Meet Phlemuns, The “More-Than-Denim” Designer Stamped In Pop History

If you live in LA and keep up with your up-and-coming talent, you’ve heard the name Phlemuns, or maybe you’ve met the man behind the name himself, James Flemons. Yes, with an “F”. In just under two years, James has become the one-stop-shop for denim for everyone in LA, from Miley Cyrus to Rita Ora, and now he’s stepped into an entirely new ball game. With a spring collection inspired by the most unexpected, and often, dreaded, fashion moments of the early twenty-first century, in a way you would never think to guess, Phlemuns is set to show in Paris for the first time ever this month. After working with James for about a year, I had still never traveled to James’s home studio, where every single piece is put together, first cut to last stitch, all under one man’s incredibly tasteful eye. I came for an intimate first look at the innovative new collection, just before the madness.

It’s kind of my way of giving back because the fashion industry does so much damage to the economy. It’s my way of feeling better about what I’m doing.

James, you’re still an entirely one man show, how the hell do you handle all of it?

JF: It’s still just me, running around, doing everything from designing to dropping off stuff to stylists so it’s been just really hectic and crazy. Totally enjoyable though because I love doing this.

But now you really have all your time to work on the clothes, this is your full-time job now. 

It’s has been cool because with the last collection it was just as soon as I got off work I would come home and start working on stuff.

I remember you would like come into work and you would just be a zombie. You could tell you had maybe one hour of sleep, if any sleep at all.

I didn’t get to go to the fullest extent that I wanted to, so the timing was kind of perfect for leaving my job and now I can really devote all my time to doing this. I think last time I narrowed everything down and I did maybe 20 pieces, maybe less. This time I’ve actually had the time to aim for about 40-50 pieces.

Oh wow, for the new collection?

Yes, for spring.

It all kind of started with denim though. 

It started as me buying denim and cutting jeans apart and then altering the denim and re-piecing them together so I would just use the scraps. Now I just buy them to cut them up because theres such an abundance of denim. It’s kind of my way of giving back because the fashion industry does so much damage to the economy. It’s my way of feeling better about what I’m doing.

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Where everything begins.

It’s true, they waste so much money and then it doesn’t even go anywhere half the time, but you really are making clothes that people are going to wear forever.

Or it’s just something that people are going to want to hold on to forever, they don’t ever want to get rid of it. That’s definitely a philosophy engrained in the way that I make clothes.

So for the new collection are you doing a lot of non-denim pieces?

It’s funny because I kind of got coined as this “denim” designer when it was just something that I was doing, I hated denim before I started working with it, like, I started working with denim because I wanted to find a new way to recreate it and make into something that I would like. Then people were really interested in my denim pieces so it kind of just took off. But a majority of the new collection is “non-denim” pieces.

Well even in the first collection you had the little jersey crop tops with the cut-outs, and the two-peice jersey sets that did really well and those got a lot of editorial recognition.

Well the denim stuff, I’ve stuck with it, every collection will have an element of it, at least until I decide to stop doing it. Every collection has at least 4-5 denim pieces in it. But I’ve been kind of hesitant on it too because now denim has become such a craze. You have no idea how many artists contact me for denim stuff because they’re shooting videos and the whole concept of it is just “denim” and it’s all separate artists with different creative teams but everything is denim crazy right now.

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A silk top and matching choker from the Spring collection. Photo courtesy of Phlemuns Instagram.

You share a lot on your Instagram, has social media been something that has sort of helped grow your brand?

It’s so funny the amount of people who @ me or tag me on Instagram pictures with denim, like, anything with denim. They’ll tag me and say “Oh this reminds me of Phlemuns” or they’ll just tag me and not say anything and I’m just like “Okay, denim.”

You’re over here like “I didn’t invent denim. I just did something with it.”

I mean, I guess, I’m doing something that stands out with it so it’s positive reassurance.

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A cargo corset and denim jacket from Phlemuns Spring collection.

But with the spring collection, what’s the idea or the inspiration behind it?

It doesn’t necessarily have a direct representation of this when you look at the collection, but my inspiration behind it was the VMA’s in the early 2000’s, when everything was a bit tacky, kind of crazy. When everything out there was a little more exaggerated, and I hate saying that cliche “fashion is fun” but things were a bit more fun and not so demure and oversized and sleek.

When Pink, Mia, Christina Aguilera and Lil Kim did Moulin Rouge, every element is taken from that video. Lil Kim’s weave had this leather strip in it, sewn together with grommets, Christina Aguilera had frayed denim pants on, Pink had these cargo pants on with cargo pockets and Mia is where the sporty black nylon came in.

Or it wasn’t like now where it feels more when people try to do something fun it feels more like they’re doing it to get noticed.

Exactly, where now it’s too extreme or it’s almost too tacky. But this is kind of a balance of those two ideas. I’m calling it ‘2003’ because a lot of my reference images were from 2003, unintentionally. I was just pulling stuff off tumblr or even runway images and music videos I was watching, they were all from that year.

A majority of the people in the world hated that era of clothing so I’m going back to that time in fashion and bringing it into the present and making it a bit more tangible and not so tacky.

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With Phlemuns, there’s always this element that makes your pieces “Phlemuns” pieces, what’s the catch this time?

