In the Virgil Abloh era, there’s no longer a single path to becoming a fashion designer. Now that, for better or for worse, anyone with an internet connection can put “Creative Director” in their Instagram bio, the pockets of elitist pearl clutching that greeted Abloh’s appointment to Louis Vuitton seemed divorced from reality. There are still plenty of classically trained Central Saint-Martins grads who represent the next-big-things in fashion; there are just as many outsiders taking advantage of a traditionally exclusive industry’s lowering walls.
Still, who would have guessed that of the ten most noteworthy labels on the latest New York Fashion Week: Men’s schedule, three of them would be helmed by military vets? Abdul Abasi, one-half of the Abasi Rosborough duo, spent eight years in the Army, where he worked on Apache helicopters in the Netherlands. Former Army officer Julian Woodhouse launched Wood House while he was stationed in Seoul. And Kenneth Nicholson started his eponymous brand after a stint aboard a Navy ship in the Persian Gulf. All found their way to fashion shortly after receiving their discharges. And while the military has long set-mimicked sartorial codes, now, a handful of brands—like Dan Snyder’s casual-wear brand Corridor, and Marcel Ames’ tailored clothing label X of Pentacles—have also unexpectedly emerged from the decidedly un-sartorial, un-cool (sorry and thank you for your service) halls of America’s intelligence services and police academies.
It’s hard to avoid the fact that most functions of our nation’s sprawling security apparatus—military imperialism, state surveillance, the carceral state—could not be, uh, less on trend. But these institutions have become strangely effective incubators of some major menswear talent.
While this has actually run in parallel with the tactical-luxury trend currently dominating high fashion, that’s not what Nicholson, Snyder, and Ames are after. After handing in their fatigues, guns and badges, these designers seem content to leave the paramilitary references behind for the civilian fashion corps. They’re instead embracing softness, casualness, and even femininity—challenging the very idea of what a Army Man or ex-cop can be.
Take Kenneth Nicholson, who outed himself as an aspiring designer on one of his first days of Navy bootcamp in 2012. “I was sitting in an orientation session where a sailor was asking recruits what their goal was when they signed up,” Nicholson says. “Completely knowing that what I was about to do was going to be looked at weirdly, I raised my hand, and he asked me why I joined the Navy. I said, ‘I want to be one of the best fashion designers in the world.’” The response from the other recruits was not exactly accepting of Nicholson’s vision. “There was a lot of laughter,” he says. But like countless young Americans, Nicholson was stuck in his hometown—Houston—with few prospects beyond military service to get him out.
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He ended up on the USS Bataan, an amphibious assault ship that steamed to the coast of Iraq. Nicholson was an airman responsible for refueling aircraft on the flight deck. Though you wouldn’t know at first glance from his Fall-Winter 2019 runway show—which featured velvet wide-lapel suits, silk brocade tunics, and punchy flared trousers—Nicholson found inspiration during his time at sea. “I was totally enthralled with the meticulousness that was required to get dressed every morning,” he says. “It was a ritual. How you had to tuck your shirt in, how you have to press it a certain way—it was those sorts of periphery details that made the most impact on me.” But after internalizing this sense of sartorial precision, Nicholson found the limits of the sailor’s life. “The Navy really shapes an ideology in you from the ground up,” he says. “I can see the beauty in that, absolutely, but for someone who is striving to be the creator, it’s a practice that one can only endure so much of.” So Nicholson took an honorable discharge after a year at sea and launched his line a few years later, in 2016.
Dan Snyder, on the other hand, didn’t realize he needed to hop off his CIA-bound career path until he had a startup menswear brand staring him in the face. A computer science major in college, Snyder joined the FBI in D.C. around 2009, where, while working on what he jokingly termed “all types of shady shit,” he became incensed by the blousy suits that everyone in D.C. wore. After visiting a tailor to remedy his own situation, he became obsessed with the process, and signed up for a nighttime tailoring class. (One thing the FBI does not teach: sewing.)
His interest in clothes was, he admits, unconventional at the Bureau. “I was definitely the only one doing it,” he says. “D.C. can be particularly stodgy, and any stylistic bent is viewed not as masculine. Especially at the FBI—where masculinity is very important because all these guys are strapped.” While he made shirts for himself and his friends, Snyder decided to attempt to become a CIA agent, and joined a CIA feeder grad school program in Boston. “To basically make money on the side I set up a little tailoring shop in my apartment and would make clothes for other people at night,” he says. “Someone was like: You should turn this into a business.”
