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Styleforum interview Joel Knoernschild of KZO

LA Guy

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KZO
Interview by Fok, Pictures by Whodini, editing and general douchebaggery control by Shoreman

Joel Knoernschild is the creative director of KZO, which was first introduced to the forum by Brett and Karen of Dresscodes Atlanta (RIP) first introduced the line, at that time named Kazuo. I had the privilege of doing an online interview with Joel.

SF: Early in your career (before we ever met), I remember reading that you wanted to bring a so-called Japanese sensibility to the American audience. What exactly did you mean by that, as Japanese fashion is so heterogeneous? Do you still think that way?
Joel: You’re right in describing Japanese fashion (at least, the fashion that we’re drawn to) as mixed or heterogeneous Number (N)ine’s Tabahiro Miyashita described his collection accurately as DJ fashion—remixing designs together like music. I want to have a collection that, like a good film, doesn’t give away the ending too soon, without confusing the audience. It’s an extremely fine line.
That’s the Japanese sensibility I referred to, but I also enjoy attention to details and quality. The Japanese consumers are obsessed with fashion; I want to offer the US the same mindset and quality as Japan.

SF: What are your inspirations? You yourself wear a lot of layers. Are you one of those designers who say “I wouldn’t design anything I wouldn’t wear?” I’d be bored to death of a collection based purely on stuff that I would wear.
JOEL: Inspirations are anything personally honest and true. I ask myself, “Is there a passion for the seasonal inspiration and story? Does it represent me?” Otherwise consumers are going to think it’s phony. I know… it’s clichÃ
00a9.png
and corny but it has to be a starting point.
Yes, the collection represents what I would like to wear next season. But I also want to push the brand and myself further; whether the line is successful or not always surprises me. I design around a comfort zone and then there are the pieces that are part of the story that push the boundaries—I hope it’s able to achieve a successful seasonal goal. Lately, I’ve been designing with California themes and a subtle classic and metropolitan twist.

Joel at Capsule, Las Vegas, in July, 2009


SF: I’ve seen a lot of evolution in KZO—and, frankly, improvements from earlier seasons, when the materials seemed to be simpler and the cuts and designs less thought-out. For example, I wouldn’t have expected recycled cotton jersey and tweeds from you a couple of years ago. Could you take me through this evolution?
JOEL: It’s a process of building, reflection, and tearing down. In Stanley Kubrick’s early films, like “The Killing,” from 1956—you can see potential, but there is also something raw compared to his later films. We’re just continuing to learn and build on things that worked and mistakes of the past. Honestly, I look at our first seasons and some of it makes me cringe, but that’s the creative process and that’s fashion.
The fabrics—we based Autumn 2009 on Sierra Nevada explorer and conservationist John Muir, and Spring 2010 is based on late 1970s Neil Young, when he was living in Los Angeles. Both men are closely associated with the environment, and being able to use the recycled fabrics fit the context of the story—and the fabrics are great.

SF: You have been represented by one of the foremost showrooms in the US—the News. I had heard that you are striking out on your own, and showing close to Nice Collective.
JOEL: KZO is still represented by the News and Stella Ishii. Stella’s a great mentor and all of the people at the News are amazing to work with. It’s like one big family and we always joke how we’ve never seen so many women work together in such proximity, with such harmony.
For Vegas, Stella’s given us the freedom to work as a hybrid, and we have a friendly relationship with Nice Collective, so showing near them as well as Wings & Horns seemed only fitting.

