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Head of the Class

These four designers are making names for themselves in New York, Paris, and Milan—and they all trained at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago

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Fashion designer Gary Graham
Graham in his New York studio. Photo Gallery »

The Cult Favorite: Gary Graham

At first glance, it’s hard to picture Gary Graham as anything but a polished rising star in the fashion world. “You would never know it by looking at me, but I was a goth for a long time,” the designer says. “It’s not who I am now, but there are elements of that in my work.”

One look at his luxurious collections and it’s clear what he means. Drawing on Victorian, medieval, and Gothic elements, Graham’s edgy style is an exercise in dichotomies, exploring light and darkness, romance and rebellion, the old and the new, the fantastic and the real. Finding inspiration in the historical (Ellis Island) as well as the curious (19th-century automatons), he creates stories for each of his collections and imagines how thematic threads might be woven into the clothes themselves. Whether it’s a tailored coat, a flowy dress, or a slouchy sweater, each garment is crafted using opulent fabrics and manipulated by washing and dyeing. There’s also an emphasis on versatility, with pieces having double functions. No wonder his creations are go-to pieces in many fashion-forward wardrobes.

A native of Wilmington, Delaware, Graham came to SAIC in 1988, initially studying painting and performance art before focusing on fashion design. “At that time, people were becoming art stars,” he says. He mentions Dread Scott, who set off an uproar with his controversial SAIC installation What Is the Proper Way to Display a U.S. Flag? by inviting people to step on a flag. “There was a lot of great energy.”

Graham remembers Chicago as a particularly inspiring place. He points, for example, to the music scene that featured such homegrown industrial rock bands as Ministry and My Life with the Thrill Kill Kult. But above all, it was the city’s expansiveness and lack of distraction that he found attractive. “Chicago allows you to live a little in your head because there’s a lot of space,” Graham says. “It’s nice to develop in a city that allows you to explore and figure out who you are.”

After graduating in 1992, he headed to New York City, where he worked with the SAIC alum J. Morgan Puett on her label before going solo in 1999 with his eponymous line. His early collections garnered favorable reviews, and the accolades kept coming. In 2009, Graham was named a finalist for the coveted Council of Fashion Designers of America/Vogue Fashion Fund prize, and in May he returned to his alma mater to accept the Legend of Fashion award.

As he continues to evolve, Graham insists that his aesthetic sensibility will remain constant. “My clothes determine a certain kind of woman who’s creative and independent,” he says. “Everything they put on, they put on for a reason—to tell their own story.”


Photograph: Anna Knott


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