At first glance, the Instagram page that Kidus Zelalem, CC ’24, created for the New Proletariat reveals a sleek, polished aesthetic, with smooth lines and aluminum detailing. Today, Zelalem assembles pieces for his upcoming architecturally-inspired set of workwear designed with Adobe Illustrator, but his sophisticated expression first started as a simple love for disassembling pens and a middle-school fascination with PowerPoint.
Zelalem started the New Proletariat in Aurora, CO, where his family moved after leaving Addis Ababa, Ethiopia. Enduring years of social acclimation and pressure to conform to a new culture, Zelalem struggled to distinguish his own goals from those that were imposed upon him. Dreams he had long held, like being a drummer, felt unattainable.
“For me, this has been a process of trying to get back to that kid who wanted to be a drummer,” Zelalem said. “Is Kidus this person that exists to satisfy the needs of his community exclusively? Or is there something else that is maybe forgotten and neglected by me?”
The brand’s name originates from influences in Rousseau, Montesquieu, and other French philosophers. Their responses to working-class issues inspired Zelalem’s production models. He applies those writings to how he views the world today.
“I think we live in an information era, and we need to get back to the basics and try to get a sense of who we are through the mess,” Zelalem said.
The New Proletariat is located in small satellite studios that employ local community members. This model aims to close the degrees of separation often seen in traditional fashion houses to usher in “creative diversity,” and, in doing so, address the needs of “individual communities that would otherwise be ignored in favor of what’s most commercially viable.”
“Let’s be genuine about what we do and how we do it; that’s what the industry really needs,” Zelalem said.
The New Proletariat focuses its design on what Zelalem calls industrial futurism—that is, making its pieces equally fashionable and functional.
“The New Proletariat produces androgynous architectural-inspired work,” Zelalem said. “The pieces are rooted in a deep appreciation of multidisciplinary design and the Bauhaus tradition.”
Rather than labeling garments with plastic or paper, Zelalem has branded every piece with an aluminum tag on a dog chain. Working with an independent Brooklyn metal manufacturer, Zelalem designed tags to be repurposed into bottle openers or used as necklaces. This focus on sustainability also extends to other aspects of the design. All fabrics used in the collection are milled out of an American manufacturer, and Zelalem sources custom buttons and woven labels exclusively from the United States.
“Fashion’s current problems right now are unethical labor practices, production, harmful beauty standards, industry-wide resistance to change,” Zelalem said.
By starting small, Zelalem hopes to create a human-centered design model. For example, the company employs its own sizing guide instead of using the traditional small, medium, and large sizes.
“This is a reclamation; I’ve never had [the] agency to decide who I was to the external world,” Zelalem said. “I think of clothes as democratic, because they are accessible to people and you can use them as a vehicle for ideas, a vehicle for values.”
With the New Proletariat, Zelalem hopes to build a brand that he is proud to pass on to future designers. He’s working to promote values that he believes push the current fashion model forward.
“The New Proletariat organically came as a result of me trying to reclaim my identity,” Zelalem said, “and what was the most opposite of a kid going into his first year of college as an engineering major? I don’t know—probably becoming a sick-ass fashion designer.”