SF: Japanese vs. Chinese vs. American manufacture. With the same materials, specifications, and quality standands, does it matter, other than as a perception thing? You’ve stated that the difference is in the quality control, but at this point, don’t you think that you are experienced enough to be able to have a tight handle on this? Besides, Japanese manufacture is not perfect.
JOEL: We have this conversation daily. Manufacturing is one of those realities that fashion houses and brands just don’t like to talk about, obviously because it’s sensitive. American Apparel last week let 1,500 people go because they were illegal. This is their very nature—“Legalize LA.” Are the sewing operators more qualified in New York? “Made in Italy” often means made by Chinese immigrants—are they legal? Is it even made in Italy? Is the piece sewn in Turkey and the label sewn on in Italy?
We have always worked with people who we respect and who are honest. I’ve been working with the Japanese for most of my life and if they are one thing, it’s respectful. Their whole social structure revolves around respect. 99 percent of our production is now in Japan, and yes, you’re right, there are still production issues but I hope these are minimized. We had an amazing wrinkled woven shirt that we didn’t ship—it came in from Japan after washing and had shrunk two sizes. But that’s just production reality.

SF: What are your thoughts on the mass market, especially the skate and surf markets? I think that we’ve both seen plenty of worthy brands go under while well-backed, crappy lines prosper. I’d like to hear your opinions on how the industry weeds out the good from the bad, and the combination of luck and hard, smart work that is necessary to make a brand successful.
JOEL: A process is still a process. Whether it’s a $20 jacket for H&M, or a $2,000 COMME des GARCONS jacket, production is production; there are just additional steps... I’ve been going to Japan since I was young—my mom’s Japanese and the fashion there always intrigued me.
I always want to be proud of the product that I put out, and in the action sports industry, product isn’t the main focus of the brand—it’s marketing and who’s wearing the clothes. The “Totally Radical Joe Shmoe Short,” or the “Awesome Awesome tee shirt” with built in bottle opener is marketing fluff. Makes me uneasy. I think that KZO’s market niche is really creative and exciting. Being a massive, volume-driven business doesn’t mean profit or creativity at all.
We’ve been working really hard since the first day we started KZO and we’ve come really far. I look back at the mistakes that we’ve made in the past and it makes me cringe, but there’s a saying that we always go back to: “Good product covers a multitude of sins.” I count my blessings every day for the great accounts that we are working with, the News/Stella Ishii, the team here in LA and in Tokyo, goodwill in the press; it’s really remarkable.

SF: Some brands you’d like to give a shout out to?
JOEL: Bretto & Greg @ Unholy Matrimony for pushing me creatively, Raan @ Apolis (family), Scott BoO, Peter @ Common Projects, and all of the brands at the News who have helped me along the way, thank you.

SF: How do you like the business (rather than just the creative aspects) of fashion?
JOEL: Every great brand is an equally great business—it’s just a fact. There are so many things going on when putting a collection together. Shipping, customs, banking, customer service, press, it’s overwhelming; that’s where a great small team is invaluable. I call us the SWAT team, lean and mean.

SF: Your views of really expensive designer brands that do some things similar to what you do—I’m thinking of Number (N)ine in particular?
JOEL: I’m really going to miss the creative aspects of Number (N)ine and their whole aesthetic. They really had the whole look down and I love(d) going to their stores in Tribeca and Ebisu, seeing what they’re up to—feeling the fabrics, the wall built of amps, music—and getting inspired. It was a whole next level and unfortunately it didn’t work in the end. Undercover is also one that I always go to in Aoyama. Jun seems to have this knack keeping his space creative with the art gallery in the basement, “Grace” photo exhibition, high-technology fabrics; it’s classic yet pushing the envelope. I get why Rei Kawakubo loves Jun.
Nice question, piggybacking the business question, Fok; I see where you’re going. Japan has a larger demographic for that type of fashion. Kids have expendable income because they live at home for a lot longer than they do in the states. That created an environment and consumer base that hungered for these types of details and pricing, but lately that trend has seemed to turn a bit. For the states, for KZO, it’s not a viable business model. It’s over designed. Recently a buyer told me “previously you were over thinking, and now it’s well thought-out.”

