Designer Focus: Ka Wa Key

Designer Focus
< Back to features
31 October 2017

Designer Focus: Ka Wa Key

London based design duo Ka Wa Key Chow and Jarno Leppanen explore the relationship between soft masculinity and the identity of Asian men with the roots of their sensuous cultures and aesthetics. Their personal design process involves the hybridities in Eastern and Western clothing, masculine and feminine representations and the traditional textile crafts paired with the latest technology applied to fashion.

How did you get into fashion?

Key: I studied at a business college first in Hong Kong. However, I was so naughty at that time. I kept browsing European fashion magazines that I borrowed from my sister from the drawer of the table. And one day I was thinking like: ‘Why am I stuck here but not study fashion?’, And I decided to apply the fashion design degree at the university and I succeed.  That was how I ended up in the fashion industry.

Jarno: Since I was a boy I’ve always loved creating, doing things with my hands. While other boys were interested in car magazines, I secretly browsed fashion magazines. Handcrafting has naturally always been a huge part of my life.

Where are you from? 

Key: I am from Kowloon region of Hong Kong originally, where the “more local” East-meets-West Hong Kong culture happened. I grew up in a region surrounded by old Hong Kong style underground clubs at Temple Street, Western tourists, local gangsters, money boys (and girls obviously), 24-hour restaurants and saunas etc. Basically, I always describe my region is like a Chinese hot pot – full of everything. And this cultural melting pot has inspired a lot. I studied BA in Knitwear Design (I changed my major from Fashion Design to Knitwear Design) at the Hong Kong Polytechnic University. And I was so lucky to get the Hong Kong Young Design Talent Award to get sponsorship to move to London and study MA in Menswear at Royal College of Art. And since then I was attracted to this inspiring city and people here and decided to stay here.

Jarno: I am from Finland, the land of forest and thousands of lakes, beautiful nature, sunny warm summers, cold white snowy winters, sauna and of course northern lights. Finland is of course much more, inspiring Nordic and Scandinavian culture and amazing people. I was born up north in the city of Oulu but later on moved to live in Helsinki, which is the cultural melting pot of Finland, the city where West meets East. I studied my BA in Finland and later on moved to London to do my MA studies

How did you define your particular style or approach to fashion?

We don’t give a fuck about fashion. We just want to create a dream, a beautiful world we believe in. Soft masculinity and blending the traditional gender norms are part of it. We love creating/ crafting our own fabrics. We believe in the philosophy behind Shinto from Japan, believing everything has a God/spirit, including materials that we use for our designs. We love developing and experimenting with different raw materials to express their own soul. Also, our aesthetics are strongly influenced by Wabi-sabi from Japan, which is a way of living to chase the beauty upon the imperfections of matters and accept the natural progression of growth and deterioration. It is the beauty that is "imperfect, impermanent, and incomplete". We think it shows the story and humanity behind the designs, which we think it is the core of fashion design. Wabi-sabi inspires a minimalism that celebrates the human instead of machines, which create routineness and repetition. That's why we insist crafting our own fabrics at our own studio in London.

What is the problem with fashion today?

Mass fashion which might be lack of an idea, certain kind personality, emotion, sensuality and stories behind it, We believe in putting human emotions into to the fabric crafting process, it makes the whole process more sensuous when there are feelings involved. We see beauty in the unfinished and the random, Just as everyone's face is different. It is meaningless to create something predictable and the same like what fast fashion does. Functionality is essential, of course, but humanity, emotion, and originality are also critical.

You have had a very busy couple of months with exhibiting at three international fashion events: FASHIONALLY Collection #10 during CENTRESTAGE in Hong Kong, LABELHOOD Shanghai (during Shanghai Fashion Week) which you were supported by GQ magazine and you have just returned from participating in Asia Fashion Collection in Tokyo during Amazon Tokyo Fashion Week. Could you please tell us about involvement in these three events and how they have helped your label’s growth?

Centerstage was a very well-organised event. It was good to meet new buyers there and reinforce our relationship with buyer/ press friends in Hong Kong. Also, we feel good to present our work in a runway show back home, where Hong Kong still serves as one of our inspiration as always.

For Asia Fashion Collection, it was our honor to represent Hong Kong with the other representatives from South Korea and Taiwan to participate this event. We had a formal presentation with buyers and fashion editors in Tokyo and we were so lucky to get an award from an editor from FashionSnap. It was our first time to be in Tokyo and it gave us opportunities to expand our network there and look around the fashion scene there.

