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Portrait of a Seamster (Couturier): Kenneth D. King

kenneth king couture designer
My art history professor at SCAD always asked my class when introducing a new piece of artwork, “Has anyone seen this in person?” The reason for the question was that a book can’t do a painting, a sculpture, or any other type of artwork justice. Until you stand before a Monet or a Cassat and see the brushstrokes, the pencil lines, the texture, and the scale of the piece, you can’t grasp the magnitude and the power of it. When I first walked into Kenneth D. King’s apartment, located in New York’s Flatiron District, I had that same breathless experience. With jackets made from carpeting, hair extensions, leather, and other extreme materials, I felt like I was in the presence of a master. He has the eye, the knack, and the ability to make clothes and accessories that are not only art, but wearable art (only he calls it couture).

Tell us your story? I started sewing at the age of 4 when I traded my gun and holster set for my sister’s Barbie. My Barbie was 27-years-old, lived in a big city, only wore evening clothes, and went to the opera, theatre, and swanky restaurants. My mother’s friends frequently asked me, “What does she do for work?” That, of course, didn’t factor into the life of my Barbie.

When I was 15-years-old, my high school offered Bachelors Economics, which I took because I wanted to make clothes for myself. My mother sewed, but she never made me anything because she claimed menswear was too hard. The teacher who taught the class basically gave me full reign over the sewing machines – she handed me the pattern and the instructions and said, “Here you go, figure it out.”

I continued to sew, teaching myself along the way, and in college, I majored in Fashion Merchandising with an emphasis on window display. After graduation, I moved to San Francisco and landed a job in window display for Macy’s, and because of my background in sewing, I became the fabric expert. I was the one who could make flocked fabric drape and look like lush velvet. But my boss was a crazy, crazy man whose feelings and mood changed hourly. At 9:00 a.m., a display was gorgeous, but by lunchtime, it was horrid. While under his leadership, I realized that if I was to work for someone else in this industry, these are the type of people I would be working under. The Devil Wears Prada makes crazy bosses seem stylish and amusing, but in this case, my boss wasn’t stylish or amusing.

Around this time, I got my first paying customer – a woman who wanted a dress to wear to her daughter’s wedding. After searching London and New York, and even San Francisco for the perfect thing to wear, she was still empty handed and asked me if I could make something for her. Long story short, the woman got her perfect dress and I realized that I could earn money by making clothing.

Fitting was not my strong point, so I made accessories – hats initially.  Because I had a background in window display, I understood the importance of packaging. If you have a good product in a bad package, you have a bad product, and vice versa.  So for each hat (I made mostly fascinators), I created black velvet boxes that were lined with black taffeta. The purpose of them was to make the opening of the box an experience – when a customer opened it, it made a tiny sigh, and when he or she removed the hat from it, the tissue paper crackled. But the boxes are what got me into Maxfield; it was the cause of my tipping point. At the time, I was enrolled in a jewelry class, and my teacher had a sister who was a stylist for a leading agency in Los Angeles. My teacher arranged for us to meet, and when we finally did, she saw my hats and said, “This needs to go to Maxfield.” Two days before Thanksgiving, she presented my hats to Maxfield.  It wasn’t the owner or the buyer who understood my work, but the head sales lady was like a kid at Christmas when she saw the velvet boxes and what was in them. She grabbed her customer book, started making phone calls, and between 7:00 p.m. that night and 10:00 a.m. the next morning, the hats sold out. I was launched.

Maxfield opened the doors for me. Through them, I got celebrity and rich and famous customers such as Elton John. Oh, I loooved Elton! With him, it was 4 hats, 2 weeks, and a blank check. After I made his first piece, I thought, “I can now die a happy man.”  He has a substantial collection of my work, among them the best pieces I’ve made.

kenneth king couture designerkenneth king couture designerkenneth king couture designerAfter getting into Maxfield, I quit my job in display in March of 1987.  That first year as a full-time entrepreneur was a rollercoaster. The stock market crashed in October of ’87 and I remember sitting at my work table, listening to the radio, and thinking, “This is not good.” By December of that year, I had lost my apartment and was sleeping on the broken-down sofa in my studio while listening to the mousetraps clacking like castanets at night. With cash flow being non-existent, I melted down my sterling jewelry to finish one order – business got that tight.

