All photos by Erica Euse
I met Joshua Cooper and Laurence Chandler, the duo behind Rochambeau, at their Soho design studio in late October. Although I visited their studio at the end of the workday, their team was still bustling around the office. The drawing tables were strewn with papers printed with patterns and scribbled with notes. The surrounding walls were covered in colourful pictures torn from magazines and pages out of books. And their latest collection for spring 2014, which is inspired by ancient gladiators and modern-day boxers, hung inertly in the center of the room.
Josh was clad in all black from his cap to his shoes, and Laurence rocked a sweater draped over a tie-die graphic T-shirt. They joked to me that people don’t often understand their laid back personal styles in comparison with their forward thinking designs. Rochambeau is known for being street and a bit otherworldly. Before rappers were wearing leather skirts and calf-length fashion T-shirts, the brand was pushing the limits of menswear with their drape-y silhouettes and dark colour schemes.
Although Josh and Laurence’s clothing wasn’t reminiscent of what they put on the runway, their cool and confident demeanour certainly was. It made sense that they both have a defiant swagger – how else could two sneakerheads go from daydreaming about fashion to having one of the most anticipated shows at Milk Studio’s Made Fashion Week in only six years?
The brand’s rise started ten years ago at Pace University, during their first weeks of class. In an elevator, on the way to their dorm rooms – which they later were kicked out of for smoking weed – Josh noticed Laurence was wearing a pair of Nike Dunk Hi SB's. Their shared interest in sneakers ignited a conversation that kick started their friendship. It didn’t take long for the native New Yorkers to go from partying together to conspiring on how to build a business. They printed business cards before they ever had a real company.
“We both had the same mentality, we weren’t at college to party, it was more about getting our footing and starting something,” Josh said.
As skaters and streetwear fanatics, it seemed fitting that the first products they designed together were graphic T-shirts, following in the footsteps of brands like SSUR and Mishka. But there was a moment when they realised that branded hats and hoodies weren’t going to cut it.
“It was a small business and the economy was changing at the time, so things were a bit shaky. Building a brand and making money of off graphics was just something that wasn’t going to be a future for us. At that point, we really evaluated what we wanted the brand to represent and turned to something that was more luxury and higher end.”
In 2007, after graduating college, the friends launched Rochambeau, which means, “rock, paper, scissors,” in French. With the new brand, they ventured to create something that would play with androgyny, take risks and elevate men’s fashion beyond the heritage gear and workwear that everyone was wearing at the time.
At its inception, the following for Rochambeau was small. Josh and Laurence’s progressive take on menswear garnered the attention of a niche fashion-forward audience. Unlike now, when popular rappers like A$AP Rocky and Kanye West have pushed the boundaries with unique silhouettes, many dudes back then weren’t open to the concept of drop-crotch pants.
“The magazines who were giving us coverage were super small and super niche. It’s interesting because it’s not that things are there yet, but we have definitely seen a change through the merger of [popular] music and high fashion. It is at a place where people are expecting men to wear something different or expecting the next label to be daring,” Josh said.
As self-taught designers, Josh and Laurence have relied on trial and error to create their collections. Without a strict design background, the boys are able to venture outside the box, allowing them to break new ground with their concepts. Their latest collection for spring 2014 is a perfect example. It features a new take on a classic boxing robe and shirts and pants with a colorful red and blue print that looks like a bruise.
“When we are looking at our inspirations for our collections, it is never like ‘Oh no, you cant do that.’ We will try it until it really doesn’t work,” Josh said.
“It has almost been the inverse. We’ll be like yeah let’s take this, it is cool as fuck. And then it comes back and it is hideous. We recently realised how vital it is for menswear to fit easily. That is not something you need to run away from, even if you want to do cool stuff,” Laurence said.
In order to maintain Rochambeau’s high quality standards, Josh and Laurence have moved all production to the Garment District in Midtown, New York. Although production costs are higher and they find the conditions of many of NYC factories less than desirable, the designers weren’t willing to diminish their standards to save a buck.
“When we would try something different during the first couple seasons, the overseas manufacturer would send us sample pictures of a guy wearing our shirt as pants. We would just be like, What the fuck is going on?”
Even after years of personal investments and growing a loyal following, funding has been one of their biggest obstacles. Laurence joked that their inability to afford lighting led to them being labelled as a “goth” brand. But in reality, their commitment to building a company that is true to them without succumbing to popular trends has meant passing on opportunities that would make them money.
“It is something we are doing because we believe in it and love it. We want to be a part of the group of people who have done things the right way and created success. Sometimes the hardest decision is saying no to an opportunity because it can fuck things up. There are some opportunities, those too good to be true, where you have to say this is not going to work right now,” Laurence said.
Both Josh and Laurence are content with how Rochambeau has evolved over the years. Although they still face challenges, they’re making it happen exactly the way they want to.