Kenneth D. King, Part 2 – Q&A

This is the second part of a three-part series.

Questions & Answers

What does your day-to-day look like?

There is no typical day. I deliberately do many different things, so there is revenue from a variety of sources. Also, this means no one person has such a high percentage of me that I can’t say “NO” when I need to. It also provides some cushion in the ebb and flow of revenue.

What have been the turning points in your professional life?

Looking back, the turning points were:

Coming out: Deciding to be who I am instead of who people wanted me to be, freed up the energy to pursue my interests. I did it in college. And it made everything else possible.

Moving to San Francisco: This was a Big Risk. I went from a secure situation, to something that was very uncertain, and living in a city that was three times more expensive. But I knew if I didn’t take that chance, I’d end up being a burned-out, bitter old man doing window display in Oklahoma City, saying “shoulda-woulda”.

The Mermaid Gown L.A. County Museum of Art, Permanent Collection

The Mermaid Gown
L.A. County Museum of Art,
Permanent Collection

Starting my business: I quit my regular job in March 1987.

After making the dress for my first customer, I started researching what kind of things I wanted to design. I was advised that hats would be making a comeback. So, I made evening hats. I decided to package them in black velvet boxes lined in black taffeta. I knew you can have a great product but if it’s in a crummy package, it’s a crummy product. Since I wanted to charge a lot for my work, and I was handy with a hot glue gun, I built a box for each accessory piece.

I decided to make an evening vest — a backless men’s-style half vest that adjusted with straps in back. I was taking jewelry making at City College in San Francisco, so I created Chinese knots cast in sterling silver, and matching sterling hardware for the back. That vest got me traction.

I had an agent, who pestered the store Maxfield and she got an audience two days before Thanksgiving 1986. Between 7:00 in the evening and 10:30 Wednesday morning, they sold everything. I got a call to send any- and everything that I had in my studio, and I was launched.

But then, the stock market crashed in October 1987. I gave up my apartment and moved into my studio. The studio was a big garage-like space, where I slept on a broken-down sofa, listening to the mousetraps clacking like castanets at night. Before things turned around, I had to melt down all of my jewelry to fill vest orders. It was a character-building exercise. But the gamble paid off.

Moving to New York: In 2000, I realized New York was the next step. After 9/11, 2002 was a financial nail-biter for me as well as everyone else. At first, I shared an apartment in NYC and commuted back and forth. In 2004, I made the leap.

Our readers love to hear about that moment of inspiration. Where do your ideas and/or inspiration come from?

My inspiration comes from architecture, especially the period of the Belle Epoque. It also comes from technique. The Belle Epoque is the period of time before WWI, where splendor was present in everyday life. The masses of ornament, the blending of pattern on pattern — all of these really excite my eye and show up in my work.

Souffle Jacket

Souffle Jacket

In regards to technique, I studied pattern-making from Simmin (pronounced Simone). She trained in the 1960’s at the Ecole Guerre-Lavigne in Paris, to be a Premiere. The Premiere takes a sketch and translates it into the model garment. She moved to San Francisco, where she opened a small school — I studied from her there.

Simmin would always declare that “you don’t want a scar on your face, you shouldn’t have a scar on your garment”. She called seams “scars.” My challenge was to make garments that either were seamless, or apparently seamless. The techniques I developed to achieve these garments, gave each line a distinct stylistic unity — the unity of technique. Simmin also preached fit — she would always say, “That without proper fit, everything else was a waste of time.” What I learned from her gave me a foundational understanding of fit. This has fueled my writings on fit, as I wanted to understand the underlying principles that make the different fitting methods connect.

Simmin’s influence spurred my current work. My current work is three different “lines of inquiry,” all related to making garments that are either apparently seamless, or seamless.

  1.  The soufflé, where I use manipulation to create the shapes of the garments-smocking, pleating, and other kinds of manipulation.
  2. Cutwork: I cut spaces out of the fabric to create a textile that is “to shape” of the pattern for each individual garment. The seams here appear to be decorative, but incorporate the fitting and shaping.
  3. Leafing, the mirror image to cutwork. I cut individual pieces (usually leaves but can be any shape), and assemble them into an entirely seamless, shaped textile.

Do you still do custom sewing/designing?

Not so much as I used to. I’m finding that the newer people who find me, want things for free. This is a disease that the big designers (Armani and Versace to name two) started in the 1990’s. Before that, any appearances I had on a red carpet, were bought and paid for. So I serve the long-time clients, and keep open to anyone who might want to order. But again, having multiple revenue streams enables me to say no.

What advice would you give to somebody who is just coming into the sewing/fashion industry?

What I have learned is that when it’s time, it’s time. Not before. One needs to persist, and prepare so when the time comes, you can take advantage.

A good example is my move to San Francisco. New Year’s eve 1980 I decided I needed to get out of Oklahoma City. I thought I would end up in Dallas. But, in July 1981, I visited a friend in San Francisco, and by August I was there. It happened quickly and not at all as I expected.

Starting my business was the same thing. I was plugging along, trying to get traction, when the phone rang. A woman I’d never met had just rented a space and heard I was looking. I rented it and the next day quit my job. We were studio mates for 17 years.

My move to New York was similarly quick. So, when it’s time it’s time, and not before. The challenge is to keep pressing forward, while at the same time being open to opportunities — which might not come from where you would expect.

I’ve learned that you never know where opportunities will come from. My business has evolved from custom couture sewing to include: TV (Sewing Today), Threads Magazine (I’ve proudly served as Contributing Editor since 2006), Craftsy classes, teaching at FIT, traveling to teach at consumer sewing shows or guilds, writing books. I could never have planned on or predicted things like Craftsy. The internet didn’t exist when I was starting out.

Since I’m a recovering perfectionist, this was a big lesson for me. I learned that it doesn’t have to happen exactly like I think it should. The Universe has better ideas, and the opportunities I’ve followed over my career were often quite unexpected. Being open to what comes, and saying yes to things, has broadened my scope. If I had desperately clung to what I believed I would do, I most likely would be out of business now. That’s where perfectionism would have hung me up — if it didn’t look like what I perceived as my goal, then I would have dismissed it, to my detriment.

The sewing world has enabled me to speak to some broader issues. One is empowerment. Recently in a trouser drafting class, I had a student who was very plus-size, and just wanted to have a pair of trousers she would look well in. We were able to get her a good fit, and she was delighted. She said she now felt empowered, because she was able to make the trousers she wanted, and look well in them. When people feel well in their clothes, it’s not just a superficial thing — it benefits the inner person as well.

When I started teaching, I was told not to talk about “that gay thing.” But I didn’t want to pretend I was something I wasn’t, as it would imply that I was ashamed of myself. I knew the people who would attend my classes were smarter than that and wouldn’t be fooled anyway. I had a conversation with a woman who believed gay people burned in hell because her preacher told her so. Observing me, she couldn’t square her experience of me to what he said. Then her son came out. And she realized her preacher was wrong. She has a good and loving relationship with him, she said, because I was who I was.

Having that kind of effect — empowering people and teaching people that we are all just people with the same wants and needs — love, family, satisfaction in a job well-done. It’s all good.

Next Week:  What’s Next?


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