It’s supposed to be kind of interchangeable clothing, or clothing-within-clothing. Transformable clothing. Like cargo pants with detachable pockets, or a majority of the pieces have an element that is interchangeable, or that you can remove, so you can wear them a bunch of different ways.

To be honest, I don’t take care of any of my clothes. I throw them around so I kind of make my clothes to live by that, too.

How do you plan on styling the lookbook?

For all my collections I’ve done all the styling so for the next lookbook I’m collaborating with my friend Imogen Baron, who is a stylist and photographer, and she’s taking that role on. I’ve always wanted to see someone else’s take on my clothes so I’m really leaving that one up to her.

The whole collection is so different from everything else youve ever done.

All my collections have been kind of rushed and this is the first time Ive really been able to branch out and do exactly what I want to experiment with. It’s still me, it’s just more elevated. My last collections were very much more menswear focused, where this is much more women’s pieces.

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A silk jacket sewn with grommets for the Spring collection.

This one is really a big breakthrough for you though because before you were mainly just using denim and cotton and jersey and then suedes and corduroys. This is also the first time you’ve used a lot of color.

Color kind of scared me for a long time so I stayed away from it for a while and then when I found this grainy silk in the teal color, I had to start using it. I worked on the Hercules and Love Affairs music video assisting Bernhard Wilhelm on making costumes and we worked with this silk in these colors and I knew I wanted to use it in my next collection. It’s kind of ethnic, kind of pretty, but it’s still grainy and rugged.

You don’t have to really take care of it, I like easy clothes. To be honest, I don’t take care of any of my clothes. I throw them around so I kind of make my clothes to live by that, too. Like this is nice and expensive fabric, but you can throw it in a bag and it can crumple up and you can just wear it.

When you went to FIDM (The Fashion Institute of Design and Merchandising), you didn’t study fashion design right?

No, I went and had my admissions meeting and I was going to go for Fashion Design and they suggested that since I seemed pretty smart that there was also Product Development, which is half business, half fashion. You could really learn both sides of the game pretty much and they kind of swayed me into choosing that route. I really enjoyed college though, I loved it actually.

Do you wish you would have gone for Fashion Design?

I do wish that I would have gone for Fashioned Design because there is so much you miss out on. Like so much of the stuff in this collection, the hand work, it’s the first time I’ve ever done it because I just taught myself, or used youtube tutorials, haha.

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The first denim re-purposed piece James ever made.

When did you start sewing?

I started sewing in college. In 2009 was when I first learned to sew, and I was terrible. Like, always the last person to finish in the class. I was so bad at it. I’m such a perfectionist that being bad at it made me hate it, I didn’t sew again for 3 years. Thats when I started buying denim, and just messing with it. That’s what got me better at sewing.

But you feel differently now, of course.

I love it now, it’s such a gratifying experience to see nothing turn into something. Or see a piece of denim be turned into something entirely different.

The stuff I’ve made recently, it’s so cool stepping back and being like “I made that. I sewed that I designed it, I made it come together.”

When you were at FIDM did you know you wanted to do a collection, like you knew you wanted to be a designer?

I’ve always known, since elementary school, I wanted to be a designer. I have a binder of hundreds of sketches from elementary and middle school

I got a scholarship, and I wasn’t going to pass that up. They gave me a bigger scholarship, actually because they saw me as an “investment” and they wanted their name attached to whatever my career blew up into.

What was your first big gig?

Rita Ora actually wore my shorts. I was designing a pair or shorts for a friend and I posted them on Instagram and then my friend who’s a stylist texted me and said she wanted them for Rita Ora for a magazine spread. So I made her a pair of shorts with a matching jacket, and a pair of pants. The pants are in her cover spread of Hundreds Magazine.

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Rita Ora for Hundreds Magazine wearing Phlemuns denim and suede pants.

And then you had Miley wear your pieces too, I remember that.

Yeah they were looking for LA-based, kind of underground, up-and-coming designers and then asked for some custom pieces. Being on a big name like that brought a lot of attention, a lot more people started to recognize my work. It was definitely a turning point in the direction I started to go.

That was used in the Bangerz album art too which was huge.

Yeah, it’s kind of stamped in pop history forever.

Has your family always known you want to be a designer?

Oh yeah, it’s always been in the family as that known fact, everyone in all my schools, my teachers, all knew. I was the kid who designed clothes. I think it was second grade that I started sketching and drawing stuff. My mom actually sews and she made all her clothes throughout high school and when I was a kid she started doing more home decor things. We always talked about teaching me to sew but I guess I was just more interested in drawing back then. I didn’t have the urge to sew. And part of me wishes I did want to learn but at the same time, you never know the routes that you take. It may have taken me in a different direction and I might have had a completely different style if I started sewing in elementary school.

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James’s personal style has a quirky personality to match his own.

And designing has always been the only option, you’ve never thought about doing anything else?

I’ve always known what I waned to do. I’ve had moments of doubt cause probably around 2005-07, there was this craze where everyone wanted to be a fashion designer, even all the celebrities started doing it and there was a question of “was there anything that made my stuff distinctive or special?” But everything people have said and the confirmation they’ve given me has been amazing, but at the end of the day I do it for myself.

Looking at your first collection to now, and that was only 2014, that growth was in only two years or less. And now you’re in this whole other ball game.

The stuff I’ve made recently, it’s so cool stepping back and being like “I made that. I sewed that I designed it, I made it come together.”

Interview and all original photos by Erika Flynn.

 

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