How Emily Adams Bode Aujla created a menswear ‘brand that has no gender’

Fashion designer Emily Adams Bode Aujla in her studio. (Christopher Gregory-Rivera for The Washington Post)

Her clothes are ornate, androgynous — and a critical success

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Taking up about 10,000 square feet, the offices of the fashion line Bode are spread over two floors of an industrial building in Brooklyn. The headquarters feel like a massive warehouse of antiques: mid-century women’s basketball posters, dolls, a box of cigar labels, several shelves of French linens dating from the 1890s to the 1930s. Emily Adams Bode Aujla, 33, started the brand six years ago making mostly one-of-a-kind menswear items: jackets constructed from patchwork quilts, shirts created from handwoven African textiles. She found materials while frequenting estate sales and auctions. When she thinks about designing, “it goes back to the idea of preservation, so you can tell the narrative of one specific garment,” she says.

In 2018, the brand expanded into full collections, which by the next year were shown on the menswear fashion calendar in Paris. They include everything from leather espadrilles to purple wool suits to crocheted cardigans to tuxedos; some are made of vintage fabrics while others are replications. There are Bode boutiques in New York and Los Angeles, and the brand is available in retailers such as Ssense and Bergdorf Goodman.

Bode’s clothing is boyish and usually oversized by design. “It’s something that would be very hard to place in a specific time period,” Bode Aujla says. A pair of black striped high-rise pants called Hollywood Ribbon Trousers ($850) are made from a reproduction of a rainbow ribbon fabric from the 1940s in a silk and acetate blend. Like a lot of the brand’s clothes, the Hollywood pants and their matching workwear-style jacket ($1,300) are at once androgynous and ornate. Many of Bode Aujla’s pieces are adorned with beads, prints or embroidery. The menswear line’s dedication to whimsy and color gives it a softness, a kind of femininity. “I did menswear initially instead of womenswear so I could design for someone outside of myself and think of this person and their habits and their understanding of the world around them that was not just my own,” she says.


This approach received fast critical success. In 2019, three years after her debut collection, Bode Aujla won the award for Emerging Designer of the Year from the Council of Fashion Designers of America (CFDA)/Vogue Fashion Fund. (The previous year she was a runner-up.) In 2021, Bode was included in the show “In America: A Lexicon of Fashion” at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York. Later that year she was awarded American Menswear Designer of the Year by CFDA. She won again in 2022. “What makes Emily very special is … she has a very laser-focused vision on what her brand is. Brands can be about marketing and hype often, but hers is about craft, talent and creativity, an old-school way of creating,” says Steven Kolb, CEO of the fashion council. “There is a quietness about her as a person and also about her brand that resonated with men and women. It really is a brand that has no gender.”

Bode’s signature boxy shirts, which are 50 percent of what it sells, are somehow fitting on all manner of people. Harry Styles, Jay-Z, Jonah Hill, Lorde, Ethan Hawke, David Sedaris — all celebrities who are fans of the brand — look like the clothing was made for them. “I have a shirt from them made from a German tablecloth,” Sedaris says. The humorist and author thinks he owns at least eight pieces. “I’m not sure I’ve gotten so many comments on an article of clothing. … I always tell them more than they want to know: how much it costs and where I got it.” Half of Bode customers are women, but what is notable is they are not just purchasing the clothes for men. “We have women buying it for themselves and also for other women. So that’s … what sets us apart from another traditional menswear line,” says Bode Aujla, who has started adjusting some patterns to cater to female clients. “Because I approach the collections as menswear, that’s why it’s menswear to me.”

Jessica Glasscock, a former researcher at the Metropolitan Museum of Art’s Costume Institute and a lecturer at the Parsons School of Design, sees Bode Aujla’s style of dressing men as reflective of the way vintage enthusiasts shop. “The assignment of gender is once removed and can be ignored in vintage dressing. Those rules don’t exist because you’re just seeing a great jacket rather than a great menswear jacket,” Glasscock says. “Vintage shopping is a huge influence on what Emily thinks is allowed in her vision.” The Bode brand isn’t marketed as gender fluid or unisex. It just is.

