Wes Gordon: Driven by Design

Twenty-seven-year-old Wes Gordon has been building his eponymous fashion house since his childhood in Atlanta. Maybe one day he’ll be a household name in his hometown.

Photographs by Alex Martinez

If there is such a thing as an intentional life, Wes Gordon—the most interesting fashion designer Atlanta has ever produced—is living it. By preschool, he was selecting his mother’s daily outfits for her job at an advertising agency. For his fourth birthday, all he wanted was a suit and a ticket to Phantom of the Opera, and a year later he refused to go to kindergarten without his red suspenders and blue suede bucks. By that point, he was ordering oysters on the half shell. In high school at Lovett, he rented Visconti films and took figure painting classes at the High Museum; while his classmates wore Patagonia and Sperry, Gordon accessorized his school uniform with Italian shoes and a fleece jacket from Prada. Rather than boozing in parking lots with the pre-frat boys, Gordon socialized by hosting study sessions turned—essentially—art salons.

“Well, this would only happen at Wes Gordon’s house,” said Pujan Gandhi, a Lovett classmate of Gordon’s who is now an art adviser in London. “I knew he was very artistic. I remember that distinctly. But fashion he kept very much under wraps.”

Unbeknownst to his friends and family, in the evenings after finishing his homework, Gordon paged through books on design and designers—Valentino, Oscar de la Renta, Alexander McQueen. When he was sixteen he met Nina Gleyzer, whose silk-draped shop, Nina’s Couture, near Peachtree Battle bore a sign advertising fashion design lessons. He called her up: I want to learn how to sew. Gleyzer, a heavily accented couturier from Saint Petersburg, Russia, whose business is based on one-of-a-kind garments and alterations, taught Gordon after school at least one day a week for two years. Sewing, cutting, making patterns. It was the groundwork for a career no one yet knew he’d pursue.

Gordon’s parents were supportive. After his freshman year of high school, his mother took him on a museum trip to Paris. The Gordons funded his fine-shoe habit, probably because it was that important to his sensibilities. But Gordon was lined up for a traditional college education, as his mother and father, who works in finance, expected. It came as a shock to them at the end of his senior year when he announced he wanted to go to fashion school and defer from Brown, where he’d been accepted. But they acquiesced.

With Gleyzer, Gordon produced a dramatic ball skirt with intricate flames tearing up from the bottom—a signature piece that helped win him acceptance to Central Saint Martins in London, the same design school that produced Alexander McQueen, Stella McCartney, and John Galliano.

All of these names have become international brands, and when Gordon graduated from Central Saint Martins in 2009, he set to work on the same thing for himself. It’s a dream that began to develop here in Atlanta, while he was painting at the High, sewing with Gleyzer, admiring any Buckhead home with a bit of time-earned patina. Though his designs are not inherently Southern, he cites the romantic, gothic beauty—the crumbling, dark, and mysterious ideal of the South in film and history and literature—as an influence.

Gordon has a key group of supporters in Atlanta—investors, some society ladies, family, and friends—but his own mother can’t walk into a shop here and try on a Wes Gordon garment. His clothes are stocked from Canada to the Middle East, but his customer is more likely to be found on the Upper East Side of Manhattan than below the Mason-Dixon Line. Gordon is a fashion editor’s darling, and a retail buyer’s too; women in New York, Beverly Hills, and Beirut are wearing his clothes, flaunting their Flannery O’Connor gothic black lace sleeves, but here in his hometown, most people have never seen his work.
At six foot three with a medium build, Wes Gordon could easily be on the other side of the model casting calls. His hair—thick and wavy and a constant target for his restless fingers—defies gravity. He favors gingham button-downs and simple sweaters. His smile turns up sharply, almost impishly, at the corners. He is twenty-seven years old.

There are certain things Wes Gordon is not. He is not, in an industry thick with them, a diva. He is approachable, sincere, polite. In a word, Southern.

But unlike most of the South’s sartorial native sons, like Billy Reid and Sid Mashburn, Gordon does not design for this region. He doesn’t use the word heirloom to describe an aesthetic; that would be a family treasure passed down. He doesn’t do prepped-up haberdashery or rustic leather goods; his womenswear is for a lady who likes her fabrics rich—just like her men. His simple flare pants start in the four digits, and his hand appliqués, embroidery, lace, and crystal are not fit for a romp in the country. If he had a boutique, there would not be taxidermy on the walls.

Last September, with the start of his spring fashion show—his runway debut—fifteen minutes late and counting, Gordon stood backstage in a Chelsea warehouse. His hands were clasped neatly behind his back while he posed for last-minute photos. One with Christina Hendricks, the buxom redhead from Mad Men. Polite smile. Click. Another with actress Ali Larter. Polite smile. Click. If he was anxious, he didn’t show it.

