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Gemma Kahng

Our studio visit and interview with the veteran fashion designer on her first collection in nearly 10 years

by Graham Hiemstra in Style on 12 January 2012

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Perched on the top floor of a nondescript building in New York's fashion district you'll find veteran designer Gemma Kahng's studio. The bustling space serves as a showroom, office, archive, design studio and production workshop, housing more than twenty years of inspiration pieces, vintage couture and past collections. From here the exuberant Kahng is staging her "comeback," as many are calling her return to regular production.

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The designer made a name in the fashion industry in the early 1990s with bold women's jackets and suiting. Her mainstream success came upon major industry praise and countless editorial spreads—including the cover of Vogue in August 1992. A decade or so later she experienced some tough times and eventually dropped out of the limelight. She never stopped designing, however, and now some 10 years since that dip, Kahng has a new team to help her build her label once again.

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Using the fresh start as a chance to showcase the expertise she's garnered over the last 20 years, Kahng seems to be in perpetually good spirits having turned out a stunning Spring 2012 collection. But with New York Fashion Week approaching there is still much to do, and the studio is in full production mode with samples, sketches and fabric swatches hanging everywhere.

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While exploring the studio I was immediately drawn to the overflowing stacks of fabric, spindles of ribbon and wall after wall of boxes filled with rare vintage materials—including 20 years worth of original Kahng handbags and garments. I sat down with Kahng to chat about the inspiration behind these current designs and where she sees her brand going.

When you first got started in the industry what would you say you were best known for?

Oh, suits. Power suits. They were so loud and a little bit obnoxious [laughs]. Everyone loved it.

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With your new Spring 2012 collection it seems you've shifted from bold suiting to a more feminine, sexy aesthetic. Would you say this was a natural transition or a more calculated move?

I don't think you can be that conscious with knowing what's right, you just have to try and see what happens. And it's been years, so I've tried all types of things. Not too long ago I made a piece when I was on the TV show (All on the Line) and it was basically like putting all the leftover stuff in one garment. And somehow I just created this very interesting texture and harmony. And a new idea came out of it. Judging from everyone's reaction I thought "let me take that further" and the idea developed into this Spring collection.

The Spring collection is all about texture and mixing different fabrics and layers. I don't want it to fall into being entirely romantic and super feminine. I want it to be a little bit edgier. That's when I decided to put a little bit Mad Max kind of feeling into it almost—exaggerated shoulders and sheer hem lines, something a little bit more interesting.

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Is this how you'd describe your current design ethos?

The vocabulary I like to use is being carefree. You know I don't want to try to make everything perfect, to follow the rules or make everything be luxurious and proper. I try to move away from that, but of course my customers are very elegant and very fashion-conscious. They want to look perfect. But I'm putting a little bit of edge into it, so my clothes are made with a carefree spirit, but when it's on isn't really. That's what I'm trying to do.

Texture and lace seem to be central to the new line. Are there any specific materials or fabrics that work best with your design style?

I like to work with chiffon. You can do so many things with it. Chiffon is very light and sometimes transparent so you have so many options. I can gather it and make it thick, or make it heavy by shirring it. I can cut it up and make ruffles out of it. Or i can just do triple layers to give thickness and still flowing at the same time. There's so many different things, but it also depends on the season. Spring, chiffon is a very very important fabric. Also it's very easy to get. I can get all different colors right down the street. So that makes a big difference [laughs].

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You use a lot of vintage materials as well. Why do you prefer this idea of re-purposing?

I like the things that are old and aged, and have some history. It makes it more beautiful, a little bit sentimental. You wonder how long it's been since it was made, things like that. When you look at some beautiful garment from the Victorian era it's aged and falling apart—so delicate and precious. I love that kind of feeling.

So sometimes yeah you can get vintage material. You have to think creatively and try different things. For example right now I'm washing this wool to make it a little more "raggy". It was perfectly pressed beautiful wool crepe, and I washed and dried it and it became very soft, like a rag. It's very nice, I'm making a dress out of it.

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Has your design process changed since the '90s with the advent of computers?

I like to sketch. And erase. But when it comes to computers I'm always doing research online. Before I used to go to the Metropolitan libary, make an apointment and sit down to make copies. None of that anymore. Just go online and it's all there. And I can do that just laying down right there on the studio sofa.

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The new Spring collection has a rather subdued palette of black and gold, any specific reason for this?

Oh yeah black and gold. Color is very challenging for me, personally I don't like color, but I want to try. So I'm kind of timid about it. But red, I feel very comfortable with, because red is almost basic. So I'll be doing some red, I like to try to squeeze in some colors—little variations of red or brown, not another color but kind of different tones. Very gentle, it has to be gentle. it cannot be too shocking.

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Are you currently designing and manufacturing all your garments in the studio?

Right now, yes. But I'm talking to some factories in the building. There're two factories on this floor we just went to say "hi" to them at lunchtime today. They all want to make my samples. So that's an idea we have in mind. But I like to do it [in the studio] so I can watch—and catch them if they're doing something wrong haha.

Head to Gemma Kahng online to see her Spring 2012 collection. Fall 2012 launches next month at New York Fashion Week.

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