A renowned knitwear designer, a graphic designer, an artist, and now a director of his latest SS21 collection – Johan Ku is truly a ‘one-man show’. Spanning a successful career in the fashion industries for nearly a decade now, Johan reflects on his “humble” upbringing, which is the secret to his unorthodox and innovative collections.
The Taiwanese avant-garde designer’s SS21 collection, entitled ‘Painters’, is a collaboration between his abstract graphic-designs expertise and his long-time friend’s artistic paintings. The heavy blend of bold colours and dramatic prints are enriched through splashes of fluorescent acrylic paint, brushes, and imprinted paint-tubes as the visual basis for the new contemporary line.
Johan reflects on his structural, yet dynamic, luxury collections over the last ten years, pondering his humble upbringing as inspiration and motivation for the fashion world. Below, we explore his vision of the digital in future of fashion as well as celebrating his 20th collection this London Fashion Week.
Obviously, 2020 has been a difficult time for everyone. How has the pandemic affected you personally and creatively?
Personally, it becomes 'work from home' most of the time, although I still had to go out to find some new materials, nowadays people use the internet to communicate with each other. Even when ordering fabric - I would just call them to send samples. So, it's actually changed quite a lot, but I think it's a good change. People find a way to simplify things, as may be the older ways need a difference too. Even though our business got a little bit affected, but not that much, we have launched a new mask line. You lose something, and you win something, I guess.
How do you feel about Fashion Week being digital this year? Do you think it will be an aspect that will continue past the pandemic?
I think if the pandemic is still going, then the digital fashion week will be the next new normal, I have to say. We all must follow the COVID regulations and social distancing. Still, with the current UK law, it is impossible to hold a fashion show indoors with 30 people - especially in the backstage with models, assistants, hairstylists, not to mention the audience! I think the fashion industry is still trying to manage this. How can we show our collection digitally, but also perfectly?
How was it designing an entirely new collection in lockdown and under these unique circumstances?
In the past, I used to communicate with pattern-makers and factories by emails or phone calls. So in that way, it's not that different. But during the pandemic, I collaborated with painters I know because the artists couldn't have a physical exhibition to show their work. I bought some of the paintings from the artists that I worked with for this season's collection.
Do you think the pandemic will change the way we consume and produce fashion?
Yes, I think so. For me, I use an app to older almost everything from clothing to food - literally everything. When I came back from the UK to Taiwan, and I had to quarantine for a few days, and I got used to buying things online, it’s so easy now. I'm not sure it's good or bad, to be honest. If we can't resist it, we have to embrace it. Otherwise, you will just make your life so miserable.
You have a background in graphic design, which certainly comes through in your designs. What inspired you mostly for your SS21 collection?
When I came to think of the new collection, I thought maybe I should do something different. I usually get inspiration from movies or something like that. Still, it's the first time I got inspiration from a real artist, a real painter. Because he's one of my friends, and I have a graphic design background, I start talking with him that maybe I can use not only your artwork but also the things that you create art with - like your acrylic paints or anything you use to create your art. I take pride in the graphic design and prints, as it's relatively new to the print field (applying watercolour or acrylic to the material) - which was a new challenge for me too.
From your video, I got a hint of 'romanticism' in your collection. Is that what you are going for?
Actually, I told the models and two (famous), Taiwanese actors, that the videos are about a struggling artist. Not only struggling with their life but struggling with the new idea of creating new things. So, I wouldn't say it's too romantic, but more of the artist's internal struggle.
I'll tell you a secret. I'm not only directing the video, but I also edited it myself. I did the casting and invite the actors too, as actually, they're all my friends.
Wow, a one-man show!
We did work with a production team, but in the end, they couldn't really do what I wanted. So, I had to go to the studio and sit down in front of the computer through editing with the editing assistant to finish the films. All the scenes you see were done by me.
Your first collection and your debut were in Tokyo in 2011. Since then, you've been featured in many prestigious magazines, like Vogue and WWD. What was this whole experience up to now? What has been that been like for you?
Wow, it has been ten years already! Oh, my God. It's my 20th collection!
I think I still got a lot to learn, especially after the pandemic, as the fashion industry will change forever now. It will change everything from new rules, new tools like the use of online to sell your collections, to communicate with people, buyers, or journalists. But, I have to say, compared to my debut collection I know a lot more now. I think I accumulated my knowledge not only for design but also for the international fashion industry. I won't say I'm an expert, but I think I know much, much more than Johan Ku did ten years ago. My debut collection, I showed more faith around my knitwear. Still, now I show that I can do other things like prints and the cuttings of clothing, to show people that the clothes are not only trendy but also very wearable.
All your collections seem to have that artistic and sculptural element, even with the previous ones. Why is this concept so significant to you?
That's a good question. I think I must be a little bit proud here. In the last 20 collections I've done, I can tell the people exactly what the inspiration was and how I applied that inspiration onto my collections. I think that's quite an essential part as a designer; to ask myself not only to do some clothing that people want to wear but also to really tell the people how you use and apply your inspiration on to the collection. That's what makes you different because you have a different inspiration every season so that you will do a new collection every time. I just can't believe I just did my 20th collection!
Your collections are amazing, and you should be proud of them! What would you say are the main problems within fashion today?
I think I am luckier because I don't run a physical shop, I just have an online shop from my own website and also a wholesale business. I know many other designers, who have physical shops, have been really affected by the pandemic - everything just stopped as there's no customers coming in. The payment [for rent] is still going, but the sales become zero. I think it's really challenging for the people who are running the physical shops in the fashion industry at the moment. I think it's also a new challenge, as people started to think that fashion can be just online, it doesn't need to be a physical store, which still makes the business happen. I think it's just like the old saying, 'every cloud has a silver lining' - as the Brits say.
And how had certain moments in your life shaped the way you create?
You see, my background is slightly different than many of the other designers. I come from a humble background; my parents are not as rich as the other designers' parents. Sometimes I need to use my creativity to achieve my goal. For example, I got the opportunity to study in the UK through a scholarship, which was offered by the British Council in Taiwan. I am the only designer whoever received the scholarship. They normally pick from more academic fields, like economics or politics. Never was it given to anyone in the art and design field. I think I became more flexible, for example, for the latest collection, I collaborated with a painter - not only because he is my friend, but also because it was a new challenge. I think that shaped my designs, as well as my personality. I always say "you can use the money to buy many things, but you can't use the money to buy your creativity". Be creative in the fashion industry because it is tough. If you can't be creative and you're always relying on money, then I don't think you will go for a long time.
Golden words. Has reflecting on your creative process revealed some unknown truths about yourself?
When I started in my brand, many journalists in Taiwan knew I was from a humble background, and they were amazed by how I can manage to do that. I think, because I saw my mother need to deal with so many things in a short time and she always told me " if you have a difficulty, you conquer it". You try to overcome that and not be overcome by the difficulties. So, that became something that's in my DNA, especially when I saw my mum do it for such a long time. Designing is interesting, but the business is tough - so when you face tough things, you must conquer them. Don't find any excuse, just do it and overcome it. When you can overcome it, you can survive and continue designing. Don't give up!
And lastly, what's your most significant milestone?
I think that winning the Gen Art's Avant-Garde Prize is a significant milestone in my career. That prize made many people know not only me but also my signature design, the 'Emotional Sculpture' collection. And, I think the collection I displayed in Tokyo, which went on the WWD US cover - and it wasn't digital, it was physical [magazine]!
Thank you to Johan Ku for the interview and Black PR for providing images for his new collection.