The scene around him was not so serene. Handlers raced around in headsets like air traffic controllers. The final model had just been rushed to hair and makeup, where an octopus of arms pushed, tugged, and brushed. Seamstresses with pincushions around their arms were still adjusting garments, inspired by elegant nineties icons like Carolyn Bessette Kennedy and Gwyneth Paltrow circa Great Expectations. There were spaghetti straps that needed rearranging, mid-calf pencil skirts that needed smoothing. Nail artists painted fingertips to match the color palette of the clothes: pistachio, rose, lilac, and butter—also known as pale green, pink, purple, and yellow. Models mugged for flashbulbs as the coordinator coached them: “Walk tough. Tough!”

The first New York fashion week was launched by a publicist in 1943 as a way for the U.S. to prove its sartorial chops while Paris was under German occupation. American designers, who’d had little attention before, seized the opportunity to showcase their work for editors from magazines like Vogue and Harper’s Bazaar, who dictated fashion protocol in their pages. In the seventy years since, that much has not changed. But a key component of fashion week’s front row has: Now it’s not only editors (the event was originally called “press week”) but buyers, eyeing which pieces they’ll snap up for their stores. If a designer’s lucky, after the runway the orders start rolling in, and he or she will spend all season at trunk shows selling their wares. That’s in addition to creating and producing designs for the next season—seasons that are maddeningly relentless, coming every three months. Ask anyone in the industry and they’ll tell you it feels like it’s always fashion week.

When Gordon’s show finally started—thirty minutes late, per industry norm—the models stomped down the runway to Nirvana’s “Come as You Are.” Glass twinkled on Gordon’s designs, in the form of Swarovski crystals on a metallic lattice pencil skirt, soft tea dresses, and a cotton-cashmere pullover. Swarovski is one of Gordon’s runway sponsors (in addition to Maybelline and Essie nail polish); the company selects designers from a slew of applicants each season to partner with and support. Sponsorships are key to staging these time-, labor-, and money-sucking shows, which usually wrap in less than ten minutes. They are especially important for new and still-emerging designers like Gordon, who don’t always have models and stylists knocking down their door offering free services in exchange for cachet, and who aren’t yet the Karl Lagerfelds of the world who can afford to drop a cool mil on a production.

In the front row that day, some important names for Gordon’s brand: Stefano Tonchi, editor of W magazine; Carine Roitfeld, the onetime editor of Vogue Paris and still the pooh-bah of Paris fashion; Lauren Santo Domingo, a contributing editor at Vogue and the kind of society girl who can change the way people dress simply by walking down the street. Not present: Linda Fargo, senior vice president of Bergdorf Goodman, who took an early interest in Gordon and regularly stocks the fabled Fifth Avenue department store with his garments. Elsewhere, Kerry Washington, January Jones, Gwyneth Paltrow, and every American designer’s holy grail, Michelle Obama, have worn his clothes for events. Fashion publicists for up-and-comers practically beg to get celebrities clad, but Gordon had to find out on Twitter that the First Lady was sporting his metallic houndstooth jacket. And Girls star Lena Dunham—with whom Gordon has become friends—hand-selected a Wes Gordon dress for the 2012 Met Ball from a rack wheeled out by Anna Wintour at the Vogue offices. Then they rang for Gordon.

Who’s in the front row isn’t just gossipy drivel for the TMZ crowd; for an emerging designer, runway buzz—and subsequent press and pulls for editorials and red carpets—can translate into sales. (Call it the Kate Middleton effect.) In the end, it’s not a frivolous society event; it’s a business, and in order to survive, it must be commercially viable. For an artist, this can mean sacrifices. No longer is the fashion designer spending all day sketching and draping fabrics, staring dreamily at a muse, brooding, taking free rein with artistic vision; emerging designers can spend most of their time not actually designing but focusing on the bottom line. It is, after all, an industry—a trillion-dollar one at that. And few people are bilingual—fluent in the language of both art and commerce.

Personality plays a role in that business savvy, when you’re doubling as showman and salesman, and Gordon has that. “He’s not only young, but cute and affable, and he’s very engaging,” says Lauren Sherman, a longtime fashion business editor who has reviewed Gordon’s shows for Style.com. “He loves to talk to media, to his clients. Early on, if you’re not playing the game, it’s really hard to break through. He’s really good at that in a way that’s not annoying. He gets that it’s a business.”

A couple of months after the September show
, Gordon is in his studio in the Financial District, working on his collection for fall 2014. It’s a simple, classroom-like space with big windows and worktables crammed together, fabric and paperwork in piles, and it’s the first place he rented when he launched his line in 2009, fresh from school and internships at Tom Ford and Oscar de la Renta. Then, it was his live/work space; he slept for a time on a blowup mattress. He’s since moved into an apartment in Tribeca and hired seven full-time employees, including a creative director; directors for brand strategy, sales, and production; a production coordinator; an associate designer; and a patternmaker.

