Designer of the Year Jerry Lorenzo on the California Mule, Taking Time With His New Adidas Partnership and Becoming the Next Ralph Lauren

On Nov. 30, Jerry Lorenzo will be honored as Designer of the Year at the 35th annual FN Achievement Awards. Below is an article from the magazine’s Nov. 29 print issue about Lorenzo’s rise in American fashion.

It’s no secret that Jerry Lorenzo counts Ralph Lauren as a role model. Over the past few years, the designer has often cited the 82-year-old magnate as a figure he looks to within the fashion industry, a blueprint to further developing his 9-year-old brand Fear of God.

Once you start looking for the Ralph Lauren parallels, they’re everywhere. Ralph Lifshitz entered through fashion’s side door with his ties; Jerry Manuel did it ostensibly with concert merch, when he developed a line for Justin Bieber’s 2016 “Purpose” tour. In 1972, Lauren elevated the polo shirt to American ubiquity; Lorenzo has arguably done the same with the sweatpant. The younger designer has also begun to explore multiple lines, such as his sold-out Essentials and most recently Fear of God Home, a line of cozy loungewear that hints at a larger lifestyle push in the spirit of the Ralph Lauren empire.

Lately, the 44-year-old Lorenzo has also begun to show himself as an all-American family man, inviting his wife Desiree and three kids to star alongside him in his Essentials campaign, which introduced a children’s run of the pandemic-hit line. Lauren’s wife and three kids, meanwhile, have been front row staples at Ralph Lauren shows for years, modeling themselves as a perfectly curated American family.

But perhaps the most compelling argument for Lorenzo’s likeness to Lauren is control of vision and the images he puts out into the world. Peruse any of the recent look books from his collections and they all showcase his type of new minimalism. It’s a world of sand, ochre, putty, camel, ecru and blush (the beige Axel Voorvordt-designed house of his former boss Kanye West inevitably comes to mind). The designer’s fabled level of control was even on display at FN’s cover shoot earlier this month at his Arts District compound in downtown L.A.

Both Lorenzo and Lauren have expertly constructed their brands through meticulous image building. But a hindsight look at the elder’s fantasy American dream — which included a heavy dose of cultural appropriation — illuminates how Lorenzo’s vision is thoroughly more modern, even if it is still composed of sports, pop culture, music, design and architectural references.

“I don’t know that there’s anything I want to replicate [from Ralph Lauren]. I think it’s his point of view that I find so strikingly similar,” said Lorenzo. “I’m betting on myself in the way that I see the world — the way a newer world sees the world. The world today is a juxtaposition of so many different things, and I think our kids represent so many different cultures. I just so happen to understand the nuances of what our following is exposed to.”

Jian DeLeon, men’s fashion and editorial director at Nordstrom, told FN, “Jerry represents a more hopeful interpretation of Americana, with a more-inclusive lens that bridges generations and brings different cultures together. From the range of talent he works with to the aspirational visuals Fear of God is known for, he’s mastered how to balance accessibility with desirability.”

Lorenzo’s fashion perspective has long been visible through his unorthodox collection cycles. But a more recent example took place at the Costume Institute’s new exhibition, “In America: A Lexicon of Fashion,” which debuted at the Met Gala in September. Brought in late to the exhibition, Lorenzo said he was asked to provide a look that involved sweatpants.

“For the first time, we were in a place where we should have been included, but I just didn’t feel comfortable having sweats in an exhibition,” said Lorenzo. “I figured I would wear the sweats to go to the gala, and our mannequin would [have] a little more luxury.” The designer swapped in a pair of suede track pants, which he added to a pair of his California mules (the only known footwear in the exhibition), a beige blazer and overcoat, plus a hoodie emblazoned with “The Negro Leagues,” a nod to his grandfather Lorenzo Manuel, who played in the professional league. (His own father, Jerry Manuel, also played baseball in the MLB and later served as a league manager for the Chicago White Sox and the New York Mets).

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Lorenzo in pieces from his new Fear of God loungewear collection and the brand’s blockbuster California mule.
CREDIT: Hannah Faith Lord

In the end, Fear of God’s biggest moment of the Met Gala wasn’t a celebrity appearance or exhibition moment. It was Lorenzo himself, dressed in his own sweatpants and and Californias, with a matching mock neck and blazer — all beige — styled with the sleeves rolled high like an athlete. “That’s really how I would dress, regardless of what the mannequin looked like,” he said. “I owed it to the people who follow us to be 100% who I am.”

The sweatpant has been both a blessing and maybe a bit of a curse for Lorenzo. Its ubiquity — especially within the more accessibly priced Essentials line — has earned him wide appeal. But it’s also caused some misunderstandings in the industry.

