No. 5
  • “Minimalist and

    maximalist.
    Nature futura.
    Experimentation.”

    photography by
    ROMEO MORI

    Jen Kao

    Written by Mari Florer

    Minimalist AND maximalist. Nature futura. Experimentation. 
    That’s how Jen Kao describes her personal touch that permeates all her collections.

    – I am extremely proud to call myself a New York designer, says Kao.
    The 31 year old designer lives near the southwest corner of Central Park, with a great view of the Hudson. She works in Tribeca with a different view of the same river.

    – It’s always a much appreciated luxury to feel like you can remove yourself a bit from the rest of the city, she says.

    Kao was born in Los Angeles to a family of Taiwanese ancestry; her father, Min Kao, is a co-founder of Garmin GPS empire. Growing up in Kansas City, Jen then moved to New York to study at NYU and Parsons. Jen became a fashion designer to incorporate her multiple interests, including music, literature, photography and art. A piece of artwork can inspire an embroidery, a print or jewelery, she says. Handwork and details are important to her aesthetic, and she enjoys working with as many different techniques and materials as possible.

    We asked Jen a few questions about her and her work.

    Is it true that you find inspiration from outer space?
    – Haha. I find my inspiration from all space. On Earth, and above and below. I am always looking, always absorbing and capturing the visions and thoughts triggered by it all.

    What is your strength as a designer?
    – Telling a new story and taking risks.

    What first inspired you to start the brand?
    – My clichéd but truthful part of the answer is that I felt there was a huge void in New York fashion to fill. At the same time, and almost equally so, I had worked for several brands that affirmed the most unattractive stereotypes associated with the industry, and I wanted to create a space where young creatives and their talents are cultivated and treated with respect.

    What excites you about designing a new collection?
    – Simply that it’s new. It’s like cooking. When you spend all day making a meal, you almost don’t have the appetite for it anymore.

    Do you see the pieces in your collection as a work of art or do you prefer to see the entire collection as one piece?
    – I always describe life as a process and the collection as a process. An unapologetic, ever-evolving process.

    Do you have a favorite material?
    – I love to make myself fall in love with fabrics I typically feel uncomfortable using or just plain dislike. I love to change my own mind about things as much as I enjoy changing my audience’s minds about things.

    In what ways do you think garments will take new forms and designs in the future?
    – I think there’s going to be a return to one-of-a-kind becoming highly desirable again. A lot of the commercialism that happened with the crash in the economy destroyed the idea of individuality. All of a sudden, it then became “being different meant being the same.” Everyone looks the same. When you look at the best vintage showrooms, you can see the value in innovation. The history of fashion has so much energy and feels inspired. I think it will come back. People will start to tire of the overexposure and how easily accessible everything is today. We will start to remember the importance of investing in pieces that last a lifetime rather than the concept of “immediacy” taking over all other cravings. I think we all want the excitement back.

    Who picks the music for your shows?
    – I pick two contrasting songs that express the entire 6 months of preparation for me. Sometimes the songs come to me at the very beginning of the season, and they grow to define the collection; sometimes the opposite. I then work with a producer to completely take the songs apart and bring to light something completely new that shows an unexpected duality between two feelings that, when separate, seem like they wouldn’t make sense together.

    Your favorite music at the moment?
    – Older music is always my favorite music, but there’s a huge diversity within that. Right now I’m listening to a lot of The Rolling Stones, Rush, Led Zeppelin, Willie Nelson, Aaliyah and Neil Young.

    What other fashion brands do you admire?
    – Dries Van Noten, Tsumori Chisato and Jil Sander

    Who is your favorite fashion photographer?
    – Paolo Roversi. He captures the story behind the eyes, or creates one if it doesn’t yet exist.

    What’s your next inspiration?
    – That’s a secret, of course. But here’s a hint. From the great Patti Smith, “Who can know the heart of youth, but youth itself?”

  • an interview with
    JOSHUA SAFALOW
    photography by
    Ellinor Stigle

    Welcome to Mexico

    Written by Buyun Chen by Sandra Myhrberg

    Welcome to Mexico
    Earlier this month I took a trip to MEXICO – a showroom located on the border of Chinatown and Soho – to chat with founder and overall cool guy, Joshua Safalow. Described by Safalow as “a store for stores,” the agency/showroom works to bridge the gap between designers and retailers. Since opening in 2004, MEXICO has launched stores, opened pop-up shops, and introduced European collections into our North American wardrobes. After a brief tour of the impressive space, Safalow and I sat down to discuss design, sartorial blunders, the integrity of clothing, and the future of MEXICO.