By 16, Bode Aujla knew she would design clothes. “I wanted to be able to affect culture” through the way people dress, she recalls. “I always had that in my head.” She grew up in Atlanta, but her father, a doctor, and her mother, an artist, were both from Massachusetts. Cape Cod, in particular, was an important place for her. “But I loved growing up in the South,” she says. “There’s a lot of characteristics, especially around hospitality and making people feel welcome, that I admire from people that I was raised around.”

After high school, she took a sort of gap year to study at the American School in Switzerland and then enrolled at Parsons School of Design and Eugene Lang College of Liberal Arts at the New School in New York for a five-year dual degree in menswear design and philosophy. She interned at Marc Jacobs and Ralph Lauren.

Before graduating, she had been recruited by a handful of American brands and considered a position at a company she didn’t name. “It was a very good offer. … I immediately was like, ‘Oh my gosh, I want to start my own brand,’ ” she says. She hoped to create a line that would make “people change their relationship to materials.”

She developed her business plan while working as a retail buyer, prop stylist and photographer. She also got financial assistance from family, who helped pay her rent for two years. Her recent 29 Clinton collection is a reference to the address of that apartment, a top-floor seven-story walk-up on the Lower East Side where she lived from the fall of 2011 until she moved in with now-husband Aaron Aujla a few blocks away in 2019. The two met at her 21st birthday party, when a mutual friend brought Aaron. “Her whole MO has not changed since then. When people that age say, ‘I’m going to have a brand and open a store,’ it’s kind of like, ‘Okay, cool?’ ” Aaron says with a laugh. “But we bonded over that love for dreaming up crazy things and doing it.”

“I remember the first buyers that I ever met with, no one believed this was a viable business,” Bode Aujla says. How could retailers put in orders for clothing that was one-of-a-kind? they asked. Initially the Bode brand had a few pop-up stores. Prospective buyers had to make an appointment to visit a small Chinatown atelier, where they tried on pieces while employees sewed around them. Some of Bode Aujla’s first trousers had seven-inch seam allowances in the back and the pockets were placed far apart, so the waist size could be adjusted. “I want everybody and anybody to be able to buy our clothing,” she says. (Trousers are now offered in sizes 25 to 40.)

She chose to prioritize wholesalers to grow the business, and stores like Totokaelo, the now closed multibrand boutique, put in small orders for simple black or cream lace shirts. It was the kind of store that didn’t have strict gender divides, so Bode easily fit into the retail space. Press followed — GQ magazine editor Will Welch was an early champion — and the brand’s status rose as more retailers signed on. Once Bode Aujla opened her first store on the Lower East Side in 2019, her business had become viable and critically adored.

Bode Aujla speaks with a lot of determination but has a soft voice and quiet demeanor. She often wears pants or coats or shirts she designed, paired with vintage pieces. Her effortless integration of Bode into her outfits makes a compelling case for women to wear it. Today she is dressed in an oversized antique men’s bib shirt — which her company offers a similar reproduction of — paired with a vintage Chanel basket-shaped bag. (She collects the brand.) She wears piles of high-karat gold jewelry, some from her friend, the jewelry designer Jean Prounis.

In headquarters, there are floor-to-ceiling stacks of antique quilts organized in a system akin to a library database and tended by in-house archivists. “We’ll photograph them and use them for historical significance and look at the patterns in the prints,” she tells me. “Sometimes we’ll get one that’s so rotted, it’s oxidized so much that the prints are not even visible, but we’ll use it … to know the patterns and where it came from.”

Bode Aujla shows me a shelf of fabric waiting for mending. “Some of these textiles are 100 and 120 years old. So they really need a lot of care and love to bring them to the place in which a client can wear them,” she says. But a certain amount of imperfection is acceptable. “If something is very purposefully splattered … that’s okay. We’re not going to cover every single mark.” She picks up a shirt made of a heavy, creamy cloth. “This had a fold mark from where this cloth had been probably folded in somebody’s linen closet for maybe 80 years.” The team covered the crease mark in a star stitch, which is used in quilts, and soon it would be for sale. “In a literal sense, they are showing the work that goes into fashion — every stitch,” Glasscock says. “It’s so thoughtful.” Sustainability, she notes, is a common focus these days, but Bode Aujla makes sustainability “the text, not the subtext.”

