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“Buy less, but better.” That’s the code menswear designer Kai D. Fan, better known as simply Kai D, operates by. His vintage clothes are designed to emulate styles from fifty years to nearly a century ago, all while holding their own test of time with their durable construction and fine materials. The emphasis is on quality, but where Kai D.’s line really shines is in the detail.
Taiwanese born Kai D. has spent the last 18 years taking our clothes back to the past. Or you could say he’s bringing the past to us. His interest in fashion was sparked during college years in Taiwan, where he interned with an American-owned magazine. Its creative design content led to his avid reading of many magazines, including fashion publications that helped him realize his interest in menswear. He built upon his newfound interest by attending New York City’s Fashion Institute of Technology, where he majored in menswear design, and from there he stepped into the fashion industry.
For several years, Kai D. served as a Creative Director at Nautica clothing company. In 2004, after leaving Nautica to escape the corporate structure, he started thinCtank, a design consulting firm that worked for companies like Converse, Sean John, Lacoste, and clothing lines by David Chu, Nautica’s founder.
Vintage themes drive Kai D.’s designs. His ideas came about during his stint at Nautica, where he studied World War era military clothing. His interest fanned out to other menswear of that time (of factory workers, train conductors, and even newspaper boys), and he found a way to bring them back to life in contemporary times. The attention to detail is what makes his designs so popular. A hidden pocket here, or an extra zipper there, are elements that were apparently abundant during the 1930s, 40s, and 50s. “I believe each detail should serve a purpose in order to stand the test of time,” Kai D. said in a statement to Modern Anthology, a vintage retail store featuring his clothing. The most defining factor, when it applies to vintage clothing, is the attention to the finest details, and use of the finest materials. His designs make heavy use of tweed, leather, and wool. Materials are imported from Italian textile factories, by the way. The factories themselves are over 100 years old.
Kai D. finally opened his own brick and mortar store, Kai D. Utility in 2014. Situated in Williamsburg, New York City, the shop is located within the hipster epicenter of Brooklyn. Its designs are popular due to Kai D.’s use of vintage themes. His catalog includes worn leather boots, tweed or wool jackets, fedoras, and vintage-style pants and shirts. The line also offers accessories from camouflage bow ties, wallet chains, and straw hats, to pencils, pens, candles, mugs and anything a man needs to groom. There’s even a new small line of clothing just for the ladies, featuring the same vintage themes thought up by Kai D.’s design partner, Hye Sun Mun. Kai D. plans to expand on the women’s line and soon introduce eastern-cultured vintage themes as well. His designs seem very authentic, also. Looking at many of the garments reminds me of those black and white Great Depression-era New York City or Chicago photos. Minus the depression, of course.
The designer is most proud of his desire to keep his production in-shop and local. Aside from minor partnerings with other clothing companies, and imported material, everything is made right in the States. Kai D. spoke about it to The Emerging Designer, a fashion networking outlet. “More than half of them [customers] asked about the country of origin,” he told them. “They like the idea that we are also ‘makers’ of our products.” Highly believable as many shoppers like to support local economy in this overly-networked, and outsourced modern world. Kai D.’s clothing selection is gaining popularity and his sales are doing well, as he’s expanding his product line. It’s apparent that sometimes the best new thing is taken from the page of an old book.
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In times like these with a recession looming and hopes of mending what’s been torn to pieces, a question always remains. In every interview, every casual conversation, someone just has to know: Why fashion? People don’t just buy couture when they’ve lost their jobs. A pair of Chanel shoes are replaced with paying rent. So, why fashion? For designers like LaQuan Smith, fashion isn’t a choice, it’s a calling.
“To be honest, I would not say that I am choosing fashion. Instead I think fashion chooses me. As long as I can remember, I have always been sketching and designing, and I’ve always been interested in the beautiful and fascinating things in life, like my mother and my grandmother dressing up. All these women and flowers, I had a huge interest in that. I feel like it’s my purpose to make clothing,” Smith explained to fashion, art and literature magazine Flaunt.
The designer was born in Queens, N.Y. with an almost immediate love for fashion and design. However, when he was 13, the passion was given an outlet. Smith’s grandmother passed on her Singer sewing machine to Smith so he could practice. He began with simple designs and styles, but eventually moved on to doing more complex designs and creating his own unique style. After a battle with cancer, Smith was able to focus his attention even more on fashion. After graduating high school in 2007, he began interning at New York’s BlackBook, a huge fashion and culture magazine. By 2008, Smith had created his own self-titled brand. However, those pieces are not something you would see Smith wearing on a daily basis.
“I am always changing my personal style up. I love comfortable and chic. I try to wear jeans and fun graphic tees as often as possible. I do jazz up these simple wears with fun accessories with jewelry, watches, and great shoes,” Smith said with contemporary art and culture magazine Art Nouveau.
By looking at some of his flamboyant, even futuristic designs, you would guess that the designer always dresses the part. However, his own life is a bit more modest like his personal dress. He doesn’t design in a studio packed with assistants; he does everything on the floor of his New York apartment. He still has the Singer sewing machine for practice, but does most of his designing and pieces on a Kenmore sewing machine – a humble machine that just about anyone could get and use for their own sewing needs. Perhaps this is what gives Smith his fighting chance. He began showing at New York’s Fashion Week in 2010. Now, he’s been asked to design for the Joffrey Ballet’s performance of Jeremy McQueen’s ‘Black Iris.’
“The dance was inspired by the ‘Black Iris’ painting by Georgia O’Keeffe. I did some research on the piece, and it’s a beautiful portrait of a flower that was so dark, edgy and romantic–all in one. The colors are black, eggplant and a stormy grey. So it’s not a bright flower, which made it a challenge as well, because I didn’t want it to look like a typical black dress. So it was a very cool challenge,” Smith told Huffington Post.
Behind all of his success looms a curiosity. That’s what inspired Smith to create in the first place. Not only did his grandmother leave him an important tool in the Singer machine, but she also influenced his curiosity. What makes a woman choose a skirt? Why that particular fabric? This is possibly why so many female celebs have chosen Smith’s designs – Beyoncé, Lady Gaga, Alicia Keys and Tyra Banks among others have all chosen Smith no doubt for his unique addition to the fashion society.
“I am interested in finding out many facets of a woman, her beauty and her sensuality. What inspires me the most is her lifestyle, the way she carries herself, the way she blows her hair, the way she puts on her shoes—all of that is very inspiring. I would watch my grandma get dressed for church or my mom getting dressed for a date or wherever she was going. What makes you put on this blouse or this skirt…?” the designer told Flaunt.
After all he’s been through – battling cancer and a recession – LaQuan Smith didn’t just respond to the design siren’s call. He came running with the intent to succeed. He didn’t take the challenge lying down and gave himself a fighting chance to become one of the most unique, flamboyant yet modest designers New York has ever seen.