James Flemons doesn’t like to talk much about himself. He’s laid-back, charming, and incredibly personable— attributes that are noticeably translated into his brand, Phlemuns. As a talented designer and stylist who’s previously worked with Solange, Jaden Smith, and Kali Uchis, among others, his talent often speaks on his behalf. Yet, behind his wardrobe and transformative clothing line, James Flemons is an easygoing individual who clearly feels comfortable in his own skin. Against the backdrop of speeding cars and sirens flooding in from los callejones in downtown LA, James Flemons stripped down to the beginnings of his aesthetic. We had the chance talk to him about his gender-defying looks and his definition of perfection.
Tell me a little bit about yourself.
I’m an LA-based designer of my brand Phlemuns and I also do some styling.
What was your favorite article of clothing as a child?
Probably the first pair of cowboy boots I had. My mom, to this day, still talks about how they were raggedy and busted and I’d still be flip flopping around wearing them.
What’s the most cringe-worthy fashion trend?
They’re not as prevalent now, but the one that still bugs me are the Compton fitted hats.
When did you first know that you wanted to get into the fashion scene?
When I was in elementary school, I didn’t really know much about fashion. Then my sister got a Barbie design kit and I was drawing all the time so when she got that, I started using the body stencils to draw clothes on them and whatnot. It’s sort of always been something I knew I wanted to do since I was a kid.
How do you think growing up in LA shaped your practice?
I think growing up in LA had a big influence on my outlook as a designer and being a designer because, when you’re interested in clothing and whatnot, you automatically, well in America, think of New York and that lifestyle within fashion. I’ve always appreciated that, but I’ve been interested in my outlook from being in LA where it’s not such a heavily, predominant thing as it is in New York. Here, it’s a bit more laid back and people kind of just gravitate more to what they feel genuinely and I think that’s had an effect on the casual, everyday element that comes with my clothing. I think LA has its own fashion sense, it’s just perceived differently. It’s just like a bit more personal and laid back and not so much in-your-face like trying to put out a Look. It’s more, “This is what I like, this is what i’m gonna wear.” So yeah, LA has definitely rubbed off on my design aesthetic I guess.
How do you try to transfer gender fluidity to your clothing?
It came about from me growing up and shopping at thrift stores. There isn’t— I mean there’s kind of like a “Men’s” section and a “Women’s” section— but everything gets kind of mixed up together and you end up with pieces that you wouldn’t have expected if you were like in a department store or something. So then I started trying on women’s clothing and seeing how it just kind of fit me better and tailored my body more and I was just like, “who cares if this is a women’s garment? I like it and I like the way it looks on me.” So that kind of translated into the way I started designing clothes and I kind of based everything off of women’s wear. Then it translated to like, “how can a guy find this garment interesting and still feel comfortable?” So this kind of back-and-forth, fluid thing and not really designing for a guy or a girl, just like, “how can this work for anybody?”
What is your definition of perfection?
I guess my definition of perfection is self-gratification. I guess I say that because I’m very much a perfectionist and I realize I have a much more critical eye than people who may be looking, in terms of my work, and it’s just like, no one will really care about the things that I’m so particular about. Perfection is like kind of satisfying myself, like these things that I see important to my eye and what makes me happy or what I want to present and whatnot.
When do you know a piece is finished?
It’s kind of hard. I mean, some pieces that are finished, well I guess… I know a piece is finished when… I don’t always know when a piece is finished. Some of the pieces that I have finished still are not technically finished, they can be developed more. I guess just when I have all the elements of my sketch then it’s like, “alright, i can stop now.”
Do you draw all of your designs before making them?
It depends. I generally try to do like rough sketches of everything real quick, but sometimes i’ll start on a piece and then after I’ve started it, I’ll sketch it out just to kind of get like a visual of what I’m trying to make but I don’t really sit down and do like a full figure of nice sketches, they’re very much choppy and quick.
What’s your creative process?
My creative process kind of flips back and forth sometimes. Sometimes it’ll start with like, I’ll have an idea for a concept or a theme and then all these sketches will pour out of my head and I’ll draw and draw and draw. Then I’ll see what kind of fabrics in a sense conflict with that. I kind of like things to not really make sense, and then through the design process, they become something that’s understandable. Then, sometimes, I’ll be fabric shopping and I’ll find fabrics that I’m really drawn to and I build designs off of those, so it kind of can shift back and forth. There’s never really a set thing like, “alright, these are like 40 pieces I’m going to make, they’re going to look like this, I’m going to use this fabric.” It’s always kind of like a gradual and continual process. As I’m going, I think of another piece or as I’m going, I think of another fabric to incorporate, so it’s just like a continual process.
I know you’ve worked a lot with denim in the past. What about it attracts you?
I think im attracted to denim so much because it’s a textile that has kind of been a staple and it can be transformed in so many different ways, like whether you bleach it or rip it or fray it or mix and match different tones and washes of denim. It’s a very transformable and durable fabric that can do so many things, especially when it comes to sustainability and recycling. It’s very much something that’s easy to reuse over and over again and recycle. It’s always just like stood out. I’ve never really liked jeans so I kind of wanted to find my way of being interested in the textile and garment and whatnot, so it was kind of like a challenge to myself when I first started working with it just to be like, “How can i make this textile or this garment style into something that I want to wear?”
When did you finally realize you were making a statement in the fashion world?
Hmm, I guess I realized when I was making one-off’s at home and posting them on Instagram and seeing the reaction that they were getting from people. And then like friends were wanting to buy them and then stylists were wanting to pull things and then I was starting to get custom orders and then I was being hired to make things customly. Actually, one of the first really big moments, I think it was the third Hunger Games, they reached out to me to do costuming for the movie and I was just like, “Okay, this is kind of crazy, a movie is reaching out to me to do wardrobe.” It didn’t end up happening because they changed the direction for the wardrobe, but it was kind of a big sign of like, “Wow, there are people in the industry, not just in fashion but in film, that are really interested in what I’m doing.” That was around the time that I was like, “Alright, I’m going to put an actual brand together with a name, collection, and kind of have this identity. That was around 2013. So yeah, kind of like a big light bulb turning on
How has the internet played a role in your practice?
Instagram has been, in a sense, the biggest supporter of me as a designer. Being independent and small, I don’t think that I would have the type of exposure and visibility that I do without Instagram, so it’s kind of like a love/hate relationship. But I can’t deny all the good benefits that have come from Instagram because it’s like put me in the success that I’m at today. It played a big role in people even knowing who I am.
What’s your pet peeve?
There’s not that many things that bug me, I’m a pretty passive, easygoing person. Hmm, I hate people not using their turn signals while driving.
What do you try to convey in your work?
There’s so many different variables and extremes within fashion, clothing, and personal style, and I base a lot of what I present off of myself personally. There’s always kind of a struggle to me in finding the bounds between very basic things and then very conceptually-extreme statement making things, and I kind of want to always find the middle ground in those. Like do something that makes a statement but that’s not over-the-top and still feels tangible and comfortable for people to like to approach because I know there are some people who shy away from certain types of fashion. and they think it’s a little too crazy for them. I like to present something that’s a bit like, “Alright, I’m down to test this out” and feel comfortable in it and not feel like the whole world is staring at them. Finding that middle ground for people to feel comfortable in something that could still be considered very fashionable or stylish.
Video: Ginger Q
Text: Itxy Quintanilla
Photos: Angella Choe for Tótem Magazine
Grooming & Styling: Jefferson Tangradi & César Alvare