When Rihanna performed “Work” last night at the VMAs—her second of four greatest hits medleys throughout the evening—the sheer number of people grinding and winding onstage alongside her was staggering. If you’re able to take a step back from the spectacle of it all, your mind reels from the logistics alone: How did RiRi’s team manage to wrangle all of those dancers, with all of those dance moves, into all of those costumes? It turns out the extensive wardrobe, at least, was a group effort throughout the evening, led by the singer’s long-time stylist Mel Ottenberg and wardrobe designer Mindy Le Brock—with an assist from emerging L.A.-based designer James Flemons.
Flemons, 27, is the founder and designer behind Phlemuns, an androgynous, envelope-pushing label that’s been worn by everyone from Kelela to Solange, to Dev Hynes and Miley Cyrus. Now, thanks to his friendship with Le Brock, he can add Rihanna’s onstage entourage to the expanding list of influential movers and twerkers he’s had a hand in dressing. At Le Brock's invitation, Flemons assisted her in creating looks for dancers, the orchestra, and a custom dress for Rihanna's backup singers across each of her VMA performances. “Rihanna’s really dope, she has amazing style, and she’s such a badass,” Flemons tells Complex, noting that she manages to look amazing in everything she wears. “It’s kind of crazy how she possesses that magic.”
For Flemons, the opportunity to see his talents onstage at the Video Music Awards represented a full-circle moment. Watching iconic clips on MTV was one of the main reasons he got into fashion design. “I have a lot of older sisters, and they’d always be watching music videos,” he says. “That planted the seed in my interest in clothing and style.” He cites Kelis and Andre 3000 as particularly informative to his point of view, and, like many creative types who came of age in the ‘90s and early 2000s, he has a soft spot for the Princess of R&B. “Aaliyah was always one of my favorite artists,” he says. “Her style was very impactful. It was different from a lot of other artists, without it being really extreme. She had this simplicity that I always gravitated towards. ‘More Than a Woman,’ ‘We Need a Resolution’—stylistically, these videos stood out to me.”
Andre and Aaliyah in particular had an occasional flair for androgynous dressing that has made its way into Flemons’ deconstructed denim, retro-tinged plaids, and mix-and-match patterns for Phlemuns. Dressing without regard for gender lines is a concept he sees as more than just the trend du jour. “There’s been this undercover sense of it being there, and it just took time for it to break through to the mainstream world, for people to actually feel like it was ok to associate with it,” he says. “I think there are some figures now that have mainstream popularity that make people feel more comfortable expressing themselves that way. I went through it in high school. I used to feel weird wearing purple Converse to school, because the color purple back then was so heavily associated with girls. And then Cam’ron came out wearing pink furs and stuff, and it became more acceptable.”
Now, Flemons is hoping to help others ease into staying stylistically true to themselves, like Cam’ron did for him. “The whole idea I have for my clothes is bringing really conceptual ideas and making them more tangible for anybody to wear,” he explains. “I’ve always felt like I was an outcast. I never was the popular kid. I feel like fashion is an industry that excludes a lot of people. I’ve always wanted to create clothes that didn’t feel like they were intimidating to anyone.”