This New Gender-Free LA Brand Wants to Be the Next Patagonia

How many times have you found yourself stealing your S.O.'s favorite hoodie? Or shopped from both the women's and men's departments in search of that just-right fit? Los Angeles-based designer Frederick "Trey" Humphries noticed this flaw in fashion and created Carton, a gender-neutral outerwear and basics line.

"Just think about the classic image of a cheerleader wearing her boyfriend's letterman [jacket]: As a society, we have always acknowledged the charm of crossing these lines," Humphries tells us. "But companies use gender as a way to sell more products, instead of trying to make the best product for everyone. In addition, there is a growing population that doesn’t identify as cis-gendered and they need clothes too."

Humphries spent his formative teen years in Washington, D.C., where he attended high school and designed his own streetwear brand "that was popular with the school's skater community. By the end of high school, it was in a local skate shop and I basically thought I was a fashion king," he tells us. "I came out to USC for college and it was really shocking how many kids from other cites had brands exactly like mine — and some better than mine."

The LA brand harnesses fashion to critique current political climates and institutions, starting with its inaugural collection, Hazmat. Headlines of state of the U.S. — from the president's Twitter wars to the Black Lives Matter movement — along with blue-collar uniforms from Finland influenced Humphries to create street style fit for a post-apocalyptic society: Think utilitarian silhouettes, technicolor palettes, and graphics inspired by Y2K-era tech (we see you, Sidekick), which were on full display at the brand's Melrose launch party and pop-up this past December.

Available in unisex sizes from 1 to 6, Carton's début collection includes logo hoodies ($60 to $74), t-shirts and leggings ($30), neon windbreakers ($80), and patched nylon puffer jackets ($250).

"These clothes are not made simply for fashion — they are made for you to wear as you go out in the world and dismantle the system and look good while doing it," Humphries says.

Here, we caught up with Humphries to learn more about his career path and the inspiration behind Carton. From how he transformed tragedy into triumph to the post-apocalyptic imagery that informed his designs, read on below, then shop Carton exclusively online here.

What's the inspiration behind the brand name and the debut collection? 

The brand's name comes from the first job I landed out of college. I was working in New York City doing graphics for a PR firm and my creative urges were not being satisfied. [I was] spending all day going from a shoe box apartment to sitting in a white cubicle, developing these brands that already knew what they wanted before they met me. I realized that sitting in this little square of a cubicle was never my dream. I didn't want to work at the will of the brands, I wanted to create and guide brands. 

My dream and reason for studying design was always with the goal of being an entrepreneur, and some point along the way I trapped myself into this box of being a cog in the machine. That’s when I decided I wanted to start my own company, but I found myself thinking a lot about all the companies I had worked for. That’s when it dawned on me that in order to think outside of the box, you sometimes need to think about the box itself.

As a company that tries to build collections around institutional critique, the name Carton symbolizes how we all get trapped in boxes from time to time. However, these constraints and labels do not define us, [it's] our actions and choices.

Can you shed more light on the current events that inspired the debut range?

This current collection, "Hazmat," was inspired by both world events and my personal life. I was working on this collection in the wake of one of my closest friends' suicide. Simultaneously Trump had recently been elected and he and [North Korean leader] Kim Jong-un were exchanging a lot of threats on Twitter, creating concern [about] a nuclear war. For me it felt like my world could end at any second, so we crafted a collection of clothes for the end of the world. I like to think of the Hazmat collection as post-nuclear warfare street style.

Each garment draws influence from classic work wear and outerwear brands and we used color palettes, graphics and patchwork to update these garments along with messaging about our post-apocalyptic society. I was really inspired by construction workers and blue-collar employees. I had received a lot of photos from a friend who was working in Finland of the people who pick up trash cans or clean the streets and the way they designed the workers' clothes there just looked so fresh to me. I wanted to mimic this and create a line of discussion about mixing high and low and how elevating these garments in the optic perception, so the next time you see one of these workers they appear to be wearing a dope outfit rather than just work clothes.

We tried to make each piece have a specific meaning and role in the new society. Some draw connections to the Cold War and past atomic bomb testing to highlight how these world events seem to repeat themselves. Others are garments designed for the potential jobs and needs of this new world we were imagining.

What experiences inspired you to make Carton gender neutral?

Growing up as a black male interested in fashion made me want to create a genderless brand. I always dressed colorfully as a kid and was attracted to the colorways that were outside the norm. I remember when I started wearing purple jeans back in 2006 and everyone said I looked like a girl or I was gay. As a kid that really bothered me because I didn’t understand; I just felt like I looked like me in purple pants, which was convenient for matching my purple hat.

Especially being black, I think there is a greater pressure to be masculine because America was built off our oppression and thrives on our continued oppression. Many people associate masculinity with strength and femininity with weakness, and a lot of black people don’t want to look weak in a world that’s already looking to hurt them. While I understand that sentiment, I feel like fashion is about taking ownership of your body and doing what makes you feel best regardless of color or gender.

I personally think the most fearless thing you can do is actually be yourself because this world is set up to tell you what you’re supposed to be. Yet, due to the way products are marketed, most brands use things like color and fit to help define gender and this creates even larger implications about what is for what cultures.

Can you tell us about any particular people or muses who also inspired the brand?

A lot of the women I have dated borrowed my jackets and hoodies and then they become staples in their wardrobe because they can’t find something with the same materials, prints or details in their size.

Chris, my best friend who passed away, was actually one of my biggest inspirations for creating a genderless brand. Chris was male presenting, but also queer and gender fluid. This was really apparent in the way he dressed, mixing classic feminine pieces such as handbags and rings with traditional masculine garments such as raw denim pants and Carhartt jackets. He was fearless in the way he selected his outfits and I always felt as though the way he neglected gender allowed him more freedom and joy when picking his clothes. As a result, when he wore his favorite outfit, it would radiate out and you could tell he felt better about himself than you did in your favorite outfit.

How has the city of Los Angeles influenced your designs? 

Los Angeles has forced me to grow as a designer so many times. LA really is this hub where a lot of global trends and cultures are manufactured and produced. Living here for the past six years has forced me to up my game time and time again. I think of myself as a pretty competitive person. I don’t have to be considered the best, but I like being in that conversation. So being out here with the best of the best forces me to step up. 

In addition to my personal competitiveness, LA has allowed me to grow so much as a person. All these different people trying to make it in music, sports, fashion, photography, food, and art is very stimulating.

I try to use all of it to influence my work, whether that be with Carton or my freelance graphics. As an artist, I think living life and having a wide variety of experiences is the best tool you can have because at the end of the day art is about communicating with people. It’s about taking this sentiment you have and abstracting it to the point that it’s understandable to a stranger; that takes a lot of empathy. Living in a city like this, you either need to have a large ego or a lot of empathy. 

Where would you like to see Carton five years from now?

I want our brand to be synonymous with the biggest outerwear brands like North Face and Patagonia, but for the more hip and socially-conscious new generation that cares about fashion and company values. I want the brand to be able to make products that can thrive in boutiques and department stores. I want the success of our genderless approach towards design to force retailers to re-evaluate how they design their spaces to address gender, and hopefully encourage more people in fashion to let the consumer decide for themselves what they should wear and how they should identify.

Editor: Danielle Directo-Meston

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