The tale of two cities: Hong Kong and Helsinki, which meet in London. Ka Wa Key Chow and Jarno Leppanen are the creative duo behind London’s thought-provoking new generation fashion label Ka Wa Key. Chow holds an MA in Fashion Menswear, and Leppanen holds one in Art. Their references are mutual, contemporary and always poetically visual. All of their fabrics are crafted in-house, as an homage to the city they have been adopted by. The brand’s DNA starts with the study of masculinity within East and West. Their Fall/Winter 2017 collection, titled I’m a Chinese Ken, is a narration of the current idolisation of the West in Hong Kong. With a fashion and aesthetic sense that has made us fall in love with them, we couldn’t help it but discover more about them.
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When and how did you two meet? What were your first impressions of each other?
We met a while ago working on a project. We found out pretty soon that our ideas and visions of aesthetics and beauty matched, so it was quite easy to get along, talk and make things happen. Maybe that is what happens when two weirdos meet.
Regarding our first impressions, we must say:
Key: Jarno talks a lot.
Jarno: Key was easy to talk to.
What is it like working together rather than solo? How do you deal with each other’s opinions if you do not agree?
Working together has definitely had its benefits; it’s more fruitful when you have two heads together and always another opinion, someone to reflect your ideas with. Finding the golden ‘middle way’ is also challenging, and it doesn’t always happen. And when it doesn’t – and whatever the result is –, there might be a few ‘I told you so(s).’
However, the best things have come out when we’ve devised things together and merged our ideas into one. We believe in collaborating, in sharing ideas and knowledge. Working together has allowed us to do a lot of things: many cross-artistic projects, photo-shoots, exhibitions, presentations etc. Working together has been fun.
You both hold degrees in art and fashion. How do you think this has helped refine your perspective? Who are key reference-players within your work?
Studying, experiencing and exploring always refine perspectives, although our degrees definitely helped us seeing beyond what we saw before. We’ve actually talked about this quite a lot, and we think we learned a lot about ourselves and discovered new sides and shades; something existing and safe was challenged. Also all the wonderful people we’ve met during our studies, the networks we’ve created and our friends are a massive privilege to have, and in their own ways, they’ve also shaped our perspectives.
We are inspired by many different things; each of us has his own, but every now and then we also share them. We talk a lot quite directly about everything, but in this case, exploring and even doing just everyday stuff might be amazingly inspirational. Of course galleries, museums, live performances, travelling and maybe also some sort of unspoken things, taboos, inspire us. And also Ryan McGinley and David Hockey are definitely huge sources of inspiration.
Has fashion always played a role in your life? If so, how?
Jarno: I have always been inspired by visually beautiful things (beauty is in the eye of beholder). I used to secretly browse and read fashion magazines, while other boys probably read about superheroes and cars. From a very young age I also used to make and create some of my own clothes.
Key: I really don’t think fashion plays the main role in my life, but the aesthetic behind it.
How and why did you decide to launch your own label? And what is the meaning behind the name Ka Wa Key?
Key: Well, I wanted to create something of my own, turn visions of my aesthetic into a reality. I didn’t actually think of setting up my own label until one of my tutors suggested it. There is no deeper meaning behind the name, it is just my name.
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London is a city known for its subcultures and multiculturality, why was it important to establish the brand here rather than somewhere else?
London is great and an inspiring city in many perspectives: it has endless culture and arts opportunities to explore, it’s very diverse and multicultural, but most of all it’s one of the main hubs for fashion. And because of the fact that the competition is hard, it pushes us to work and want things more. London is also very conveniently located, it’s quite easy to get where ever. And we both studied here.
What has been the biggest risk you have taken since starting Ka Wa Key? And what has been the top highlight moment for you?
Key: I guess the fact that I quit my job.
Jarno: Biggest risk for me has been putting most of my other work and creative work on hold. But having said that, I love what we are doing at the moment. In our projects I have a chance to do other kinds of creative stuff as well. Sacrifices have paid off.
Let’s talk about your new collection, called I’m a Chinese Ken. Why that name? And what does Ken symbolise for each of you? You both come from different parts of the world.
The collection is called I’m a Chinese Ken, which is a story of a Chinese twink guy who tries to westernize himself to get white boyfriends. This is not just a story but also a current situation in Asia now, where people over-admire the Western world and look down on their own heritage, values and culture.
Key: Ken is cute, like us.
Jarno: Ken symbolizes how we (people) are seen quite often as objects, whether it is sexual ones or objects to get us somewhere or to get something from us.
I’m a Chinese Ken is such a statement. Westernisation is a huge topic and everyone is somehow affected by it. Do you consider you were you affected by it? If so, how have you overcome that idea?
Key: Hong Kong is definitely a very successful example of being an East-meets-West city, where our cultures, food and aesthetics have been influenced by the West, but at the same time, reserving our own Eastern heritage. Hong Kong’s identity is very multicultural indeed. I think one of the most inspiring cultures in Hong Kong is the admiration of the Western values and heritage. People there tend to perceive most of the things from the West as superior to the local ones. For example, in Cantonese (the language we speak in Hong Kong), we have different accents. People think the Western accent (Cantonese) is superior to the native one and the locals start to westernize their original native accent just to make themselves feel ‘superior’. This kind of culture does not only affect our daily life, but our aesthetics as well, which have become a constant source for our inspirations.
Jarno: I guess westernization has always been part of my world in a way, since I come from Finland, which is in between East and West. In a way, it is a nice combination. Luckily, the education and the media (of course I can’t generalize) are quite open and neutral and help us see the world not too much from the Western point of view; we are encouraged to see beyond it.
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You mention that the making of the collection is made with “an artisanal process”. Could you tell us more about this?
It means that we use traditional crafting methods and treatments with a modern take. We explore the spirit of the raw material we use, we think about the materials and their nature and start crafting them to let them show their emotions and senses. Everything has their own soul and personality, and we should respect and listen to them.
In your previous collections and, of course, in this one, you explore soft masculinity. What does that mean to you?
It is something in relationship to the identity of men. Bold traditional masculinity is no longer a must for a man to express himself; it can be something different, something soft, sensitive and/or romantic. Soft masculinity is something that men want to be, not something they are expected to be. It is something within and between both genders, something without limits.
What inspired the colour palette for the Fall/Winter 2017 collection? It is very soft (referring back to the idea of soft masculinity, but there are very dark undertones within).
Pastel colours are very much part of the label’s and our personal aesthetics, so the colours are a very natural choice for us. As they say, being true is something to go for, and we use colours we like and that we think that work. We want to paint a dreamy world, with sensuous romanticism. Everything has its darker shades, even the dreamiest and romantic things.
There is a lot of skin within the campaign photos — how is the obsession with sex different in Hong Kong and Finland compared to Europe/America?
Human bodies are beautiful and interesting, all the different shapes, tones and types. We are all the same, but still so very different. People are people regardless where they are from, and sex is something we desire and want. It is different how sex is seen or obsessed over between different cultures, but the ways and reasons to have it are probably the same. It is the pleasure of being a human.
What is the future for Ka Wa Key? 
Continue to create and explore dreamy sensuous worlds, creating artistic content by cross-artistic collaborations.
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