My art history professor at SCAD always asked my class when introducing a new piece of artwork, “Has anyone seen this in person?” The reason for the question was that a book can’t do a painting, a sculpture, or any other type of artwork justice. Until you stand before a Monet or a Cassat and see the brushstrokes, the pencil lines, the texture, and the scale of the piece, you can’t grasp the magnitude and the power of it. When I first walked into Kenneth D. King’s apartment, located in New York’s Flatiron District, I had that same breathless experience. With jackets made from carpeting, hair extensions, leather, and other extreme materials, I felt like I was in the presence of a master. He has the eye, the knack, and the ability to make clothes and accessories that are not only art, but wearable art (only he calls it couture).
Tell us your story? I started sewing at the age of 4 when I traded my gun and holster set for my sister’s Barbie. My Barbie was 27-years-old, lived in a big city, only wore evening clothes, and went to the opera, theatre, and swanky restaurants. My mother’s friends frequently asked me, “What does she do for work?” That, of course, didn’t factor into the life of my Barbie.
When I was 15-years-old, my high school offered Bachelors Economics, which I took because I wanted to make clothes for myself. My mother sewed, but she never made me anything because she claimed menswear was too hard. The teacher who taught the class basically gave me full reign over the sewing machines – she handed me the pattern and the instructions and said, “Here you go, figure it out.”
I continued to sew, teaching myself along the way, and in college, I majored in Fashion Merchandising with an emphasis on window display. After graduation, I moved to San Francisco and landed a job in window display for Macy’s, and because of my background in sewing, I became the fabric expert. I was the one who could make flocked fabric drape and look like lush velvet. But my boss was a crazy, crazy man whose feelings and mood changed hourly. At 9:00 a.m., a display was gorgeous, but by lunchtime, it was horrid. While under his leadership, I realized that if I was to work for someone else in this industry, these are the type of people I would be working under. The Devil Wears Prada makes crazy bosses seem stylish and amusing, but in this case, my boss wasn’t stylish or amusing.
Around this time, I got my first paying customer – a woman who wanted a dress to wear to her daughter’s wedding. After searching London and New York, and even San Francisco for the perfect thing to wear, she was still empty handed and asked me if I could make something for her. Long story short, the woman got her perfect dress and I realized that I could earn money by making clothing.
Fitting was not my strong point, so I made accessories – hats initially. Because I had a background in window display, I understood the importance of packaging. If you have a good product in a bad package, you have a bad product, and vice versa. So for each hat (I made mostly fascinators), I created black velvet boxes that were lined with black taffeta. The purpose of them was to make the opening of the box an experience – when a customer opened it, it made a tiny sigh, and when he or she removed the hat from it, the tissue paper crackled. But the boxes are what got me into Maxfield; it was the cause of my tipping point. At the time, I was enrolled in a jewelry class, and my teacher had a sister who was a stylist for a leading agency in Los Angeles. My teacher arranged for us to meet, and when we finally did, she saw my hats and said, “This needs to go to Maxfield.” Two days before Thanksgiving, she presented my hats to Maxfield. It wasn’t the owner or the buyer who understood my work, but the head sales lady was like a kid at Christmas when she saw the velvet boxes and what was in them. She grabbed her customer book, started making phone calls, and between 7:00 p.m. that night and 10:00 a.m. the next morning, the hats sold out. I was launched.
Maxfield opened the doors for me. Through them, I got celebrity and rich and famous customers such as Elton John. Oh, I loooved Elton! With him, it was 4 hats, 2 weeks, and a blank check. After I made his first piece, I thought, “I can now die a happy man.” He has a substantial collection of my work, among them the best pieces I’ve made.
After getting into Maxfield, I quit my job in display in March of 1987. That first year as a full-time entrepreneur was a rollercoaster. The stock market crashed in October of ’87 and I remember sitting at my work table, listening to the radio, and thinking, “This is not good.” By December of that year, I had lost my apartment and was sleeping on the broken-down sofa in my studio while listening to the mousetraps clacking like castanets at night. With cash flow being non-existent, I melted down my sterling jewelry to finish one order – business got that tight.
I eventually got back on my feet. Up until this point, the only products I made were accessories and furniture because I didn’t have strong understanding of fit. But my customers wanted clothing, so I decided that now was the time to learn. In 1990, a woman by the name of Simmin (pronounced “Simone”) Sethna, who was born in Persia and trained at the Ecole Guerre-Lavigne (ESMOD) in Paris to be a premiere in a couture house. She had a little school in San Francisco, and I decided to study with her. By studying under her, I finally learned to rules of patternmaking and fitting that have allowed me to make anything.
One of my earliest hits was an adjustable evening vest – it was a fluke that became a hit. I was disappointed with how dreary men’s evening wear was at the time, and decided to make one of these vests, but embellished. I embellished the lapels and pockets, and made sterling buttons and hardware for it. Well, that was a hit and I wasn’t even expecting it! A whole body of work grew out of those vests – dinner jackets, furniture, etc.
