Already beloved by the biggest stars in hip-hop and basketball, the maverick designer is further influencing the global fashion industry
Words by CHRIS WALLACE
In early March, Rhuigi Villaseñor’s studio in Downtown Los Angeles is still humming along in the creative nexus of his hometown. He sits at a table by paintings of his own making, the calm eye of a creative storm, talking through design ideas with his team and plotting out business decisions with his partner in the company, George Robertson.
He is fresh from a recent collaboration of colorblocked tracksuits, graphic tees and sneakers with Puma, the debut of his first womenswear line at Paris Fashion Week, and is looking forward to a “semisecret” project with Formula 1.
This is just days before mayor Eric Garcetti orders the temporary closure of all bars, restaurants, gyms and theaters in Los Angeles, and there is an air of uncertainty amid the teetering panels of mood boards and heaving racks of high-end sweats and trucker caps.
One could call L.A. his “adopted” city, because Rhuigi, 27, was born in the Philippines and emigrated from Manila to greener pastures in the form of the San Fernando Valley with his family when he was 11. But Los Angeles is the designer’s home — not to mention one of his muses (he recently debuted a hat and T-shirt in collaboration with the Lakers).
As a teenager in Woodland Hills, he was “a bit of a sponge,” he says. “Of course, I had my group of friends that thrifted vintage clothes and resold them, but I adapted to almost any of the groups when I was in school.”
Rhuigi converted his parents’ living room into a kind of working atelier, experimenting with dyes, cuts and fabrics to make his own garments under the tutelage of his mother, a tailor, who taught him the fundamentals of clothing and sewing.
When Rhuigi was only 20 years old, before he had even formally launched a company, Kendrick Lamar wore his now famous bandana motif shirt to the 2012 BET Awards. But it took a few years before Rhuigi could properly put the business together; then the label immediately became famous to hypebeasts and style aficionados. Now Rhude shows its collections in Paris and is, alongside Amiri, atop the vanguard of an immensely talented crop of L.A. designers, carried everywhere from Maxfield to Nordstrom, Patron of the New to Mr Porter.
“Personal growth and brand development move at a different pace”
It’s quite a trajectory, and one propelled by Rhuigi himself as the face and spirit of the brand, something he acknowledges is a challenge to scale. “Especially as personal growth and brand development move at a different pace,” he says. It’s not just an interest in clothing that started him on this path in life, it is his interest in seemingly everything else that has set Rhude apart in a very dense marketplace. The race car motifs (from his passion for cars), the trucker caps and track pants, the pajama shirts and whimsical patterns, his modern update of the Paul Newman/Gianni Agnelli racecar playboy figure — they’re all very Rhuigi.
You could even understand the menswear collections as something of a self-portrait in pieces, and the designer is quick to acknowledge that the womenswear hasn’t quite yet hit its stride. “I’m still trying to catch my rhythm with women’s,” he says. “It’s not an easy road to go, so we’re taking it slow and steady. I showed it for the first time on the runway in January. But with the shutdowns [due to coronavirus], there are so many things that we have to readjust as far as strategy.”
To be clear, it’s not as if he is lost in some conceptual minefield, trying to drape some new exotic technique onto a womenswear canvas. He doesn’t design that way. “I think I’m more of a problem-solver, making things that may already exist within our current wardrobes, but with our twist on it,” he says.
Take, for example, the Rhude trackpant, a luxury trouser spin on the sweatpant, with an elastic cuff and drawstring — widely copied now, but when it emerged a few years ago, it was a special sort of unicorn. Coming as it did at the height of the athleisure trend in the marketplace, and with Rhude’s own particularly high-end slant on streetwear, the Rhude trackpant kind of vaulted men’s everyday trousers forward into a new aspirational world that we all take for granted now, but felt novel and essential then. (Combined with his particular take on a sophisticated pajama shirt, the track pants make up what Rhuigi calls the “traxedo” — mixing the refinement of a tuxedo with the ease of a tracksuit, and therein so much of the code of the brand).
“I think that the trackpant is actually the real indication of what the brand stands for,” Rhuigi says now. “I think it became a gateway for guys that were done wearing just jeans and being stuck into this fully streetwear thing, and for guys that wanted to dress up but still be comfortable. It was really a condensed version of what Rhude meant at that time. And those trackpants became one of my five pillars.”
Of course, the main pillar — the face, the taste, the engine and the guiding spirit — of the brand is Rhuigi himself, a guy who taught himself English by watching his beloved Kobe Bryant’s postgame interviews, and who — hungry to fit in with the cool kids, and determined to “learn the style codes,” better than they knew them — sometimes supported himself after high school by thrifting and reselling Goodwill clothing. “I dig deep into the time when I was a kid, and I was interested in so many different cultures and sporting events. Or just different things that root from a place where you were denied it. We all want to partake in something that we’re not accepted in. That’s the space I dive into now.”
“We all want to partake in something that we’re not accepted in”
In his role as his own best brand ambassador, Rhuigi is frequently in the company of his celebrity fans, like Jay-Z, who wore Rhude x Lakers gear on a recent visit to the Staples Center with the designer; and LeBron James, who often wears Rhude in his pregame appearances; and on Instagram with The Weeknd, Mahershala Ali and even Diane Keaton. “I played basketball when I was younger,” Rhuigi explains. “And if you think about pickup games, you have to learn to adapt with people to be able to play in the game.”
He does still play a bit and, until recently, coached his little brother’s youth team (they all started asking for free clothes). His main exercise comes from jogging up and down the hills on which he lives. At home, past the MacLaren and the Mercedes truck, it’s an eclectic collector’s paradise — with north-facing views of the Valley. There’s more museum-quality midcentury furniture, as well as the designer’s own, graphic paintings — his work, which he showed recently at Maxfield’s in Beverly Hills, owes something to both Pierre Soulages and Basquiat. Throughout, there is abundant evidence of his taste for luxury. In his closet: Hermès, Rick Owens, Berluti. Among his treasured pieces, his Baccarat and world-class watch collection (most of which lives in safety deposit boxes). And on his wish list: a Prouvé chair and “maybe a little [Richard] Serra piece.”
His passion for these things, whether as trophies (as he once called his watches) or as signifiers of taste (which he says he had to master to fit in as a young immigrant) fuel him. It was his love of Nascar and basketball, of course, that gave the brand two of its most memorable design motifs.
But where is he looking now? “Honestly, I’m like an old man,” he says. “All I want to do is go fly-fishing and watch horses. I love watching horses. I love horseback riding.” He laughs. He’s been on a bit of a whirlwind traveling schedule, and with all the uncertainty that health and safety cancellations have caused everywhere, he can’t wait to get home again, to “take a drive up the PCH to be with his parents” at their place near Malibu. “That’s not even downtime,” he says. “That’s what it’s all for. That’s the point of it all.”
Feature image: The finale of the RHUDE Fall/Winter 2020 show in Paris in January.
This story originally appeared in the Spring/Summer 2020 Men’s Edition of C Magazine.
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