The following was the cover story of the Spring/Summer 2017 "Art of Fashion" print edition of SHEI Magazine. All rights reserved by owner.
While most high schoolers pinch pennies to buy fresh threads, Zwade Devenish had a different plan for that spare change on his dresser: “I saved my allowances from 9th to 11th grade because I wanted to make clothes,” he laughs. “I had money saved up, wanted to do a collection, but had no idea how to do it. So I just ran into a fabric store and started buying by feeling.”
For Zwade, those two years of saving – and that one fateful afternoon where his senses led the way – have blossomed into nearly a decade of following the passion that stoked his high school frugality all those years ago: designing beautiful, sensuous clothes. With a resume that includes experience at the world’s most buzzworthy names in streetwear (Billionaire Boys Club) and luxury (YEEZY), to his own personal line of private client couture (the eponymous “Zwade Devenish”), it’s easy to forget that the artist himself is not yet 30. Talk to him about his art, and that temporary amnesia becomes a borderline gaslighting: there’s no way someone this skilled, this dynamic wasn’t alive for the “Seinfeld” premiere.
Yet, to call Zwade Devenish a “prodigy” is to sell short the countless hours of hard work that have enabled his craft. Michael Jordan was cut from his middle school basketball team; it was the thousands of midnight three-pointers, not raw talent, that crafted the sport’s greatest player. Here, in a world every bit as glamorous as championship sports, is another phenom forged through their passion and devotion to pure human potential. As Devenish prepares for a busy spring season, SHEI Magazine sat down with Zwade to talk about his triumphs, his inspirations, and clothing as art.
AR: Tell me a little bit about how you got started in fashion.
ZD: I met this counselor in high school, a woman named Tracy Karas – she saw my work sketching and designing junior year of high school, and really believed in me. One day, she told me that “this guy Chris [Bevans] and Billionaire Boys Club are going to be at this [NYC Teen Live] event.” I felt like the stars were aligning. I shot my collection, brought photos, and went. Chris gets up to speak, and at the end - as people are asking him questions – the moderator, a woman named Bevy Smith, turns to him and says: “This guy in the back was the first one in the room. You should ask him a question.”
That guy was me.
I forget what he asked me, but after his Q&A we spoke briefly, and I showed him the photos of my collection. He wasn’t just nice to me – he was legitimately impressed. He looked over everything I designed, turned to me, and said: “For you to be thinking on this level is f*cking crazy.”
I was so nervous - this was someone in the industry that understands my work and respects it! We talked a little bit more after, then he told me flat out: “you should come to Billionaire Boys Club.” I started working in fashion professionally, when Chris [Bevans] discovered me.
When did you know you wanted to be a designer?
Since forever. I was born in Trinidad, and my Mom owned a boutique. I would spend a lot of time in there and see what type of projects she was working on. I was fascinated with how a garment was executed – I’d see a lady in town wearing something, and just wonder how it was made.
That fascination stayed with me when I moved to the US. In high school, I saved my allowances from 9th to 11th grade because I wanted to make clothes. There’s a quote from Outliers by Malcolm Gladwell: “Preparation meets opportunity.” I had money saved up, wanted to do a collection, but had no idea how to do it. So I just ran into a fabric store and started buying by feeling. I only had two garments [out of eight] sketched, but ended up choosing materials for every piece entirely by what I visualized in my head. Then, I made my first collection. That was Spring/Summer 2013.
Tell me about your first fashion internship with Billionaire Boys Club. This was at Roc Nation HQ in New York, right? What was it like to be there, in that environment, surrounded by that incredible creative team?
It was really DOPE. *laughs*
I learned so much from Chris himself. Chris and the BBC team had me involved in every part of the brand from designing and styling lookbooks, to communicating with factories and making sure our samples were in on time. One of the things he taught me early on was that your schedule can be so demanding, but if you really love what you do, none of it matters. I also learned how important it is to be ahead of everything. It doesn’t matter what’s trending now – at BBC, we were focused on the bigger picture. We were pushing brands forward.
Usually you think of internships as “grab coffee” or “run to the store”, but they had me actually working in fashion. That’s how me and Chris really built a relationship – I’ve seen people my age feel so entitled [at internships], but those people crash and burn. I just went in there and went to work. I didn’t jump in there and start taking pictures for my Instagram, like “Yo here’s me with Pharrell! Here’s me at BBC!” I was just part of the team.
Related, but I also learned how to be around celebrities/high profile people and not be shook up about it. Those relationships mean so much to me now going forward, too.
Your personal line, “Zwade Devenish”, has some truly elegant – even, dare I say, artful - pieces. What inspires such exquisite, ornamental work?
I don’t even know where to start. I’m really inspired by Rhianna, Naomi Cambell, and Cassie - those women exude confidence. They could wear a garbage bag and just be killing it. I always tell people that I design for a woman who is confident in her skin, but comfortable in her clothes. It’s not really about me [as the designer] – it’s all about how YOU wear the garment.