    So, what is it that you do?
    From a functionality standpoint, we really liaise between designer, manufacturer, and retailers/retail client. It’s a simple matter of translation, especially when it comes to foreign collections. Designers will come to us for our community or client base and say: “Hey, given the people you know, and the sort of experience you’ve had, the skill sets you have, we would like to enter our collection into your agency, and hope that we can mature our channel through your expertise” – meaning a sales channel, and very often in a specific region. Throughout almost the entire course of the agency, we’ve always had a European collection of any sort and very often, the clients have been European.

    Is that because of your personal selection process? Or are those the types of designers who approach MEXICO?
    I would say a combination, but more about what I’m sort of attracted to. I always use this word, integrity – looking for collections with integrity.

    What does that mean?
    Exactly. I think it really starts with an idea that has value inherently, something that’s beyond trend, or beyond a cycle, something that is unique, and is valid – meaning that it’s not student work nor is it in the ether. It’s not an abstraction of what somebody dreams of how people may look in the future or in the future-past. I think collections or designers who have integrity really have a vision that balances practicality, approachability, and just enough of a unique edge with the talent and foresight to actually see it through – to actually make it beyond the drawing page.

    For you, the idea of integrity isn’t time-sensitive?
    Integrity is something that steps away from that cycle and really aspires to be timeless. Something that when you pull it out of your closet, you can wear it now or you can wear it four years from now. It’s something that becomes a staple. Collections that achieve that are very rare – not so many even have those objectives these days. That integrity, or that possibility of becoming extra-trend, is really the defining thing for myself as an agent. What gets me out of bed in the morning is to work with people who are creating something with a longer reach and a bigger objective in mind – something that can really live with somebody and become a part of them.

    How do you characterize unique?
    Well, there are lots of ways to be unique. I think today, what can be unique is something that can balance the reality of how people would like to dress with just a tinge enough of what we call design or function. Someone who has that balance, who takes the functions of a garment – that’s what design is, a primary function – and layers over certain aesthetics and certain type of stories, little narratives. Something that when you look at it once or twice, it keeps showing back to you. It’s not so surface. Details by fit, details by fabric, details by hardware – that’s a unique product.

    How did MEXICO come about?
    When I started in this industry, in 1998 or 1999, I worked in menswear a bit – not knowing a thing. And then, I happened to get a chance to work for a Japanese company, which was quite established in Japan but not at all in the United States. They wanted a New York presence with a store and a wholesale showroom. I was one of a couple of Americans working there and I had a little bit of experience in wholesale. So I ended up working in the wholesale showroom upstairs, which predominantly consisted of European accessories. Four years later, I learned a lot through the company. They were like: if you want to do it, if you have an idea, go ahead, and do it. We did wholesale, two shops in Japan, a New York concept shop, and we did a lot of distribution deals. So I was able to teach myself a lot of things. There was a lot of what not to do. Soon after, they shut the showroom because it wasn’t performing.

    I then left the company and started working with a company that was based in New York and Paris, called Surface to Air. Here in New York, they were quite small and they didn’t have anyone working on the wholesale side. I just turned my apartment into a showroom since it was right around the corner on Crosby Street – 5 Crosby. I got them into the building and soon after, that whole building became a creative mash-up of casting agencies, designers, and artists. It was only about 500 square feet. We were there for three years.

    Was the showroom always called MEXICO?
    No. It didn’t have a name for many years because people would just come to see the collections. When I still had the sixth floor space on Crosby, my colleague Gordon at Surface to Air – who does more fine art/art direction – had a studio across the hall. Every now and then, I would just go across the hall to just shoot the crap with him. One day, he was sitting at his table with colored pencils and crayons everywhere. He had an archival sheet of parchment paper and was drawing a man with a sombrero in yellow, squirl-y eyes of green, a purple goatee, a mustache of red, and underneath it - it just said, crooked, “MEXICO”. And I said, “Gord – that’s the name of the showroom.” Two weeks later, we had a solid logo and we branded everything. I like the reflexive nature of it – “Have you been to MEXICO? Have you seen the guys from MEXICO?” MEXICO is clearly one thing and one thing only. We’re just kind of playing on that. At the end of day, we’re talking about clothing. Sometimes people take it so seriously, but it’s not that serious. The business side of it is serious. It should be a fun activity, on some level.

