In Focus: Rhuigi Villasenor of RHUDE

Rhuigi Villasenor is the brains behind RHUDE, the budding L.A. menswear line. You’ve probably heard some of the hype surrounding the brand—his all over paisley print T-shirt blew up after Kendrick Lamar sported it during his performance at the 2012 BET Hip Hop Awards. As the hip-hop world has a certain proclivity for all things paisley (see: Tupac and Snoop Lion, who, although he gave up his old name, will never give up his favorite print), and as soon as Kendrick wore that shirt, Rhuigi was suddenly thrust into the spotlight and his name became synonymous with the rap rag trade.

I knew all this before I ever spoke with Rhuigi, and thus I prepared myself to meet with a rags-no-riches version of Kanye West. I had read a quote where he said, “When I hear a friend is excited, yeah, I want to hear about their success, but I also want to outshine them.” Though I was intrigued by his designs, I wasn’t exactly primed to be blown away by the kid who created them. I’m a desirer of truth in the inward parts, and I did not expect to find such veracity in Mr. Villasenor. As soon as we sat down to talk, however, I realized that my preliminary assessments had been erroneous.

Rhuigi was earnest and composedly spirited, and before I knew it, we’d been talking for over an hour, our conversation ranging from the specifics of his designs (classic and minimalistic while adding a bit of grit), to his taste in books and movies (he’s a self-proclaimed fantasy geek and loves both The Lord of the Rings and the Star Wars trilogies and is additionally amazed at how broadly The Fountainhead changed his perception), to his alcohol of choice (Patrón, a freshly opened bottle of which he pulled out of nowhere and toasted to me at the conclusion of our interview).

Originally from the Philippines, Rhuigi traveled extensively with his architect father throughout the Middle East and Asia and was taught at a young age how to be both driven as well as gracious. “My father always emphasized the importance of respect,” he says. “He didn’t ground me. Instead, we’d have conversations about why something was wrong or why it was right. He also taught us about money; my siblings and I always knew the value of a dollar. And now, I’m really close with my older sister, and I really value her advice. I come from a humble, average family. I’d like to think that I’m the guy you want your parents to meet.”

The aesthetic of his RHUDE designs is inspired by many things: his fascination with history and various cultures, his love for classic menswear cuts with a modern slimming twist (“putting a classic design through the RHUDE blender,” he says), dark palettes to juxtapose what he calls his “colorful life,” masculinity with a hint of delicacy. “I try to find the balance in everything,” he tells me. “I think that RHUDE can almost be considered a gender-neutral brand.”

With his S/S 2014 designs, Rhuigi explored his love for the Ramones and biker culture, especially here in Los Angeles. “I find that I am often inspired by “R” words, and the Ramones ties in perfectly with that idea. I’m inspired by rock and roll on the whole. It’s such a universal thing, and it’s especially influential in American history. I generally try to put together two things that you wouldn’t typically think would go hand-in-hand, like a recent pearl design I did. I thought of the grunge rock and roll musicians of the 90s wearing these nice, hand-beaded pearl shirts.” Again, it’s trying to find that sense of balance.

As we continue to discuss how his musical tastes affect his designs, I mention my surprise at hearing him say he is inspired by the culture of rock and roll since he has become so synonymous with the world of hip-hop. “I’m really glad you brought that up,” he says. “I have a huge love for the hip-hop culture, but I’m not at all selective about what type of person wears my clothes. I listen to hip-hop, but I also listen to other music. My favorite musician is [Brazilian songwriter] Antônio Carlos Jobim. Your style is obviously going to be affected by the music that you listen to, but I want my clothing to be applicable to all kinds of people. A rapper will have six months where he talks about Versace in all of his lyrics, but then suddenly it’s all about Vuitton. There is no loyalty there. I’m more concerned about longevity. Take the bandana shirt, for instance. After Kendrick wore it, I could have capitalized on that completely and made a whole line of bandana stuff. Instead, I steered away from that.” He’s grateful for what that design did for him, but he doesn’t want to be known strictly for being The Bandana Kid.

RHUDE Spring/Summer 2014 from Milk Made on Vimeo.

In his A/W 2014 samples, he’s revisiting minimalism and playing around with various textured prints. “I want to present something refreshing by using traditional silhouettes and adding a modern cut with the very highest level of tailoring,” he said. It seems that he’s harking back to some of what he learned while he was apprenticing with Shaun Samson, whose recent collection showcased a similar aesthetic with a modern take on traditional plaid. “Shaun was like a big brother to me, and he taught me so much about fashion. His mentor was Kim Jones, so they taught me a lot about the specifics of tailoring.”

