This week’s FRONTPAGE.
“Life imitates art far more than art imitates life,” Oscar Wilde once said. The all-too-familiar phrase is one of those deep philosophies that rarely fails at getting the intellects buzzing, inviting think pieces long before the days of social media’s essay-style rants. But contrary to Wilde’s statement, many artists’ works originate right from real-life experiences, as is the case with Brooklyn-based brand Theophilio. Posing as a stylish extension of its founder, Edvin Thompson, Theophilio is essentially the fashion-ification of art imitates life.
Thompson also likes to call Theophilio a “wearable biography,” as the designer’s Caribbean heritage is unmistakably woven into its attractive, luxe designs. Brought up in Jamaica’s rich culture, Thompson appreciated the island beyond its sandy beaches and clear waters, finding himself captivated by the vibrant clothes and personalities in Kingston’s streets — his true runway before the runway. “When I was growing up, I didn’t really see any specific designers from a Caribbean diaspora, or any Black designers at all, being celebrated on a conceptual level,” Thompson states over the phone in between errands in the Garment District.
“Being brought up in Jamaica, I was always inclined to draw and paint what was around me. I take in so many inspirations from my community,” Thompson says. “The basis of a collection usually starts with me reimagining how Jamaica would look somewhere like New York — it’s just a peek into that different perspective.”
In 2002, Thompson and his family migrated to the United States, settling in New Jersey. It was in elementary school that a young Thompson would develop a deep appreciation for art. “Art class was my way of talking,” he says. Since he was still learning American English, painting and drawing were Thompson’s means of communicating with his classmates. And they certainly spoke his creative language, offering him a sense of belonging and normalcy during class.
Fast-forward to 2010 and Thompson’s family moved down south to Atlanta, Georgia. Now in high school, Thompson was on the grind, dishing out seafood plates at Red Lobster, a job he’d work for the next decade. When he wasn’t on the clock, Thompson hung out with the Cool Kids Crew, a high school fashion group he founded with a few friends. Together, the collective hosted fashion party fundraisers and dressed according to a weekly theme — one week could be punk rock, while the next was disco fever. “At the time, my high school didn’t have a fashion club. My close friend and I came up with [Cool Kids Crew] and it was what started my fashion design curiosity for me,” says Thompson. “I became more fixated with sketching women in clothing. That’s also when I started practicing sewing.” Like in his elementary art class, Thompson had once again found his tribe. Only this time, the Cool Kids Crew laid the foundation for what would become his groundbreaking career.
The high school club undoubtedly reminded him of his passion for design, but it was a road trip that truly sparked the flame. In 2013, Thompson and a few friends piled into a car and headed to Afropunk, the Brooklyn festival celebrating Black artists through music performances, carefree fashion, and all-around creative energy. As he looked around at the unapologetic individuals from the African diaspora, he couldn’t help but feel inspired. “I was just so floored with all these Black and Brown creatives all over the place. I was like, ‘I need to be here. I love this energy,’” Thompson excitedly recalls. “It really reminded me of my passion.”
With Thompson’s dreams tugging on his arm like an impatient little kid, he finally answered his calling and moved to New York. When his hopes of attending FIT didn’t pan out, he eagerly seized a couple internships instead, including a gig at sustainable streetwear brand Gypsy Sport.
After acquiring experience from his apprenticeships and side projects with fashion friends, Thompson ventured out on his own with Theophilio in 2016. When coming up with the brand’s name, Thompson based it around his middle name, Theophilus (a biblical name meaning “loved by God”), his personal way of always having his family included in the brand.
“Sexy, sophisticated, inclusive, culturally impactful, and Jamaican” is how Thompson describes Theophilio. The designer even threw in a “passa, passa,” a reference to the iconic dancehall party that originated in Kingston, to emphasize how his Jamaican roots play a significant role in his designs. “I design to celebrate myself and the people around me, and that’s why I love what I do and I’m excited about what I do,” Thompson says.
The brand’s Spring/Summer 2022 presentation is a perfect example of Thompson’s celebration. Titled “Air Jamaica,” the collection saw the designer issue a tasteful ode to the airline that brought him and his family to America. Opulent gowns, bright coordinates, and fishnet jumpsuits boasting the colors of the Rastafarian flag mingled on the runway, referencing the airline’s lively hues and notable champagne-lifestyle experience granted to everyone on board.
That season proved to be quite the game changer for Theophilio, with the show earning a spot on the official New York Fashion Week calendar and catching the attention of the fashion cognoscenti.
Maintaining that raw and authentic storytelling, Theophilio Spring/Summer 2023 further unraveled the biography of Thompson through leather galore and glamorous headpieces, which acknowledged the places he’s called home.
“I wanted to speak to the urban feel of living in Jersey, Atlanta, and New York,” Thompson said. “The leather styles really speak to that overall New York energy, and the ‘I Love TP’ tops just speak to that tourism, that nostalgia.”
The brand made its first foray into handbags that season, with the accessory nodding to the purses worn by Thompson’s mom during his youth. At the same time, the collection’s elevated suiting — spanning from classic power looks to micro-mini skirt suits — drew cues from his dad’s corporate attire.
In between his fashion spectacles, Thompson earned two significant wins from the CFDA in 2021: Vogue Fashion Fund finalist and American Emerging Designer of the Year, which he called a “huge leap forward for my community.” It all goes back to Thompson’s overarching message of representation, of being seen through his work. “Visibility is extremely key,” he states. “It’s important to be able to see yourself in these different spaces and have that freedom, that luxury within your subconscious.”
The current fashion landscape is undoubtedly brewing with diverse talent — an exciting but long overdue change in the industry. Being a part of this emerging class, Thompson believes the power of unity is now more crucial than ever (and he’s right). “We’re all rising together, and we should definitely champion and celebrate each other because it hasn’t been like this ever before,” he says.
Undoubtedly ahead of the game, Thompson is already thinking about future plans for Theophilio (seriously, he already has some ideas for a 2026 collection), looking to expand the brand’s retail presence and ink some collaborations in the near future.
But what happens in the next chapter of the story? Thompson points to one key aspect: community. Throughout his youth, those around the designer allowed him to be seen and heard as a creative, thus informing the authentic and honest storytelling ingrained in his very brand. Theophilio’s wearable art indeed mirrors the life of Thompson (sorry, Mr. Wilde), however it also carves out a dedicated space for rising Black designers like himself to be recognized. Essentially, Thompson’s art doesn’t need a seat at fashion’s “table” — he’s making his own.
Experience this story and others in the new issue of Highsnobiety Magazine, available from retailers around the world and our online store.