have to work 40 hours a week and still try to have fun. The compromise is good. You have to compromise your timing with your choices.
What’s your favorite New York experience?
The highlight of my New York experience was during 2014, my first Fashion Week when I went to the Opening Ceremony After Party and I talked to Natalia Kills. Me and Rosario Dawson were looking for an outlet together! I remember I was at the bar and I just looked at everybody in the party and was just like, ‘Wow. This is it — … this is what everyone’s really like striving for. Everyone wants to get into the party, everyone wants to party with celebrities. This is it.’ It wasn’t really gratifying because it’s like, for me personally, why am I here? Was my name even on the list?
Did you doubt yourself?
In that moment, I didn’t doubt myself. In that moment, it was all tangible.
You were talking about your Jamaican heritage. How do you translate Caribbean culture in your work?
I left Jamaica when I was nine. I do remember everything about growing up in Jamaica, going to parties. My parents’ wedding reception was one of the biggest things in my head that I can really resort back to as inspiration for the collection that’s coming up because I’ve lived it. But I really look at music as one of my main inspirations–it just brings visions. I could put my headphones on and listen to “Dancehall Queen” by Beenie Man, and then envision a woman’s body in a dress. From there, I can see the cut and I would just go sketch it out, and then go source for the fabric.
What are you listening to right now? Is there a song that explains the way that you feel?
“Dancehall Queen” ft. Chevelle Franklyn. […] And as of right now, I’ve been listening to different reggae hits, going back to what my father used to listen to in his day.
You used a lot of denim, leather, and chains in your last collection, which often have a sexual connotation. Are you trying to say something?
I believe that denim will always be constructed in my brand. It will be part of my definition as a designer because, for me, it’s easily manipulated. It can be taken in any way. The first pants in my collection, with the grommets in the front and the lacing on the side and the deconstruction, there is just a sexuality about it. It’s about how my father perceived the becoming of who I am as a homosexual male. Before, I could have told my father who I was, but society already did, so it made things a bit difficult. Like, this is who gay men are — I think that’s why he was so nervous in the beginning. I left home when I was 20. I didn’t run away or anything — I let [my parents] handle it because we were having a conversation, but it wasn’t progressive. So, I let them take care of what they needed to take care of, and come to me when they were ready to open up. My father actually came in and told me, ‘I love you, we accept you for who you are, we may never understand it, but you’re my child.’
Does your experience as a gay man affect the way you make clothes? Do you choose materials based on that experience?
In the LGBTQ community, society has seen us as sexual beings rather than people. And with these fabrications, and the deconstruction of the denim, the grommets, the chains — those are just emotions that I’ve gone through. One of the tops in my Lookbook is a pantyhose top. It is transparent because you can still see me as a person. You can see still see through me because I’m very open — I’m very emotional I’ve been through a lot but I’m very transparent.
There’s definitely a resilience in your work. Can you speak on that?
It goes back to what we are all going through right now, trying to find our voice. We’re dealing with so many things. People say you’re free but your photo is taken off Instagram. I don’t want to be impulsive or abrasive with that comment, but I could put work out as an art form. You see it. But for other people, they’re just like, ‘Oh my, it’s too much.’ With denim, it’s easy to customize it in your own way — and it speaks to me.
What does it say?
‘You can use me for whatever you want. You want me to be mad? You want me to be sad? You wanna be sexy?’
How do women factor into your creative process?
I’m a feminist and I love strong women. Like when Alexander McQueen said he made clothes for women who are strong and for men who are afraid — he made clothes for women who were comfortable in their sexuality. Men fear women like that, but they still want to be with them. I look at my black women like they’re queens, even if I don’t think of them romantically.
I noticed that a lot of your black male models are in chains. That imagery is one we associate with slavery. Was that intentional?
Black men have had to be strong, you can’t show emotion. Like when Future was on Rolling Stone and his hair was swinging and even Rae Sremmurd on The Fader. And the way that people perceived, ‘Yo these niggas are soft’ — that was the light right there. That was the friction.
So the chains represent the limits on black male expression?
I know a lot of guys, even in the gay community, that still have this mentality. Like, you have to be a top or a bottom. That’s why I go back to sexuality because you have these dominant gay males who still look at these males who are as bottoms and perceive them as soft. And that’s crazy. You’re a gay male, I’m a gay male, what society deems us as less than — [the chains] definitely relate to that. The chains are that conform, that restraint, that restriction right there. And you have to switch it up. Sometimes if I see a bunch of guys on the street or something I won’t continue. Or, I’ll walk different. It’s crazy that you have to do that with your own people.
So you feel like even around other gay men you have to do that?
For me, a lot of black males can’t really talk about or even have conversations about sexuality. Even my heterosexual friends — and we’re all creatives — will stop themselves because they’re afraid they’re thinking will be altered. But I think there’s a sense of freedom in knowledge.
Photographer: Christian Cody
1st assistant: Kawan Moore
Taken from issue 00