SF: Your thoughts on proxy services? I know some Japanese brands are pretty uncompromising and don’t give American retailers good enough terms to keep American retail prices close to Japanese retail—double seems to be typical.
JOEL: Japan’s funny because when you’re selling a collection there, to buyers, you only list the retail price and not the wholesale. It’s also less than a 50 percent markup in some cases—some working off of 35 percent consistently—but it’s still expensive. It dictates an astronomical price increase for the US. We’ve been fortunate enough to work with an amazing team in Japan, to keep our pricing reasonable for the amount of detail, the fabrics, and the sewing that go into making garments in Japan. When Opening Ceremony did their “vs. Japan,” N.Hoolywood and Kolor—amazing brands—were really expensive. We use some of the same factories (same Dior denim factory in Okayama prefecture, etc.) and so you can see how hard we are working to keep our pricing manageable for the US.

SF: In a similar vein, every time I hear retailers complain about online retailing, discounts, etc., I’m reminded of Dylan’s "The Times They Are A-Changing." I’m showing my bias, but I’d like to you what yours is. You’ve been on Styleforum in the past, speaking frankly to readers about your line and about fashion in general. How do you think that the internet is changing the fashion industry? Or maybe it’s not, and it’s people like me who work in this medium who are deluded.
JOEL: It’s a fact that the internet is changing the whole business model of fashion. The high-end fashion model (Prada, Dior, Rick Owens, etc.) of increasing sales revenue is increasing the number of consumers, but not the number of doors (stores). What’s the best way of communicating with consumers? The internet. Blogs, forums, online editorial, etc. are amazing tools to hear feedback from people who love the fashion houses. Unfortunately, Men.Style.com isn’t doing a very good job of proving my point by folding into GQ and Details, but I think that people felt that it was the presentation of the content, not the content itself, correct?
It’s just an extension of myself to be online at all times (I just read that there’s a rehab for internet addiction near Microsoft in Seattle, maybe I should look into this).

SF: Of course, then, it's hard to say where we are in the process, huh?
JOEL: Yes, but then as the potential grows, so does the platform of the blogs and forums. Where’s the Styleforum iPhone app?! It’s only the beginning.

SF: Alright, here’s the good part. Could you take us through the inspiration for your Autumn/Winter 2009 collection?
JOEL: Every season before we start the collection, I come up with a treatment on how we are going to approach the season. It’s like a music video treatment.

2009 Autumn | Winter Plot Line
Story | John Muir Trail, Yosemite & High Sierra, California. Outdoor fabrics, Coated Cotton, Washed Wool, Recycled Cotton.
Soundtrack | Ambient Noise “Sounds of Yosemite,” Biosphere “Birds Fly by Flapping their Wings,” Tom Vek “I Ain’t Saying my Goodbyes”
Palette | Yosemite. Forest Green, Deep Purple Dusk, Deep Blue Dawn, Redwood, Charcoal.
Categories | Hand Drawn Mountain Print Cardigan, Triple Needle Ripped/Torn Hem Flannel Shirt, Wool/Cotton Striped Blazer Jacket, Wool Pancho, Waterproof Zippers, Japanese Selvage Denim Pant, KZO + Masterpiece Collaboration Hiking Backpack. Edition N° 3 KZO + Unholy Matrimony Collaboration Flannel Shirt, Thermal Convertible Pant, Thermal Legging w/Butt Flap, & Hand Drawn & Dyed Tee Shirt.

SF:Thanks Joel.

And here is an exclusive look at the KZO SS10 collection:
















 

ahjota

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Good stuff.

Originally Posted by LA Guy
Japan's funny because when you're selling a collection there, to buyers, you only list the retail price and not the wholesale. It's also less than a 50 percent markup in some cases"”some working off of 35 percent consistently"”but it's still expensive. It dictates an astronomical price increase for the US.

This is fascinating, but I'm not sure I understand it. So because Japan buys collections from salesrooms at lower prices, the US gets the short stick and pays more?

Originally Posted by LA Guy
Bretto & Greg @ Unholy Matrimony for pushing me creatively, Raan @ Apolis (family), Scott BoO, Peter @ Common Projects, and all of the brands at the News who have helped me along the way, thank you.

Editor fail?