When it was just Gordon and two assistants, they each wore all the hats, running to the Garment District for zippers, cold-calling nearby factories, talking to retailers. Now it’s much more streamlined, but Gordon still goes to many trunk shows himself to work with buyers and clients directly; he has to sketch and execute full design concepts by hard and fast deadlines (some say this is why fashion week exists at all—to force-quit the creative process, which continues until the model takes her first step on the runway); and despite now having a publicity team, of course he is the real ambassador for his growing brand.

On this day, his sales reps aren’t in. They’re traveling, peddling his spring line to buyers. Gordon is again putting pencil to paper.

“I’m sketching now,” he says. “We just established our color story; we’re looking at embroideries; we’re working with fabric mills. It’s starting to get really busy now.”

He thinks better of it. “No, it’s always busy. It never ends. You go through a huge craziness and then it just starts again.”

Gordon currently shows three collections a year—spring, fall, and resort, and he hopes to soon add the rather comically named “season” pre-fall (here in the South it’s a time of year still called “summer”). Women’s ready-to-wear is the first product line under his brand, but ultimately it is—and always has been—all about the future world of Wes Gordon, the lifestyle brand that he hopes will one day reach Armani or Ralph Lauren proportion. If his high-end womenswear is successful, it opens up opportunities to diffuse the brand to develop lines with lower price points, accessories, fragrances, shoes. Lamps, goblets. His eyes light up when he talks of design empire.

“I think anyone who’s really into design—of any kind, whether it’s fashion or furniture—you’re interested in all kinds of design,” he says. “It’s the idea of looking at something and saying, ‘Oh, I would do this a little differently.’” He holds up the squat goblet from which he’s drinking Diet Coke. “Like, I would make this a little narrower,” he says as he pinches the stem between his thumb and forefinger. “And once you’re able to establish what it is that makes you different as a designer and what’s unique about how you look at that glass, then that’s really something special that you’re able to build upon. So I think my first few seasons as a young designer—and still—are kind of figuring that all out. Saying, why is she going to buy this skirt instead of someone else’s? What makes it special? What makes it Wes Gordon?”

Maybe the subtle Southern quality is one unique appeal. The New York media has loved underscoring his Georgia roots (sometimes he says “ma’am”!) as an answer to his inspiration. And he admits his upbringing in Atlanta has had a hand in his style.

“It’s such an aesthetic culture I think, whether it’s someone’s garden or their house or their outfit,” he says. “People in Atlanta put a tremendous amount of time and care into those details, and as a result, it is so beautiful.”

He can get starry-eyed.

“There are a couple of old houses around Buckhead I love because they haven’t been renovated,” he continues. “Because the paint is chipping just the right amount. And the trees are just the right amount of overgrown.”

Now when Gordon is in Atlanta, he spends most of his time not in Buckhead but around Druid Hills, where his parents moved when he graduated from Lovett and his younger sister, Lindsay, switched from Westminster to Paideia. The family is close—one only needs to look at Gordon’s Instagram to see them, smiling and, say, playing Ping-Pong together. They dine at Sotto Sotto; they visit Gordon’s grandfather at Lake Oconee.

But any inspiration from the South comes more from an idea than a place, and having moved to Atlanta from Minneapolis in the fifth grade, he has almost an outsider’s perspective. “I’m really into the deep, romantic South—almost gothic,” he says, “where it’s that combination of feminine and beautiful but then dark and mysterious. Very Flannery O’Connor.”

If that sounds dramatic, it is. He’s a self-described cinephile, taking cues on fantasy from film. “Ultimately what you’re doing with clothes when you’re designing is you’re creating a world, kind of creating a dream, right? That this is the costume for it. It’s bigger than just a piece of fabric.” His voice can sound oddly transatlantic—an affectation learned from old movies?—but then he grins and shrugs and seems all young and unassuming.

“This is so cheesy, but it’s kind of that Brad Pitt, Tom Cruise Interview with the Vampire in New Orleans. That idea of the South is so inspiring, I think. That very faded decadence I think is really beautiful.” Now that he mentions it, his vaguely disheveled but opulent fall 2013 collection did ring of Louis de Pointe du Lac and Lestat de Lioncourt.

He knows it’s mythical and he owns it. “I think when you leave Atlanta, you pass through that a bit. Or kind of the idealized idea of Savannah. But it’s definitely idealized—I don’t know if it even really exists.”

