‘Old-school leather techniques meet a new-school design attitude’ in KRANE. The rarity of the meeting of the pair in today’s fast-fashion industry is so well known that it’s become a platitude — all the more reasons to appreciate the conjoining of beauty and utility in Ken Chow’s label.
Ken has many backgrounds — he was born in China, grew up in Ontario, and studied at F.I.T. in New York; his early passion was for drawing and fine arts; and now he is the founder and creative director of KRANE. But with Ken, it’s easy to see a sense of continuity in all his endeavors, as though his efforts from early on has somehow directed him to his success today and his renowned military-inspired designs.
We recently had a chance to chat with Ken regarding KRANE, its latest Spring Collections, and what the designer likes to do in his home city, Toronto.
Hoon: Tell us about Krane’s latest collection.
Ken: Spring takes Krane into a slow(er)-fashion territory for the main Krane line. A new category called Krane Artisanal will be introduced later in the season with emphasis on handwork and reworked, up-cycled, remixed one-of-a-kind pieces. K by Krane — Krane’s more accessible line of essential carry-alls — is coming back with core silhouettes with an injection of energy.
H: Take us through your creative process. How do you begin new designs? Do you revisit your old work for inspirations?
K: As you may know, the brand has a military DNA. I have a go-to book of military uniforms that I refer to — you could say that it’s Krane’s bible of a sort — and I do a light trend research every season to update the core silhouettes. The majority of the time, it starts with the inspirational industrial or military detail, then the materials, the sketch, the pattern, the first proto, and finally the final sample. There are different names for the collections. The permanent collection is organized according to the Morse Code alphabet starting with the Alpha Collection — Alpha, Bravo, Charlie, etc. Because the inspiration and design ideas originate from specific themes, I absolutely recycle and re-explore past ideas. Fashion moves too fast at times and too often, and I feel that certain ideas are not given enough time in the market. With time, your audience grows and reinterpreting past collections allows them to be loved again and appreciated for what it is.
H: You’ve been interested in the military aesthetic since early on. What draws you to it? And what keeps you going back to its essences?
K: My attachment to the military derives from my spiritual side, which I got from my mom. I have always believed that the activities we engage in as kids are precursors to later stages in our lives; and that every event that you are in tune with is leading you to that next stage. Growing up in Halton Hills, Ontario, I entered a lot of Remembrance Day Poster Design Competitions, which peaked my interest in the military aesthetic. The Military theme has so many positive qualities associated with it. At its core, it is utilitarian and focused on good quality. It also has a sense of strength attached to it, which are all qualities that I want Krane to represent.
H: What does it mean for you to have Krane products made in Canada?
K: Canada has an abundance of skilled artisans, so keeping production local allows me to keep the products at a desired level of quality. Keeping production in the country also allows me the opportunity to create jobs in the industry. As Chinese manufacturing takes over (with the takeover of Fast-Fashion), this is becoming increasingly important for the Canadian apparel industry.
H: What would you say are the challenges behind being a creative in Canada in the context of its economy, society, and culture?
K: Economy – attaining a cost-effective production cost to meet the desired MSRP to stay competitive with the (international) market.
Society and culture – introducing forward thinking ideas into the collection due to the conservative buying habits of the majority of Canadians
H: Tell us about your time at F.I.T. and working in New York. What did you see, learn, and do? What was it like working with Geller and Plokhov?
K: F.I.T was a well-rounded fashion experience. Everything you wanted and needed to learn about fashion, they had, but the curriculum alone wasn’t going to give it to you. You had to be focused and hungry and seek it out for yourself. I attended special guest lectures by Renzo Rosso, Anna Sui, Rose Marie Bravo (CEO of Burbery in 2000); I saw the Antwerp Six (including Martin Margiela) and Visionaire exhibition at FIT Museum; I made use of workshops outside of my program to teach myself accessories design; and I scored myself a Marc Jacobs internship!
Also GenArt was huge then with their famous International Styles Competition, so I entered and won an opportunity to showcase my designs with them for the Styles 2001 Edition. That was the year I competed with Cloak (by Alexander Plokhov and Robert Geller) in the Menswear category. We both didn’t win, but we formed a friendship in the process, and I got to spend some time working with them aftewards where I learned more about precise Russian tailoring and the cool German style.
H: How has drawing and fine art in general influenced your work?
K: My dad is the artistic one in my family, and he passed onto me his gift of photo-realistic technical precision. The key to this ability is training your eye to hone in on every little detail. I think this has affected my design style in the sense that it made me a detail-oriented designer.
H: Controversies regarding cultural appropriation pops up in fashion rather often. In this context, what does it mean to be a designer with multiple cultural heritages? Or does it have no bearing in your creative process.
K: I think if Krane were strictly an apparel brand this question would have more relevance. Because my themes are niche and all fall within certain directions, this doesn’t have too much of an effect on my creative process.
H: It’s been over ten years since you moved back to Toronto to start Krane. How has menswear — its aesthetics, qualities, understanding, etc. — changed since? Where do you see it going and where do you want it to go in the next five years?
K: Menswear has changed and evolved so much since I moved back from New York. I remember how hard it was being one of the few working specifically in this area. Because there were next to zero brands focusing on menswear, it made you feel like you had to be either extremely conservative or extremely loud. Luckily I studied in NY, so I had American ties, and I was able to play in the American market, which gave the brand peers and relevancy. Because I participated in tradeshows like Capsule (one of the first Contemporary Men’s Tradeshows), Canadians started to take notice.
I feel as if menswear had this huge boom in the mid 2000’s and that, all of a sudden, overnight, there were all these new menswear designers in Canada. Fast forward to today, we have so many menswear designers now, and they are not just concerned with the tailored conservative aesthetics that we would stereotypically associate with the Canadian aesthetic. The variety in aesthetics is a good sign of growth for menswear in Canada, and I see more diversity happening in the future, especially since we promote multiculturalism.
H: What kind of positive impacts, if any, would you say fashion has on society and the culture in general?
K: Fashion allows people to dream and become who they want to be. Through the way you dress you can be the change that you want for yourself …and society, if that is your goal in life. Fashion’s constant concern with newnewnew keeps pushing the art forward and enriches life in general.
H: Changing gears, the latest collection is called Travel Essentials. What are some things you never travel without? And with those things, you have a month to travel — where you would you go and what would you do?
K: Essential items – a good duffle bag, backpack, and a nice size dopp kit (like the ones by HALEY, ANDER and MATTEO). I would take these on a trip to Peru, do ayahuasca, hang out with alpacas, and explore the ancient country.
H: What are the key pieces in your wardrobe?
K: An M-65 jacket, a good pair of denim, a solid sweatshirt, a black T, a suit, a mid-top sneaker, a Chelsea boot, and a nice pair of oxfords.
H: What is the one fashion item every man should own? Or is there no such thing?
K: A nice pair of leather boots.
H: Describe to us your ideal Sunday.
K: A bike ride (or other leisure physical activity) to the island, art gallery, or park with my favorite person(s), and then just let the day develop organically.
H: Where and what do you like to eat in Toronto?
K: I love noodles, and there’s a ramen joint on Dundas called Sensotei that is so fresh and yummy.
H: Fill in the blank: I would like to live without….
H: Anything else you’d like to add.
K: I love tennis.
Learn more about KRANE here. Krane products are made entirely in Canada. The Krane Man and Krane Bag lines are manufactured in factories in Toronto, Canada, with the handwork done in-house.