That stint lasted until about 1997, when I thought that I had said what I needed to say with the embellished pieces. Basket weaving has always interested me, so over the course of the next 3 years, I played with that and other kinds of fabric manipulation. This research and development lead me to soufflé, leafing, and cutwork.
Recently, and because I’m in a comfortable and secure spot in my career, I’ve been experimenting with weird materials such as hair weave and carpeting, using them to make coats and bags.
Mentor: Simmin was definitely a mentor and was a towering influence over my work even though she was yay high. She taught how she was trained – strict. After learning all the parts and pieces and theory, she gave me 30 line drawings (she called them models) of the butt-ugliest clothing I’ve ever seen, and I had to make each outfit in full scale. I was only allowed one mistake, and that mistake had to be minor – the side seam of the jacket not lining up with the side seam of the skirt. But her teachings and lessons were indelible. I learned how to analyze a drawing and the steps to transform it into a 3D garment. I also learned about proportions – because fashion sketches are drawn on an elongated body, garments drawn on them have to be translated correctly in order to look right.
Also, Simmin referred to seams as scars, and one of her saying was, “You don’t want to have a scar on your face, and you don’t want to have a scar on your garment.” According to her, seams had to perform either a technical or an aesthetic function. Haphazardly placing a dart or seam here, there, or anywhere because you don’t know what to do with it was a no-no. This thinking influenced my later and current work because it made/makes me think of ways to make a garment with no seams or no apparent seams.
There was also a man by the name of Jackson Allen who had the first store to take on my work in 1984. He once said to me, “You should never have to ‘sell’ your work. People will either understand it, or not get it at all. It’s a yes or a no, and don’t take it personally.” Those words of advice have helped me deal with comments like, “Hats? Well, that’s stupid!” People who say that don’t get it, and I don’t take it personally.
Wearable art: In wearable art, or art to wear, the garment or the object itself is the most important part of the equation, not the wearer; he or she is secondary. But in couture, the person wearing the piece is paramount; the piece enhances the appearance of the wearer. It can be beautiful and spectacular, but it cannot enter the room before the person wearing it. One example that comes to mind is a customer I had who was very fair and quiet. She came to my studio and was interested in buying a peacock blue and gold taffeta evening coat. I told her she couldn’t buy it. She was shocked, but I said to her, “Vicky, you would enter a room about ten minutes after this coat.” I reinterpreted the same coat in black and dusty rose, which looked well on her, and allowed her to shine.
Best thing you’ve made? That’s a tough decision! There is a blue velvet cape in my Cool Couture book that I would have to say is my most memorable piece – it’s very grand. The customer told me from the beginning, “Think The French Lieutenant’s Woman movie.” She wanted a big cape so she could not just enter into a room, but sweep into it in a grand statement. I took a deep breath and said, “Okaayy,” knowing that it would be very heavy and very big. The finished piece was 16 yards of cross-dyed velvet that had a sapphire blue ground with a black nap. It was like a theatre curtain it was so heavy!
Another memorable piece, which is currently at the DeYoung Museum in San Francisco, was a stiff, black wide-wale faille jacket that was an homage to Balenciaga. First, the pattern was beautifully cut, so everything came together nicely. The exterior was somber black, but the magic of the garment was on the inside, which was embellished and took me a month to complete. It was also interlined in bump cloth so it could practically stand up by itself!
There is also a really special hat, that lives now in the permanent collection of the Victoria and Albert Museum in London!
What do you still want to learn? Shoes. There is a challenge with shoes though, and it is similar to the challenge I faced with hats. The reason I shied away from blocked hats and in favor of sewn hats at the beginning of my career is because with the former, a different block is needed for every style – you are limited by the number of blocks you own. The same thing goes with shoes. For every style, I would need a different last, and I’d also need a range of sizes for each last if I want to make shoes for more than one person. That’s the challenge, but that doesn’t mean I won’t overcome it.
Philosophy on fitting: First of all, proper fit is the Holy Grail. No amount of excellent construction technique can save bad fit.
When I was learning about fitting, I wanted to understand the underlying principles. By understanding this, one can reason out a solution to any fitting situation. What I came to understand (which we illustrated in my fitting DVD series for Threads Magazine), is that in any fitting solution, there is one of three outcomes: net gain, where you need to add fabric to the garment; net loss, where you need to remove fabric from the garment;, and no-net-change, where you need to move fabric from one region of the garment where there is too much, to another region where there is too little.
Once the fitting is done, and the adjustments transferred to the paper, the paper is adjusted. Then, one needs to correct for distortion – this is a no-net-change.
The different fitting methods all have something of value to bring to the dialogue about fitting, but this underlying principle made the whole topic make sense for me.
As a giveaway, Kenneth is offering one reader a copy of his book, All Grown Up Now: A Friendship in Three Acts, and his DVD series, Smart Fitting with Kenneth D. King. Contest is open immediately and will close on Friday, November 29th, where a winner will be chosen, notified, and featured on my blog. To enter, like Madalynne’s Facebook page. That’s it! Also, contest is open internationally.