Willie Norris' Clothes Are Just as Queer-Affirming as They Look

Willie Norris' Clothes Are Just as Queer-Affirming as They Look

During New York designer Willie Norris' inaugural fashion show for his first complete unisex collection, multiple stars came into crystal clear alignment. You had to be there for the presentation of his eponymous line, WILLIENORRISWORKSHOP. The setting: experimental nonprofit gallery space La Mama Galleria in the East Village. The scene: fashion lovers, select insiders, influencer types, underground performers, and an engaged, impassioned queer community.

A runway full of stars, from Aaron Philip to West Dakota, guided by iconic runway coach and fashion show producer Lynn O'Neill. Then the designer who made it all possible, in an array of highly wearable (and marketable) '90s grunge-indebted clothes constructed with precision for all forms and all functions, with words emblazoned on them in bold type. It's all designed to confront then dismantle the phenomenon of phobia against LGBTQ people. Making them real and seen by others was a culmination of 10 years of Norris working at different capacities in the fashion industry. It's a dream come true from "growing up as a little faggot in New Hampshire," he says.

The clothes, which the 29-year-old designer creates, produces, and funds on his own from a Bushwick, Brooklyn design studio, are powerful conversation starters and armor for the people the world deems most vulnerable.

And then, there was me.

When I showed up for a call time two hours ahead of schedule, it was my first time doing so. After waiting for a slow elevator to go up four floors (there was also the option to take the stairs), I was in lovely hands with hair and makeup, and surrounded by queer people who were killing it in their own respective industries and subjects of interest. Most of all, everyone around me was killing it in being themselves.

I was extremely nervous and fearful when I first arrived. I thought about my face, and how I've often lacked the ability to conceal my expressions. I thought about my walk, though Norris sent all 18 participating models an email to do the exact opposite. What if I fell down? What if I, for whatever reason while down, couldn't get back up?

But there, lifting me up was drag performer Charlene Incarnate, who kissed me on the lips when I told her she was beautiful. There, lifting me up was Blew Velvet, a friend and fellow musician and artist, who shared the bathroom with me when I urgently had to pee. Also lifting me up was Philip, who, in a platinum blonde Anna Wintour bob, told me about her nerves about gracing her very first runway. And still, she assured me, "Trust, it's gonna be a moment, love. And that's that on THAT, love." Or the makeup artist who rubbed lotion on my brown skin to keep it hydrated and dewy. Or the makeup artist from the Poconos who applied a bold red lip to my mouth with loving, articulate exactness when I told her I wanted my lips to be juicy and shiny enough for everyone to want to kiss me.

The music backstage was a steady mix of eerie lounge. Nothing too crazy, as the main event was coming. When it was time to hit the runway, the models took long, slow, deep strides to make our individual and collective presences felt. We owned the clothes we were in, and embodied our own selves, to the industrial sound world created by Anthony Dicap. In doing so, we amplified our stories and Norris' mission to create a world in which queer entrepreneurship is not only a means of self-defense, but one of self-love and love of community. Crowds screamed affirmations the whole way through. For my own self, I was fully in my power and presence.

In wearing Norris' clothes, whose statements are Norris' own thoughts about queer liberation, inspired by the vast library of queer reading, shade, and just straight-up directness — examples include a shirt declaring "Promote Homosexuality" or one that asks "What Exactly Is Heterosexuality and What Causes It?" — the wearer, whether an ally or queer themselves, is also empowered. The very idea of queer entrepreneurship is instantly elevated and made visible for all to see. Literally.

Norris put all the models in customized Blundstone boots, varying in platform size. To keep things idiosyncratic, as if done by random selection, the tallest models sometimes had the tallest shoes, or the shortest. Norris kept the color scheme restricted to bold neutrals like red, black, and denim, and added detailed twists to classic staples. What might be thought of as men's dress shirts, like the black one I wore, were tailored like oversized, sexy blouses, with long tails in the back and sleeves meant to dangle off the shoulder for extra skin exposure.

