There have been major cultural shifts towards genderless fashion in recent years, with top-tier brands increasingly rejecting traditional gender stereotypes in favour of a more fluid approach (labels like Thom Browne and Vivienne Westwood are leading the field.) Now, newer emerging labels are embracing the movement, unafraid to challenge fashion norms.
Ka Wa Key is one such brand — since launching in 2015, designers Jarno Leppanen and Ka Wa Key Chow have championed a gender fluid aesthetic, but for SS'19 they took an unusual step: they introduced womenswear for the first time. “Concentrating on a tight edit of womenswear pieces meant that we used some of our menswear pieces on female models, adding a new genderless twist to the collection,” explained Chow after the show.
Although their Paris lineup featured much of the same offering as their London Fashion Week Men’s show in June – such as dungarees, drawstring trousers and knit tops in laidback silhouettes – the new women's additions included fine knit mesh tops and deconstructed skirts. “Since our aesthetic is so flexible we often receive requests to do womenswear, this was a natural transition for us, as our designs have always embodied a soft masculinity and blurred gender borders,” said Leppanen.
In terms of stockists, this fluid perspective has certainly benefited the brand, as many retailers have expanded their gender-neutral offerings to cater to rising demand. Opening Ceremony carries Ka Wa Key’s collections in their unisex departments, while the label is also available at genderless online platforms like London’s Verv and New York’s G.L.E.T.
A genderless design approach is not the only thing pushing international buyers and press to endorse Ka Wa Key: one of their biggest selling points is their interdisciplinary creativity as a brand. Performance art and dance, in particular, are an important part of their brand identity, a lot of which can be attributed to Leppanen’s background in art. He has helped translate Ka Wa Key's design vision into unique, experience-led runway shows and presentations.
Chow points out that although art and culture are fundamental to the brand, they alone are not enough to drive a sustainable business. He credits much of the brand’s success, thus far, to the financial aid and support of a number of industry bodies including UK-based fashion business incubator, Centre for Fashion Enterprise (CFE). “We are lucky to be able to participate in a programme that provides really good business support,” says Chow. “We have gained a lot of industry skills and knowledge from them.”
The duo are currently completing CFE’s six-month programme, which offers vocational workshops alongside mentorship from business consultants and experts. “It has reminded us that creativity on its own is not sustainable and will rarely bring a return on investment,” adds Leppanen.
Being based between London and Chow’s native of Hong Kong is another advantage for the brand; Chow outlines how the Hong Kong government avidly supports local talent and designers. Most recently, Hong Kong-based NGO, Fashion Farm Foundation, organised and sponsored their Paris Fashion Week show. They both agree, however, that London remains their primary base for its unparalleled artistic and cultural influences. Chow adds that London’s well-developed media industry is a major plus: “Influential press are often willing to collaborate with independent designers, so this is extremely valuable for us as they have the power to help with exposure.”
It remains to be seen how Ka Wa Key’s genderless philosophy and artistic approach will sustain the brand, especially as external support will likely diminish as they mature. But having already shown their collections in three major fashion cities, namely London, Paris, and New York, as well as emerging markets like Shanghai, Tokyo, and Hong Kong, for now, it seems the young label is set for international success.