“He’s always had this goal, and he’s always known exactly how to get it somehow,” said his mother, Diane, from a window-seat banquette in the Gordons’ high-ceilinged townhouse off Ponce de Leon, which is immaculate, right down to her Wes Gordon–stocked closet. Very tall, with her platinum-blond hair twisted up above her neck, wearing lipstick, diamonds, and Wes Gordon flare pants, she looks like the sort of woman her son might have in mind as he designs—in fact, she was his original muse. “Everything on his resume is something specifically chosen to be something that contributed to that goal. It’s like a big map in his head of his life, and he’s just following along.” An unexpected detour on that map proved to be one of his best steps.

Entering a fashion reality TV show does not typically bring real-world success; the only big star Project Runway has produced is host Tim Gunn—maybe designer Christian Siriano. But when Gordon moved to New York, before he’d even done his first collection, he was asked to appear in a pilot on emerging designers. A camera crew followed him as he launched his brand, and one scene had him meeting with Linda Fargo of Bergdorf, whom he otherwise might not have met for years. The show never aired, but since then, Fargo has been one of his most influential supporters. “I guess it was my lucky day,” Gordon says, as if still dazed by it. Neiman Marcus Group is Gordon’s biggest client, and bigwig Bergdorf falls under the Neiman umbrella.

Now, Wes Gordon LLC has several dozen investors in “fairly small increments” with “a fairly broad base” (whatever that means), according to Steve Gordon, who helped his son launch the business and gather capital from friends and family. So it should be no surprise that there is a strong contingency of investors here in Atlanta. It’s not hard to picture Diane Gordon’s friends dolled up for Shepherd Center events and Atlanta Ballet luncheons in his dresses. Of course, they have to order online or special from Neiman’s.

Marilyn Krone met Gordon through a friend of her son, Cameron, who went to Lovett and is now a fashion photographer; he shot the first Wes Gordon lookbook. Krone, who majored in fashion in college, has been an investor from the beginning and helped arrange a showing at a private home in Atlanta to present Gordon’s first collection, for fall 2010.

“His pieces are so well-made that you could almost wear them inside-out,” she says. She thinks Wes Gordon will be available in Atlanta before long. “Many of my fashionable Atlanta friends are very loyal and happy customers.”

One such friend, local jewelry designer Keisha Noel of KZ Noel, discovered Gordon’s wares at a trunk show at Saks Fifth Avenue in 2010, where she bought a Wes Gordon blouse. The bigger Wes Gordon gets, the more likely she is to find his products in our stores year-round.

“It is extremely disappointing for him not to be on the racks in Atlanta,” Noel says. “But I’m learning that sometimes you have to become an incredibly large name in order for people here in Atlanta to receive it. Not that it’s a negative thing, but people in Atlanta like to buy brands they’ve heard of for many years instead of trying someone who’s new. There’s sort of more interest in the old guard than in someone who’s doing something different, more cutting-edge.

“But he definitely speaks to the Southern woman. His designs are very feminine and very luxurious. And that’s who I think the Atlanta woman is. She’s very feminine and she likes the finer things in life. So I think when he finally gets here, he’s going to do very well.”

In February, Gordon staged his second runway production at the same exposed-brick Chelsea warehouse as his first. Noel, wearing Wes Gordon, was front row, as were Krone and Diane and Steve Gordon. As was Leandra Medine, better known as the Man Repeller, one of the fashion world’s most provocative bloggers, and Bryanboy, one of its most popular. As was—this time—Linda Fargo, with her jaw-length white-blond hair, surrounded by a horde of Bergdorf devotees. Again the models paraded down the catwalk, hips leading by a foot as is la mode, this time in tailored, fox fur–collared coats, more Swarovski and more of the dramatic gothic lace, a lot of chiffon, some herringbones and houndstooths, and a color palette of icy blues, burgundies, creams, and a put-on-the-brakes bronzey orange.

With each cycle through a season, Gordon evolves. His vision and the woman he designs for become more well-defined. She’ll probably always be high society, but she’s getting younger and edgier—or, as Lauren Sherman put it in her review for Style.com, “She’s loosened up a bit: still upper-crust, but living in Tribeca.” For our purposes, that might mean she’s living in Druid Hills.

The measure of success is hard to determine, but commercially it comes down to media and sales. Gordon jokes that he refreshes Twitter constantly after his shows, but his public feedback and reviews have been strong—some of them adulatory (even famously tight-lipped Women’s Wear Daily used the word hyper-chic). And the big honcho buyers turn up season after season.

But ultimately it’s not really about this collection, or the next. A couple of benchmarks: the expansion into the diffusion lines that could include menswear, accessories—lamps, goblets. And the infiltration of all luxury markets—including ours. Then we’ll know we really have a star.

This article originally appeared in our May 2014 issue.

Online extra: Wes Gordon’s fall 2014 line