Nihl Is Challenging Your Preconceived Ideas of Manhood

Nihl Is Challenging Your Preconceived Ideas of Manhood

Designer Neil Grotzinger talks inspiration and his hopes for the future of fashion.

Designer Neil Grotzinger talks inspiration and his hopes for the future of fashion.

Text: Tess Garcia

Anyone who says New York fashion is boring is clearly unfamiliar with Nihl.

In 2017, after stints designing for Prabal Gurung and Diane von Furstenberg, Neil Grotzinger graduated from Parsons’ Master of Fine Arts program with the intent to launch his own line. One year later, the founder and creative director of Nihl has already achieved more than most designers could dream of, seeing his gender-bending pieces featured in the likes of LadyGunn and receiving a semifinalist bid for the 2018 LVMH Prize. Just days ago, the 26-year-old sent his debut post-grad collection, complete with high-slit skirts and beaded jock straps, down the runway at New York Fashion Week Men’s. 

VMAN sat down with the burgeoning creative at PROJECT's annual trade show, where he was featured in their Next in Class program, to discuss his Colorado upbringing, the role of his sexuality in his work, and what inclusivity in fashion means to him. 

Was there a moment when you first realized you wanted to pursue a career in fashion?

I can’t remember a specific moment. I think it was one of those things where I had always been artistically-driven. I always knew that I wanted to do something based around this idea of fine arts, and I kind of applied this idea of fine arts to fashion in the sense that I felt that there was a lot that I had to say when it came to clothing. I was always really interested in fashion through film, not necessarily just what people wore every single day. I was curious about this idea of, like, iconography and archetypical clothing and how characters were developed through fashion. I felt that I had a lot to say in that realm, so that was what kind of drew me to runway fashion, I think, was this idea of using it as a platform for applied arts.

Growing up in Colorado, did you receive any backlash from the people around you for your interest in fashion?

Yes, yeah, definitely. I mean, I think I was definitely the flamboyant one at my high school. I was definitely an outsider, basically, where I grew up, but I also derive so much inspiration from that now, so I think it’s kind of helpful almost to experience that and then go to a place where you are accepted and appreciated for what you do because it gives you something to sort pull from and critique and explore and unpack. It’s sort of like, why is it like this where I’m from and it’s not like this in other parts of the world?

I hear you. I feel like it gives you context. 

Yeah, exactly, so it’s almost nice to have experienced that act of going from one to the other to sort of appreciate it. 

Why the spelling of Nihl?

The spelling, there’s a couple of reasons. I mean, they both kind of link up to one another. It was something that I came up with in college, actually, that was a joke between some of my friends that sort of stuck around. We always used to say that if you want to have a successful fashion brand, it has to be hard to pronounce [laughs], so there’s, like, not a right way to pronounce it. It could be pronounced like “Nil,” “Neil,” “Nile,” however you want to say it. I always just thought that was a funny thing, a funny aspect to fashion, and it also sort of relates back to this idea of nihilism because so much of my brand is about critiquing and participating at the same time. 

I was curious whether the nihilism parallel was intentional.

Yeah, it’s sort of embedded into the name. 

Moving to your work itself, who do you design for? 

I really try to design for myself and for people, I think, who identify with a queer, alternative perspective because I think that is, there’s this whole sort of history within queer culture of appropriating masculine things and subverting masculine things. That was kind of what I wanted to do from the very beginning. I felt that there was so much out there that I really wanted but never had access to, and I think that there are a lot of people out there who probably feel the same way. That’s why when you go to gay clubs or you go to the underground ones, people are decked out in things that they made themselves because they’re like, “This just doesn’t exist anywhere. I have to make it myself.” 

It’s so cool. When designing, whom and what do you look to for inspiration? 

I have dual inspirations. There’s the subversion aspect of it, so there are always the characters I establish. For this last season, I was looking at police officer outfits and naval uniforms and different separates I would find in the Midwest, like khakis and Cabela’s shirts, different things that I think are kind of like the opposite of what I would typically want to wear, or sort of this “masculine uniform” that I can manipulate, but then the manipulation process is totally inspired by queer culture. So it’s like, Mapplethorpe, Richard Gallo, all of these interesting queer performance artists throughout history that manipulate their own things, sort of pulling those mechanisms into my own conversation.

Will you describe your current affiliation with Parsons through PROJECT?

Yeah, so I went to the MFA at Parsons. I graduated a year ago, and now I teach at Parsons, actually.

No way! How awesome. What do you teach?

I teach thesis, actually, thesis collection for fashion design.

I’m not surprised [Grotzinger laughs]. How has your time at Parsons, both as a student and teacher, influenced your work?

