For designer Mcjordan Erhunmwunse, it’s not enough to just design clothes — it’s imperative to him that his designs are equal parts empowering and expressive, complementing the wearer rather than overpowering them.
After four years studying at the prestigious Fashion Institute of Technology in New York, the Maryland native found himself on a different path than his classmates who were interested in working for established fashion labels. Instead, Erhunmwunse honed in on his craft and created M.J.E Studios, a brand that embodies street and youth culture and blends it with contemporary fashion. The designer is powered by the mantra of “driven by community,” a notion that when you invest in what is around you, it will become the catalyst to something greater. M.J.E Studios is proof of that.
You studied at FIT — how did that learning environment help inspire you and shape your designs?
Very hard four years, but full of growth. I’d say first that the environment conditioned me to work at the pace of a designer/creator — constantly looking for inspiration and working towards the next project, which has become a natural headspace. I think it’s normal to be unsure of who you are or what you want to become, especially while in college, and for me I felt really lost and insecure the first few years. I knew I loved fashion, but I just didn’t know my place and at times questioned if I even had a place. I would see everyone come up with these great ideas. Everyone around me seemed to have been developing a clear voice for themselves while I was stuck. I never resented them and I always looked up to my friends who I knew were more talented than I was, but this slowly led to me trying to be like everyone else — looking at the same places for inspiration they were, choosing the same fabrics they chose, presenting the same way they did. Eventually I discovered the importance of knowing what you like as a designer and that trying to bite someone else is always a dead end.
Honestly, my time at FIT didn’t shape my designs much, but it helped sculpt my work ethic and inspired me to spend time with myself. I felt very unaccomplished when I got my first degree after two years. I started to really buckle down on my craft while developing a good feel for who I was. I also started to read and research relentlessly. There was a periodical section at FIT in the library filled with updated magazine issues and designer lookbooks that I’d sift through literally from morning to night time. I practically lived there. It was really a therapeutic spot for me that helped me figure out what I liked and help me develop a good relationship with myself. Everyone around me at the time seemed so fixated on working for some big name company, but I was always into starting and growing a business of my own, which led me to starting my own brand. I started M.J.E Studios toward the end of my junior year. “M.J.E” is an abbreviation for my first and last name. “Studios” made it sound more marketable.
You say your pieces are “driven by the community.” Can you describe what this means and how your brand reflects this mantra?
It’s a vague statement I used to say that means that my pieces are inspired by genuine/organic relationships between myself and my surroundings, whether that’s people or places. Like every artist, I’m a sponge. My present and past inspires me, and sometimes without me knowing it. Since starting M.J.E Studios I’ve wanted it to be known for not only the quality it brings, but for making everyone feel their best selves in all settings. I love studying people — what they respond to and how, and reinventing that to make something new that hasn’t been seen before.
As a young designer, what are some of the most difficult and rewarding aspects of the fashion industry?
There have been many cases where people will discredit or downplay my capabilities and accomplishments because of my age, but that always just fuels my motivation. I feel relationship building can be hard sometimes as well. The industry can be a very elitist and anti-inclusive space — sometimes it feels like everyone’s playing for keeps and wants to be enclosed. But there are good people in the industry who want to see you grow and do well; I think it just takes a bit more fishing. It always feels rewarding working with a stylist or creative director and executing a vision and seeing it come to life. I remember designing a custom set for my first tour a year ago, and it felt amazing being a part of that experience. I definitely hope I can design for another tour soon. Being alive in this industry feels rewarding, honestly. Through the good and the bad, I’m happy that I can say that I’m moving forward in this industry.
Tell us a bit about your design process – what’s the first thing you do when you start working on a new project?
A common practice I do is writing down words associated with what I want to see come to life. Sometimes it’s a colour, a shape, or a place. Then I’ll start gathering swatches, and I have a habit of pinning them sporadically on the wall. I love putting any source of inspo on the wall. I like the feeling of literally being surrounded by your inspiration. I’ll start to question my choices, asking things like “how would this look paired with xyz”, “is this shade the right mood”, “how would this kind of person feel versus this kind of person”. I think constantly questioning myself is for the better when trying to get things the way you want. I do my own sketches, so I’ll start sketching once I feel I have a thorough direction. I’ll get down a good amount of looks, and I’ll leave it alone and come back to it until I thoroughly feel I have what I want. Sometimes this takes as soon as a couple days or as long as a few months. I like to think of myself as a musician. I admire the way musicians put out their work and curate themselves. They don’t let the pressure of deadlines come in the way of their work and simply go with what feels right. I then progress onto making final decisions with sample-making, then production (depending on the scope of the project).
Your most recent collection was created in the middle of the pandemic. How did the collection change and develop during this period of quarantine?
I’ll start with development — Being in quarantine pushed and inspired me to make something new and fresh without too many resources. Everyone was eliminated — access to people and places, in the case of designers, studios to get their work done, little access to fabric, etc. I started gathering what I had in front of me — unused trim, unused fabric, pieces I’d made in the past but never showcased, and I designed from that. One of the pieces from the collection was made from a jacket I’d made in the past. Being in quarantine also inspired me to think of leisurewear, since everyone was stuck inside. I always design from a place of elevation, and I wanted the wearer to feel that as well. Casual comfort meets luxury. As quarantine started to calm down a bit more, I started to expand the collection and I made more pieces. The collection and concept as a whole hasn’t changed much, I’m very confident in the pieces and I believe they speak well for themselves.
What are some other things that inspired this collection?
I also just wanted to make pieces that’d make people feel happier. Being in quarantine was really draining and honestly pretty depressing. I tried to choose colors and cuts that would make the wearer feel free and fresh.
What are some of the traits of an M.J.E Studios wearer?
The M.J.E Studios wearer wants innovation, they want a genuine relationship between themselves and the pieces. They are confident, clever, unapologetic, and authentically themselves. I love seeing when someone puts on one of my pieces and makes it their own, instead of the piece making them.
How do you see the M.J.E Studios brand growing and evolving in the future?
One of my biggest aspirations is to open a store location soon. I also want M.J.E Studios to become more of an open space for collaborations with filmmakers, graphic designers, and even painters/sculptors. I’m constantly learning and I hope that as I work on growing M.J.E Studios that I find more of my capabilities.
words. Kelsey Barnes