Originally Posted by LA Guy
http://img26.imageshack.us/img26/5544/kzo8.jpg

PS I really, really want this (3/4 sleeve gingham check-ish) shirt.
 

ahjota

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Dawg, you left out an @ symbol. I know BoO.
 

shoreman1782

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Oh, I spose; I assumed he was doing it like old punk rock 7" sleeves--"Thanks to Kevin Seconds, Sean R5, Pat Society, etc."


So I'm not making this about me--this fabric looks great--dig the cat's eye button as well.

kzo8.jpg
 

ahjota

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Ah, true. That makes sense.
 

LA Guy

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I neglected to add that Joel is a member of the forum. and although he is really busy preparing for next season (that is FW10), he does drop by occasionally, and does field questions, so if there is anything you want to ask him, please do so here.

Cheers,

Fok.
 

mikey34

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great interview fok. One question to joel or anyone else that can help, where can I get that backpack!? I know blackbird carried it but it's sold out now. any info on where it's available is appreciated.
 

sipang

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+1 on the backpack, I tracked down another stockist but it was soldout too. Since it was a collab with Master-Piece I guess stocks were pretty limited.


The interview is great. By the way, I was wondering what happened to the 'Designer Series' reading the KZO thread, it was up to a great start. Is there still plan for more or is a dead project ?
 

29.97

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Originally Posted by ahjota
Good stuff.



This is fascinating, but I'm not sure I understand it. So because Japan buys collections from salesrooms at lower prices, the US gets the short stick and pays more?



Editor fail?



PS I really, really want this (3/4 sleeve gingham check-ish) shirt.


Hello and I hope that this interview gave some "insight" into the fashion industry...? Fok's questions were really great, and some tough, so I tried to answer them as honestly as possible.

- Regarding the pricing, US vs Japan, it's 2-fold.

1. Japan buying from a showroom in the US - It depends on the brand if they are offering a discount or not to International. It also depends on where their production is being made because that factors into pricing ie: duties, quota, etc.

2. For Japanese brands, some of them take less margin on their goods. Example: Jacket costs $50 to make, their markup is 35% and not the typical 50% or more everywhere else. It's an internal pricing thing, and is actually better for the consumer because they are getting a "better" price. Hope this makes sense?

- Should of worded that answer with Scott @ BoO better....

- Thanks. The 3/4 sleeve for Spring 10 is really nice. One of our top sellers for Spring. Stay tuned.
 

29.97

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Originally Posted by mikey34
great interview fok. One question to joel or anyone else that can help, where can I get that backpack!? I know blackbird carried it but it's sold out now. any info on where it's available is appreciated.
Thanks! The KZO x Master-Piece backpack was really limited and it's unfortunately sold out....Although, I sang karaoke with Mike at Epaulet (yes R-Kelly was busted out) last night in Little Tokyo and he was shipped one last week, but not sure if it's taken for.....
 

29.97

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Originally Posted by LA Guy
I neglected to add that Joel is a member of the forum. and although he is really busy preparing for next season (that is FW10), he does drop by occasionally, and does field questions, so if there is anything you want to ask him, please do so here.

Cheers,

Fok.


Thanks Fok. Yes, I will try and answer questions but please be patient if it's not answered for a couple of days or more.

Again, I think this is a great opportunity to get inside the head of the industry; I encourage Fok to keep the questionnaires with different designers coming. I don't really know of any other forums that have this kind of one-on-one access to the fashion industry.
 

LA Guy

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Originally Posted by sipang
The interview is great. By the way, I was wondering what happened to the 'Designer Series' reading the KZO thread, it was up to a great start. Is there still plan for more or is a dead project ?

Thanks to Joel for the interview. I just ask the questions. I've found that the more honest the designer is, the better the interview, and I think that Joel really thought about the questions and put himself into them.

Their will be something like the designer series, I am hammering out the concept now. The main hurdle is that some, like Joel, are really comfortable with the internet and are very articulate, but other, very good designers don't live in this medium, which can be daunting. But I'm looking into a few options.
 

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