Back To Basics: A Conversation With Ken Chow

Ken Chow, Founder and Creative Director of Krane Designs, Chats With Us About the Fall Line, His Process, and the Pulley System That Inspired His Outerwear Collection.

You’ve interned with some amazing designers – Marc Jacobs, Robert Geller, Alexandre Plokhov of Cloak. How did this experience influence your design work? How did you navigate the process of branching away from that to find your own voice as a designer?

Each one of these designers has a unique point of view and aesthetic. Spending time with them in their spaces made me realize how important it is to have your own voice and the need to stay true to that. Marc Jacobs was the most established brand, and the combination of working with new up-and-coming designers with the experience of working with an established designer allowed me to see the bigger picture for my brand and its life cycle.

Aesthetically, the Marc Jacobs experience grew my love for vintage fashion, and the Cloak experience made me search inside myself and find my quirks and oddities to imbue into my design language.

In the beginning (especially because of Cloak and the cult following that it had), the market was expecting Krane to be this brand that would be all dark and esoteric. There are many elements of this aesthetic that I personally relate with, but at the same time it was not the vision that I had for the Krane brand. With time, the products that I put out each season spoke for themselves, and this paved way for the true Krane voice to be heard.

What is your personal process when designing new pieces? How do you bring a design from conception to creation?

The whole process is quite formulaic, but the gathering of research inspiration is the variable factor that keeps the process new and fresh. FIT [Fashion Institute of Technology] taught me that you need to be gathering inspiration images constantly and feeding your visual appetite. From these images, a mood board is created and a colour story is made. Fabric is then sourced and then the sketching process begins. Once the sketches are done, pattern drafting starts, and first samples are then constructed.

I’ve learned over the years that I am a detail-oriented designer. It starts with a detail that begins the whole creative process for me. This detail could be from an innovative construction technique in a beautiful architectural building (from my travels), a detail in a vintage garment, or a detail in an industrial chair. It’s not always a literal aesthetic reinterpretation of the inspiration; sometimes it’s a connection to the process of arriving at the final inspiring element that gets it all going.

For example, I had a collection where I created a hand-woven elastic ribbing that was used in bomber jackets and aviator coats. This idea actually came from I. M. Pei’s use of a sailboat pulley system in his design of the Louvre. The whole correlation may be confusing, but the visually-pleasing final product along with his back-to-basics aproach to recreate the sailboat pulley from scratch (as opposed to buying a ready-made pulley) was what actually inspired the hand-woven elastic ribbing.   The beauty of the final product caught my attention, but it was researching how the Louvre came to be [that] sparked a back-to-basics process of redesigning a knit ribbing for the outerwear collection.


Krane’s aesthetic draws heavily on vintage military styles. What is it about these particular looks that pique your interest as a designer?

As a gay man growing up in the nineties, and not coming out until my early twenties, I’ve always placed value on what it means to be a masculine strong man. Military uniforms embody these values perfectly for me, so it made sense to build this into the DNA of the brand. As a brand that has built its identity in the menswear market, the military aesthetic was also a smart business decision, for men (and women) will always respond to military styles.


You got your start in designing bags – specifically, as they’re lovingly called, “manbags”. How do you strike a balance between utility and aesthetic when designing functional accessories?

Krane started in 2004, so aesthetics were especially important in marketing the brand because the market was looking for items that would define the new millennium age. There were definitely more “bells and whistles” in the products from the first couple of seasons, but from the get-go (especially since the collection was introduced in the menswear arena, and bags for men), it has always been about utilitarian products. There are still products currently available from the first season, so you’ll see that their utilitarian qualities are still present, but with less fuss.


What were your inspirations for the Fall 2015 line?

In the beginning themes for collections were more relevant and prevalent because there were full apparel collections for a few seasons. There was a slight military DNA undertone to the whole collection but they were laced with themes like Rockers vs. Mods, or Teddy boys and the Rockabilly movement.

The brand has evolved and it is now focused solely on two core categories: outerwear and bags…the strengths for the brand.

There are now permanent collections (as opposed to seasonal collections) within the Krane Man and Krane Bag categories. These collections were built with a military DNA in the earlier years. The silhouettes have been carried over season after season, but each season some silhouettes will get a style update or addition. For example, digital prints have become a thing, so this season, we introduce a houndstooth camouflage print that was inspired by razzle-dazzle camouflage. This print was used in the EMORY (named after US war veteran Jacob Emory) hooded bomber for this season.

Within the Krane Bag category, I’ve also added a small leather goods collection, and you’ll see this print come into play in this collection also.


Do world trends influence your collections?

In the past I would have answered no to this question. With social media being the beast that it is today, I would now have to say yes. Krane is at a stage in its life cycle where it needs to play on the world level. The need to grow your social following becomes as important as your sales goals. The greater the following the better the image for your brand, resulting in better sales. It is all connected. Before it was just about bringing an amazing product to market, but now all the other stuff is just as important. Trends play into this, so yes, they do influence my collections…but more so for marketing purposes.


What are your favorite materials to work with?

Waxed cotton, leather and gunmetal is what Krane is all about.


How do you balance the economics of your market with your creativity or passion for design? Are there outside influences that limit or enhance your design decisions?

I’m not sure that I’ve mastered this actually, but do think I have grown as a designer and businessman. I guess I’ve learned how to tame my ego, and as a result, the decision to scale the company back to focus on categories that perform best for the brand is testament of balancing the two. Not that outerwear and bags don’t require deep pockets to sustain, but adding a full apparel collection to the equation makes it tenfold more expensive. I am still inspired to design clothing but I’ve channeled that into the outerwear collection. By taking the apparel out of the equation, it reduced the workload, allowing time to focus on consumer demands, competitors, and optimal price points for my products.


Who are your favourite Canadian designers?

I like what Klaxon Howl is doing. Matt Robinson’s knowledge of men’s fashion is endless, and he is so committed to honouring the way things were done back when the original items were “in-fashion.”

Andrew Coimbra is also serving up a fresh voice for the new generation. I like his vibrant energy that he puts into his collections.


What advice would you give young fashion designers?

These days with all the free possibilities that social media creates for brands, it makes it a lot easier for new brands to establish themselves and generate momentum in their brand. The best advice I can give is to create a business plan with goals and a 5 year plan (with an exit strategy) before you establish. At the end of the day, being a fashion designer is a business. If you are not creating products that the market is seeing value in and consuming, then you will not be successful. If you take the time and energy to do this prep work, young designers will learn the numbers game faster and understand that it’s a business, and the business will sustain the individual’s life as a fashion designer.


What’s next for you?

Mastering the social media landscape and applying what I’ve built for men (in the last 10 years) to the new Krane Woman.

Meghan Greeley
Meghan Greeley is an actor and writer originally from Newfoundland. She has performed in films that have screened at festivals around the world, including Cannes, Karlovy Vary, the Utah Indie Film Festival, the Montreal World Film Festival, and the Toronto International Film Festival. As a writer, her works have been published in The Stockholm Review, Metatron, Riddlefence, Nelson Publications, and the Breakwater Book of Contemporary Newfoundland Drama. She is a winner of the Magnetic North Theatre Festival’s Playwriting Contest and first place winner of the Sparks Literary Festival’s Poetry Competition. She currently resides in Toronto.