In just a few days, ComplexCon will take over the Long Beach Convention Center for the fourth straight year. While many attendees will be eager to get their hands on all of the limited collaborations, Los Angeles also has an impressive crop of up-and-coming designers that should not be overlooked. Warner and Waverly Watkins of Brownstone, Brenda Equihua of Equihua, Zach Kinninger of Basketcase, and Esper of Come Back as a Flower are all young designers establishing a place for themselves in the competitive L.A. fashion market.
All four will be featured at ComplexCon’s Los Angeles “Brands to Watch” installation on the weekend of Nov. 2. We spoke with each of them about how they got their start, what they have planned for Long Beach, and more.
Our fourth annual ComplexCon in Long Beach takes place Nov. 2-3 at the Long Beach Convention & Entertainment Center. For more info and tickets, click here.
Brenda Equihua (Equihua)
Brenda Equihua, who was raised in Santa Barbara, California, says she never had a lot growing up, but because of her mother, she was always surrounded by beautiful things, which were typically sourced from garage sales in Montecito, a tony area nearby.
“My mom always dressed well. She collected jewelry and perfume. We didn’t have money, but we had access to beautiful things because my mom always had them around,” says Equihua. “I also grew up around a lot of yard sales and garage sales, which was an amazing education on luxury and how beautiful things are made.”
Her fascination with craftsmanship and seeing a couple of schoolmates get accepted to Parsons influenced her to apply to the school. She was accepted, majored in fashion design, and received a bachelor’s in fine art. Once she graduated, she pursued eveningwear design and landed jobs at Monique Lhuillier, Tadashi Shoji, and Juan Carlos Obando, which were all based in L.A. Equihua eventually launched her own line of eveningwear in 2016, but her perspective on life and fashion changed once her mother died.
“Being creative was always a form of escape for me, but when my mom passed away, I was like, ‘Damn, I need this now more than I ever needed it.’ So the birth of my brand came from that and knowing I couldn’t work with other people anymore because I would be suppressing a part of me.”
Equihua spent a year journaling her thoughts about everything, and while riding in a van with her family to Six Flags, all of her ideas coalesced. She envisioned making garments from San Marcos blankets, plush blankets that are staples in Mexican households—the blankets used to be made in Aguascalientes, a city in Mexico, in a neighborhood called San Marcos, but once Asian manufacturers began to produce them, they drove the Mexican factory out of business in 2004.
In 2017, Equihua reintroduced her brand with a New Classics collection of hoodies, bomber jackets, and coats constructed from the blankets and made in Los Angeles—she sources the blankets from Asia. Her collection retails from $23 for her furry scrunchies (funchies) to $720 for longer coats.
“For my entire career, I’ve struggled with making beautiful things that are expensive. When you make stuff at that price point, there’s a specific audience and type of customer who comes with that, and I wanted my friends to be able to buy what I make,” says Equihua.
For ComplexCon, Equihua is working with a muralist to recreate a carniceria, or meat shop, in her booth. She will sell her doughnut earrings, bucket hats, and drawstring bags (she likens the accessories, made from pieces of a blanket, to pieces of meat at a butcher shop), along with her signature outerwear. New to the assortment will be product from the next story Equihua wants to tell about the paniolos, or the Hawainn cowboys. In the 1830s, the British gifted the Hawaiins livestock, and because the Paniolos were mostly an oceanic culture, they called for the guidance of the Mexican Vaqueros, which led to the Hawaiian Vaquero culture. Equihua will produce raincoats and other cowboy-inspired pieces.
“I’m excited and very grateful to be a part of this because I know there’s not a lot of women in the space,” says Equihua. “I don’t really see us as a streetwear brand, but I don’t see us as a luxury brand. We’re kind of navigating our own world, but to be accepted into that environment and to be given a platform for that, it’s super, super cool.”—Aria Hughes
Zach Kinninger (Basketcase)
Zach Kinninger started doing design work when he was a freshman in college. At the time, it was mostly because he wanted to get tattoos but felt other artists weren’t able to sketch the artwork the way he’d envisioned them. “They were throwing out concepts for me and I was like, ‘There’s no chance I’ll ever put this on my body,’” he says. So he taught himself how to use Photoshop and Illustrator, and later began making tattoo stencils for other people. “That opened the door to the design world for me,” he says.