So during a summer internship in the NYPD counterterrorism division (“more shady stuff”) Snyder wandered the Garment District trying to find a factory to produce his shirts. With exactly zero contacts in the fashion industry, he says, “I didn’t even have anybody to ask” about where to go. Eventually he found someone who didn’t laugh him out of their sewing shop, and proceeded to pound the pavement in Boston, New York and D.C. to pitch stores on the shirting brand he called Corridor.
But Snyder faced a problem as Corridor slowly got off the ground: having spent all his savings on school, he had no money to start a brand with. So he did what any enterprising fashion designer would do, and got a job with Peter Thiel’s CIA-funded data-analytics firm Palantir. (That’s right: even more shady shit.) “I foolishly brought Corridor up when I was being interviewed at Palantir, and they were like, ‘Is this going to affect your job quality?’ And I was like, no no no, it’s just a small hobby,” Snyder says. “And of course it did.” After that, Snyder kept his side-hustle top secret, but he was aware that his ex-spook colleagues talked about his strange “side hobby.” “I didn’t put it out in the open at all,” Snyder says. “But people knew.” He poured every cent of his substantial Palantir paycheck into the company, and got Corridor’s linen shirts, woven shorts, and chore coats into a few dozen stores. After a few years he was able to work on Corridor full time, and now the brand has a white-brick-walled store on Mott St. and does about $1.5 million in sales. Did his time at intelligence agencies help him figure out how to build a successful brand? “I think tremendously,” he says, citing the years spent doing project management. (So far, Dan says, he has not had to put Palantir’s infamous big data tactics to use to expand Corridor’s business.)
Then there’s Marcel Ames, who, while at the Richmond Police academy, got used to questions like: “Ames, what the fuck is a haberdashery?” The former Paul Stuart employee showed up to cop school wearing 3-roll-2 suits with wide lapels, so everyone knew he nerded out about traditional menswear during his spare time. During training, Ames says, a rules violation would lead to the entire class of recruits getting “smoked.” Sometimes that meant the class would have to write redundant essays as punishment; his focused on the sartorial arts, leading to mocking questions from his superiors. “But law enforcement was going to be my career,” Ames says. “I’ve never been a risk taker. I was more fearful of turning something I loved into a career than getting killed on the street as a cop.”
Ames, a born-and-bred Richmonder, joined the police academy after his father urged him to give it a shot. The opportunity to give back to his community was hard to pass up, he says. The academy was shock to the system—a “total paramilitary environment,” Ames recalls—but after a few weeks of grueling training and hazing he had resolved to make it out with a badge pinned on his chest. Then, two months shy from graduating to the police force, he was forced to drop out due to an untreated concussion he received during ground fighting sessions. Shortly after, his father unexpectedly died, and the place they shared went into foreclosure.
Unable to rejoin the police academy, Ames realized that his only way out was to follow his dream of becoming a designer. “I reached the point where I stopped giving a fuck,” Ames says. “When everything is taken from you, you stop caring.” While recovering from his concussion and subsequent PTSD, Ames taught himself how to do flat sketches and CAD renderings. Though he couldn’t drive and dealt with horrible migraines, teaching himself graphic design and studying menswear collections was nothing short of a lifesaving creative outlet. In 2016 he launched a small collection of jaunty made-in-Italy ties and scarves, which he dubbed X of Pentacles. He’s since added a custom Neapolitan tailoring program that outfits clients in dandy double-breasted suits, and is working on building brand recognition beyond Richmond. “The mentality we had [at the academy] was that the simplest mistake could mean life or death when you went to the street,” he says. “Obviously, in the menswear industry I’m not going to die or get shot, but there are so many decisions you have to make that can make or break your image, especially as a young brand. So I appreciate those hard lessons I learned.”
Is a full-blown fashion insurgency brewing among our nation’s protectors, enforcers, and spies? Well, not really. In the grand scheme of the fashion industry, these labels are small. And it would be tough to find a field that hasn’t absorbed a significant numbers of troops and security personnel seventeen years after 9/11. But there was a time not so long ago when a military man-turned-self made designer would seem even more surprising. It’s a testament to our changing notions of masculinity that the most traditionally male spaces in our society attract men who are comfortable with being into fashion.
Guys like Nicholson, Snyder, and Ames certainly remain a small minority, and by no means are these spaces uniformly hospitable to anyone who deviates from normative behavior. But their unconventional routes into the fashion industry hardened their resolve to do what they actually wanted to do. “Initially, I wanted to become an assistant designer,” says Ames. “I met with several people and heard the same thing: you don’t have the formal training. But what I did have? I was an enthusiast...Even when companies were like, we can’t hire you, I said: screw it. I’m just going to do it.”
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