The menswear market, especially in Canada, is a bit of an empty meal. The sum of male dress always adds up to a whole; they're all one in the same. And so it's always an interesting reaction when you ask a designer, male or female, why they chose to enter the menswear sphere. It's a curious, even niche, corner of the industry, dominated by clearly defined categories like suiting and its accessories, sportswear and its accessories, and then everything else, from casual to unconventional. (Drop-crotch pants, anyone?) Men are also often marketed to based on similar safe ideals and labels: "edgy, urban-cool rock and roll," "utilitarian workwear," and so on.
From the Krane F/W 2012 Collection.
There are no explicit day-to-night constructs for men. Some wear suits during the day, and then go completely casual and antithetical in sweatpants/slacks/jeans/v-neck sweaters. Others aspire to all quirky, all the time. Others are comfortable to straddle the middle and wear H&M, sometimes pairing fast-fashion with local independents. In any case, the market remains the same: small, and even smaller when compared to womenswear.
So the trick then becomes, how does a brand and its designer properly serve its market? For some, it's not about pushing boundaries and getting men to "loosen up." The idea that men "are boring dressers" or "all look the same" is a bit flawed, at least in the western, North American collective. Dress is almost always tied to greater social issues, and includes the perception and propagation of mass-media ideals of "masculinity" and gender norms. (See the curious question of men in heels.) But the smart designers, like Ken Chow, know how to acquire a following that depends on a vision, and to nurture that vision before attempting any paradigm shifts in boldness among the male form.
If you happen to hear the name Ken Chow or see his brand, Krane, floating more and more through fashion stories like this one, know that it didn't just happen for him overnight. So goes the story with all great labels that "suddenly" appear on the landscape like it's what we've been missing all along, Chow's been in the design game and established a business when you weren't even looking.
Established in 2004, Krane began exclusively as a handbag/accessories collection. "The brand's been in market for a good eight years now, but it was only bags for a good four years. The coats are lifting off, and the bags continue to be strong. The coats are developing a new life every season."
When I first came across him, it was for his offering of leather neckpieces (not quite a harness, but not a traditional necktie either). They decorated plain white dress shirts - or, for the bold, no shirts - and hinted at delicate and - I imagine - ulterior, S&M allusions. But they were never too loud. In Toronto, the Krane line is carried at choice retailers, and independent champion UPC boutique (which has since closed since I first discovered the brand) was a forum to showcase Chow's more interesting work as his bag collection began to take shape. Since then, Krane has been picked up in boutiques as far as Japan, and in bigger names like Fred Segal in Los Angeles and Barneys New York.
Live from Toronto, he's been meticulously crafting a fan base and etching out a market with his solidly-designed bags that exhibit utilitarian determinations, built for a man that works hard, plays harder, or does nothing at all - almost always on urban terrain. After graduating from New York's Fashion Institute of Technology (migrating stateside because there was no menswear scene in Toronto), Chow went to work immediately, learning from American sportswear and tailoring greats like Marc Jacobs and Robert Geller.
But it's been a long journey, and it's never easy for a designer who returns home to set up shop in Canada. "I'm a very hands-on designer, and the big challenge is [growing as a designer]. The other challenge is [growing as a brand, but keeping it in Canada]."
But grown he has. As the handbag collection grew, so did Chow's ambition to move into outerwear, and he's even tried his hand at other categories. For two consecutive seasons, throughout 2011, he participated in the official schedule of Toronto Fashion Week (now, World MasterCard Fashion Week) after previously opting out of showing altogether. For F/W 2011, Krane's unconventional runway presentation (with a tinge of the theatrical) displayed his strong craftsmanship skills, sending out strength after strength in the form of texture-driven outerwear like suede bombers with shearling collars and other details so subtle, yet without skipping a beat. For his subsequent S/S 2012 collection, Chow dipped into swimwear, offered knapsacks that were decidedly "on trend," and experimented with jackets that contained a hidden strap that would allow the garment to easily convert and be slung over the shoulder.
|From the Krane F/W 2012 Collection.
Photograph courtesy of Krane.
And then we arrive at the present. Earlier this week, Chow ventured off the runway into a private and smaller showing of his latest offering, almost reflecting a scaling back and re-focusing of an approach that will allow him to continue his rise in the men's market. "Right now, I'm faced with the decision of either do I grow [the brand and] produce overseas, or do I stay in Canada? I'm looking into doing parts of [the process] overseas, so I can handle the numbers [production costs, etc.] because Canada is not capable of handling the numbers."
For the upcoming season, Chow continues to progress with key items that play off a military theme he's often inspired by and, consequently, worked at developing. "Since I started the brand, it's always been about the military silhouettes and I put that into the bags and the coats. I feel that when I design fall/winter, that's when the military comes out just because that's something guys can easily get into. It's like a go-to silhouette, like a military pea coat - guys will easily respond to that. What's good about my brand is that I focus on detail. Every season, then, I'll do a new detail to make something a little more modern."
But this touches on the very question about menswear and its intricacies of blending smart design with real-world necessities and applications. The military allusions Chow designs with can also perpetuate a constantly looming sentiment over menswear that both constricts and discourages the otherwise "trendier" styles, maybe even fashion's own societal exuberance or apparent frivolity. He manages to do both so well, so where does Krane fall on the spectrum? "It's a men's brand and that's where it started, so it's always been utilitarian. They're rugged bags that you will use until they fall apart and the bag will only fall apart because cotton has a certain life to it, and that's why I've introduced leather into them so that they're built to last."
Since Chow left and then returned to Canada, there has been a strong resurgence in Canada of the menswear market with street-smart design, each brand aiming to appeal to its own carefully-built demographic. "I think Canadian fashion has become more business-focused, so young designers that are getting into the game at this stage, they're being smarter about it, they're thinking larger," explains Chow. "That's why I think Canadians are doing better because they're not just playing in Canada; they're playing in other parts of the world earlier on."
|From the Krane F/W 2012 Collection.
Photograph courtesy of Krane.
Case in point: fellow contemporary designer Philip Sparks (who just celebrated five years in business yesterday) has carved out an equal, and yet opposite, market with his well-tailored, nostalgia-tinged suiting and separates. Sparks has since grown his business to include accessories, a womenswear line, and a collection of men's shoes with a national retailer. More importantly, this week he opens his first standalone brick-and-mortar store that further enables him to retain a certain control over his business operations and begin a new relationship with the customer outside of that created with the help of a buyer. Montreal's Travis Taddeo, another contemporary menswear-cum-womenswear designer who I profiled in advance of his own Toronto show, is forthcoming about his own desire to explore the market and blend luxury with streetwear. This appeals to an entirely different demographic, and Taddeo aims to deconstruct and translate garments across gender.
So the landscape is changing, but how much and how fast is the complication. "Menswear is very much about the product. Guys aren't seasonal shoppers like women are," says Chow on the cautions of being an emerging young designer. "The best advice I could give aspiring designers that want to enter menswear is that they should focus on one thing and do it really well, and then evolve from that."
Of his own evolution, then, Chow says: "I never say never, but [Krane] is a men's brand and it's going to stay men's-focused." While holding steadfast to the designer's vision, Krane will be introducing a modest selection of women's handbags since his current ones have been so well received by both genders. "Sometimes women don't want something so 'masculine' or 'utilitarian' and they want a purse." This is only the next logical step, and the beginning of something greater where menswear sets a foundation for a business, not the other way around.
Remember: all men are not built to be dressed the same. More importantly, empires aren't built in a day.
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