Growing up in Hong Kong to a matrilineal family, Kit Wan learnt from an early age the power of defying preconceived ideas, structures, and patterns. And it was his grandmother who, unconsciously, influenced him to become a fashion designer. Now, he’s founded his brand, Kitwan Studios, through which he defies the binary system, beauty standards, and boring clothing. But he goes beyond that. By dividing the brand’s focus into two disciplines – art projects and fashion collections –, Kit gets to experiment with the limits of what’s wearable, avant-garde, or purely sculptural.
It is very clearly shown through your work that you have a very advanced and unique eye for clothing design. At what point in your life did you develop your love for fashion?
My grandma used to have her cheongsam tailored and made for special occasions when I was a kid. That’s why we always had a lot of fabric scraps lying around at home. She would stock them up for me to play with and I would always dress my robot toys with them. I guess that’s when I started getting interested in the idea of the process of clothing-making without having any idea about fashion design. I was hooked onto the idea of it throughout my whole childhood and adolescence. Every time I was asked to draw, I would always make drawings of dresses and clothing.
It became a very obvious choice when I needed to choose my major for the university. I just went into it feeling like it was something I could genuinely enjoy. I am also a very impatient person and lose interest in things overnight, but this is the only thing today that I’m still extremely passionate about – even after almost ten years since I started my education in fashion design and art.
As someone in his late twenties, you have probably met plenty of people at this point in your life who have been a big part of your life and choices. Who would you say has had the most influential impact on you?
I think that’d be my mentor at the beginning of establishing my brand, who’s also the mastermind behind labels like Yang Li and Ximon Lee. He really opened the door for me to the fashion industry and allowed me to see everything that goes on behind the scenes when it comes to running a label. I was able to gain exposure to all the things I didn’t get to learn at school or even in my previous work experiences. It was a lot of intense, hard-learnt lessons during those times, but I grew immensely in a very short span of time and was able to stand on my own two feet. I was able to lose my fashion student mentality and working habits to recalibrate myself for the real world.
Who do you look up to the most in the fashion industry and why?
Hussein Chalayan. He was one of the first designers to incorporate high technology to conceptual clothing – not just the aesthetics, the concept and the projection of what the future would look like, but the genuine use of technology to create all of his masterpieces – from water-soluble fabrics to 3D printing, laser light and mechanical systems. Even though he might not be considered as commercially successful as other big-name designers from his generation, his work was groundbreaking at the time and still is today.
I truly admire his passion for fashion as a pure art form and his willingness to go into the institutional education system to pass down his knowledge to younger generations. He inspires them to explore all the possibilities with fashion as a form of expression. I have a lot of respect for him and I aspire to be the kind of artist/fashion designers that he is.
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Your collections are rather bold and daring, with graphic prints, lots of deconstructed pieces, and unexpected texture and material combinations. Tell us more about how you create the collections.
Under my Studios, I have split my line of work into two disciplines: the art-based projects and the fashion clothing line. Every collection we create is a new chapter of an in-house fictional story with characters that carry different storylines, which correlate to the previous collection and will affect the next one. The big blueprint is to create a huge visual manga book with all our collective visual works, including sculptures, graphics, animations, live performances, different collaborations with artists and clothing design, etc.
Instead of just working with the aesthetic of high-technology, mechanical aesthetics or the sci-fi cyber-punk subcultures, we work with stories of interrelationship between humans and machines/technology on different levels. For example, the sentimental aspects of it between men and machines in our Fall/Winter 2019 collection. The love story between a biker from the biker gang and his bike. How the machine itself stands for a physical/emotional carrier for the bike to project all his life and pride into it and to humanise the motorbike narrating a melodramatic story through our collection.
What about the process before this happens?
Before starting the actual clothing design process, we work with different media to harvest the abstract ideas through paintings, computer 3D modelling or sculpting. With our Fall/Winter 2019 collection, for example, we built a series of metal sculptures with recycled motorbike parts to visualise the fictional motorbike character #921124. We did a project on it with a group of artists in Oslo to create loads of visuals as a way for them to interpret this particular idea. In return, we took the sculptures as inspiration for the clothing collection for silhouette, fabrication, prints, graphics, etc. We’ve also collaborated with a Norwegian tech company called Arveng Technologies this time, which creates interactive gloves for robot arms and drone control.
