ISSUE 35 FALL/WINTER 2019/20 OUT NOW         ISSUE 35 FALL/WINTER 2019/20 OUT NOW    

Kiko Kostadinov

Interview by
Hans Ulrich Obrist
From Issue 35 – FW 2019/20

For Bulgarian-born fashion designer Kiko Kostadinov, it all started with workwear. But as soon as the label stuck, he decided to challenge his visual references through education and research, starting from scratch every season. In conversation with Hans Ulrich Obrist, he discusses the miraculous creative explosion in London, the centrality of silhouette, and the dream of a “bad” collection.

HANS ULRICH OBRIST  The recent creative explosion in London is kind of miraculous, with this new generation of fashion designers doing amazing work—you, Craig Green, Grace Wales Bonner, Samuel Ross and many others. What do you think is the secret behind that? It feels to me that this all sort of took shape in the wake of Louise Wilson, the influential professor of fashion design at the Central Saint Martins College, dying in 2014.

KIKO KOSTADINOV  We were in the same class with Grace—we studied together, were at the same table when we did the graduate collection. When I applied for my MA, I was supposed to have an interview with Louise, but she passed the same day that my interview was scheduled to happen. So I was part of the first class that studied in-between. Still, I had a chance to meet her around 2012. She came down to our studio and shouted at us for thirty minutes: “Why are you here? What are you looking into?” Her whole point was, you can’t go anywhere without education and research. That’s when I really started to self-educate myself in art; I went to Documenta 13, which was a really mind-blowing experience.

HUO  This August, you presented an event as part of the COS x Serpentine Galleries Park Nights series in collaboration with vanillajellaba, a London-based anonymous collective that looks at everyday consumerism through a distorted lens. What was the idea behind this project? How does it speak to your design practice on one hand, and your interest in art on the other?

KK  The project was about letting go and offering an opportunity. I thought it was really good timing for vanillajellaba to present their work for the first time outside of their usual digital form. My interest in art has been growing steadily in the past few years, and I do try sometimes to integrate and absorb practices from artists into my collection, but I don’t do this lightly. There needs to be a personal connection to the work, or to the artist’s background. It is never purely visual.

HUO  A very interesting part to your research is your collection of work and military wear. Can you talk about this?

KK  From my love of clothes comes a deep respect of how they’re made and the history of clothing. I’m obsessed with pattern making. It’s something that most designers today can’t really do—they don’t really use a sewing machine, don’t really do pattern cutting—but it’s a very important aspect of my work. So for me, it’s not so much about curating a collection, which is what contemporary designers sometimes do; rather, I look a lot to certain periods in fashion that influenced certain silhouettes. It started with workwear, as my first collection was about a contemporary Japanese workwear line. But then everyone starts to put you in a corner, labeling you as “the new workwear designer in London,” so I started to escape that. I look at a lot of womenswear. One of my main sources is local fashion magazines: American magazines from the ‘40s, Polish or Russian magazines from the ‘60s, German magazines from the ‘70s. Saint Martins and Louise Wilson taught me you must always go through the process of doing firsthand research before you go onto your computer to reinforce it. Until I have a clear vision as to what I want to do for the season, I can’t really do any work.

HUO  What made you decide to stay in London after school?

KK  Well, I moved here from Bulgaria thirteen years ago, so for me, London was always a place where I was supposed to stay and find a better life. Also, I never really interned. Usually, when you intern, you go to Paris, but I never did. My only internship was in Berlin for three months, and the gallery scene there was also what opened me to look more at art.

In London, you have all these opportunities—you can visit independent contemporary art galleries across town, but then you also have classical institutions that help you understand the history and timeline of certain practices. Also, people really look up to London for new designers, and I think at a time when there’s a lot of turbulence in the big houses, independent brands are getting more attention.

HUO  While you have your own eponymous label, you also work with a lot of brands. Early on, you started with Asics, then Camper and Mackintosh. How did these collaborations come about?

KK  All these brands approached me straight from school, which was really great of them, because they didn’t wait around to see what I was going to do first. The Asics story is interesting because they had never collaborated with a fashion designer. They’re a Japanese brand, they’re really strict with their performance division and no one can change anything there—performance is performance. But I think the European team really saw the potential with what Nike or Adidas were doing, so they kind of tested it out with me. The results were incredible, so they let me knock those walls down inside the company and gave me carte blanche to do whatever I wanted. It’s probably going to change soon, as they start embarking on more collaborations, but it’s been a very pure moment.