And Velvet walked in a denim jacket that, with a zipper or arm moved here or there, became a poncho or a cape, whatever your drama. Models donned functional accessories, like crossbody pouches, and yes, even a heeled thigh-high boot that fit a baseball bat inside. Why not? Also, Norris really wasn't kidding about that self-defense business.

I caught up with Norris at his show's afterparty to talk about personal sacrifice, protecting others, and what's coming next.


Why did you cast me for this show?

The pictures that I think I really I gravitated towards were the ones where you just look so genuine and vulnerable. You're putting your true self out there and your smile is very real. People don't like to show that a lot of the time. I think that the real smiles that people publish and post of their own accord are very vulnerable. Your lipstick is seared in my brain, it is just so right. It feels like... whenever you found lipstick, it became your signature. Where I might sign my name, you'd wear lipstick.

It really is such a part of me.

Like all the other models, I wanted to cast you because I thought that you were putting your true self out there, and I can only imagine what meticulous, painful, and debilitating work you've had to put in to get there. I've done the same thing and I can feel it. You're here and you're still doing it. So, that was my MO with the casting: who is putting themselves out there in a way even if everything isn't exactly how they want it to be? Who is publicly shaping the world's view on things, and seeing what works and what doesn't? I love that element of growth. I found people who I believed had cultivated their queer identity, and lived in a world in which they were always following through.

Yeah, it felt like that — a collection of real people.

Exactly. I casted the models before I designed the collection, which is so ass-backwards to enter into the industry. And I had a gut feeling for what everyone would be wearing. I knew you would be in a tight undershirt with a matching, big blouse on top. I knew Nick would be in a black tank top with a red shirt. I knew Charlene would be in a red lip with something on the side. That's kind of my talent as a designer: seeing that and making it come to life. Luckily, not one of the people I asked to walk this show said no. I think that's because I trusted my gut on who to ask.

"You either help Black femmes, you help people of color that present as feminine, or they die. And that's that."

When I met you for my fitting last week, you said that people aren't always aware of the sacrifice queer independent designers undertake to produce one piece, whether limited or mass run, let alone a full collection. You had been known for your T-shirts until now. Did you feel you had to prove yourself by creating something more complete?

There's always going to be that in me. But a lot of times, it's kind of playful for me. Like, this show? When I was looking for spaces a couple months ago, I was like, I'm just going to do a hanging installation of T-shirts, but then I was like, No, bitch, that's not enough.You're not lifting it. You're not really pushing the limits of what you can actually do.

I've always thought this, but I do feel that you have to genuinely overextend yourself to make a dream possible within yourself. And I know that that goes against everything, that "self-care" we all talk about now. But I really think that you have to hustle, get the pieces together, and then pick them up, because that's the only way you're going to use what you have, what you're known for, your resources, and volleyball that into your next thing. No one makes your dreams happen but you. So yeah, I do feel the pressure to continuously be like, "I can do that too!" But at the same time, I do say no a lot. You wouldn't imagine what [this collection] started at and where it came to, and it was just about revising and thinking to myself, Can we feasibly do this? Can we do this how I want to see it?

You also mentioned that you operated at 125 percent when putting the collection and show together. Why is that level of work important to you?

Yes. Minimum, 125 percent. It's important to make sacrifices for the things you love. Yesterday was my birthday, I couldn't do anything. And I know that's whatever for some people but for me, it was like... I made a choice not to do anything on that day but to work and finish planning and executing this show. I've sacrificed a lot of my social life. I've sacrificed all of my disposable income. I made some money through Kickstarter donations, but that was not enough. I knew that I could make the money back that I was putting into it, so I took out a personal loan. This was all done and funded by me. I don't have family to lean on for financial support. So it was game on. Creating this came from a place of urgency where I just didn't fucking care, and knew I'd make it all back somehow, because this show, these clothes, what I want to say, has to be in the conversation right now.

