Jen Kao: Diamonds Are Forever
Published October 8, 2009
Up-and-coming designer Jen Kao’s got clutches like Kryptonite and chain maille shoes that ring themselves up. Fabiola Beracasa is on the case.
BERACASA: How do you come up with a chain maille clutch with a resin diamond on it? Does it just come from a dream?
KAO: Chain maille is such an interesting medium for a clutch. We were talking to this Lucite furniture lady who was like “I can do anything!” so we gave it to her and gave her the specs and then she made a mold for us.
BERACASA: Is this a diamond?
KAO: It’s quartz—like a fragment.
BERACASA: Like all of us-fragments. I speak for myself at least. Did you start the collection with clothes or did you always want to do accessories as well?
KAO: It’s something I always wanted to do, but I’m taking it slowly and being patient because the focus is really on the clothes
BERACASA: Do you feel like that’s your first passion the clothing?
KAO: Yeah, I mean I love accessories. BERACASA: Of course. (LEFT: JEN KAO)
KAO: I don’t pretend I know how to do something that I don’t. So virtually I work with Eddie Borgo. I want a really good connected vision. He knows what he’s doing.
BERACASA: He knows what he’s doing. He makes those really cool spiky bracelets, and I have five of them that I wear all the time. Tell me about your background-where you’re from? How you started in fashion? Where you inspired by your parents?
KAO: Yes, I was born in LA, grew up in Kansas, and I moved to New York for NYU Studio Art. I focused on ceramic sculpture and doubled in fashion. I was inspired by my parents, but they didn’t want me to do this at all.
BERACASA: At all? Well a lot of people don’t know what it’s about.
KAO: They’re really into it now. But honestly it’s not something that would seem secure and stable; everyone else in my family is a doctor or an engineer. But my dad is a self-made man so I’m really inspired by that. The influence of my family is indirect—my mom has really good style but she’s not …
BERACASA: She’s not designing. KAO: I have an older brother who is an attorney.
Jewelry by Eddie Borgo
BERACASA: So you’re the creative one.
KAO: Well he’s a genius artist but he’s just not confident.
BERACASA: What kind of art?
KAO: Drawing, painting, fine art—he’s also a really good comic artist. I think he’s not as foolhardy as me.
BERACASA: How long have you been working on collections?
KAO: We did a small capsule for Fall ’07. We didn’t really show it; we were testing the waters to see what we could do. We did a small lookbook. We first showed Spring 08. We showed in New York, and Ryan McGinley shot pictures of the collection and then we had a gallery reception for it. We always try to keep it small, small, small, and more intimate.
BERCASA: You’re trying to grow organically. That makes sense. So the perforated leather collection that I saw that I love. What are your sources of inspiration?
KAO: I always start a season with a story I write in my head. I don’t really share it with anyone; I filter it out.
BERACASA: So you won’t tell me?
KAO: [LAUGHS] It’s not that. It’s just convoluted, so it’s better to talk about it later. All these stories focus around a very optimistic life and around a protagonist who is looking to do something in their life. I always look at the collection as a rack of uniforms that help you do what you want to do.
BERACASA: To help achieve your dreams?
KAO: Yeah, something that achieves your goal and that makes you feel really good about yourself.
BERACASA: That’s really important. So you have a girl in your stories. Do you have an ideal girl?
KAO: I don’t want to say it’s a girl. I just want to say that it’s a person.
BERACASA: I get that. So who would you say is your ideal client? Does it range in age? Do you feel it’s appropriate for every woman?
KAO: Every woman wants to say their collection is ageless-my mom wears my collection. I would say there’s probably something for everyone, but the collection is based around women the ages 20-35.
BERACASA: Not someone who follows the trends.
KAO: That’s the common thread.
BERACASA: Do you aspire to make red carpet looks? Or more downtown looks?
KAO: I try to focus on the easy dramatic-which can be anything. It can be a T-shirt, or a gown.
BERACASA: I like the idea of “easy dramatic.” It’s like relaxed elegance.
KAO: Not just showing skin, but really thinking about the body and the contrast between body and drapery. How the two co-exist.
BERACASA: Are you crafty?
KAO: Tania Spinelli designed the skeleton of a shoe for us, and I added chain maille to it, and that shoe fell apart. The chain maille was too heavy. The interns slaved over it. BERACAS: How old are your interns? This is child labor. We’re shutting you down! No I’m kidding. But this is really beautiful-I would totally wear this and get a work out too. It’s like really, really chic weights around your ankle for working out on the go.
KAO: Each pair is like 75 triangular fragmented panels and each panel takes about 20-25 minutes to do. It’s like a sweatshop in here.
BERACASA: I actually love it. I want to see what it looks like on, because clearly you don’t get the shape of the weight.
KAO: The sound of it is beautiful too. The chain maille makes a great sound.
BERACASA: The beading on your embellishing is really beautiful. KAO: It’s really loud. You can hear it when you walk. [CLANGING NOISE]
BERACASA: What’s your worst moment in fashion since you started? The moment when you were like ‘Oh my god! I don’t know if I can do this anymore!’ Or embarrassing moment.
KAO: You always expect the worst. It’s always before the show that everything is going wrong. Because you’re also handling production stuff and if something goes terribly wrong with production you can’t-so that’s happened.
BERACASA: So the show.
KAO: So this season we had to completely redo the run of the show maybe an hour before. We had to reprint everything and deal with the no shows. It’s times like that I’m really glad that I’ve worked backstage at other shows.
BERACASA: So your best moment?
KAO: I think it came this season. We got a collection review on style.com. It was the best feeling because every designer is gunning to get that their first time. You hope for it every season, but you can’t expect that. But this season we got it. I was literally checking my computer-
BERACASA: Every fifteen seconds?
KAO: [LAUGHS] Yeah, and right before I took a shower it came up. So I called my assistant and we were freaking out. That was a big high for the whole team.
BERACASA: So what’s next for Jen Kao.
KAO: More of the same, but better-hopefully.