On a hot and starry Tuesday night in Harlem, the show began with birdsong. Specifically, “The Birds Belong to All of Us” by Pulitzer Prize-winning sound artist Ellen Reid, its avian trills accompanying the debut collection by designer Johnathan Hayden (M.F.A., fashion, 2016). As the models walked, the clothes seemed to sing in conversation with the music.
A sleeveless mini-dress, an acrylic-domed cloche hat, a dark blue belted trench coat with golden butterfly lapel pin; together in motion, the vision of the garments cohered. “As my debut, there’s a lot of emotion behind these garments, and the collection is almost a wish-you-were-here postcard,” Hayden explained. Sponsored by Harlem’s Fashion Row and part of New York Fashion Week 2021, the outdoor runway show represents a major moment in the SCAD alumni’s burgeoning career.
Hayden’s commitment to collaboration is a sensibility he developed at SCAD. “As a graduate student, I worked with motion graphics students to make short films that opened up a whole realm of possibility I never thought possible, where my interests in fashion and animation and user experience and my background in music all came together in one. It was a tipping point for me.” (The project led Hayden to create a dress included in the “Manus x Machina” exhibition at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in 2016.)
Hayden’s cultural fluency is indivisible from his intellectual worldview and his kaleidoscopic creativity. In conversation, he flows from a soliloquy on Stravinsky to a detailed discourse on the history of labor practices in Manhattan’s garment district. He is well positioned to be an industry sensation because he’s already put in the work that deserves the attention.
“I’ve gone through life with people putting me in boxes of how they perceive me,” says the mixed-race son of a military family from a small town outside Dallas, Texas. “I’ve never been enough for one group. Through merit alone I’ve been able to get accepted.”
While still a SCAD student, Hayden interned at Badgley Mischka (“I became their first paid intern, which turned into an apprenticeship”). After graduating, he ran Parsons’ design for disability education program, “and I was working retail for a sustainable brand, and making samples of my own stuff.” Hayden was building relationships, being patient, knowing his moment to show his first full collection would come. This week it did.
“Now I’m hoping we see a large order and the beginning of a retail relationship and expanding clientele,” he says. “As a practical philosophy, I only want to show one collection a year, and slow down our consumption of fashion, give the audience something to savor. We can still align with the retail calendar, but I think the future is making people excited to see what we’ve been working on for a full year. That gives my collaborators time to really be inspired and develop ideas as well.”
He originally heard his collaborator Ellen Reid on an NPR segment about her SOUNDWALK app. Reid’s “The Birds Belong to All of Us” was first composed to soundtrack The Ramble in Central Park, a place made infamous during an altercation last year between a bird watcher and a dog walker. After Reid and Hayden met, the composer created a special extended version of the piece specifically for the runway. “The context of Ellen’s song is how my show opens,” says Hayden. “I thought it was a really effective way to acknowledge the year we went through, and also to give it a hopeful tint.”
And the birds did sing.
Written by Peter Relic.