Sometimes I’m inspired by music, sometimes I look at Naomi’s catwalk and think “I got it.” I might listen to a Rhianna album, try to understand her mood, and think “she’d rock this.” I’m also inspired by the mystery of Cassie: you don’t see her, but you know her. But ultimately, I’m focused on the customer. Sometimes I go over to Chelsea, see a woman walking down the street and just think “that’s the woman who wears my clothes.”
I know Naomi’s got one of my garments, and I can’t wait for her to wear it. *laughs* I’ve never been starstruck, but I was then. Naomi Campbell is ABSOLUTELY gorgeous.
AR: Fashion occupies a dual role in our society: it’s both legally necessary (outside of a nudist beach) and a medium of artistic expression. What’s your take on clothing as art?
Clothing is art. Point blank. The end.
We’re gonna be buried in clothes. It’s just so important. When I design, I understand that clothing is an artistic expression of someone’s feelings or mood.
It’s almost like looking at someone’s playlist. They listen to A$AP Rocky, they listen to Future – ok, they like trap. If they’re wearing Celine shades and a Goyard bag, mixing brands but doing it well, then you just know they understand fashion.
Take Alexander McQueen, my favorite designer – you can’t look at his garments and not think that they’re art. I remember reading this interview with him where he said he was just inspired by this certain natural scene he saw and created an entire collection based on that. That’s art. And it’s one of his dopest collections ever.
Zwade Devenish has, for the first time, entered the menswear world. What are some of the challenges that come with adopting “fashion as art” for a male audience?
It’s totally different. I wouldn’t say I’m “adapting” to menswear because somehow I get involved with mens clothes at every turn. However, to my heart, I’m a womenswear designer. Every blue moon, every time I get inspired, I come out with a few pieces for men.
The aesthetics are different because my customer is different. My male customer is chill, as opposed to my female customer who is sophisticated with an edge. I personally enjoy working for females more.
In the year 2020, what does success look like for the Zwade Devenish brand?
Giving back. I went to junior high school in Brooklyn then high school on the Lower East Side, but I really wanted to go to [The High School of] Fashion Industries or Art and Design High School [two application-only high schools in New York City]. I was declined from both schools. Now, Art and Design has reached out about me coming in as a guest speaker for their students. I think it’s really dope that I can come have a live Q&A and speak to the students, telling them about how it all works, even at a place that turned me down. Success for me is about reaching out to those kids who really want to work in fashion or the arts.
In fashion, your chances are always slim to none. My story is slim to none. There were no opportunities for fashion in Brooklyn, so I had to go out and find it. Chris didn’t come to my school, I had to go out and find him. So it’s really important to go out and tell the kids “do your research, find things out.” That’s my way of giving back.
Correct me if I’m wrong, but you also worked on the YEEZY Season 1 collection with Kanye West – not much of that distressed sportswear vibe is present in your current aesthetic. How did that experience shape you as a designer?
A LOT. Because Kanye is really artistic, really an artist, a real real artist. *laughs*
[Working on YEEZY meant] switching gears in terms of being at BBC. There, we were always on the computer, [whereas with] Kanye we were actually cutting and sewing. A Zwade garment is executed cut and sew, so it was my style. I also learned the importance of mood boards – how to work a mood board, but still get the garment done on time.
I apply a lot of what I learned at YEEZY to Zwade [Devenish] - that street aesthetic, but still in cut and sew. I’m in that constant battle between being urban, but also chic and sophisticated. Working on YEEZY taught me how to build that reference. You’re wearing YEEZY to the airport, but once you get off the plane and go to the Ritz, you’re wearing Zwade. My customer is a traveling woman, so it’s important to understand all parts of her lifestyle. Working at BBC and YEEZY [two international, mass consumer brands] taught me a lot about that.
I hate thinking like that all the time because it might cripple the art of it, but that’s the part of being a designer. You have to bring function. McQueen didn’t bring in function at all, and that’s why his pieces are in museums now.
*laughs* But no one’s gonna wear his dress to the airport.
One final question: since this is the “Art of Fashion” issue, what’s the one fashion show that moved you the most?
Givenchy Fall 2011/2012 collection. Ricardo Tisci [Givenchy Creative Director, 2005-2017] was using pearls on mesh fabric, and everything was hand-sewn and hand-beaded. The pure technicality of making those garments was very, very hard. A collection like that can be hit or miss, but it wasn’t a miss for him. The silhouettes were simple, functional, and above all, artistic. Managing all those three - that’s hard to do. But Ricardo Tisci at Givenchy really killed it!
This interview has been condensed and edited for clarity.
A special thank you to Mr. Zwade Devenish for making this interview possible. Learn more about “Zwade Devenish”, his by-appointment-only women’s couture line, at ZwadeDevenish.com or follow @zwadedevenish on Instagram.