Diversity and inclusion are a performative brand’s favorite words: two phrases that make their way into so many stagnant initiatives and the mouths of allegedly progressive committee boards. But for brands like No Sesso, both have been deeply rooted in their DNA — long before the faux allyship era of the 2020s.
“The current state of diversity and inclusion feels like a Black Mirror episode,” says No Sesso co-founder Autumn Randolph. “HR can do better. They can almost chill at this point.” Admittedly, some progress has been made with regard to representation. But Randolph and Pia Davis, the other half of No Sesso, both agree: The work is far from done.
“No sex/no gender” is rule number one for this non-traditional fashion house run by the Black trans creatives. It was the Italian translation of this concept that gave them their name. Indeed, the brand is inclusive from the inside-out, from its all-embracing community of tastemakers to the choice of materials it works with.
No Sesso hit the scene in 2015, initially as a Los Angeles–based art collective for whom fashion design served as an artistic medium. Fast-forward to 2019 and Davis doodles a smiley face, replacing its playful grin with No Sesso’s puffy logo, creating what would become the label’s first ready-to-wear piece and still its most recognizable item: the beloved smiley tee. Currently up for grabs at major retailers like Nordstrom, the shirt made its runway debut during No Sesso’s Spring/Summer 2020 catwalk, known internally as the runway show that changed it all.
No Sesso SS20 marked the label’s first official foray into the fashion industry. It earned them a spot on the Council of Fashion Designers of America’s distinguished fashion calendar, a significant recognition for the small fashion house. “That was a huge moment,” Davis says. “Being one of the first trans artists to be on the fashion calendar was really major. It was kind of unheard of before then. And just being seen for the work we put out, the designs, and the conceptual art was very important, because they don’t just put anyone on that calendar. We were making history.”
Known for providing financial assistance to emerging fashion innovators, the CFDA kept No Sesso on its radar, placing it once more on the FW22 runway calendar and even honoring the brand as a 2022 CFDA/Vogue Fashion Fund finalist. So what is it about No Sesso’s eccentric universe that has the industry so enthralled? For Rashida Ward, longtime No Sesso collaborator and famed archivist behind the Instagram fashion page How to Be a Fucking Lady, it’s their embrace of Black women’s wildest fashion fantasies.
“We’re not really allowed to conceive of ourselves outside of things that are normally glamorous or even overtly sexual,” Ward explains. “It’s very much dictated by somebody else’s fantasy. As Black women, we don’t ever really get to be in charge of our own fantasies — like how we see ourselves and what we want to wear.”
Like Ward, the community around No Sesso — the brand’s grounding force — appreciates their talent for flipping the established ways of mainstream fashion to embrace the most unconventional of style dreams. “That’s what No Sesso is built off of: community,” Davis says. “It’s beautiful to see how it evolves over time and how people are still wearing No Sesso throughout the years.” Certainly, there’s been no stopping the full force of nonconforming style arbiters and celebrities like Kim Kardashian, SZA, Lizzo, and Chloe and Halle Bailey from appearing in No Sesso looks.
No Sesso’s designs are experimental yet sensual, narrating an authentic story in which the avant-garde meets the assured fashion girl. Feminine corsets pack main character energy, with extended laces and dainty trims. Barely-there slip dresses are made even sexier with risqué skin exposure. Meanwhile, No Sesso strips down corporate suiting to intentionally ill-fitting vests and slashed-up blazer jackets — looks that would surely earn you a lengthy violation email from corporate HR.
Textures and materials play a significant role for No Sesso, with fabrications ranging from fluffy patchwork fur to striped knits (and maybe even a hodgepodge of both). “I think texture has been really important to the brand since the very beginning,” says Davis. “We would mix denim with leather, or fur with sweater materials like knits. Or you might see all of those pieces in one garment. Texture tells a story within itself because there’s so many different levels to a lot of this design.”
Given this fancy for denim, No Sesso couldn’t resist the chance to play with Levi’s renowned jeans, linking with the acclaimed brand for an official collaboration. But, like the rest of the world, the Covid-19 pandemic caused Levi’s and No Sesso to slow the creation of their collection. Meetings were conducted virtually and samples shipped via mail. Despite the obstacles, the partnership ended up being a “pleasurable,” “fun,” and “easy” experience for No Sesso, per Randolph’s recollection. “It was nice to not just elaborate on an already made Levi’s piece, but to actually cut and sew, and to come up with our own designs,” Davis adds. “It feels more collaborative.”
As things started moving again, including the return of New York Fashion Week in 2021, the moment finally arrived. During their FW22 runway show, No Sesso finally unveiled their Levi’s collab, yet another huge accomplishment for the label. Randolph and Davis — true queens of sensuality — transformed Levi’s timeless pieces with lingerie inspiration. Corseted trucker jackets, the founders’ faves, sported lace-up detailing on the front and back, with cropping options for No Sesso’s more dauntless dressers. Meanwhile, dark-wash denim trousers supplied jorts behavior via transformable zips and flirty garter-style stitching.
In a world where unoriginal collaborations thrive as cash-grabs, No Sesso’s femme, out-of-the-box spin on Levi’s denim restored my hope for future creative brand partnerships. And although the collab may have been a one-time thing, Randolph and Davis are still in talks with the denim company. In the meantime, I’m told an entirely new linkup is expected to make its grand appearance during the brand’s SS23 runway presentation.
Randolph and Davis are keeping things under wraps for now, but Davis did offer a bit of an appetizer to hold us over before the main course: Think “No Sesso sexy” meets Afrofuturism. “We love to show skin or cutouts or nice fabrics that look good on the body during certain seasons,” Davis says. “Expect very fun, futuristic silhouettes going down the runway. It’s going to be our [first] show after being selected as the Fashion Fund finalist. We’re putting our all into this show. We’re excited to show it to the world.”