We were so lucky to hold an on-schedule presentation at Labelhood supported by GQ China at Shanghai Fashion Week. Basically, we organized the whole presentation from nothing, like from music, model casting, backdrop, hair and make-up directions, lighting direction etc, with the technical and PR support from the Labelhood organizer. And this autonomy allows us to hold a performance in the presentation space with male models changing in front of the audience and performing naked with their white briefs with Icelandic song from Sigur Ros. This allowed us to fully express our true brand identity to the influential buyers and editors from China and created a foundation to expand our Chinese market.

What problems have you faced as an up & coming designers?

Many challenges we would say, but surprise surprise, one of the main problems is… tadaa... money. But we try to break out from this restriction. But somehow it pushes us to believe in creative ideas.

What are you most proud of in your work?

The fabrics that we crafted at our own studio in London definitely. As they are all hand-crafted, all designs are unique. Some of the dyes might be not even, some of the prints may be imperfect, some of the patterns may be a bit random. We hate things being flawless and uniform. We realized the importance that how the emotion of humanity pushes our designs forward and allows it to generate a unique story on the designs we created. It is right and proper that every fabric should have their own characteristics.

Tell us about how you run your business.

Basically, we do all the things ourselves in-house, including design and development, production management, sales, marketing and PR. Although money is the main reason of that, we believe it will make our messages clearer and make our vision and aesthetics consistent throughout all the business functions. At the office hour, we work with interns to develop our samples and experiment with different fabrics and silhouettes. And after that, we do some of the administration sides of the business and do some planning for production and sampling.

What is the style of the city you live in?

London is full of diversity of people and styles. It is a cultural melting pot for fashion. People here are very experimental on how they wear, and they are very open-minded. Feeling wearing something wrong and mismatched on the street? No worries as we Londoners do not care as we appreciate and celebrate individuality and self-expression on styles.

If you could change one thing about fashion what would it be?

Peoples perception of value in fashion

If you had to move to an up-and-coming fashion capital, what would it be and why?

Shanghai as it is very fashion-forward, inspirational, artistic and international. There are loads of creative people based in there and they love cross-artistic collaborations and helping each other. More and more Magazines are based in Shanghai and it becomes a very important press base. For the production point of view, it definitely helps reduce the cost of production in the long run. And also the food there is cheap and taste like heaven!

What do you value more, process or outcome, concept or quality of craftsmanship?

We think all of these are connected and very important, its very difficult to say...

What films/books/TV-programs/moments and stories inspired your design now?

Skins, Royal Ballet’s Meta Morphosis, Carrie Diaries, American Beauty, Claude Monet, Ryan McKingley, Meredith Monk, Sigur Ros, Kate Bush

In your own words describe your last collection.

Our Spring Summer 2018 collection is called “Fried Rice in the Closet”, it is a story of a young guy who dresses up in sportswear to hide his sexuality as he tries to blend in and be one of the lads. ‘Fried Rise in the Closet’ is not only about sexuality, it’s about being afraid our feelings and desires. It’s about fragileness of being a human and things we dream about. “The only way to get rid of a temptation is to yield to it. Resist it, and your soul grows sick with longing for the things it has forbidden to itself, with desire for what its monstrous laws have made monstrous and unlawful.” - Oscar Wilde. The collection is romantic, a bit sexy, floaty and dreamy.  We used jersey, sweatshirt, velvet and nylon “jellyfish” fabrics with our signature treatments like DeVore to create romantically distressed and see-through effect and  ”crack”, which is  PU coating on the fabric, which creates faux leather effect.   

If you could get any model or anyone to wear your clothes, who would it be – who is your muse and why?

We would love to Madonna to wear our clothes. She is such an icon, for so many decades she’s been showing the direction with her ever-changing styles and fashion sense. She’s always done something that makes people talk and that’s good, she doesn’t basically give a fuck what people think of her art, she does what she wants to do.

If you were to shoot your campaign and you could get your dream team of photographer, stylist, and model and do anything you wanted, who and what would it be?

We would have a bunch of models, who would probably be our friends, Jarno would still be one of the main photographers. It would be a fun day and night out, we would probably get drunk, it would be a fun day out, shot in a location using only natural light. We would love to catch some “realistic” not posed in the moment moments.  Some of the photography would be done with disposable cameras. We would do the styling, makeup, hair and post-production. We appreciate spontaneousness and chemistry within the team.

Where do you see yourself/your label for Autumn/Winter 2030? 

It would be more and more creative collaborations, cross artistic ventures exploring possibilities of different art forms. And maybe more naked young men.

Further Reading