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An Interview with Ka Wa Key

Ka Wa Key Chow is as unassuming as a designer can get. He welcomes us to his East London studio, pastel coloured fabrics on the walls, Kate Bush softly whispering Wuthering Heights in the background, and a cup of coffee in hand. He makes all the fabrics by hand, in small amounts and each metre imbued with the utmost care and love. In this space, you can easily ascertain, that his work speaks for itself. His impossibly intricate handmade textiles, extends the limits of menswear  through sensuous drapes and silhouettes and a blend of eastern and western references.

Having only graduated from the Royal College of Art in 2015, Key has won the coveted Hong Kong Young Design Talent Award (YDTA) and was a finalist for the H&M Design Award for his graduation collection entitled NO ASIANS PLZ; a satirical exploration of the identity of Asian Men in modern society. Today, we speak to him about the struggle of independent designers, the sensual nature of textiles, and the inimitable beauty of Old Hong Kong

Tell us a little bit about yourself and your background? Where did your interest in fashion come from?
It’s actually quite funny. My love for fashion began with my sister, who showed me all the big fashion magazines. She loved buying designer clothes, trying them on, mixing and matching, and I fell in love with the idea of dressing up. It inspired to look at menswear in the same light. I thought that men should also enjoy dressing up just as much. When I was studying in business school in Hong Kong, I always used to buy fashion magazines and secretly read them in class. I’ve always wanted to study fashion design, while still  keeping the business side of it.

What inspired you to create Ka Wa Key?
I never dreamed that I could start my own brand, but my tutors from the Royal College of Art really pushed me to do it. When I was in school, my main focus was my identity as a designer, how to develop my work and find my voice. I never really thought about the future. I think my time at the university really helped me develop my design process, and afterwards I just felt like I was ready.
I feel very lucky actually. I am in London because I won the young design talent award in Hong Kong, because of this my perspective completely changed. I don’t want to waste the opportunity I’ve been given. I want to make the most of it.

Why did you choose knitwear as your speciality?

Knitwear is my speciality because you can start the development from the yarn. I am a control freak and really love the idea of creating my own fabric. After graduation, I worked for J.W.Anderson in the knitwear department; and it was a once-in-a lifetime learning experience. I learned how a big label runs their business, and the kind of standard they create their clothes in. The whole experience also made me fall in love with knitwear even more.

Having only graduated form the Royal College of Art in 2015, what has changed for you after presenting your collections in London Collections Men?
There is a huge difference between studying at the Royal College of Art, where my main focus was my identity as a designer; and presenting at LCM which makes me feel like I’ve entered the real world. I need to be more concerned with the more commercial aspect of my brand. However in the end, I don’t think much has changed. I’m still being me, and I’m still keeping the identity of the brand though every piece that I make.

Describe KA WA KEY in three words
Personal, sensual, loving

KA WA KEY has a decidedly romantic and sensual aesthetic, could you tell us a little bit about your design process and the philosophy behind your brand?
KA WA KEY is all about the senses. I grew up in Asia, so my aesthetic and thinking is definitely influenced by my upbringing. When I create pieces, I’m looking at what I perceive from Asian Culture where the fabrics are raw and the draping is really loose and relaxed. The aesthetics are completely different, it’s all about imperfections. Europeans think fabrics need to be smooth and perfect, whereas in Hong Kong for example, there is a rawness that expresses the story of how the fabric is worn, the story behind the garment, and the beauty of the imperfections.
In Asia, the fabric is not adapted to the person, the person adapts to the fabric. There is a unique relationship between the volume of the garment and the person wearing it, I think it is this intimacy that the global fashion scene needs right now.

Your brand is often described as a hybrid of eastern and western influences. How has that inspired your latest collection and why did you decide to call it “No Asians Please”?
NO ASIANS PLZ is both my graduation collection and my first collection.  The name is actually a cheeky reference to Grinder where some guys put disclaimers saying "No Asians Plz"; which is half funny and half offensive, and I just don’t get it. There is a negative stigma on Asian men, and I think Asian men are beautiful.
When I was doing my research, I looked through these amazing photographic archives from Old Hong Kong. I thought that the images were really sensual and I tried to incorporate the elements of these garments into my collection. It is masculine, but in a softer way, celebrating the fluidity of the Asian aesthetic.

You produce everything in London now, why have you decided to produce in London and not in Hong Kong?
Fabrics are really personal for me, so I do everything in-house. We only produce a small amount each time, so everything is intimate. For me, it’s all about the senses, I want to feel something when creating these fabrics, because I think they have their own spirit. When I am manipulating them, I want to feel them personally, and make changes in order to fully express their soul through the fibres.

Young designers like yourself are slowly changing the face of menswear, what is next for you?
I think I will continue on the path of an independent designer, and to further raise my own voice and express my identity. There are a lot of changes in menswear today, and I think there is a clamour for independent designers and that is a really great thing. The industry is becoming more market driven and there are more contradictions, which is really interesting.

Anything exciting planned for 2017?
I’m working on collaborating with different designers to work on textiles for runway shoes and collections. I’m even thinking of expanding the KA WA KEY world and going into painting and interior design so watch out!

Interview by Hannah Tan

Portriats by Chris Baker