I want to explore the idea of fashion as queer power with you. Was there a defining moment where you realized this was your message and what you wanted to say?

It was more of a gut feeling. I had something to prove to myself, and I felt it. I had to prove that I could stand on my own. For the past 10 years, I've been working as a designer. I still have a full-time design job. I'm a menswear design director. And my boss is in the front row, next to my old boss from my last job. That was kind of a gag, to know they'd both see me do this.

Blaire (They/Them)

Follow Blaire on Instagram (@slaynick)

Do what? Have vision?

Well, every designer theorizes their collection in their mind. When they see a runway show, they dissect it. And I was becoming that person: a little bit of a snob. And I was like, "Wait, bitch, can you do this?" And this collection was like, it's time to prove that I can, with very limited resources and with a small collection, actually say something. Can you say something and people get it immediately? So much fashion is like, a moodboard. So much fashion is like, here's my inspiration and it's... flowers. [Laughs]

Flowers are always in! Do you use moodboards?

Never. I've never seen a collage of images in my head. It's all about those intuitive thoughts on what's going on my community and my people and what feels right. Right now.

The time is now for this collection. But hypothetically speaking, what if this came out five years ago?

Five years ago, I would not have had that audience. There's no way. Five years ago, this cast in fashion as we knew it then, wouldn't exist. Seeing it all play out together, where everyone contributes value and all value is acknowledged... those are conversations people have only really just begun to deepen. Also, as queer people grow stronger in their identities, so does fashion's messages, if they fully embrace them. I try to have a sensibility that captures that.

"You have to have a dream. Mine centers queerness, always."

What made you decide to focus on words to communicate your ideas? Designers could have their pick of words, images, or color. You incorporate all three, but you use words to get your strongest ideas across.

Words are everything. Words are the juice that runs through my guts. I cling to words for tools of how to encounter, interact with, and resolve situations. And these little quips that I come up with are so simple, so straightforward, that everyone can see something in them, especially if you're queer. There's a whole book there, but everyone can have a narrative that revolves around that. One of my favorite shirts that I've designed that I haven't actually really released says "Cut and dry, it's do or die." What that means to me right now is the safety of Black femmes. That's it. That's the prerogative right now, that is the thing that is resting and that needs attention. And it's real. You either help Black femmes, you help people of color that present as feminine, or they die. And that's that. And it could mean something to someone else, but these words are hooks that you can attach to. And they're almost uplifting in that way, too. A shirt like "Promote Homosexuality" is a forced interaction in a non-confrontational way. And it's never hateful. But either you're in or you're out.

This isn't anything you're responsible for, but what if someone sees those words on a person and they are provoked?

I've thought about that too. That's the truth we have to live with — provoking others whether intentional or not, or being provoked. No one makes you put that shirt on. If you do, you're almost taking a liability. But I also know as queer people, to live with fear to the point of being held back, that's also not OK. To see all the people that have come before us and what they did and what they put on the line and we're scared? We're acting in fear? That's not a cute look for us, and it's boring.

What's next?

Someone came up to me and said, "You could sell every single one of the garments as is off the runway." To get that enthusiasm and that much of a moment, is the sweet spot I've always wanted to manifest.

You also gave people an idea.

Yes, I presented a lot of ideas on that runway. Business-wise, what I really want to do is push the accessories. I want to have all the T-shirts readily available, the whole selection. Accessories are a really good opportunity for people to engage without the discussion of bodies, plus on an economic level, there's no sizing issues. You don't even produce "X" amount in every size. Accessories take a lot less material, which is amazing for repurposing and reusing vintage garments. But it's not a one-off. I don't want to do one-offs, that not my gig. I want to make a wardrobe for queer people by queer people. Take that and all the money goes back into queer people's pockets. That's the dream. I want to support queer people, I want to uplift and employ queer people and straight people, too, obviously. I'm not living in a fantasy universe. You have to have a dream. Mine centers queerness, always.

Runway Photography: Hunter Abrams
Backstage Photography: Eli Schmidt