By his senior year, that creativity had bled into clothing design, and Kinninger launched Basketcase in August 2017. “I love sneaker culture, collector culture, and I wanted to be able to make something that people thought was as valuable,” he says. “I’ve always wanted to do a brand, and I knew if I didn’t do it now, I was never going to do it.” At first, he was digitally printing T-shirts and casted friends in his lookbooks. It wasn’t until a few months later that he realized people were paying attention.
In December of the same year, Kinninger opened a pop-up shop at a house in Costa Mesa, California, where he’s from and currently still lives. He partnered with a local tattoo artist and designed a stencil line sheet and a few T-shirts. For $50, customers could get tatted and cop a tee. Roughly 200 people stopped by. “Looking back, they were shitty tattoos, man,” Kinninger says, with a laugh. “But that was the first moment where I was like, ‘Holy shit. This might be worth doing.’”
Basketcase is still heavily influenced by tattoos, as well as vintage graphics and clothing. Many of Kinninger’s reference points, for instance, come from tattoo artists that he follows or what he discovers at flea markets. While not all of Kinninger’s designs repurpose vintage garments, he’s printed graphics he’s made (Western imagery, skulls, basketball-inspired art, etc.) on Dickies, jeans, Army physical training shorts, and sweaters he’s sourced from various flea markets and alters himself. “I love vintage,” he says. “I shop at the flea market every weekend. It’s in my blood; my grandma spends every weekend at the swap meet in San Diego. It’s the best moodboard for me. It’s really easy to see the same things over and over again on Instagram and get stuck in this creative box.”
At ComplexCon Long Beach, Basketcase will have new pieces, like a special painter jacket they’ve been developing for some time, as well as a print activation where attendees can customize vintage pieces. “I’m excited. It’s a cool place to first introduce people to the brand,” he says.
Three years ago, Kinninger was simply attending ComplexCon as a consumer—he admits he shot photos at the first ComplexCon Long Beach using a fake press pass—so November will be full circle for the young designer. “I remember the first ComplexCon I went to. I thought it was the coolest thing in the world,” he remembers. “It definitely feels really special and validating to be a part of it now.” —Karizza Sanchez
Esper (Come Back as a Flower)
Although Esper says his work is fueled by Los Angeles, a melting pot of cultures, he has always found solace within nature havens around the city, such as Kenneth Hahn Park, Runyon Canyon, and Malibu Creek.
“I like to go outside of L.A., up to, like, Joshua Tree and Humboldt County,” says Esper. “California is gorgeous. There’s just so much nature, and it’s more inspiring to me than the city.”
A love of nature and the environment is at the very core of Esper’s brand Come Back as a Flower, a young clothing line that he looks to build as America’s first environmentally sustainable luxury house. Esper tells Complex that, as a brand, Come Back as a Flower aims to promote sustainability and Black spiritualism.
The 25-year-old designer says he began experimenting with textiles after dropping out of art school and joining a spiritual commune in Northern California. While Come Back as a Flower is barely a year old, Esper’s hand-tie-dyed recycled cotton T-shirts quickly caught the attention of stylists like Matthew Henson, who copped six for ASAP Rocky.
Aside from using recycled cotton tees, the brand also promotes sustainability by sourcing vintage tees to tie-dye. Come Back as a Flower’s tie-dye pieces, which have been seen on celebrities such as Big Sean, Aleali May, and Duendita, will be available at ComplexCon Long Beach. Esper plans on selling long-sleeve T-shirts and hoodies featuring new graphics and dyes that will range from $150 to $500 and up. The brand’s unique color selection and approach to dying garments make each shirt a unique and worthy buy.
“I went to ComplexCon in 2017 and said, ‘Damn, I want to be here one day.’ So it's really dope to be a part of it now,” says Esper, who is building a nature-inspired booth for the show. He says the brand is currently experimenting with fabrics and plans to bring its sustainable ethos to cut-and-sew next year.
