Who Decides War’s Plan to Redefine Americana


Soon after launching their label Who Decides War in 2019, showing collections of multi-layered denim and patchworked pants, a friend of designers (and now husband and wife) Téla D’Amore and Everard Best gave them some advice: Take it down a notch, and create more approachable garments that could be easily sold in retail.

“We looked at each other, laughed and said ‘We’re about to turn this up,’” D’Amore recalled to The Business of Fashion at their office in New York’s Garment district in February.

They were right to trust their instincts. Since, Who Decides War has notched milestone after milestone. Its deconstructive, heavily-illustrated and stitched denim has garnered critical praise, becoming its best-selling product. The late Virgil Abloh, then creative director for Louis Vuitton menswear became a mentor to the duo in 2019; it quickly earned celebrity fans like J-Balvin, Joey Bada$$, Swae Lee, James Harden and Ice Spice. It inked collaborations with Nike and Levi’s in 2022, and last year, was named a finalist for the CFDA/Vogue Fashion Fund.

The brand’s strong following became palpable at its shows, which moved onto the official New York Fashion Week calendar in Spring/Summer 2022, with hoards of people — decked head-to-toe in Who Decides War — gathering outside. In September 2023, the crowd grew so large D’Amore and Best had to call the police on themselves.

Best and D'Amore at the LVMH Prize semifinal event.

Who Decides War’s latest win was being named a semi-finalist for the LVMH Prize, one of fashion’s most prestigious competitions. The contest, which saw the 20 participating designs show their collections to a panel of expert judges in Paris over the weekend, kicked off on Feb. 29 and closed on Tuesday. Being named a semi-finalist has put the brand in conversation with past participants such as Marine Serre, Grace Wales Bonner, Hood by Air, Jacquemus, Demna and even their former mentor, Abloh.

Finalists won’t be announced until a later date, but regardless of the results, D’Amore and Best are set on growing the brand, with plans to expand internationally and dig further into product lines including womenswear and loungewear. The business is still small — sales doubled year-over-year to $6 million in 2023, a number they expect to double again in 2024. But it’s been profitable from the start, and D’Amore and Best are intent on building a fashion business that can last.

“We don’t have a fallback. If it doesn’t make money it doesn’t make sense,” said Best. “We just have to make sure the product is good and the community is taken care of. That’s going to drive the business.”

Raw Edges and Energy

Who Decides War attracted buzz from the get-go. Best had been building his profile in the industry for over a decade, previously working under the name Ev Bravado. In 2018, he collaborated with Heron Preston and Abloh included a few of his looks on the Spring 2019 Off-White runway. By the time Who Decides War staged its first runway in Paris in June 2019, it had already attracted attention — both Abloh and Preston attended.

Best and Abloh.

The designers’ goal, Best said, is to reframe Americana through the lens of people of colour. The brand’s assortment includes layered and zippered military-inspired jackets, heavily shredded, collaged and stitched up denim sometimes inset with lace, intricately embroidered button-downs, heavily-illustrated tees and sweaters featuring flags, fire and its now-signature stained-glass window shape. Critics have compared the denim pieces Who Decides War sends down the runway to couture.

Still, it’s found an audience commercially. Who Decides War was picked up by retailers including The Webster, Ssense and Saks Fifth Avenue, who stock items like its $500 graphic sweatshirts, $700 distressed and pocketed jeans and $1,000 bomber jackets.

The brand brought something different to menswear, particularly in denim, according to Rod Nantas, a menswear buyer at The Webster. Best and D’Amore couldn’t find detailed denim that “spoke to a room when you walked in,” Best said. Their community, “kids, friends, fellow creatives,” bought in immediately, said D’Amore.

“[Who Decides War] brought these crazy pants, it was completely game changing,” said Nantas. “Clients reacted super well.”

The business is built on catering to a consumer that wasn’t being served. Historically, both the fashion industry and the concept of “Americana” haven’t always included people of colour in the conversation, said Best.

“Our voices are left out. How do we tell our story through garments so that everyone can digest it?” said Best.

Their thorough approach to distressing, where traces of labour are left in the garments emphasises the ideal of hard work that defines Americana for the two, said D’Amore, but it also attracts shoppers looking for a special, unique piece, said Best.

It helps that D’Amore and Best collaborate well — in more ways than one. The pair, who first began working together in 2017, are now married and welcomed their first child in 2018.

“We both create in the same way,” said Best. “To fill a void in ourselves and in the marketplace.”

Looking Inside

After a few years showing in its hometown of New York, this season, Who Decides War returned to Paris, where it presented its Autumn/Winter 2024 collection at men’s week in January, and a standalone womenswear mix for the first time in a showroom.

It’s a return to where they started, but D’Amore sees it as an arrival. Since Who Decides War first showed in Paris, it’s gone from a project to a brand — with a business plan, strong signatures and a more strategic product mix. The two have ambitions to one day helm a large luxury house like mentor Abloh.

“At first people were attracted to that raw, unhinged ‘We’re throwing these clothes at you and telling all our friends to pull up,’” said D’Amore. “Now, the craft has been honed and we’ve refined what we’re saying.”

The designers are applying the techniques Who Decides War became known for in denim to other garments and materials, including outerwear, sweaters, and shirting. Its Spring/Summer 2024 collection, titled “Alterations Consultants” emphasised tailoring: stitched-over, distressed wool suiting, crisp white shirts, and ripped-apart blazers. Autumn/Winter 2024 featured more materials like leather.

With greater expertise, they’re revisiting and perfecting old ideas, said D’Amore, noting a jacket from Autumn/Winter 2024 that was originally sketched and produced before Who Decides War launched. Some fans called out the reference right away, said D’Amore.

The first iteration of D'Amore's strap jacket design, created for her first venture with Best, womenswear line Against the World; and the latest, for Who Decides War's Autumn/Winter 2024 collection.

The brand has built a devoted, loyal fan base by building hype through limited releases. In its early days, rare drops sold out immediately. Those created a sense of urgency among consumers, but also helped Who Decides War grow without big, risky production runs. Maintaining scarcity around its most sought-after items is a focus, said Best.

But to fuel growth, it’s looking to double down on categories like loungewear — sweatpants and sweatshirts, priced at $350 each, are an entry point for the brand. This year, the brand will include more womenswear on the runway, and work to make it readily available for purchase. The designers are also looking to grow recognition and wholesale partnerships, particularly in Europe, part of the reason for showing in Paris this season.

The next phase of growth will present new challenges, said Nantas. Oftentimes, brands that reach a certain level of success find it hard to keep growing with a small team — or grow too much and lose that sense of specialness.

Ice Spice in a look by Who Decides War.

“As brands start growing, it’s super key that they control distribution,” said Nantas. “Brands that put minimums instead of maximums and control it for themselves can last for much longer and sustain the hype.”

Best and D’Amore are also pushing beyond the “streetwear” designation as they grow.

“When people don’t understand where the art is coming from they label it … It’s to put us in a box and be like ‘okay, you’re not here yet. You can’t sit with these guys yet.’ It’s dismissive,” said Best, adding white designers aren’t limited in such a way.

Ultimately, Best and D’Amore think about the business — between all the hype and acclaim — as about more than just themselves.

“To see Virgil do it, did it for us,” said Best. “Now we get to put that fire in the next generation of kids.”



Source link

About The Author

Scroll to Top