    What’s the fun part?
    When you work with these amazingly talented people; when people get that; when people are excited to see that. Sitting with designers and talking about mood boards and fabrics, what works and doesn’t work – the collaborative process of it all is fun.

    Did you ever want to design?
    I know too much about the industry now to even attempt it or even be silly enough to try it.

    But when you were a young person?
    I guess, maybe when I was seventeen. But I had no idea. You just have the idea, “Oh, I want to be a designer.”

    Would you say that your taste has changed too?
    When I was quite young, I had really horrible taste. I had no idea.

    What constituted horrible taste?
    It was obvious. It was loud. It was a bit brash. Much like a student – you just try to mash everything together and wear it all at once. And there are some people whom you meet, some stores that you walk into, some movies that you watch, or artwork that you see and it just blows your mind. You can’t really wrap your head around it and usually, in my case at least, you can’t absorb all of the references. The vocabulary is just a little off enough – well, that’s unique, isn’t it? It’s a little bit beyond your comprehension. And when I was younger, everything was because I had no point of reference – just throwing things on the wall and seeing what sticks.

    These days, I would rather have a standard box to live in. Mess with the colors and textures every now and then. Maybe play with silhouette every now and then when you’re feeling frisky.

    What is your most memorable outfit?
    My most memorable outfit? I had this – oh God, it was horrible. It was sleeveless and super tight. I was 21 or 22 – probably too old to be even wearing it. It was super tight, grey, and it had a bit of ruching going on. It was quite feminine. The pants – they could have been seersucker or some kind of poplin – were just way too tight. Horrible, horrible.

    So by “horrible,” you really mean “tight”?
    Tight. Yeah. Improper textures for a man. The colors were off. Hopefully there are no photos out there.

    Which collection are you showing now? I see that you’re setting up for a sample sale.
    Silent Damir Doma is the sample sale we’re doing right now. We only do one sale via MEXICO once a year.

    How did you decide to work with Silent Damir Doma?
    We began conversations with them after launching the Surface to Air shop. We went over to Paris, gave them a fleecing of the collection, and said: “This is what we think we can do; this is what we think needs to change for this area – North America.” We are now a year in. The reason why I chose to work with them, regardless of whether or not it’s a product for me, or you, is that they have integrity. They definitely have a concept, they are confident in it and yet, flexible - they are able to mold it to what is happening globally. I think that from the Silent Damir Doma standpoint, this has been a bit of an adjustment. How do you convey your message or how do you create a channel by which you can communicate your vocabulary, your narrative and maintain some sort of adherence to your principles? And now we come back to what a showroom does, what we can suggest in terms of brand managing and creating brands. What Damir Doma do have, which is kind of rare, is a solid foundation. And they have a lot of skill sets. They have a long vision, and I appreciate that.

    What’s your vision for MEXICO?
    We’ve been really “bad” at talking about what MEXICO is, what it has been, or what it can be. In the long term, I think we would like to diversify. We want to attach MEXICO to things that are more “end-user” – whether that means more retail operations, more creative direction type of projects, or more collaborations. I think the objective for MEXICO is to maintain our integrity and give that a public life – rather than being stuck behind the scenes. When I was much younger, I worked in art galleries as a little assistant – filing things, painting walls, watching people get into these massive debates with artists. The most valuable lesson I learned doing that was how to use your eye and how to be critical, or at least how to have an opinion. So, any kind of project that allows MEXICO to project an opinion is – conceptually, anyway – what I would like to do.

    Finally, who is your cool guy?
    You know who really is a cool guy is my uncle Howie.

    Your uncle Howie?
    He is a cool guy. He’s just a happy person. He is in his seventies now, but he has always gotten it. Never pushed things too far, but still informed enough to be valid.

  • An Interview with ASTRID OLSSON and LEE COTTER

    V Ave Shoe Repair

    Written by Mari Florer

    V Ave Shoe Repair – A Small Wish to Exist

    Astrid Olsson and Lee Cotter are the designers behind the Swedish brand: V Ave Shoe Repair. As a former dance couple they competed in Latin American dance competitions around the world. They created their own costumes and soon they got orders from other artists. “We liked working with conceptual designs to change the perception of what a couple or performance could be. The theatrical of it interested us. ”When their dancing careers ended an opportunity to switch careers came up. Astrid began design studies at the University of Borås. It was at that time that the idea to start a brand of their own, grew stronger. – It started with a small wish to exist, Astrid says.

