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 Cassatt 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).
What follows are excerpts from my conversation with him about his start, his success, and his challenges along the way.
Can you tell us your story?
King: 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, theater 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 nerchandising 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 look like lush velvet. But my boss was a crazy, crazy man whose feelings and mood changed hourly. At 9 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.
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. 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. 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 p.m. that night and 10 a.m. the next morning the hats sold out. I was launched!
Maxfield opened 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 four hats, two 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.
The first year as a full-time entrepreneur was a roller coaster. With cash flow being non-existent, I melted down my sterling jewelry to finish one order – business got that tight. 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.
I eventually got back on my feet. Up until this point, the only products I had 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. 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. A whole body of work grew out of those vests – dinner jackets, furniture.
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, I’ve been experimenting with weird materials such as hair weave and carpeting, using them to make coats and bags.
Who were your mentors?
Simmin Sethna was a mentor and a towering influence over my work. Her teachings and lessons were indelible. I learned how to analyze a drawing and the steps to transform it into a 3D garment. Simmin referred to seams as scars, saying, “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 was a no-no. This thinking influenced my later and current work because it made 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 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.
Can you explain the difference between art to wear and wearable art?
In wearable art, or art to wear, the garment or the object itself is the most important part of the equation, the wearer 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 10 minutes after this coat.” I reinterpreted the same coat in black and dusty rose, which looked well on her, and allowed her to shine.
What is the 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. The finished piece was 16 yards of cross-dyed velvet that had a sapphire blue ground with a black nap. It was like a theater 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 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.
What is your 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.
told me that if there is a big difference between where you are and where you
want to be, then that’s a good thing. Why? Because that assumes there is a lot
of learning and growing before morphing into your better self, and each one of
those transformations (learning and growing), I believe is the key to a happy
and fulfilling life. I walked out of Kenneth’s apartment with a glimpse of who
I hoped to be one day. Even if I was far away from becoming anything close to
what he is, I saw where I could potentially be one day.
Maddie Flanigan is the blogger behind Madalynne, the cool pattern making and sewing blog. If Steve McQueen was the “King of Cool,” then Madalynne is the “Queen of Cool.” An educational, informational and inspirational blog, Madalynne provides how-to’s and tutorials on pattern making and all things sewing related. Madalynne also documents the life of Maddie, including her own sewing projects, endeavors and sometimes struggles, so that she can serve as an inspiration to her readers.
Maddie is part of The Opener, an exclusive, invite-only contributor network that will bring the best food, culture, and innovation writing to the pages of Coca-Cola Journey.