One February during New York Fashion Week, rays of sunlight poured through the windows of Chelsea’s Pier 59 Studios, setting off a glimmer of rhinestones across the butt of a belly-bearing gray velour tracksuit. As the model Maya Monés, her ’60s-inspired shoulder-length wig flipped upward at the ends, made the customary spin at the edge of the catwalk, she brushed her palms across two short words spelled out by the gems, the declaration of a singular presence: “No Sesso.”
With that fall 2019 show, No Sesso’s lead designer, Pierre Davis, became the first trans woman to present a collection on the official New York Fashion Week calendar (though other nonbinary and trans designers, including Gogo Graham, had shown off-schedule during previous seasons). “I felt good to have the Black trans community recognized, heard and supported,” says Davis, who exclusively cast models of color and privileges a collaborative way of working. “The show allowed us to have visibility on a global stage.” This idea of inclusivity and representation extends to all aspects of the Los-Angeles-based brand, including its name, which is Italian for “no sex” or “no gender,” and how its offerings are rolled out. Most of No Sesso’s shows and events are announced via social media and open to the public, a rarity in an industry that still adheres to the idea of a celebrity-studded front row. Held in a warehouse in downtown Los Angeles, a 2018 show of a heavily patterned and patchworked ready-to-wear collection done in tandem with the emerging streetwear label Come Tees drew an enthusiastic crowd of 2,000.
And, of course, Davis’s intention to create a brand for everyone — “all identities, shapes, ages and colors” — can be seen in the clothing, each piece of which is a declaration of creativity, joy and, perhaps most notable, freedom. To some extent, fashion has always championed these things, and yet, even as norms shift, the majority of brands still organize their collections and shows according to a gender binary. When Davis is the one telling you people should wear whatever makes them happy, however, you believe it. In addition to Monés’s look, the fall 2019 collection included exuberant, unapologetically sexy grommet-studded leather corsets that appeared on muscular torsos, in one case along with a stacked pearl choker. Sometimes Davis refutes the limited notion that a certain piece of clothing is meant for a certain body, but more often she is concerned with the deconstruction of a particular garment, as with a sculptural one-armed suit dress, a twisted black pencil skirt or a cloudlike piecey poplin skirt with a circular, skin-baring cutout at the left thigh. She often works with recycled fabric, taking apart hard-loved thrift-store finds and putting them back together according to her own vision, and perhaps the upcycled pieces’ raw hems and exposed seams are a testament to reinvention itself, just as patchwork — a recurring motif throughout Davis’s collections — might be a metaphor for the fact that we are all complex beings composed of myriad experiences and desires.
The 30-year-old designer, who was born in South Carolina, grew up in a military family and spent much of her adolescence traveling and living abroad. She was inspired at a young age by the glamorous styling on the covers of the early aughts magazines, such as Hype Hair, that her mother subscribed to, and began sewing in middle school. In 2008, she enrolled as a fashion student at the erstwhile Art Institute of Seattle and was soon invited to share her leather patchwork jackets at two artist-run exhibition spaces — Love City Love in Seattle and Sade in Los Angeles — where they were treated as soft sculpture and hung from white pillars or wooden slabs. And though Davis dropped out after two years because she didn’t feel like the program was well versed in leatherwork, her primary interest at the time, certain parts of the experience, namely her commitment to process-based work, her tendency to treat her designs as art and her desire to surround herself with other artists, have stayed with her.
On a glass table on the ground floor of No Sesso’s downtown Los Angeles storefront studio, which is accented with plush couches and fresh-cut flowers, pre-existing clothing pieces are slowly transformed into highly coveted one-offs — in 2018, Davis created floor-length gowns from repurposed basketball jerseys, and she and her co-designer, the stylist Autumn Randolph, often spend six months embroidering or using bleach and dye to spot-treat a single piece. It’s important to Davis, given the disastrous and outsize effect that the fashion industry has had on climate change, that her clothes be sustainable, but working this way also adds to their specialness. “These pieces have been collected over the years and mean a lot,” she says. The pair often dips into their own wardrobes or the No Sesso archive, writing and then rewriting a garment’s history.
Randolph is Davis’s only regular co-creator, but in the five years since Davis and Arin Hayes, who oversees the brand’s marketing and casting, co-founded No Sesso in 2015, the atelier has also been a gathering place for an ever-growing collective of artists of color. At No Sesso’s latest show, held at the Geffen Contemporary at the Museum of Contemporary Art this past February and thus a California homecoming after two seasons in New York, a thumping soundtrack produced by Alima Lee played (a music fan, Davis often listens to Megan Thee Stallion or City Girls while she works) while models walked in off-white opera-length gloves designed with the artist Parisjoy Jennings and low-cut halter-dresses printed with monochromatic doodles courtesy of the animator Sensational Bobbi. Last month, Davis debuted a series of tank tops that were airbrushed with images of No Sesso-branded cognac, stacks of gold coins and hoop earring-clad women by the Los Angeles-based painter Mario Ayala. “When I was in seventh grade, when airbrushing was really popping again, I got this T-shirt made with Lil’ Kim’s face on it,” says Davis. (The rapper’s “unapologetic rawness” remains a perennial inspiration for her.) And, in the coming year, Davis will unveil a capsule with a different sort of partner — Levi’s — which will allow her to offer her clothing at a more accessible price point. Ultimately, Davis’s work is a manifestation of the world she wants to see, one where beauty and destinies are self-determined. And, though her vision is all-inclusive, she remains cognizant of who gets the spotlight: “It’s Black trans femmes,” she says. “Black femmes to the front.”