As the blizzard Nemo hit Manhattan, i-D online was keeping safe and sound inside the studio of Jen Kao, getting a preview of her autumn/winter 13 collection, her views on modern dressing, and an introduction to miniature Japanese food.
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If there’s a preconception that everything is bigger in America, Jen Kao’s studio doesn’t serve to invalidate it. Located on the tenth floor of a skyscraper on Varick Street in the Soho area of Manhattan, it’s the diametrical opposite to a young London designer’s studio: spacious, corporate, and really rather grown-up, with sixteen full-time employees. Ten seasons into her designer career, the Kansas girl with the Taiwanese roots and the [sort of] GPS-inventing dad is finding her place on New York’s modernist fashion scene.
And it’s a scene that suits her. Luxuriously stark, the work of Kao concerns itself almost exclusively with dressing the modern woman. For her autumn/winter 13 collection, Kao tackled a wearable kind of futurism, merging shiny sci-fi-esque materials such as PVC, leather and devore with modern wardrobe essentials like denim and her distinctive patchwork. Playing with boxier shapes, Kao maintains interesting but unfussy silhouettes, which originate in a mix between her views of what modern dressing should be, and what she’d like to wear herself.
This New York Fashion Week, Kao put on her biggest show to date, taking out the Moynihan Station for a staging, which didn’t just suit the aesthetics of her label, but her ambitions to join the ranks of the biggest designers at New York Fashion Week – a prospect which is anything but far-fetched with the rate this young designer is going at. In the middle of Nemo, the blizzard that hit Manhattan just two days before the Jen Kao show, i-D paid the designer a visit.
Your studio is so big and totally unlike anything you’d ever see in London. How important are these amazing surroundings to what you do? I think it’s so important. Everyone that walks in here is always a little surprised at first, because there are a lot of people that do everything in-house. Since the beginning I’ve been really focused, and personally I don’t think you can really control things without having everything connected. We do a lot of experimentation, not just with fabrication but with silhouettes. You have to see it as a process, and to me having things out of house or overseas and see it a couple of months later, you can’t do a collection as a process.
What was your process like with this collection? In a way I think… I won’t lie. I design for myself, too. And I think that’s real. It’s been great to have a working process with Jodie [Barnes, Jen’s stylist], but it is about what I see that I want and the girls around me want in the future.
What is the collection about, then? I actually had a more concise inspiration than usual. There’s not some sort of aspirational type of story. It’s purely an approach to real modern-day dressing, and what I think about fashion now and how collections work. So you’ll see it in the way we piece together the fabrics. There’s a contradiction between this dolly and polished look with something very modern and street tough. And that’s kind of how I’ve kept it clean.
And Jodie consults as well as styles? Yeah, we see each other a couple of times throughout the season. I like this realistic and simplistic outline of things, and I’m thinking about how to break the boundaries within that. So a lot of times with these silhouettes, when you think about what it is as a garment – a pullover or a pair of pants and a jacket – that’s what it is. It’s very simple. But what’s taken within that is what’s forward.
Where do you come from? I was born in LA and I grew up in Kansas since I was three. I came to New York for college when I was eighteen. I went to NYU for undergrad – I studied Ceramic Sculpture and Creative Writing – and after that I went to Parsons before working for a couple of designers and then I started my own label.
Is it true that your dad invented GPS? He didn’t invent GPS. He co-founded Garmin, a company that has revolutionised technologies for GPS, personal navigation devices and other GPS programs and products.
Has this technological aspect had any influence on you? Yeah, I think you can see it in the fabrics we choose. A lot of stuff is really tech-y… neoprene and almost what you’d see in active wear, but elevated into womenswear. I definitely think there’s a sense of execution and everything having to be really perfect.
Are you quite anal? Super. Before I started this company, from my experiences with other designers, the one thing that was pulling them down sometimes was that there was no business plan when they began. They were just like, “I want to do something creative.” It’s so important to be talking about both things at the same time, so in that sense it’s very good for me to have some sort of example to draw on, even though this industry is a totally different industry from my dad’s.
Do you have any weird hobbies? Yeah. I’m into comic books and video games. I’ve been reading comic books since I was a kid, so I love the whole spectrum. I’m sort of obsessed with toys as well. I collect a lot of stuff, like miniature Japanese food… it’s little revealing about my cross of personalities. I love positioning and organising things.
What is miniature Japanese food exactly? It’s basically sets of tiny plastic foods, which will be in really strange categories like airplane food for instance, which will come in a little set with a tiny little tray and a little curry thing and chopsticks which have a mini paper sleeve. So you build it and you keep it in miniature refrigerators. It’s really bizarre…
I know you’re a music geek as well. Tell me about the show soundtrack. I’m always deep into 90s rock and alternative, but I also have a secret passion for dance music. This season the music is a mix of Sonic Youth and some early-80s German music, there’s a dance remix of Donna Summer. So it’s really again about walking the fine line between contradictions and mixing things.
What is it that drives you in fashion? I’m just not a quitter. And since I have an art background, I’ve always loved any craft that has dimension to it. I’m very detail oriented in everything: the music, the branding. It’s almost like micromanaging for me, because I care for the entire environment and atmosphere. And that makes it even harder, but it’s also why I enjoy it so much, because it lets me dip into everything that I’m passionate about. I just enjoy telling a story.