This seems like pretty comprehensive knowledge coming from a guy with no formal design background. It’s clear he is intelligent—he was Valedictorian at his high school’s graduation—but he opted not to continue down the path of academia. “I always knew that I wanted to have an impact on our modern culture,” he told me. “Whether that was through art or music or design, I wasn’t quite sure right after high school, but I knew that I didn’t want to go immediately into college. I definitely believe in formal education, but I saw school as more of a guidebook for understanding what you want to do, for who you want to be. At that time, I was just sort of messing around with design work, and when I came up with the idea of the bandana shirt, it was in that cocky sort of way that many young teenagers have where I just wanted to have something that no one else had.”

“Not even Snoop Dogg,” I say, “though he was interested, apparently.”

He laughs. “Oh my God, yes! I actually have a cameo in a Snoop Dogg video wearing that bandana shirt. I was there assisting with some of the styling, and I had that shirt on, and Snoop stopped me and was like, ‘I like your shirt. Where did you get it?’ And when I told him that I made it, he asked me if I had one in blue, and I was like, ‘Nah, sorry, man.’ I wanted to keep it for myself since no one else had it.”

At this point, I ask Rhuigi how he feels that living and working in a place like Los Angeles rather than a fashion capital like New York City has affected his designs. He tells me that L.A. is all he really knows, that he’s been completely submerged in the culture and is thus a direct product of it. “It will never be a fashion capital of the world, because we’ve already got Hollywood, and I don’t think there is room for both. But there is something really beautiful happening in the design realm of the West Coast right now. The digital revolution and the internet have opened things up so vastly. There is probably some kid in Alaska who is creating the next big thing in the fashion world right now, and through social media and making online contacts, he could get his stuff out there to the public and take things to the highest level, even though he may be living in an isolated town in Anchorage. So, really, the stage is open to anyone, so to speak.”

His clothing is produced at a factory in North Hollywood, and I ask him whether or not he thinks it’s important for his clothes to be made in America. “Absolutely,” he replies. “As nice as it would be to produce my stuff overseas for a much lower cost, I can’t do that. I take complete pride in producing all of my clothes right here in the U.S., especially in the heart of Los Angeles. As of now, we’re still small-staffed, so we’re producing a limited amount of each item. In a way, it’s good that my clothes can’t be attained easily, but that expansion is something that I’m working on at this very moment.”

Although RHUDE is considered to be one of the new kids on the fashion block, the brand has come a long way since their first tradeshow in Berlin last year. “When we first arrived at Bread & Butter, I thought that we’d be eaten alive. It was then that I first realized how many brands there really are in this world, and I was thinking, ‘Okay, there is room for everyone, but this is all becoming a bit contaminated.’ There are way too many companies with no actual ideas, who are just putting out—for lack of a better word—shit. There are a lot of people who want the fame of having a successful company but who don’t have the conscience of wanting to contribute to the clothing community or trying to better the design world. That being said, although there were a whole a lot of brands at that tradeshow, so many people were intrigued with the technicality I was using with my clothes, and they couldn’t believe that I was not only designing these pieces in not New York but Los Angeles, nor could they get over the fact that I was only twenty-one at the time. Somebody from Topshop called me ‘The Chosen One.’ He was joking, of course, but my point is, we were getting a huge response there, and that was a big pat on the back for me. It was the first place I ever showed, and to be received that well was an amazing feeling.”

RHUDE had their most recent showcase in during Tokyo Fashion Week in February; you can check out some of the designs from that collection here. Rhuigi expects to showcase his latest designs in New York for S/S 2015.

At this point, Rhuigi sits back and smiles. “This is a world that I’m so happy to have become a part of, and I never want to take any of it for granted. I think it’s important to constantly remind yourself of all the things you’re grateful for. I haven’t fed enough African kids or donated enough money to rebuild a school in the Philippines for me to feel like someone who is truly important. I just make clothes, and some people happen to like them. There is no progression in arrogance. My father always used to say, ‘A closed mind is a fool’s paradise,’ and that’s something that I truly believe.” As if I didn’t already feel bad enough about my precursory perception of the guy, he had to go and toss out that locution life lesson. A young Yeezy? No way.

With that, he pours us each a glass of Patrón, and we toast. “Here’s to keeping our feet on solid ground while remaining at the top,” he says. And that apex, for now, is more than enough.

Photos by Chris Swainston.

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