HUO  I’m writing this obituary on Karl Lagerfeld for a magazine, and it’s about him as a book collector, as a publisher, as a photographer, as a poster collector. In that process, I re-read my old interviews with him, and he was saying how unusual it was, when he did it in the early ‘80s, to revisit an old brand like Chanel, because at that time Chanel was considered sort of outdated. In a way, what you did is the continuation of that idea. As historian Erwin Panofsky once said, “We often invent the future out of fragments from the past.”

KK  Well, there is that. But at the same time, it’s a balance. Everyone is trying to do collaborations now because they find it’s a very easy energy injection into their brand —but most of them don’t work because they don’t come from a pure place.

HUO  And what did you do with Stüssy?

KK  I did these reconstructed hoodies and T-shirts. I was working from my bedroom, and they sent me a lot of items and I repurposed them, recutting and making new silhouettes. We sold them at Dover Street Market and people went crazy because they were one-offs. It was very special. So that’s what people wanted from me after I graduated, to continue this streetwear journey. That’s also when Virgil, Vetements and Gosha were emerging, so a lot of people expected me to become part of that “movement.” But I made a decision that it wasn’t something I was interested in at that moment. In a way, the shoes are something that feeds off and relates back to that culture, but at the same time, with my collections, I get to do what I want and evolve. We’re starting from scratch every season, which has been quite fun.


HUO  How would you define streetwear?

KK  I mean, it’s so broad. I don’t know. It’s just casual wear. I’m part of a project—AFFIX WORKS, launched in collaboration with Stephen Mann, Taro Ray and Michael Kopelman—that speaks to this utilitarian aesthetic. However, as a designer I don’t find streetwear challenging enough, because for me, fashion design is all about proposing a silhouette.

HUO  Who are your inspirations in fashion?

KK  Rick Owens is definitely one of the people that I look up to. He’s independent, he’s not owned by a big company that dictates what he does. He’s taken his time to get to the point where he can really be who he is, and I think that’s a really important example these days, when so many designers jump from one brand to another, relying on another brand to sustain their design career instead of going through the struggle. He started in the ‘90s in LA in a small studio, and he went from there to now being the owner of a multi-million dollar company—and he doesn’t follow trends or anything, he just does whatever the fuck he wants, which is amazing. I also look up to Raf Simons and Rei Kawakubo, all these people who have been consistent for twenty, twenty-five years. Some people today think it takes five years and then you’re already this big brand, but I think it takes maybe another ten years to actually find your voice. To me, it’s exciting to know that I’m at the very start of reaching the point of where I want to be.

HUO  I read that you’ve always dreamed of designing a “bad” collection. What does that mean for you?

KK  Well, not bad—obviously, I don’t want to make a bad collection—but let’s say “unexpected” or “unsuccessful.” Unlike other designers, I like to change the concept every season. With that comes the awareness that there might be a bad response to a certain collection, because it’s not what people expect and retailers may not buy it. But then again, that’s just six months, so though I’m not seeking it, I’m at least prepared to let that happen. If you look at the designers that I mentioned—Raf Simons, Rai Kawakubo, Rick Owens—there’s at least one or two collections that people found questionable. But in my opinion, if you stick to your own aesthetic, at some point you’re going to get bored, and then people are going to find it boring, and you will become irrelevant. So I’d rather take the risk of always doing something I want to do.

HUO  How many people work with you now?

KK  Maybe seven or eight. The studio is becoming bigger. We are working across several projects where the team interchanges; we are also getting more technical, working directly and spending more time on 3D development. Also, my girlfriend, Deanna Fanning, and her twin sister Laura design the new womenswear line, a new project we started last September. It’s been a really busy year, but it’s super exciting to see the two collections living separately while at the same time sticking to the same, very strong aesthetic proposals. It is my belief that things need to grow at their own pace, and find space in the current.

Kiko Kostadinov (Bulgarian, b. 1989) is a fashion designer who lives and works in London.
Video stills from the digital performance by vanillajellaba for Cos x Serpentine Park Nights, August 2019.
Image courtesy of the artists and Serpentine Galleries, London.

Hans Ulrich Obrist is a writer, curator, and artistic director at the Serpentine Galleries, London.

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