    Astrid and Lee come from different backgrounds. Astrid grew up in a suburb called Täby, fifteen minutes by train from Stockholm. She began dancing when she was a young girl. She was also interested in crafts, tailoring and sewing from a young age. Lee grew up in London with his mum and dad. His father is English, his mother is Swedish. His parents went different ways when he was eight years old and he moved with his mother to Sundsvall (population 50 000), a town in the middle of Sweden. At first he played “masculine” sports like football and ice-hockey. His mother told him that girls like boys who know how to dance. He grew to like it and that was the beginning of his career as a dancer.

    Why did you quit dancing?
    Astrid When you’re getting closer to twenty-six, your knees and feet stop working as well. And there is a lot of travelling.
    Very, very stressful! You have to practice two to three hours a day, even on weekends. This was the second way out. I’m very happy that we changed careers because now we can design things other than glittering dance costumes. Now we’re free to do what we want.

    When did you two become a couple outside of dancing?
    Lee The dance world is very special. It’s really about match making; length, width, type and how advanced you are in a specific style. We realized that we indeed were a very good match. And then we fell in love. The rest is history.

    Was V Ave Shoe Repair successful from the start?
    Astrid Yes, we set up the label just when the economy was rapidly moving upwards and people were looking for new inspiration. When we ended up at Barneys and Selfridges and those sorts of places I still travelled around helping out with selling at fashion fairs. We didn’t really understand what was happening. I guess it was just life coming to our aid.
    Lee Yes, it was a mixture of having done some interesting stuff and fortunately we made them at the right time. A lot of brands have created very beautiful things and fail because the timing is poor.

    Tell me, what do you think is more challenging; designing clothes for men or for women?
    Lee There are different choices. With women’s clothing, you can experiment more than you can on a men’s collection. Still, we are trying to stretch the framework a bit when we create the menswear as well.

    Does this framework put limits to your creativity?
    Astrid Sometimes yes. In the past, we’ve designed a lot of things that confused more than it opened up, I think. The problem is, when you start pushing the boundaries of male fashion it’s easy to lose the masculinity. You can only build in certain places on the body: the shoulder and the waist. But you can’t build too much on these places because it ends up more like a scene costume if you do and that’s a little boring.
    Lee We have done some advanced things. But I like to keep myself inside the established framework as well. I’m not just pro madness. I like to make a suit. I find that the magic of small movements is inspiring. We’ve always talked about challenging the traditional but at the same time protecting it - always being progressive but at the same never changing too much. There’s a fine line when it comes to fashion.
    Astrid Yes, that’s the hardest part as a designer - never to tire of yourself. You have a tendency to run away from your fans.

    How long does it take in your studio from an idea to a finished garment?
    Astrid If you completely start from scratch, it takes about three weeks. And of course it depends on the how advanced it is.

    And a ready to wear garment?
    Astrid …about a week. From drawing until it is finished. But then the garment is not complete. Everything is rough cut. The details aren’t right. They do those things much better in the factory. It takes about 8 weeks till we get a first sample delivered from the manufacturers.

    Are you satisfied when you finally get hold of the product?
    Astrid You must keep your cool. Sometimes, it’s not funny at all opening these boxes when they arrive - And at the same time it’s exciting.
    Lee For example, on a sample: the seams can be off, the details all wrong and the fabric different from the one you ordered. Usually, they take the fabric that’s available at the time - to get the shape. You’ve got to have a lot of fantasy to imagine what the final product will be like. There’s a lot of anguish before it’s all set.