I eventually got back on my feet. Up until this point, the only products I made were accessories and furniture because I didn’t have strong understanding of fit. But my customers wanted clothing, so I decided that now was the time to learn. In 1990, a woman by the name of Simmin (pronounced “Simone”) Sethna, who was born in Persia and trained at the Ecole Guerre-Lavigne (ESMOD) in Paris to be a premiere in a couture house.  She had a little school in San Francisco, and I decided to study with her. By studying under her, I finally learned to rules of patternmaking and fitting that have allowed me to make anything.

One of my earliest hits was an adjustable evening vest – it was a fluke that became a hit. I was disappointed with how dreary men’s evening wear was at the time, and decided to make one of these vests, but embellished. I embellished the lapels and pockets, and made sterling buttons and hardware for it. Well, that was a hit and I wasn’t even expecting it! A whole body of work grew out of those vests – dinner jackets, furniture, etc.

That stint lasted until about 1997, when I thought that I had said what I needed to say with the embellished pieces. Basket weaving has always interested me, so over the course of the next 3 years, I played with that and other kinds of fabric manipulation. This research and development lead me to soufflé, leafing, and cutwork.

Recently, and because I’m in a comfortable and secure spot in my career, I’ve been experimenting with weird materials such as hair weave and carpeting, using them to make coats and bags.

kenneth king couture designerkenneth king couture designerMentor: Simmin was definitely a mentor and was a towering influence over my work even though she was yay high. She taught how she was trained – strict. After learning all the parts and pieces and theory, she gave me 30 line drawings (she called them models) of the butt-ugliest clothing I’ve ever seen, and I had to make each outfit in full scale. I was only allowed one mistake, and that mistake had to be minor – the side seam of the jacket not lining up with the side seam of the skirt. But her teachings and lessons were indelible. I learned how to analyze a drawing and the steps to transform it into a 3D garment. I also learned about proportions – because fashion sketches are drawn on an elongated body, garments drawn on them have to be translated correctly in order to look right.

Also, Simmin referred to seams as scars, and one of her saying was, “You don’t want to have a scar on your face, and you don’t want to have a scar on your garment.” According to her, seams had to perform either a technical or an aesthetic function. Haphazardly placing a dart or seam here, there, or anywhere because you don’t know what to do with it was a no-no. This thinking influenced my later and current work because it made/makes me think of ways to make a garment with no seams or no apparent seams.

There was also a man by the name of Jackson Allen who had the first store to take on my work in 1984. He once said to me, “You should never have to ‘sell’ your work. People will either understand it, or not get it at all. It’s a yes or a no, and don’t take it personally.” Those words of advice have helped me deal with comments like, “Hats? Well, that’s stupid!” People who say that don’t get it, and I don’t take it personally.

Wearable art: In wearable art, or art to wear, the garment or the object itself is the most important part of the equation, not the wearer; he or she is secondary. But in couture, the person wearing the piece is paramount; the piece enhances the appearance of the wearer. It can be beautiful and spectacular, but it cannot enter the room before the person wearing it. One example that comes to mind is a customer I had who was very fair and quiet. She came to my studio and was interested in buying a peacock blue and gold taffeta evening coat. I told her she couldn’t buy it. She was shocked, but I said to her, “Vicky, you would enter a room about ten minutes after this coat.” I reinterpreted the same coat in black and dusty rose, which looked well on her, and allowed her to shine.

kenneth king couture designerkenneth king couture designer kenneth king couture designerBest thing you’ve made? That’s a tough decision! There is a blue velvet cape in my Cool Couture book that I would have to say is my most memorable piece – it’s very grand. The customer told me from the beginning, “Think The French Lieutenant’s Woman movie.” She wanted a big cape so she could not just enter into a room, but sweep into it in a grand statement. I took a deep breath and said, “Okaayy,” knowing that it would be very heavy and very big. The finished piece was 16 yards of cross-dyed velvet that had a sapphire blue ground with a black nap. It was like a theatre curtain it was so heavy!