“Our booth is going to be more focused on the experience rather than the product. This brand itself has a really deep narrative, and ComplexCon is going to be one of the first places where we get to tell a bit more about our story” —Lei Takanashi
Warner and Waverly Watkins (Brownstone)
Most people will tell you it’s hard to work with your sibling. But after one conversation with Warner and Waverly Watkins, the twin brothers behind Brownstone, it’s obvious that that isn’t the case here. The two say the brand was actually conceived as a way for them to come together creatively. It started as many brands do, with logos printed on T-shirts, before the duo decided to move to cut-and-sew. The name was inspired by the mystery of brownstone apartments, and how you never know what’s going to be inside when you walk into one.
Growing up in the small town of Danville, Virginia, the brothers had to make an effort to remain informed about the latest in pop culture. Warner credits the internet as their initial guide before both brothers would go on to study at Morehouse College in Atlanta, working summer jobs at the local boutique Wish, and interning in New York City at Foundation Showroom. They did this all together.
“This showroom had a shit-ton of brands—10 Deep, Play Cloths, Stüssy Deluxe. It was just so eye-opening and inspiring for us kids who came from the small town to a bigger city, wanting to be involved in the culture in some regards,” says Warner. “To see that you don’t have to be a Prada or something to make dope, nice shit, that was really inspiring to us.”
The duo say they were especially influenced by Japanese brands like Undercover and Neighborhood. After graduating from Morehouse with business and English degrees, respectively, the brothers moved up to New York City to try to officially kick-start the brand. The self-taught designers say there were some hurdles. Things as small as having to lug heavy rolls of textiles on the subway in the blistering heat quickly took a toll.
Now 30, the pair have lived in Los Angeles for the past four years, and are in the process of launching their brand’s Fall/Winter 2020 collection. The first two years saw them lay the infrastructure for the business—finding a factory, studio, and sources for materials. Their products can best be described as elevated essentials. Think pieces like mohair hoodies, cropped pants made of Japanese cotton with branded Riri zippers, and custom-dyed shirt jackets. They fuse Warner’s interest in subcultures like punk rock with Waverly’s more traditional streetwear aesthetic and design expertise.
“Wave is much more of a fashion guy than me. I like ideas. I like concepts. I like the idea of pulling off something and creating things,” says Warner. “So if I could do it with my brother, I was like, ‘Fuck yeah.’ I think what he’s really more into is making dope shit, and it makes me step my game up.”
“I really focus on making sure the fits and the silhouettes and everything is proper. Warner will come up with designs and concepts,” says Waverly.
Brownstone currently does most of its business through its online store, but is also stocked by A Ma Maniére in Atlanta and Union Los Angeles. The duo say getting stocked at Union was always a dream, one that was ultimately achieved simply by dropping off a lookbook at the shop. It eventually made its way into the hands of owner Chris Gibbs. They also mention Gibbs wearing one of their cardigans in a photoshoot for GQ as a significant moment for them. They excitedly recall buying multiple copies of the issue. A Ma Maniére has also been a fruitful partner thus far. The brothers hosted a pop-up for their Spring/Summer 2019 collection at the boutique, complete with a chain stitch customization station for customers. It also marked the first time their parents got to see their children’s work in person.
For ComplexCon, the brand will bring back some of their favorite pieces from the first few collections for a new audience, along with some exclusives for their “Offline” booth. They will also be exclusively launching Brownstone’s “Form and Void” collection ahead of its wider launch the following week. To cater to fans that might not be able to afford a $275 collared shirt or $500 coat, Warner and Waverly are also introducing their Ready Made line in Long Beach—a diffusion line of sorts consisting of altered vintage pieces at a lower price point.
What does the future hold? Warner and Waverly just want to keep creating.
“I would hope we could lay a foundation for myself and Wave to be able to create ideas freely and to create clothes, create cars, to create candles, to create records, like we do whatever we want to do,” says Warner. “We could start a printing press tomorrow. We could start a whole leather works tomorrow. I want the idea of Brownstone to be freedom, to create in our ability to roam free in this world and do our endeavors and always have, at the end of the day, a sick-ass collection that reflects that.” —Mike DeStefano