In a time where school graduations and presentations are either cancelled or postponed, due to the pandemic, fashion students around the world are finding creative ways to make up for the lack of real-life runway shows. Cambodia-born designer Rob Tennent, who studies fashion design at Auckland University of Technology in New Zealand, refused to present his graduate collection over Zoom. Instead, he used the hookup app Grindr to create his own “gay online store,” filled with his thoughtfully-designed garments. The collection is designed for New Zealand’s queer community, subverting the country’s hyper-masculine culture through variations of a black cut-out singlet.
“My work has always been very personal,” Rob says. “I can’t write or work without it being from a personal experience, so when I started the collection I asked myself, ‘what do I want to wear?’ and created that uniform.” The black singlet is an “essential piece of his wardrobe.” His designs, Rob explains, are inspired by everything from the clothing of farmers to wrestling singlets, and feminine undergarments like corsets. “I’ve always been a person that people can’t pinpoint the identity of,” he says. “I don’t like it when anyone expects me to be a certain way, I like to challenge those thoughts.”
With a cutout style made from a high-stretch material, Rob wanted to play with “the sexual side of fashion” and enhance or hide parts of the body. “Incorporating the corset neckline and the spandex fabric usually used for shapewear, I came up with a design that is a gender neutral hybrid,” he says, admitting he designed the garments with a more muscular body than his own in mind, but he quickly found himself wearing them too.
When Rob first moved to New Zealand, at the age of 12, he experienced culture shock. Attending an all-boys school where “he didn’t really fit in”, he always struggled to identify with New Zealand’s hyper-masculine, sports-oriented culture. It made coming out to his peers difficult. “Seeing the ridiculous suicide rates in younger men (the highest in the developed world), because of what I attribute to this toxic culture,” Rob says, “I realized it’s very common not to talk about your issues and keep it moving. I think that as progressive as we are in this country, those mentalities still linger from our farming and agriculture background.”
School did, however, give Rob his first taste of fashion design. He was especially skilled at sewing and began developing patterns, taking interest in modeling and photography too. In terms of his graduate collection, the Grindr presentation was an idea that sparked while scrolling through the app late one night and coming across a profile of a man wearing a vintage Helmut Lang singlet. “As a university graduate, we usually get an end of year runway show to present our collections. But due to Covid-19 and the health restrictions, we were unable to do one,” he says. “This was my lightbulb moment. I thought if I am designing for queer, feminine men, Grindr would act as a direct to consumer app.”
Rob cast his queer friends as models and created six different profiles to show off the garments in his collection. They were left up for the day, then deleted. Rob believes the there’s real potential in using the app for sales and his teachers, he says, thought the medium tied the whole collection together. While his presentation was ultimately a success, Rob is nervous about graduating into a creative industry in a country experiencing the deepest economic slump on record.
“We’ve only been out of university for four or five months and don’t feel like we got everything we needed out of it because a lot of our projects had to be on Zoom,” he says. “It’s a privilege to be able to do an unpaid internship and live at home and I’m very fortunate to be in the position I’m in because I worked in fashion while studying, but that’s not the case for many other students.”
While nervous, Rob plans on approaching his future creative endeavors with the same flexibility as his graduate collection, creatively adapting to the current circumstances. He says he’s currently job hunting around New Zealand brands and working in freelance photography, but hopes to move to New York and work as a content curator, post-pandemic. Known for his deeply personal work, there’s no doubt the emerging designer will orchestrate a few more surprises along the way.