Tennessee Thoreson asks, ‘Why be boring when you can be extra?’

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Tennessee Thoreson has been keeping a pretty big secret for a year now. The recent fashion school graduate was named the latest “Amigo” from AZ Factory, the brand founded by the late Albert Elbaz— past talents tapped for glory included Thebe Magugu and Esther Manas-and got the opportunity to hold his first big show during haute couture week in Paris. He just had to keep it quiet until very recently, a challenge that certainly couldn’t have been easy for the bubbly young designer.

Even compared to the other newcomers who have been named Amigos, Thoreson is unusually green: the show took place only a year and a half after his graduation. Meanwhile, Thoreson worked at Chloé and now works at Paco Rabanne, while also designing costumes for drag friends and contributing looks to the French edition of Drag race.

“I wasted no time,” jokes the green-haired 25-year-old. In fact, a full-fledged Paris studio is busy behind him, including a photographer whose regular blinks punctuate our conversation. So how did he make the accelerated journey from college corridors to a couture runway, you might ask? Does he possess some kind of superpower?

tennessy thoreson x az factory collab

A look from Thoreson’s Geneva show.

Courtesy of the designer.

In a way, yes. The moment came after Thoreson met Richemont boss Mauro Grimaldi after his graduate fashion show at the Geneva University of Art and Design. The award-winning collection showcased his love for superheroes. Growing up with a Marvel-obsessed father, Thoreson loved watching Spider-Man weave his web, but his favorite characters were always the heroines, “the mean girls who had superpowers where nothing could get in their way.” As a child, he found the idea comforting. “Sometimes you face weakness or you feel defenseless. I dreamed of having these superpowers so if someone wanted to mess with me, I could face it.”

tennessy thoreson x az factory collab

Drag Race France winner Paloma in a look from the AZ Factory collection.

Courtesy of the designer.

Another major influence on his work has been drag culture. Thoreson got into a pinch during the COVID lockdown as “a way to express myself because I felt so restrained. Every time I did makeup [look]I would post it on Instagram to get people’s reaction.” He also used it, he says, as a way to “escape the male gaze.” Thoreson ended up connecting with drag queens on the platform, and after having moved to Paris personally, and found that many in the community had strained relationships with their families as a result of coming out as queer or doing drag, which he notes can be “another coming-out, sometimes.” Creating their own found families often became a necessity. With his designs, he says, “I create sisterhood, which is very important in the drag community.”

tennessy thoreson x az factory collab

One of Thoreson’s sketches for the collection.

Courtesy of the designer.

While Thoreson never got to meet the late Alber Elbaz, he did attend “Love Brings Love,” the exhibition about the designer at the Palais Galliera. “I could see that all the designers really had love [for him]”, he says. “In this fashion atmosphere, which is brutal most of the time,” Elbaz found a way to bring “subjectivity and sensitivity that really resonates with me.” His legacy is one of “inclusivity, positivity, power and joy.”

tennessy thoreson x az factory collab

A look from Thoreson’s collection for AZ Factory.

Courtesy of the designer.

Those words could also describe Thoreson’s show for the brand. “I didn’t want to just do a basic runway, which is super boring,” he says. Instead, last night’s cabaret-style show at the Paradiso Club, titled “Super Heroines,” was a colorful, theatrical celebration of self-expression, complete with singing, fire-eating, stripped-down neon catsuits and faux-fur picture hats. . The 12 models were each given super powers to act. The goal, he says, was “to show that you can be as big as you want. Anything is allowed.” After all, both superheroes and drag queens are larger than life.

tennessy thoreson x az factory collab

Tennessee Thoreson.

Courtesy of the designer.

Thoreson’s participation during couture week is part of an ongoing trend with younger, more avant-garde-oriented talents find their way into the form (see: Area, Pyer Moss, Charles de Vilmorin. ) “I understand that [couture] might sound out of date, but for me it is also the moment when you are surprised and surprise people,’ and to emphasize the craftsmanship, he says and explains that all the pieces are handmade by seamstresses. “When I was a student, I did everything by hand myself. I know a lot of students hate sewing, but I really loved it.”

In this age of austerity, cutbacks and “grabbing wealth”, Thoreson clings to maximalism. “Why be boring when you can be extra?” he says. “That’s my motto because for me, as a drag queen, we have to be extra, we have to [put on] A performance. Even if you wear something simple, you have to give something.”

Main photo by Véronique Hyland

Véronique Hyland is ELLE’s fashion director and author of the book Dress code. Her work has previously appeared in the New York Times, New Yorker, W, New York magazine, Harper’s Bazaar and Condé Nast Traveler.

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