“I did menswear initially instead of womenswear so I could design for someone outside of myself and think of this person and … the world around them that was not just my own.”

Bode Aujla’s inspirations are intimate, almost insular. She got the idea for the 29 Clinton collection while unpacking boxes of clothes, fabric and books from her time in her post-college apartment. She “can attach how she sources to personal memories,” explains Kolb of the CFDA, “and then a customer associates it with their own memories of shopping.” Her work is based on layers of narratives: the vintage fabrics’ built-in history, Bode Aujla transforming it into an item of clothing, and what the customer will bring to the piece.

Family is another influence on Bode, both the idea of it and literal family: Her husband, who is the co-founder of Green River Project, a studio that builds furniture and interiors, collaborates with her and works in the same building; his brother Dev Aujla is Bode’s CEO. In the fall of 2021, Bode Aujla wed Aaron, who is originally from British Columbia and is Punjabi, at their home in Connecticut in both Punjabi and western ceremonies. She and the Bode team designed all the clothes for the wedding party — and it became the basis for the recent E.A.B.A. Wedding collection (Bode Aujla’s initials for her married name). “It’s natural for me to make all the clothes for my wedding and to share that with people,” she says. The collection, which came out earlier this summer, included formal pieces such as black peak lapel tuxedo jackets with grosgrain ribbon ties and a white pajama set with white rickrack detail. “I wore that pajama for a morning prayer when a Sikh priest came in and blessed the house,” Aaron says. “They’re based off of the kind of pajamas she’s made for me before — it’s super meaningful.”

I ask if she’s ever concerned that it’s the sort of thing that could feel too personal for some customers or difficult to translate. “It works for us. I know that’s not for everybody,” she says, explaining she’s aware that some people want their professional lives to be detached from their personal lives. “It’s the way my brain works.”

The company’s ambitions seem grand but methodical. It is an enterprise that “I want to pass on to my children. And I want my children to pass it on to their children,” says Bode Aujla, whose executive team is all women except for members of her family. “Every decision that we make has this idea of legacy in mind versus scaling for the sake of scaling.” Her influences give an idea of her plans for Bode. Three of her favorite apparel companies are Ralph Lauren, Eileen Fisher and Chanel. All are very different, but each started as family companies, and both Chanel and Eileen Fisher are still privately held. “Is she cool with her beautiful shops in L.A. and New York that’s a community center in many ways for her customer?” says Kolb, referring to the brand’s tailor shop that also sells coffee and snacks next door to the Lower East Side store. “Maybe she doesn’t want to be a $100 million brand. Not everybody does.”

Even if a large heritage brand offered her a position as designer — say, Calvin Klein or a company owned by LVMH — she says right now she wants to concentrate on Bode. Retail will be the focus for the next two to five years, with a London store they’re scouting locations for. Then Paris, then perhaps Japan or Korea — two big markets for Bode — or places that she and her family have ties to, like Atlanta, Cape Cod or British Columbia. Bode Aujla loves spending time in her retail stores, where male and female employees seem evenly mixed, all of them wearing the brand. “People when they shop are often quite emotional and it’s very personal to buy clothing. … That’s compounded … when we’re dealing with antique materials,” she says. “You’re putting on something that had 100 years of life before. It’s a very delicate experience. … It’s not really uncommon for people to cry in our store.”

Occasionally, someone will buy a piece and then reach out to ask if there’s anything more Bode Aujla can tell them about what they bought. “That’s why I make clothes,” she says, “because I can really share that with somebody. And then that story is not being lost to me.” She continued, “If I can share that little bit of knowledge … it’s super inspiring.”

Marisa Meltzer is a writer in New York. Her most recent book is “This Is Big: How the Founder of Weight Watchers Changed the World (and Me).”



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