Exclusive: Q&A With Designer Aaron Potts
By February 15, 2021 0 723•
Via Zoom, I met with Detroit-born fashion designer Aaron Potts in his New York-based design studio. He wore an orange skullcap, a black A. Potts collection original tee and a smile that would light up any room. I asked him about his roots in fashion, his family and where it all began.
A graduate of Parsons School of Design in Manhattan, a division of the New School, Potts has interned with Marc Jacobs for Perry Ellis and with Donna Karan at DKNY. He has designed for Victoria’s Secret, Anne Klein, Badgley Mischka, Tamara Mellon, KaufmanFranco and Escada (in Munich, Germany). He has dressed a host of celebrities, including Michelle Obama, Naomi Campbell, the Williams sisters, Jennifer Lopez and Carrie Underwood.
Potts spoke about being a sheltered kid growing up in a tight-knit, supportive family. He described his Renaissance High School art teacher, Oni Akilah, as his guardian angel. She researched Parsons and helped him develop his portfolio and put together all the requirements needed for entry into that school, encouraging him to pursue his dream of becoming a fashion designer. He admits he was glad he got accepted. Parsons was the only school to which he had applied.
LM: What references have you drawn on when creating your design aesthetic?
AP: Obviously, growing up in Detroit plays a part in how I think and see the world. When I moved to New York, because I was a sheltered church kid, the world opened up to me and I started seeing a lot more things that really inspired me. Being in fashion school, you’re forced to look and seek out things that inspire you. I always look at what’s happening on the street and what people are actually wearing on the street.
Even before it was “street wear” as a term, long before that, I always looked at what was going on, and Downtown New York was really my reference point.
As I matured, being in fashion school and working for a lot of Seventh Avenue companies, I noticed I was always getting the same references — Audrey Hepburn, Jane Birkin, Angelica Houston and Catherine Deneuve — and I got tired of that. I started looking at the stuff I wanted to look at that is rooted in Black history, the Black experience and Black creativity. I look a lot at native dress, whether it’s Native American or indigenous people from other parts of the world. I think that there is such a purity and beauty in a lot of what they do, and a lot of what they do is also about practicality.
LM: Take me through the journey of how the A. Potts collection silhouette has evolved to what you describe as a gender-neutral experience?
AP: The gender-neutral thing is very important to me, because I believe in making beautiful shapes and beautiful pieces that people can identify with. There are two things that I look at. One of them is that I thought a lot about people of different sizes. I’m a big guy, I’m 6-foot-2, so one of the things I thought a lot about was how I wanted to create something that people of all sizes could wear. And if someone gains 10 pounds or someone loses 10 pounds, you don’t have to throw away your wardrobe because you have these pieces that look great and have a little grace in the fit.
The other thing is, I look at clothes as sculpture and how you create these shapes around the body that form these beautiful silhouettes, no matter what angle you’re looking at them from. The silhouettes that have volume or, as I like to say, silhouettes that have air in them, look like sculpture. They look elegant and chic and can be made in the simplest of fabrics. But the volume, the cut and the drape add a level of sophistication.
LM: How do you see yourself being elevated in this time, with some of the most powerful Black women in the world, like Michelle Obama and Vice President Kamala Harris, wearing Black designers?
AP: I’ve come to realize that although I’m a fashion designer and I love fashion, that’s not my driving force. My driving force is connecting with people, and I use fashion as a tool to do that. When I saw Kamala Harris being escorted down the stairs of the United States Capitol that morning, I saw my aunts, my mother and my best friends. And I thought about how brilliant, beautiful, hardworking, ingenious and inventive they all are.
LM: We talked about what kind of childhood you had, but tell me a little bit more. How were you as a child? What disciplines or leadership qualities did you get from your dad, mom, family or community that carried over directly into your process as a designer?
