Meet Willie Norris, the artist who is using queer entrepreneurship as a means of defense.

Meet Willie Norris, the artist who is using queer entrepreneurship as a means of defense.

Text: Jack Reilly

Willie Norris is an NYC based designer creating "intentionally and holistically queer" streetwear. Focusing on spreading queerness to elevate himself and his community, he has been working on an upcoming show that is strategically placed on June 13th, right in the middle of Pride month. This line is an inspiration to many in the queer community and making strides in the race to equality, practicing queer creation as a way to combat the marginalization of many sexualities and gender identities.

The in-your-face designs feature a series of t-shirts that say things like “PROMOTE HOMOSEXUALITY” and “INCITE QUEERNESS,” which force you to consider your own identity, and how wearing these extremely blunt t-shirts leads to queer liberation and celebration. The line is inspired by, made for, and produced by LGBTQ+ people. Relying so heavily on the word “queer” and it’s importance to the community, Willie has created a social media campaign leading up to his show, where he has partnered with a network of queer artists to spread awareness and promote pride by supporting one another.

In order to reach his goals, along with the social media campaign, Willie has created a Kickstarter where you can support the success of his show. If you are interested in learning more or supporting the cause, head to his Kickstarter page before May 12th.

VMAN had an interview with Willie discussing why he created this brand and where he hopes to go with it, and he has given us an exclusive look at the work being released during the campaign. Get the first look here, and see what he has to say about it.

When did you start this collection? What inspired you to start it?

I've been doing this for about a year. What it is now in the simplest sense is a line of t-shirts. I know there’s nothing inherently special about having a t-shirt line, but I think t-shirts are super powerful and undervalued as a means of getting your message and propaganda out there. The idea behind it is really this kind of queer propaganda. If you look at my shirts they are very simple, very text-based, almost Russian or soviet union inspired. These are messages that you either are for it or you're not. There's no in between, no vagueness. Since I've been doing this, like every designer, I've had this craving to do a show. I have ten years of design experience so this is something I knew I could do. I wanted to really challenge myself, and I wanted to really challenge the fashion industry too. To really question what this idea of what a queer apparel brand could be. The reason I put it in the middle of June, not during any fashion week, is because this is not for the industry. More than anything it's a way to speak to my community. I put it during pride month very intentionally. Pride is sort of the 30 days of the year where brands will make their pander to the queer coin, and everyone knows it. What it boils down to is, it is one thing to have queer ambassadorship or even a queer CEO, but its another thing to have a completely and holistically queer business. And that's what I want. I want to build it from the ground up, not just place a gay face on top of what I'm doing.

Your line so far has consisted of all of these t-shirts and hoodies, will your show include a bit more? What can we expect to see?

I want to work slowly but intentionally, so I’m presenting a collection of jeans, t-shirts, and leather accessories. You’ll see a lot of denim and a lot of interpretation of what I think denim is and what it can be. Variations of t-shirts and t-shirt forms. Like, what does a t-shirt gown look like? Everyone understands what a t-shirt is and I want to mess that up a little bit. I’m introducing a kind of system of a leather wallet and bag that I'm calling the kit. I'm being hyperfocused on only including those materials. Nothing crazy, nothing techy, all really relatable and understood fabrics. I struggle a lot with saying menswear or womenswear because it seems like such an unnecessary classification, but it does sometimes help, so I like to say I'm doing menswear for all genders.

One thing that really stuck with me about your work is the idea of being intentionally queer. You use the term “queer entrepreneurship as a means of defense.” Can you describe what you mean by that?

That is kind of my brand's mission statement. I know how to make clothes, and I know how to work with fashion as a means of commerce. That being said, I can use that as a way to foster my community and people that identify with what I'm doing. I truly think that is a form of defense. If you're looking at my Instagram or wearing my clothes, you're part of a consumer culture. I want to use that to my advantage. If I'm going to play this game, I'm playing it for my people. I'm playing it as a way to bring up and support queer people. Even saying you're a queer person is kind of a radical thing so queer entrepreneurship that is made for queer people by queer people is a form of interacting and surviving in this world.

Aside from this first show and the interaction with and support of the community, are there any other goals you have for the brand? Where do you want to take it?

I want to practice what I preach. The only way to really do that via what I know is to have a business. The long term goal is to not fall into the trap of being a hyped up young designer who can make amazing runway clothes and then at the end of the day paying the bills by freelancing for someone else. I want to make a full collection of apparel that queer people can buy. That everyone can buy of course, but that is accessible. I want to truly engage with the fashion industry. And when I say that I mean the money behind it. I want to really create a viable business. I want to be like 80s Calvin Klein but queer and with guts.

It’s interesting you say you want to make clothes that everyone can buy. Because right now it is very much made queer for queer. In the future how will you distinguish whats made for queer people and whats made for allies or straight people who want to buy it because it becomes trendy?

That's a super good point. If I have my eyes on something bigger, I obviously have to think about that. It's unrealistic to say that I want to have a big business that is only going to be for one group of people. The way I know how to answer this is: first and foremost I am a product designer. I live for making really identifiable and distinct products. If I can make my version of a Levi’s 501 and sell thousands of them, I want to sell them to whoever wants to buy them. But the way that I can handle that is that my focus will always be on using any money that comes into supporting queer people. So you can buy my products, please do. I want straight people to buy them, I want allies to buy them, I don't want Trump supporters to buy them but that's a different thing.

They’ll start buying them just to burn them.

Exactly. That would honestly be iconic if someone did that. But no, the way I can handle it is that, that's just the nature of the game and open commerce. But I can keep up my message if I continue to use any excess funds or profit to solely benefit queer people. So everyone can support that, but know what you're supporting.

It is definitely tricky, because someone may be buying it for the wrong reason, but at the end of the day they will still technically be supporting the cause, whether they know or not.

And of course, I know I will never be able to have a company that exclusively employs queer people, that just not realistic. And that's not really my goal anyway. My goal is to have core queer values at the core of the business.

Speaking of that, you are doing this campaign working with other queer artists and people. Can you talk about that?

The campaign is called 30 days of gay. The idea behind the campaign is to get a photographer, an artist, someone I love, or just someone who makes good content, to put this t-shirt that I'm making (Promote Homosexuality) through their creative lens and just see what comes out. Its a way for me to collaborate with people, and it's a good way to introduce myself and my brand to a lot of other markets and people that would not necessarily have found me on their own. So yeah, there's a lot that I have been launching. Photos of me, people that I love, I have art that's coming out. I just really want as many people to know about me as humanly possible. If there is someone that could benefit from what I'm doing then I will do whatever I need to do to get myself to them.



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