On Sunday, nearly 15,000 people joined the Brooklyn Liberation: An Action for Black Trans Lives rally and march outside of the Brooklyn Museum in New York. Speakers included the writer Raquel Willis, The Okra Project founder Ianne Fields Stewart, and the family of Layleen Polanco, who addressed the crowd from the museum’s veranda. West Dakota, the performer, was one of the organizers of the event, alongside members of GLITS, the Okra Project, the Marsha P. Johnson Institute, For the Gworls, and Black Trans Femmes in the Arts—and just two days before the march, she was unveiled as the face of Helmut Lang’s new collaboration with rising American designer Willie Norris. In one image promoting the collab, West is perched on stiletto heels on the sidewalk in Brooklyn in head-to-toe denim, latex rabbit ears sticking upwards.
“She inspires me just by existing, and she also happens to be a really good friend,” Norris says over the phone of his muse, who is pictured in the campaign alongside Juku, another performer. The photograph, by Lia Clay, is a stop-you-in-your-tracks proposition, the kind of capital-F Fashion capital-P picture that lingers in your mind and your heart. “It sounds so corny,” Norris says with a laugh, “but it spoke to why I wanted to work in fashion in the first place. The goal was, honestly, let’s indulge in queer childhood fantasy when we were in our bedrooms. West was like, ‘I wanted to be the supermodel’ when she was a kid, Leah wanted to be a photographer, I wanted to be a designer.” It’s exactly this—the gratification of being seen as who you are and who you want to be—that makes fashion a transcendent medium for so many of us.West Dakota in Willie Norris's “Confess Conceal” tee, made in collaboration with Helmut LangPhoto: Lia Clay / Courtesy of Helmut LangNorris's take on Helmut Lang's iconic trucker jacket comes with a message printed on its backPhoto: Lia Clay / Courtesy of Helmut Lang
The photograph is part of a series announcing Norris’s collaboration with Helmut Lang. Using deadstock materials, the Brooklyn-based designer translated his text-based design aesthetic into tees and jeans. “My idea with it was to reference the design language of Helmut Lang. He really introduced this idea of graphic minimalism on clothing.” The collaboration is cleverly called, Helmut Language, with the phrases “Confess Conceal,” “The Words Are Right In Front of You,” and “With Practice You Can Learn Anything,” printed on the right side of jeans or the back of a denim jacket, evoking Lang’s famous three-stripe denim trucker.
If the messages seem right for right now, call it equal parts synergy and the reality that marginalized groups have been fighting for equality through language for generations. “I don’t even read it as words,” Norris admits. “[The trucker jacket] says, ‘The words are right in front of you.’ It's almost like a confrontation.” Both Norris and the Helmut Lang company have made donations to Black Lives Matter tied to this project. In addition, Norris will donate his entire fee to trans organizations, including giving direct grants to Black trans women in New York.Juku wears items from Willie Norris's Helmut Lang collaborationPhoto: Lia Clay / Courtesy of Helmut LangWest Dakota in the Willie Norris Helmut Lang collaborationPhoto: Lia Clay / Courtesy of Helmut Lang
Norris began working with word-based fashion with Susan Cianciolo, the Y2K-era New York designer whose Run collections provided an inspiration to a new generation of American talent. “Working for Susan, I used to stencil words on her clothes all the time. She would just give me a garment to transform and she trusted me with it,” the designer says. “That's where I understood that texts could be applied to clothes without being overtly promotional of [an item] or that you could promote an idea.”
He continues: “I think what the world is really craving right now is simple, effective honest messaging. When I really decided that I was going to make that a part of my work, I began looking at old protest posters from Act Up. That’s where ‘Promote Homosexuality’ is from, an image from Act Up.”A model wears Norris's “Promote Homosexuality” shirt at the designer's show last summerPhoto: Eli Schmidt / Courtesy of Willie Norris
“Promote Homosexuality” was the phrase Norris began printing on tees in his early career that have since become a symbol of queer identity in fashion and in pop culture at large. “What I am really realizing is I have a genuine interest in de-centering the conversation [around fashion] and making it less monolithic. I have a real passion for creating systems that people can work themselves into and that they can also take from me and use to channel their own voice,” he continues. Understand his work for Helmut Lang, then, as an invitation for more voices to join the chorus of fashion. It’s not a slogan tee for the sake of sloganeering, it’s a message you can read, debate, interpret, and carry like a guiding light.
On his Instagram, Norris has also been posting a daily matrix of actions to take, sorting them into categories: do now, schedule, delegate, and delete. He crafted white tees that read “Black Trans Lives Matter” using vintage shirts collected in New York for demonstrators at the Black Trans Liberation march yesterday. Thinking about his brand and business in the broadest sense, Norris says, “It kind of falls under this idea of queer entrepreneurship as a form of defense, because that’s what I really think my business is doing: It’s defending people and it’s defending my ideas. It’s giving people a dumb t-shirt that they can put on and feel that they have a piece of armor on. All t-shirt is, is a stand-in for what they know and are doing in the world,” he pauses. “I’m a vehicle for getting this message out.”
In a time when fashion consumers are questioning the brands they love, searching for leaders, and rethinking what it means to buy something sustainable and ethical, Norris’s work provides a compelling alternative to the conservative status quo. Leaders don’t have to be impermeable corporations, they can be people who do the work close to home. “I'm just searching for joy always,” he says. That joy, and the sharing of it, what makes fashion a community worth being a part of.