AP: I was a very studious and artistic child. My parents were both older when they had me, so I grew up as a very mature child. Maybe that’s why my closest friends call me “Paw-Paw.” They say I have an old soul. From my dad, who was a carpenter, I learned the ability to do manual work, how to figure things out. He also sparked my love of workwear and utility clothes. He was a simple, Southern man born before the Great Depression, so his sense of practicality rubbed off on me. My mother loved dancing, music, pretty things, the color red and family gatherings. I definitely picked up her love of those things! I grew up in the church, so spirituality is something that I’ve connected directly to my creativity.
LM: Your parents have made a lasting impression on you. How do they feel about your work?
AP: Both my parents died when I was a child — 11 years old and 16 years old — so my aunts stepped in. My parents had already laid the foundation for me being a responsible, mature, caring person and my new family structure reinforced that. We have always been very family-oriented, so that carried over to my life as an adult. My partner, my family and my friends are the center of my life.
LM: How has this influenced you as the man and designer you are today?
AP: Even in my business, I surround myself with friends, family and loved ones. Almost everyone I work with has a connection to me outside of fashion. My goddaughter models for me. My best friend’s daughter, who is like a niece, helps me with event production. One of my closest friends is my righthand man in everything. My closest friends act as advisors. My creative team is made up of people I love outside of this business. And my partner, Courtney, is my ultimate sounding board. I truly believe that a rising tide lifts all boats.
LM: Tell me more about the styles and silhouettes ― bell bottoms, volume and the wide-leg pants you have gravitated to over the decades. Why and how have they influenced your design decisions?
AP: As I was growing up, the ’70s and ’80s had a very distinct influence on my love for wide-leg pants, intense color, Japanese design, all things Willi Smith and Perry Ellis, oversized coats and the genius of Donna Karan. I love clothes that have a sense of sculpture, artfulness, volume and childlike naivete.
LM: How much has your design aesthetic evolved from when you first started?
AM: When I first started, I designed things that felt more diva-ish. Over the years ― and that’s where I find myself today ― I have actually grown to love things that are simple, thoughtful and useful. I love fashion that allows people to truly meld into themselves and not wear a mask or drag.
LM: Tell me about why your art teacher, Ms. Oni Akilah, decided that you would go to Parsons instead of FIT or any other design school? Set the stage. Where were you? What did that conversation sound like?
AP: I remember her saying that all of America’s greatest designers had attended Parsons. It was the Harvard of art schools. We have a legacy of Detroiters who attended Parsons, many of whom have gone on to design for major Seventh Avenue houses or establish their own brands. So that was why we focused our energies on that school. Thank God, I got in!
LM: If you hadn’t become a designer? What would you be and why?
AP: I had thought of being a doctor when I was a small child, but hated science when I got to high school. So that was absolutely a no-go. I was a creative child and teenager, so I guess I still would have done something creative. But thinking of something else seems like an exercise in futility, because this has been my dream since I was 15 years old!
LM: Designer Aaron Potts, you’ve had a dynamic ride in the industry and it’s not over. What’s next?
AP: I want A. Potts to help people go deeper inside themselves and find themselves and use the clothes as a reflection of who they find. The biggest thing I’m getting ready for is the AW 2021 collection being shot this weekend, and I’m so excited because we’re doing something a little unconventional, pulling in a mix of different artistic expressions. We’re also showing at NYFW on Feb. 15. I’m not showing live, I’m showing a film and look book. We’re also getting ready to launch our e-commerce to sell the A. Potts collection online.
LM: It’s amazing how many notable designers have attended A. Potts’s alma mater — Willi Smith, Donna Karan, Marc Jacobs, Tracy Reese, Bill Blass, Isaac Mizrahi, Narciso Rodriguez and Jason Wu, to name just a few. As he says, Detroiters have helped to change the face of fashion. Among them are fashion designers Tracy Reese, Anna Sui, and Kevan Hall, models Veronica Webb, Donyale Luna and Riley Montana and fashion editor and Pulitzer Prize-winning writer Robin Givhan.