Picture of Bruce Davis with his new clothing collection, "Rebirth"Brian Chilson
WORKING IN A POST-FIRE PALETTE: Bruce Davis with his new collection, “Rebirth.”

Before the Jan. 3 apartment fire that claimed Bruce Davis’ home, design studio and the entire closet of past collections for his budding unisex streetwear label 22nd Element, he’d already settled on “Rebirth” as the theme for his fall 2019 collection. He didn’t know how prescient the name was.

Plans for moving his back catalog to a retail storefront had been in the works, but the blaze that claimed eight units at the Sturbridge Townhouses in Little Rock gave no regard to these plans. Davis had shown nerve morphing himself from sartorial sore thumb — a dandified 16-year-old public school student with a penchant for wearing blazers — to freelance stylist for hire while still a student at Hall High School. Now, the flames licked at his unit with an unkind indifference to the buzz surrounding the burgeoning 26-year-old designer. Whatever he could salvage of his dream from the wreckage, the clothes and patterns and sketches, the fabrics and the machine, were all gone.

In the four months since that catastrophe, he’s managed to compose a collection that features a more muted color palette than a typical story involving fire would suggest. The fire is still there. It’s just that for Davis, it exists as a part of a larger narrative, before and after the flames. The collection moves from blank white canvas vests, through gold and orange and angry red shirts, gets extinguished by sporadic touches of cool blue, then lands with darker brown and black tops and pants, earth tones that evoke soot.

One of 14 children, Davis and his family moved frequently to accommodate his father’s work as an electronic engineer. A member of the Nation of Islam, Davis’ father made an early impression on the budding designer, normalizing formal wear as daily habit. From Chicago, the family moved east before circling back to the Midwest and landing in Olathe, Kan. By then, he’d learned to adapt, and in Olathe that meant taking up skateboarding. “It was one of those things we did for the demographic. It was a big culture shock, from Chicago, New York, New Jersey. Then I moved to Kansas. Everybody skateboarded. I got into it. And it brought so many backgrounds together.”

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He eventually earned sponsorship, and Davis was thus inducted into the world of skate company merchandising. The products he received to represent skate brands helped the designer take an early interest in clothes. Free clothes will do that to a teen, a likely reason so many former skaters have their own clothing brands. Skater culture also exposed Davis to disparate lifestyles and the distinct styles that came with them. Devising new skateboard tricks stoked his habit of making.

The family’s next move brought Davis to Little Rock, where his iteration of prep encountered Little Rock’s own legacy with polos and jeans. His classmates had some trouble distinguishing him from their teachers. “They weren’t used to it. The craze at the time was polos with Levi’s jeans, rubber banded at the bottom so the dye wouldn’t stain their Air Forces. They saw me coming in and were like, ‘Is he a professor?’ I carried a briefcase, wore V-necks with blazers and tapered jeans. Of course that attracted women, also guys. But I was like, ‘This is me.’ Some people loved it. Some people hated it. Some people thought I was trying too hard. But that was high school.”

Though his family moved again after his senior year, Davis decided to stay on in Little Rock to take advantage of in-state college tuition costs. He enrolled at UA Little Rock, where he majored in biology, a concession to his father, who dreamed of having a doctor in the family.

While preparing to attend a wedding in 2015, unsatisfied with his options to fit the event’s theme, Davis made his own bowtie. The accessory drew raves and he resolved to take making clothes more seriously. The brand label came to him in a chemistry class — titanium, the 22nd element, a strong, lustrous metal. Making strong, lustrous accessories for an affordable price was his goal.

Once he’d grown his accessories business to include a covetable inventory of bowties, skinny ties and clutches, Davis decided to brave the next step: apparel. He began by cutting patterns from items he bought secondhand at Goodwill and deconstructed.

Past 22nd Element collections have showcased Davis’ ability to craft a coherent message and communicate it through themed variations. “I feel like every piece of clothing I make should have a meaning. The fashion world has become so saturated, everybody wants to look alike and there’s no gumption to what designers are making. So I really want to have a message behind everything I make. Each collection I’ve made has paid homage to a certain group.”

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Davis doesn’t cower from investing his work with political significance. Fall 2018 referenced the Tuskegee Airmen: Davis juxtaposed the crimson, maroons, creams and golds of the Tuskegee Institute with the olive gray and khaki of the Airmen. The resulting collegiate, prep aesthetic reinvigorated a motif black Little Rockians have been exploring since the early ’90s, when brands like Tommy Hilfiger and Polo Ralph Lauren dominated the black streetwear landscape.

As to his taste for this prep sensibility and what has made it such a resilient signifier for black streetwear designers, Davis said, “I think it’s the cleanliness of the lines when it comes to preppiness. The tailoring, it just seems … acceptable, appropriate. The cleanliness of the lines says so much about a person.”

But newer themes assert themselves in “Rebirth.” This season, his jackets — especially a quilted denim jacket that when paired with pants becomes a jumpsuit — play with volume. The clothes resemble comfort items, billowy blankets that surround the wearer, a poignant theme for Davis as he recovers from the trauma of the fire.

Using comfortable materials to create a spacious silhouette showcases a softening in Davis. The collection’s use of tactical elements (vests, mesh, flak jackets) aligns with contemporary themes in streetwear, but the silhouette of the clothes is not fitted. Where once his prep formality appeared more rigid, the roominess of “Rebirth” evokes a calm solace throughout — a reminder to be gentle with ourselves and an invocation of another R-word, “resilience.”

Davis has also threaded what he calls “structured chaos” throughout the collection, where observers will find unfinished edges and pops of color from cutouts pieced across color fields that feel warm, though not aflame. A profusion of pockets on the front of the clothes suggests the designer was thinking of mobility, maintaining the ability to flee whenever necessary, and thus of the necessity of carrying supplies on one’s person. Buckle enclosures and harnesses throughout also evoke the idea of safety, of things being strapped or tucked in, clung to.

Davis’ rebirth will begin in another Sturbridge Townhouse unit, mere feet from the site where his previous one burned. But he’s sowing seeds in Central Arkansas that will aid in redeveloping his label — mentoring aspiring designers, facilitating a free sewing class for a local high school student who expressed interest in design. He knows that representation matters for the next generation of local designers. “With me getting the opportunity to express myself through fashion and inspire people that are younger than me, that are coming up and wanting to do this, it means everything to me,” he said.