The Wit and Wordplay of Willie Norris

Fashion
The radical Outlier designer is back with another batch of her cult t-shirts.

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It’s not uncommon for designers to become fixated on one aspect of their craft. Some think in terms of silhouette or fabric texture. Others may obsess over graphics or form. Willie Norris thinks deeply about words and the shapes of the alphabet. “It’s this tic I have,” the design director of the cultish performance-driven brand Outlier, and a rising fashion figure in her own right, tells me. “I always count the number of letters. I’ll spell backward, too,” Norris explains.

It’s early summer in New York; in a week, rainbows and identity-affirming slogans will cover the streets. We are tucked away at a queer-owned restaurant, sharing appetizers, both dressed in head-to-toe menswear. Despite it being a Wednesday night, we are committed to downing rounds of drinks and exchanging stories of our respective becomings. (Her drink of choice is a dirty gin martini.) Norris is refreshingly candid. (“I sucked my first dick at Metropolitan,” she says, referring to the Williamsburg bar, in a characteristic aside. “I wear that as a badge of honor.”)

Norris’ affinity for words isn’t surprising, considering she is best known for a series of T-shirts printed with phrases such as “what exactly is heterosexuality and what causes it” and “promote homosexuality.” Upon release in 2018, the T-shirts sold out immediately and have, outside of a few small pop-ups and gifts to friends and family, technically been unavailable since. You can’t find them for purchase online, and Norris’ website has been offline until today. But none of that has stopped Norris’ work from becoming a staple in LGBTQIA+ spaces in New York City. “I knew I made it when I walked into 3 Dollar Bill and saw multiple people wearing the T-shirts that I didn’t know personally,” she says.

Today, for the first time since, Norris is set to release a new batch of “what is heterosexuality and what causes it” T-shirts, the timing a subtle nod to Pride Month and her queer community. For a long time, her work at Outlier—in service to that brand’s progressive quality-driven ethos—was the thing people knew her for, if they knew of her at all. Lately, though, she’s been stopped on the street and written about for being Willie. SNL’s Bowen Yang asked her to dress him for the Critic’s Choice Awards, and she’s been tapped to dress Hasan Minaj for his upcoming Netflix special.

If Norris is fairly new to the public-facing side of things, she spent plenty of time working her way into the fashion business. She moved to New York in 2008, freshly out of her first relationship and recently enrolled at Parsons School of Design. The breakup ignited a new sense of independence. She immersed herself in Manhattan nightlife and, eventually, arrived at many personal revelations. “It wasn’t until senior year that I started to have inklings of being attracted to not exclusively one [type of person],” she says.

Professionally, things were somewhat clearer: she knew that as an aspiring designer, college would never be worth the debt, so instead of spending her time in class or kissing strangers in dorm rooms, she threw herself into six part-time jobs in fashion. This eventually landed her a job at Isaac Mizrahi’s QVC line, which led her to an interview at Outlier, where she has worked for the last seven years. That brand, founded by Tyler Clemens and Abe Burmeister, is known for high-quality, occasionally experimental, and evidently masculine workwear. But Norris forged an almost immediate creative connection with the founders. “We’re both deeply obsessed with finding the best materials in the world. It’s an endless pursuit,” she explains about their working relationship. “It just so happens to be a menswear distributor. So we have a menswear audience, baby.”

It’s unlikely that there is much crossover between the audience that Norris’ graphic T-shirts attract and Outlier’s, and Norris is transparent about her vision for her day job: she cares deeply about the quality of fabrics and functionality and less about where it fits into the industry at large, or how her work there might complicate ideas about gender and self-expression. “We’re disillusioned if we think that we can put [womenswear and menswear] together as one,” she explains. “The way that femininity is portrayed through fashion is deeply different than how masculinity is portrayed,” she adds.

But Norris’s very presence at Outlier, regardless of the brand’s output, is radical. “Let’s be real; nothing like me has ever existed in fashion,” she says as our second round of drinks arrives. She’s not wrong: trans representation in fashion is still sparse. It was only in the fall of 2019 when the lead designer of No Sesso, Pierre Davis, made history as the first trans woman to present a collection on the official New York Fashion Week calendar (though other nonbinary and trans designers had shown off-schedule during previous seasons).

Norris tells me all this with her hands and takes the extra time between words to enunciate vowels. There is an intensity to the cadence of our conversation. We rarely talk over each other or get side-tracked, and she wants me to know that she is serious about forging a legacy in an often-fickle business. “Fashion finds someone, and they provide exposure, but they don’t provide anything else to sustain a career. So when I started just believing in the fact that I have enough integrity and enough staying power to be doing this for the rest of my life… that acknowledgment became my freedom,” she explains.

Norris’ professional journey has been highly personal, too. During the pandemic and after breaking up with her first live-in boyfriend, she started to become more vocal about her trans identity. “I remember I made a Reddit post [at Outlier]. I said, ‘Hey guys, I’ve been designing your clothes for Outlier, and just so you know, I’m a trans woman. My pronouns are She/Her, but please, whenever possible, refer to me as Willie.’ That’s all I want, and that’s all I ask for,” she explains. The conversations were neither linear nor easy, but they were necessary. “It’s really intense reintroducing yourself,” she says now. “There is so much emotional labor when you have to have these conversations. I always just prefer [saying] ‘Call me Willie,’ because I deeply identify as a woman, but if you say, Willie, I feel very grounded.”

Today, Norris lives in Williamsburg and spends many evenings at queer bars and drag shows like C’mon Everybody and PAT. Despite being well-known in queer circles, she explains, dating has proven to be more difficult as she’s become more vocal about who she is. “I am a trans woman who is deeply comfortable in my masculinity,” she says. “However, I don’t quite fill what many people are looking for in a woman because I am often more successful than them, or I’m more masculine, and that freaks them out.”

After dinner, we find ourselves at The Woods in Williamsburg, where Wednesdays are LGBTQIA+ night. We share a round of tequila sodas before making our way through the crowded bar and park ourselves on the wooden benches outside. Brooklyn will be a sea of corporate rainbows in less than a week. Our identities will be the reason we cross paths repeatedly at parades, marches, and invited to parties. But tonight, we are just two bodies dancing in menswear with all of our good friends. Which, come to think of it, would be a nice phrase to put on a T-shirt.


Hair by Sergio Estrada

Makeup by Mical Klip at MA+ Group using Chanel Beauty

Special thanks to C’mon Everybody

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