“When we first came out, we were considered street[wear] based on the fact that we weren’t tied to a luxury house. At the beginning, I didn’t mind being categorized as street or luxury street, but I think where we sit today, it’s very apparently luxury,” said Lorenzo. It was Virgil Abloh who introduced the designer to buyers at Barneys New York, where Fear of God was picked up and eventually part of the retailer’s buzzy “thedrop@barneys” event in 2017.

“Jerry truly knows what he and his brand represent: a new American luxury,” said stylist Karla Welch, who worked with the designer in 2016 to produce the aforementioned tour merch as well as performance looks for Justin Bieber’s “Purpose” tour. “I can see how confident of a designer and how creative Jerry is.”

Fear of God’s more recent traction as a luxury brand has come through its suiting. In March 2020, Lorenzo debuted a collaboration with Ermenegildo Zegna: a series of drapey suits, substantial outerwear and hard-soled boots that flipped a light switch for the designer. Pandemic lockdowns may have helped his Essentials line of sweats to sell out, but Lorenzo used the rest of 2020 to work on his very own suiting for Fear of God, which debuted in the brand’s 7th Collection at the end of the year.

Lorenzo credits the suiting as just another step in his solutions-based approach to creating pieces to wear, something he attributes to his past jobs in retail and to his L.A. lifestyle. “Living in Los Angeles really informs a lot of what we do. You’re moving around throughout the day and you want to be appropriate for whatever the day brings, [but] I just like living in sweatpants,” he said. “Sometimes I have to throw on a blazer with my sweats for a parent-teacher meeting and want to make sure it works together.”

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Lorenzo at his L.A. offices in the downtown Arts District, wearing the Fear of God California mule. “Honestly, it started with my children wearing clogs around the house, and the colors were bad and the shapes were bad,” the designer said of his sell-out shoe.
CREDIT: Hannah Faith Lord

The designer took the same approach with his California mule, a slide he introduced in July. It’s made using the XL Extralight EVA foam — which is three-times lighter than the typical foam — and is hand-molded in a process that takes 12 to 15 minutes per shoe. “Honestly, it started with my children wearing clogs around the house, and the colors were bad and the shapes were bad,” said Lorenzo. “You can wear that shoe with the suit, with a pair of sweats, you can wear it to the beach. It’s this solution that I felt people were missing. The shape is a luxury shape.”

The shoe was an instant hit, reportedly selling out online in less than 20 minutes and then again in October within a similar timeframe. The California seemed to hit a bullseye in a moment when people were getting dressed again but didn’t actually know what to wear — and wanted to keep comfort in their wardrobe. It also squared nicely with the buzzy narrative of the man mule trend.

Lorenzo’s mule is more refined, and while it isn’t orthopedic, it is intuitive, with elegant curves, a single side vent and an elegantly rounded toe. The latter proportion is a signature of the entire Fear of God footwear line, which the designer has done since his fourth collection, in 2015. It’s all made in Italy (including the California), in the storied region of Marche.

Fear of God’s footwear collection has at times been lost in the hype of its collaborations with names like Nike and Vans. But the run is comprehensive: There are duck boots, boat shoes, tennis shoes, espadrilles, runners and even a hard-sole penny loafer (which Lorenzo insists he would still wear with sweatpants). And it was one of his own silhouettes that informed Lorenzo’s Nike Air x Fear of God 1 collaboration, a blockbuster sneaker that ran the brand’s hype machine for a number of years.

One can be sure that Adidas is keen to replicate that level of buzz and success in its new partnership with Lorenzo, which was announced a year ago and will include Lorenzo’s creative and business strategy in the basketball category, as well as reciprocal partnership for a new Fear of God Athletics line. The actual sport may be different than that family legacy, but Lorenzo’s athletic appeal is undeniable. As the sultan of sweatpant, colossus of cozy, titan of tees, he’ll now soon be a king of the court. With the enduring ubiquity of sports in American culture, it’s not hard to imagine how Lorenzo’s savoir faire in athletic apparel, merch and sweats might converge into a mass moment for Adidas.

After making the move, the designer sought out advice from his peers, including former boss and fellow Adidas man Kanye West. “He was happy that I had moved over. He’s excited about the future with Adidas,” said Lorenzo. “I was able to work with him on the first two or three seasons of Yeezy and Adidas. So I was already familiar with the process and what that transition was like for him, from Nike.”

But both Adidas and Fear of God fans will have to wait a bit longer. With both COVID restrictions delaying travel to Germany and the designer’s own pace setting the schedule, new products are still underway, though expected by the end of 2022. “There’s no way we’re putting a sneaker out before it’s ready,” said Lorenzo. “When the product is seen for the first time, I think people will understand how long it’s taken to land on these ideas.”

For 35 years, the annual FN Achievement Awards ­— often called the “Shoe Oscars” — have celebrated the style stars, best brand stories, ardent philanthropists, emerging talents and industry veterans. The 2021 event is supported by presenting sponsor Nordstrom, as well as Authentic Brands Group, FDRA, Informa, On and Wolverine Worldwide.

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