by: Megan McPherson
This summer, the Dingman Center will be conducting interviews with the eight student startups who are participating in the Terp Startup summer incubator phase of our Fearless Founders accelerator program. Participating student entrepreneurs received $3,500 stipends that would enable them to work exclusively on their startups over six weeks in the summer.
High-fashion is typically associated with wealth, luxury and lavish excess. Nonich, a high-fashion brand out of University of Maryland, is working to change that narrative with their socially conscious line of street couture fashion apparel. The brand’s three founders, Damar Bess, Rodrick Campbell and Henry Blanco, come from a diverse cultural background that informs their clothing aesthetic as well as their vision.
The style of Nonich is defined as a blend of technical Western European outerwear, Japanese streetwear and Americana; its substance has taken shape over the course of Nonich’s two collections: Col Un, released in November 2015, and Col Do: Blissful Ignorance, released this month. The unique blend of their technical influence, global style and personal touches make their high-fashion brand bold yet enduring and highly wearable. According to Damar Bess, the lead designer for Nonich, with Col Un, “We wanted to really portray what we liked and our story. We felt we had a culture that was really lacking in fashion, from our experiences.”
While Col Un sprung from the founders’ urge to express their own personal style and story, the inspiration for Col Do: Blissful Ignorance found an external origin: the now infamous “affluenza” case of a teen whose sheltered lifestyle allowed him to escape punishment for killing four people while driving drunk. This case led the Nonich team to reflect on the bubble that allows these people to, in Damar’s words, “Stay in [their] happy place,” a realm of “blissful ignorance.” According to the team, the Col Do collection appropriates elements of a “country club uniform,” taking typical fabrics used for polos and other preppy closet staples and blending them into their street couture line. Rodrick Campbell, Nonich’s Director of Photography, emulated this aesthetic in the recent Col Do lookbook through evocative tennis related props. The result is a fusion of minority fashion and culture.
The release of Nonich’s second collection also gave the team an impetus to incorporate a social mission into their brand. After seeing an article that claimed people with careers in high-fashion felt they had a low level of social impact, the Nonich team decided that their company culture would be different. “You come across people who have money and they have the means to actually do something and make a difference and it doesn’t matter to them at the end of the day,” Damar said. Looking to make a more concrete impact with their brand, Nonich now donates part of their proceeds to DC Reads, an organization that helps improve the historically low literacy rates among children in DC public schools. Nonich’s new emphasis on social impact is, according to co-founder Henry Blanco, “a way to keep us level headed, to keep it in the back of our minds that there’s still more important things going on in the world.”
With more than 12,500 followers on Instagram, the Nonich brand identity is beginning to make waves in the high-fashion world. Making an average of 50 pieces for each item of clothing in their line, they sold out both collections each within a month of their release. During the course of Terp Startup, Nonich looked to expand their presence in retail, focusing their attention on boutiques in major cities around the world. Due to the global appeal of their brand concept, some of their very first orders were from overseas, particularly in Scandinavian countries like Denmark and the Netherlands. As they continue to overcome the many challenges of manufacturing and quality standards that the fashion industry presents, they hope to scale Nonich’s collections to reach as many people as possible. They even have a women’s line in the pipeline.
The Nonich fashion line is just one iteration of this team’s vision. Nonich House, the broader name that they used for their website and Instagram, ultimately aims to expand its creative reach to other forms of entertainment that the Nonich family is passionate about, including music or even food. I say family, because the Nonich House foundations were built on a strong bond of friendship and family. Damar’s first forays into fashion were with his high school friend Khiry Oviim’s clothing line, Dipp’d. At UMD, Damar parted ways with Dipp’d, connecting with Rodrick and Henry instead to explore the creative possibilities of what would become Nonich, but he still remained close with his previous partner. Khiry, along with Damar’s little brother and Nonich’s most prominent model, Damian Bess, are part of the creative backbone of Nonich House. “We just like to create and make other people’s stuff better,” said Damar.