It’s London Fashion Week, and I’m in a car with a group of editors en route to our next show when the press release hits our inboxes. Luxury fashion conglomerate LVMH has released the names of 23 young labels shortlisted for its (very, very fancy) LVMH Prize. “There’s a Canadian on the list!” one of the other editors says, nudging me with a Prada-clad elbow. “Really?” I scan the email but don’t see any recognizable Canucks. Instead: “Vejas, by Vejas Kruszewski (Canadian designer, based in Toronto).” Cue my slow blink and furrowed brow. Who???
In my defence, no one in the Canadian fashion biz had heard of Vejas before that announcement. A preliminary Google search turned up only a handful of year-old reviews and a cryptic website with some lookbook photos and a couple (literally two) pieces for sale. Still, it was enough to get me legitimately stoked. Kruszewski was doing something I hadn’t seen yet on the Canadian fashion scene—street-wear staples reworked and elevated from everyday basics to seriously desirable, seriously now fashion for early adopters. Military bombers deconstructed and reinterpreted as pants, a skirt or a backpack; sweatshirts cut from thick Italian jersey then cropped and given exaggerated shoulders and sleeves; jeans reimagined as a kind of moto-flight hybrid pant via next-level tailoring. Kruszewski was making some of the most surprising, exciting, freshest gear to emerge from Canada in a very long time. How did I not know about this guy? And where did he come from?
Three weeks after London Fashion Week, I meet Kruszewski and his business partner, Saam Emme, in their tiny Chinatown studio in Toronto. By this time, LVMH has narrowed its shortlist down to just eight and Vejas is still on the ballot. “Let’s start from the beginning,” I say, pulling out my notepad. Kruszewski tells me about growing up in Montreal and making his own clothes in high school (“it started out as an experiment—I wanted to see if I could do it”), teaching himself to sew by studying Japanese homemaker magazines (“I made a lot of tea cozies and placemats”), looking inside Céline shirts and Balenciaga jackets to see how they were constructed (“window shopping”) and working part time at a mom-and-pop garment factory in the summer (“I once spent an entire day sewing collars onto nurses’ uniforms”). After graduation, Kruszewski decided he was done with the whole school thing (this went over surprisingly well with his academic parents: one has a PhD in computer science, the other in bioethics) and moved to Toronto in pursuit of “something a little more concrete”—his own label. Four months later, he packed up his 25-piece collection, flew to New York and debuted his line at a tiny gallery in Chelsea to mostly friends and friends of friends. “That was fall-winter ’15,” he tells me. I’m about to scribble that down when my pen stops mid-stroke. “Wait a second…fall-winter ’15?” I pause. Spring ’16 just hit stores last month. “So, literally one minute ago?” I’m only half-joking. He nods, “Yeah…,” and Emme lets out a laugh, “this is our third season!” I look at my notes and then back at Kruszewski: small in frame, boyish features, a little shy. “How old are you?!” I blurt out.
As it turns out, Kruszewski is 19—the youngest designer ever to be nominated for the LVMH Prize. Up until two years ago, he was still in high school (this explains why no one had heard of him before now). His tales of learning to sew and making tea cozies? Three years ago. And with just one year under its belt at the time of application, Vejas is the youngest label ever to be considered for the LVMH. Fellow finalist Facetasm has been in business for almost 10 years and has a flagship in Tokyo; Y/Project is one of the hottest tickets at Paris Fashion Week right now; and Matthew Williams of Alyx is Kanye West’s former creative director and shot with Nick Knight for his fall ’15 lookbook. “Pretty much all the other brands have some kind of funding and infrastructure in place,” says Kruszewski. “We’re definitely the most underdeveloped business compared to everyone else.” Still, Kruszewski has some noteworthy cheerleaders behind him. It was Ben Perreira, fashion editor of CR Fashion Book (they met at a deskside) and Julie Gilhart, former fashion director at Barneys and big-time supporter of young designers (she randomly reached out after discovering him online), who encouraged him to apply for the prize at the very last moment. And apparently there are others within the LVMH organization shining a light his way as well. “I was showing this one guy the collection, and he was like, ‘They told me to come see you if I only had time for one,’” says Emme. “He gave me his card, and I looked down and he was the CEO of Chloé. So, I dunno, maybe we have a chance!”
Further cred comes via Kruszewski’s squad of equally on-the-come-up pals and collaborators, from hot-right-now trans model Hari Nef, who appears in Vejas’s fall ’16 lookbook, to stylist Marcus Cuffie, whose work appears regularly in cult art mag The Editorial Magazine, to Matt Holmes, who Kruszewski describes as a “multi-hyphenate-photographer-stylist-student-muse” and who recently styled mega-producer Metro Boomin for The Fader’s April-May cover. When I ask how he met these friends, his response is “on the Internet,” by which he means Tumblr, Instagram and Facebook. “Meeting people online is very nebulous these days,” he explains. “It’s like, ‘Oh, you look cool—let’s hang out.’” As it turns out, even Emme (a former stylist, model booker and buyer from Edmonton) started out as an Internet friend (“we met on Tumblr”) before she moved to Toronto in October 2015 and ending up accidentally joining the company. “I was staying with Vejas at the time and followed him to work one day,” she says. “I walked in, looked around and was like, ‘This is a mess—you need my help,’ and pretty much never stopped coming in.”
Kruszewski’s inexperience and post-millennial approach only add to the appeal of his meticulously crafted garments and ability to imbue the most utilitarian of pieces with haute cool factor. The old formula of fashion school, plus internship, plus work under so-and-so designer at such-and-such a brand suddenly seems utterly predictable. Kruszewski sees fashion differently, and in an industry where the young and new rule, what could be more exciting than a 19-year-old self-taught wunderkind?
And while Kruszewski’s path may seem as accidental as the way he befriended his online crew, it’s actually the most organic and charming rise to success I’ve ever come across.
These days, between prepping for the LVMH final in Paris (the candidates will pitch their businesses to a jury of LVMH designers, including Karl Lagerfeld, Nicolas Ghesquière, Marc Jacobs and Phoebe Philo; the winner will be announced June 16), filling orders (Simons and Nordstrom are new stockists for fall) and managing interview requests, Kruszewski is too busy IRL to spend much time on Facebook anymore. “I was definitely searching for like-minded people at the time, but I feel like I’ve found that now,” he says. “In high school it was about using the Internet to explore my identity and construct my own reality—I don’t need that fantasy anymore. I have the brand now. I can just create it.”