    Where are you manufacturing?
    Astrid Portugal, Turkey and China.
    Lee We are trying to stand up for the small producers. We make our shoes in a Portuguese factory where there’re three people working - Really made by hand.
    Astrid The factory is just as small as this room (about 20 square meters). It’s really really tiny! We are very committed to the ethical aspect of manufacturing. We are only using the best raw materials. We are buying the leather from Italy and it is always premium. We use it for our finest products to bring longevity.
    Lee We are trying to work in an ecological way. For example we are coloring most of the leather with vegetable tanning. I don’t think our customers are aware of that, we never really shout it out.
    Astrid The knitwear we produce in a small factory in China. We worked a lot with Italian factories before, but it’s no longer possible, I think.
    Lee Maybe, I need to explain. People have some strange ideas about China still. We use a small factory in China that is much more expensive than the Italians are. And the Chinese are extremely talented and they’re doing amazing things. They get paid well and have reasonable working conditions. But, we are still buying our wool from Italy. China quality is not yet up to standards when it comes to raw materials.
    Astrid We plan to move some of our production to Estonia and Latvia because we want it to be closer to home. Unfortunately, we can’t manufacture here in Sweden because there are no textile mills here any longer.
    Lee If that were possible it would have been fantastic to produce knitwear, suits and shirts here - items that are pretty simple to produce. You don’t need very advanced techniques for that.

    At the presentation of SS13 you told the audience that people need more fairytales. What did you mean by that?
    Oh, I think we need it all the time. The whole world is very realistic right now. I think people should dress up a little more. It’s not very often you see dressed up people going to theatre or the opera. Today we are designing clothes that work all day. People just change their shoes when they are going out for the night. The wardrobe has become a bit one-sided. When was the last time you went to a party where people wore indoor shoes? Everyone walks around in their damn socks.

    So you think that people should change their clothes more often?
    Astrid Yes, and I think it would be nice with a little more magic. Life should be more like in a movie, I think.

    And Lee, you said your inspiration was – if I caught you right – a working class guy who comes to the big city with dreams of creating a new life but at the same time as he’s still very connected to his past…
    Lee There’s a bit of me in there too, even if it is fiction. I feel that I want to do things I could not do where I grew up. I didn’t know what I wanted to do, but I knew it was not possible in Sundsvall where I lived. Not that I disliked being there, I had a nice childhood and all that. It was when I was dancing and travelled the world I realized that maybe I wanted to do something that was bigger. And then I felt a strong urge to move to the big city.

    What are your plans for the future?
    Astrid We are waiting for the autumn collection, the clothes are really beautiful. Designing the fall line is more fun than other seasons because you have more fabric to work with. And the material differs. A lot of wool! Otherwise, we are also planning a relocation of the office.

    Lee We are moving our studio from Södermalm to Vasastan close to our own apartment. We are planning the interior right now and looking forward to see it come true.

    What’s the next inspiration or concept?
    Astrid It’s more festive emphasized both the male and female collection - more luxurious details. I think it will be a little bit smarter – with increased focus on tailoring. But it’s kind of vague at the moment and I have not yet formulated my thoughts. Right now it is only small disconnected pieces and small papers on the walls.

    Do you have your own style icons?
    Lee That is an extremely tricky question. A few years ago, we would’ve answered Annie Lennox. But then we didn’t mean her clothes. We like her because she is beautiful and exudes strength. She can be both male and female. She looks great in a suit as well as in a dress. But I have to say we are struggling with this thing and I have to be honest: We have received comments that we appear to be elitist. That is saddening to hear, because as I said before I am a working class guy from Sundsvall. I’m no elitist. It’s the last thing I am. It’s just that I’m very ambitious.

    So you have an understanding that people think you’re elitist?
    Astrid Yes, I understand exactly what they mean.
    Lee And that’s why it becomes difficult to answer your question. If I were say: Giacometti who was handsome when he walked around in his studio in the sixties. It becomes like too much… I find it hard to name someone that others can relate to.

    Are you affected by the economic crisis?
    Lee What has posed problems for us is that we have customers that don’t pay. It’s about millions of Swedish kronor. It has been a tremendous challenge for us. And for the whole fashion industry, I say. It really is not just us.

    Astrid It comes right down to the thread level. It’s difficult to find the fabrics you are searching for. No one can afford to produce fabric. Often when we find a nice fabric they don’t have the color we want, or it’s sold out.
    Lee It’s hard when our partners have problems. Of course, we are affected when one of our suppliers goes bankrupt. Suddenly, in a panic, we must find a new one.
    Astrid We are nurturing the relationships with the most important suppliers. You have to know them really well. We have to travel and be on the phone a lot more. And we had to be more flexible. We need to customize the design according to what is on the market. All of a sudden we have to rethink completely.

    Maybe it will be an exciting challenge?
    Lee When we started out, sometimes out of necessity, we put the same fabrics in both the jacket, and pants or in a dress. We have always had that thinking.

    photography by SANDRA MYHRBERG

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