I think Parsons really helped me hone in on a voice and a perspective. I went into the MFA with a really strong understanding of these techniques that I had developed. I had always loved embroidery, I had always loved screen printing and all of these things. I was constantly making things for myself outside of work. When I went to Parsons, I knew I had this particular perspective, but it just got more and more specific. The way that they teach there, I think, is very social and very innovative, and I kind of bring that to the classroom, as well, because of the fact that I’ve had this opportunity to have these conversations with people. The philosophy of fashion is very important to the people who work in the MFA at Parsons. 

Would you say your sexuality influences your work?

Definitely. I mean, I think my experiences as a gay person are very different from those of a straight person and I think that that story doesn’t often get woven into certain projects or into different influences that sort of affect our lives in a big way, and clothing is one of those things. Being able to weave that narrative in is important to me. 

When you’re having fittings with models, do they have any particular reactions to your clothes?

Sometimes, yeah. That’s a good question. Some people have an allergic reaction to it, and then some people really like it. Whether or not you’re a queer-identifying person, you can wear clothing, but within the first show we did at Parsons, it was really difficult to find people to wear the more revealing sort of leotard pieces because it was just not something that, even though you’re a model and you’re comfortable showing your skin or being in your own skin, if you don’t feel like you embody that character, then it’s gonna be difficult to wear. There’s an association made and an assumption made, so some people don’t want to fall into that category and that’s also fine. But then, there are also people who are super liberated by it, too, and those are the people that we look for for our runway shows now. We did a lot of casting just via DM, like, “Hey, get off Fire Island, come to our casting” [laughs].

Do you have any proudest career moments so far?

We were just shortlisted for the LVMH Prize.

Congrats!

That was huge, yeah, that was incredible. That was an insane experience. 

How does it feel seeing your designs among the ranks of the old guard on Vogue Runway and alongside other nominees for the LVMH Prize?

It’s insane, like, it’s incredibly validating, I think, to be able to interact with people who I admire so much, and also, just being in LVMH, there were so many people who were in that Prize that year that I was just fascinated with and had always wanted to meet. 

As you said, you just unveiled your first post-grad collection. Congrats on that, too.

Thank you!

What was the inspiration behind this collection in particular?

So this collection was titled Subservient Authorities. It was all about figures of authority, so that’s why I was saying, like, naval officers, people who are in the military, also researching the history of war in general and this idea of war vestments and honors. It was interesting, to me, to look at these ideas of male authority and also reflect on how, technically, so many of these people are public servants or servants to their community, but you don’t really reflect on that aspect of their role. That was something that I was trying to embed into the creative process of unpacking these symbols, this sort of, “How can I make it seem visibly subservient, visibly ephemeral or feminine?”. Because there are so many sort of borderline aspects of these things that we just associate with this thing that could just be so easily tipped onto the other side of the spectrum. 

What designers are you really loving right now?

Recently, I really like Ludovic de Saint Sernin. I think he has his own very interesting perspective on queer identity in fashion. I have always loved Nicolas Ghuesquière. I just think that he’s brilliant. There’s a designer named Sanchez-Kane who is showing in New York that I think is doing interesting work, as well, that just plays with identity in general, not just queer identity. 

Are there any exciting projects on the horizon for you? Or is there anything you’d like to bring up regarding the trajectory of your career?

I mean, I’m just going to keep working on the collection, keep seeing where it goes, trying to push the dialogue forward.

Do you think you’ll keep the overarching theme of subverting masculinity?

Absolutely. There’s always this idea of subverting masculinity, masculine stereotypes, embedded into it. But who knows? It might go into, like, bro culture. It might go into something very ironic. I just feel like there’s so much, when you start to think about it, that is so specific, like golfing culture. There’s so much [laughs] that you could break down. So yeah, we’ll see.

What are your hopes for the future of Nihl?

I hope to see it grow, see a lot of performance artists embodying this sort of identity. There are a lot of people, I think, within music and within art and fashion that I would love to style and would love to dress. 

Like who?

I love Arca. I love Perfume Genius, I’m obsessed with him. I think they have such interesting perspectives and identities and I would just love to be able to be a part of this conversation with all of these people and continue to sort of build on that dialogue. 

What are your hopes for the future of fashion?

I hope that it becomes more inclusive. I hope that it becomes more expansive and the narratives of young designers just continue to get pushed forward and this sort of idea of finding new outlets for people, exploring aspects of human identity within fashion, just grows and grows and grows because I think it’s the most interesting thing happening right now.

Are there any specific narratives that you’d love to see represented more? Or just more inclusivity in general?

I think specificity is important, as well, within this whole conversation because it’s at a stage right now where I think inclusivity is almost trending. People sometimes, I think, try to latch onto it a little bit in a way that isn’t authentic, so the authenticity of inclusivity is important, too. I think the trans narrative isn’t represented enough. I think the narratives of being not only queer, but also being black and queer, being Hispanic and queer, are very specific narratives that certain young designers are very specifically exploring. I think the more specific it gets, the more interesting it gets. The gray area is only gonna be gray for so long unless we start to point out the specifics.

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