Another memorable piece, which is currently at the DeYoung Museum in San Francisco, was a stiff, black wide-wale faille jacket that was an homage to Balenciaga. First, the pattern was beautifully cut, so everything came together nicely. The exterior was somber black, but the magic of the garment was on the inside, which was embellished and took me a month to complete. It was also interlined in bump cloth so it could practically stand up by itself!

There is also a really special hat, that lives now in the permanent collection of the Victoria and Albert Museum in London!

What do you still want to learn? Shoes. There is a challenge with shoes though, and it is similar to the challenge I faced with hats. The reason I shied away from blocked hats and in favor of sewn hats at the beginning of my career is because with the former, a different block is needed for every style – you are limited by the number of blocks you own. The same thing goes with shoes. For every style, I would need a different last, and I’d also need a range of sizes for each last if I want to make shoes for more than one person. That’s the challenge, but that doesn’t mean I won’t overcome it.

Philosophy on fitting: First of all, proper fit is the Holy Grail.  No amount of excellent construction technique can save bad fit.

When I was learning about fitting, I wanted to understand the underlying principles.  By understanding this, one can reason out a solution to any fitting situation.  What I came to understand (which we illustrated in my fitting DVD series for Threads Magazine), is that in any fitting solution, there is one of three outcomes: net gain, where you need to add fabric to the garment; net loss, where you need to remove fabric from the garment;, and no-net-change, where you need to move fabric from one region of the garment where there is too much, to another region where there is too little.

Once the fitting is done, and the adjustments transferred to the paper, the paper is adjusted.  Then, one needs to correct for distortion – this is a no-net-change.

The different fitting methods all have something of value to bring to the dialogue about fitting, but this underlying principle made the whole topic make sense for me.

kenneth king couture designerkenneth king couture designerkenneth king couture designerAs a giveaway, Kenneth is offering one reader a copy of his book, All Grown Up Now: A Friendship in Three Acts, and his DVD series, Smart Fitting with Kenneth D. King. Contest is open immediately and will close on Friday,  November 29th, where a winner will be chosen, notified, and featured on my blog. To enter, like Madalynne’s Facebook page. That’s it! Also, contest is open internationally.

39 Comments

  1. Reply

    Hanne

    Very inspirational! It is so important to get the right fit, but yet so difficult when you start sewing.
    Lovely photographs!

  2. Reply

    Jess Z

    I already like you on FB. Thanks for all the tips and background to sewing. 🙂 mfrapp_83 [at] yahoo [dot] com

  3. Reply

    House Of Pinheiro

    His fitting equation is so interesting.

  4. Reply

    carmencitab

    I have taken 2 of his Craftsy classes already, I would love to try out his DVD’s. carmencitablog is following already!

  5. Reply

    Vicki

    Thanks for a great interview.

  6. Reply

    david1pelletier

    Your best interview personally. Great section on fitting and loved his statement about the couture piece that cannot enter the room before the person wearing it…so true!

  7. Reply

    Kirsty Bunfield (kbfield)

    Great interview. I really enjoyed reading it. I can’t even imagine how excting it was to interview him and see his apartment!

  8. Reply

    Ali

    this was a great interview! at uni once we had to say our wildest, craziest career fantasies and mine was to go back in time and make stage costumes for Elton John (and David Bowie). so cool that Kenneth actually did!

  9. Reply

    lisa g

    great interview! i really enjoyed reading Mr. King’s history, such an inspiration!

  10. Reply

    anto

    Even more fascinating than I expected! His journey so far is very inspiring. great interview!

  11. Reply

    Heather Lou

    Great profile! I love this man. What a treat to spend time with him!

  12. Reply

    Ginger

    Wow, the peek into his studio is awesome! He’s sure got some fabulous pieces!

  13. Reply

    sallieforrer

    This was such an awesome interview!! Thanks Kenneth and Maddie! Love the peeks at some of his work and his studio – what a treat this must have been!!

  14. Reply

    Lola Del Rey

    what a great read. Thanks for this.. his work is truly inspiring

  15. Reply

    Sarah Koch

    This was a great read. Thank you so much Maddie!

  16. Reply

    Katy Nightingale

    Very interesting journey he went on. Makes me stop and think how much I CAN learn, even if it feels unobtainable at the moment.

