Jen Kao: Wicked Game




Jen Kao’s shore- and surf-inspired, surprisingly unclingy collection shares the organic ease of many of Spring 2011’s shows thus far—macramé,  arabesque embroidery, long and loose shapes—but its unexpected back story is one of pop drama and unrequited love. For savvy observers, the cues were all in the choice of opening music: the sultry strains of Chris Isaak’s “Wicked Game.”  After the show, Kao admitted: “It’s the most passionate, lustful love song in my memory. It’s filled with wrath, kismet, escapism and fantasy all at the same time.” While in the early stages of designing Spring 2011, the song clicked with her all over again. “The song came on my iPod last March, and it was pulling at every string in my heart in the best and worst ways, as well as pushing some nostalgic buttons—I knew I had to use it.” Those feelings of arresting emotional conflict moved the designer to create her collection. The clothes are feminine and light-weight, but there were stormy undercurrents to the proceedings, right down to the model’s wet, salt-plastered hair and dewy eyes. “It’s a love story, but there’s always a dark edge to the collections I put together.  And love is the same way,” Kao points out.  But when it comes to matters of the heart, Kao’s girls get their way–even if they have to die to do it.

Thus, the Isaak-ian tale takes a paranormal twist: “These girls are our doppelgangers.  We grow up wanting so much, expecting unicorns and princes and such.  That part of us dies and we forget how to live with that—imagination and limitless love. I just imagined that there’s some place in the desert where those parts of us are the “living dead,” and not actually gone.” Kao reified that reverie for her show by conjuring a milieu not unlike the dreamy, otherworldly seascape of Isaak’s infamous music video. Her friend, set designer Anne Koch created a special sand art catwalk just for the occasion; the collection’s signature swirling print served as its motif.

“It totally suited the concept of these zombie brides roaming a desert filled with endless love and romance,” says Kao. Meanwhile, the models looked ready for a Helena Christiansen-worthy sand romp in skimpy (yet elaborate) handwoven macramé sandals and ethereal white dresses. But in Kao’s fantasy, what would Isaak be wearing?  “Doesn’t he always do his best when he’s shirtless?” she says jokingly (but accurately).  But, “I’d probably put him in a skinny white suit with a skinny white tie with Spanish Fly undertones.”