Your clothing designs are more dramatic and different from what people generally wear in social settings, especially in Western culture. Although you are based between Hong Kong and Oslo, where fashion is booming and looked at differently, do people ever give you a hard time when you wear it in public?
No, it’s never happened to me. Most of the times, people are just curious or excited to see something different and they have these eyes of surprise or admiration. I think it is punk-like when you wear my designs in a normal social setting, especially in cities like Hong Kong or Oslo, where people dress rather subtle or according to the trends that fall into the mindset of conformity. It stirs up some fire and sparks.
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Does your family support your choice of becoming a fashion designer? If so, do they wear the clothes that you design?
They are the biggest supporters of my work and the power that propels me to this very moment. As supportive as they are for me, I think they have a hard time having a close connection to my work since they come from a completely different time and upbringing. But I think it’d be very fun to see them wearing my designs, maybe that could be something for my projects in the future.
It appears that all your clothing is modelled and worn by males or androgynous models. Have you ever considered expanding to create womenswear as well?
I think the clothing I design is almost like the alter ego of my ordinary self. I love seeing women wearing my design as well, and a lot of my female clients are really in love with my designs. However, I think I’ll leave the imagination to them to interpret my design on their bodies since they know best how to work with their own. It is really fun to see how they can get creative with it. On the other hand, I’d definitely love to expand into women’s collection at some point when I think it is the right time to do so.
Traditional Chinese society is seen as rigid and even more so in regards to gender and gender roles. Some of your models are androgynous and are wearing heels, even though your clothing is seemingly aimed towards males. How do you see masculinity?
I would say that I am rather lucky to have grown up in a matrilineal family; the females of my family do not fall into the traditional Chinese women stereotype and they are all very strong, independent and career-oriented. It has given me a very refreshing perspective on gender from a very young age. Back then, the girls my age were taught to grow up girly, submissive, dependent on men and that their only goal in life was to give birth and be the caretaker of your family. Girls were meant to put themselves a bit below men at all times.
I think masculinity is a rather toxic and inhumane thing that we impose on men that hinders them from expressing themselves freely emotionally, physically and sexually. This can also backfire when some men take masculinity too far and cause harm to themselves as well as to the people around them. I think the ideology of binary gender or stereotypical gender identities should be something that is left behind here, right at this moment, as we are evolving with better knowledge on genders.
When it comes to gender identity, I see beyond the binary gender. In my own personal and professional world, there are no gender stereotypes. We get to be the person that we want to be without conforming to what the traditional social values expect us to be and put ourselves into boxes or label us. Society is way more complicated than that, and we don’t need constructed gender identities for the purpose of easy communication or interpretation of social/family roles just for the sake of it. The way I see men is no different from the way I see women. I believe that we are all living to express the best form of ourselves and to create, inspire, aspire and leave something good behind.
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The fashion industry is filled with many ups and downs, and lots of people have a lot of difficulty making it big in this career field with all the competition there is nowadays. So far in your career, what has been the most challenging?
To stay gold to who you are as an artist or a designer and to hold on to the reason why you wanted to be in this field since day one. It has also been challenging to not get off-tracked by the sometimes contradictory  opinions that you get from people around you or even other peoples’ success. And to keep your own pace and surround yourself with supportive people. We are in a field where everything seems to be an overnight success and leaves very little room for failure. You are put under a lot of mental pressure to become what is considered to be successful in the eyes of someone else in a very short span of time. I find it the most challenging not to lose yourself in all these goods and bads.
And what has been the most rewarding?
When the cosmos of your own imagination, which can’t be explained verbally, comes to life and your abstract instinct is proven to be right in the end. Your audience resonates/echoes with your work. They get moved emotionally and have a thought-provoking experience with my work. That’s the most rewarding and addictive feeling. It’s the high that keeps me going from project to project, collection to collection. Although the hardship of it is insane, I think me and my work are almost in a bit of a BDSM relationship, to be honest.
Do you have any sneak peeks that you can share with us regarding anything that you are currently working on?
I’m currently working on my next Spring/Summer 2020 Chapter 002 collection, which will be part of a trilogy together with my last Fall/Winter 2019 collection Chapter001第壹章: the Clanging Beloved as the first part. This new collection is to narrate the beginning of an abusive romantic relationship between Freder (a non-bionic human) and his motorbike #921124, who are fictional characters created from the previous collection. I'm also working on a costume production for the renowned production house Hotel Pro Forma for their new theatre production, which will premiere in the second quarter of next year in Copenhagen.
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