San Francisco-based designer Ken Chen has broken barriers with his intricate yet precise designs. After suffering an injury whilst performing as a champion figure skater in Asia, Ken shifted his focus to fashion design. The Academy of Art University student, who is graduating this month, has shown collections during two seasons of New York Fashion Week, has created looks for the 2012 James Franco film Cherry, and designs for both his high-end line as well as his secondary line, KCSF. The Untitled Magazine spoke with Ken about his prospering career, and learned that there is more than meets the eye with this up-and-coming designer.
The Untitled Magazine: How did you start designing?
Ken Chen: Before designing, I wasn’t in fashion at all. After I got into fashion about three years ago, one of my classes [in college] was studying nature and global warming and how it affects the earth and humans. Humans need to harm the environment in a way to survive as well as also relying on the environment, so the balance between that is very critical. I thought to myself, ‘maybe I can do a collection based on the interaction between humans and the earth and nature.’ So, that was the inspiration for my first collection.
UM: You were a previously a competitive figure skater… what made you decide to stop doing that and focus more on fashion design?
KC: Well, while I was doing a competition in Asia I was unfortunately injured really badly. I couldn’t walk for three months or so. After I healed, I tried to go back to [skating] and it was very difficult. That was when I realized that maybe it was time for a new career. I was also trained as a concert violinist and have opera training.
UM: Did your parents raise you with a theatrical background or was that your passion?
KC: It’s definitely a passion – it’s still a passion. When I was very little my family sent me to different camps and different schools to learn trades. They wanted me to learn things that I loved. I pretty much have every training – even the ridiculous ones – but the only thing they wouldn’t let me do was performing. Since I was little, all of my cousins were performers… famous violinists, great singers… I always wished I could be like them. After I came to states and could control my own schedule, I started pushing myself and training myself in all of these things that I wasn’t allowed to do.
UM: Can you tell us about your experience while showing your collection during New York Fashion Week?
KC: It was amazing. It really reassured me that I was more ready than I thought was. I learned a lot about the industry and what to expect. It was a great experience and I would love to do it even more amazingly next time.
UM: Was the inspiration for your most recent collection?
KC: It was more architectural with simple lines. We called it “Perfectly Imperfect” – even though it was all very geometric with lines and angular shapes, there was a twist of flowiness and softness to it. One of the things that I drew the most inspiration from was the crystal. Again, it relates to nature – crystal is natural. But at the same time it also has all of these jagged angles and an architectural aspect to it and you never know how it will turn out when it’s forming. A lot of the clothes in the collections weren’t planned to be designed the way that they were – it’s a process of designing: things happen that create more of a beautiful aspect than just lines.
UM: What do you think makes you stand out from your peers?
KC: Well, since my first collection I’ve really begun to focus on the fit of the material and the way that things are made. I think that’s the most important – I think that when something is absolutely well-made and well thought out and you put your entire heart into it, it will look great. So, I think how I stand out the most from local designers and even some bigger houses is that I definitely will not compromise my cuts, my material, and my quality. I will absolutely not let go of those. Also, for my higher-end line, every single piece is made and customized to the customer. Not only are they getting a made-to-measure piece, they’re also getting details that they like. Things like a pocket instead of a zipper, or wanting more flare, or cloaking in the back, or they really want a color combination that they cannot find anywhere… I can always get into the garments. It is all custom made.
UM: Has adding a personal touch to your clothing been something that you’ve always done?
KC: I feel like there is already so much mass-produced clothing. If I want to stand out I need to know the customer – be friends with them, know their style. I want to make things to fit my customer. One of the reasons that I started in fashion is because I felt like whenever I would go shopping there was always something I wanted to change [about the clothing]. I can never find anything that’s perfect. Perhaps a lot of other people have the same issue as I do, which is why I wanted to offer this service.
UM: How did it come about that you provided costumes for the film Cherry?
KC: One of the other designers in San Francisco, in the Bay Area, somehow got invited to do some custom work for Cherry, but she only did womenswear. She was very kind and introduced me to them, telling them that I also did menswear. So, that’s how they know about me and they contacted me.
UM: How did you create the custom pieces?
KC: I got a background of the story and of the exact theme of which they would wear certain pieces. They pretty much gave me very, very specific instructions. Like, they needed a tuxedo suit that couldn’t be black and needed specific designs. My design ability was limited but it was very exciting and very fun. It was my first time working on a movie.
UM: Is costume design in film something that you see yourself continuing in the future?
KC: I’m definitely open to it. My main focus will always be on my customers and my ready-to-wear brand. But the movie costume thing is very interesting to me.
UM: Being that you’ve worked on movies, is there any specific person within the entertainment industry that you’d love to dress?
KC: I definitely love Gwyneth Paltrow – I think she would look amazing in my clothes! My main muse for the previous collection was Emma Watson.
UM: What are your upcoming plans for your label?
KC: I’m very excited because I’m graduating in three weeks! After that I’m planning on moving to New York City. I can’t wait. I’ll be fully committed to designing my collection without the distraction of school and other factors. It won’t be my first collection but it will be my first collection as a full-time designer and that’s what I will be focusing on. Hopefully I will be in Mercedez-Benz [Fashion Week] next Fall.
UM: Where do you see your brand going in the coming years?
KC: I definitely see it getting a lot bigger! Right now we have locations selling our brand in Taiwan, we have a couple of stores in San Francisco carrying merchandise as well, and I’m also currently participating in one pop-up shop in New York. It’s within The Roger Smith Hotel. But, in five years I would love to have a permanent location of a full design house that I can completely concentrate in and provide a lot of well-made clothing with a lot of fun details. Things that I’m not able to do now…
UM: Coming to New York will definitely give you a whole different outlook and a whole new inspiration.
If you’re in New York City, make sure to visit Ken Chen’s merchandise in the pop-up shop within The Roger Smith Hotel, located at 501 Lexington Avenue. You can also purchase looks from Ken’s collection KCSF on his website here.