  17. Reply

    Lisa Poblenz

    What an exciting interview! I’m so inspired, I can hardly stand it! Unfortunately, I’m not on Facebook (I know, I know…I’ve been avoiding it). Would you accept an entry by way of this comment? I would love a chance to win, especially the fit videos–that’s what I’m struggling with as I’m trying to be a better quality sewer. I have to go Pin this so I can remember it! (Maybe I’ll print it, too.)

    • Reply

      Maddie Flanigan

      Yes! Consider yourself entered!

  18. Reply

    Emmie

    Loved this interview!

  19. Reply

    LM

    I totally LOVED this interview! might be one of your best ever. thank you! and i liked you on Facebook a loooong time ago 😉

  20. Reply

    Mary Grace

    Madalynne, I love your Portrait of a Seamstress series and today’s post is one of my favorites since I started reading your blog (and there’s a giveaway attached to it)! I don’t have a personal fb account but I “liked” it through my business page (Anagrassia)- I hope that counts!

    • Reply

      Maddie Flanigan

      Yep – consider yourself entered in the giveaway

  21. Reply

    mz kat

    How exciting! I love this series!

    I liked you on Facebook a while ago…I hope that I’m still eligible!

  22. Reply

    Erin Currie

    Ooh how exciting!! I’m sure that many of us are more than a little jealous you got to interview Kenneth King! Hope you had a blast. And this is a lovely read.

    • Reply

      Maddie Flanigan

      He was a blast (and an honor) to talk to.

  23. Reply

    Laura

    I hope that it counts if we liked your Facebook page a while back!

    • Reply

      Maddie Flanigan

      Yes, it does!

  24. Reply

    Natasha Estrada

    Y’know you did a really good job in portraying a persona as a person. It has very humanist tone. I think many from our generation can relate to his experiences in the 1987 stock market crash. To me K King the person is more relatable to my experience than the sewing personality.

    “While under his leadership, I realized that if I was to work for someone else in this industry, these are the type of people I would be working under. The Devil Wears Prada makes crazy bosses seem stylish and amusing, but in this case, my boss wasn’t stylish or amusing.”<—- THIS

    Without going into detail I'll say sometimes you get your "dream" within your grasp but the people you'll have to spend your dream with makes it not worth it. It's not about being tough enough but realizing how you spend your moments matter and you shouldn't spend a single one being harassed by other people's flaws.

    "Shoes. There is a challenge with shoes though, and it is similar to the challenge I faced with hats. The reason I shied away from blocked hats and in favor of sewn hats at the beginning of my career is because with the former, a different block is needed for every style – you are limited by the number of blocks you own. The same thing goes with shoes. For every style, I would need a different last, and I’d also need a range of sizes for each last if I want to make shoes for more than one person. That’s the challenge, but that doesn’t mean I won’t overcome it."

    Well obvs Maddy knows shoes are my new crack. Luckily shoe lasts are easier to come by than hat blocks. Also you can stretch your last collection by adapting the toe with leather or epoxy putty. I'm still in the first year of my journey so I have been self restraining on the last from but they are out there. Esp in NYC.

    Oooooh I want to win. You've had my like for awhile now.

    • Reply

      Karrie Smith

      wow. what a generous giveaway! Thanks for the chance to win. Great post!

  25. Reply

    Melissa

    What an inspiring post!

  26. Reply

    Linda Armenti

    I love reading posts like this. I’m saving it to finish tomorrow. It’s so interesting!

  27. Reply

    Kim

    Great interview! Really interesting and inspiring 🙂 Already like your facebook page!

  28. Reply

    mosulli

    Oh wonderful interview! And an amazing giveaway! Thanks so much Maddie.

  29. Reply

    Kayoticsewing

    Love Kenneth King!!!

    I dig the lines – “You should never have to ‘sell’ your work. People will either understand it, or not get it at all. It’s a yes or a no, and don’t take it personally.” Kenneth, Thanks for sharing these, especially! The whole article was a huge pleasure and honor to read.

    fB likey, with a different name.

  30. Reply

    Taryn

    This has got to be the best sewing interview I’ve ever read.. Thank you so much for this!

  31. Reply

    Little miss

    What a great interview, enough to be meaningful but leaves u wanting to know more about his methods. Thanks for this I really enjoyed reading it.

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