Inside the Seams with Designer Karolyn Pho
By Eden Herbstman
To refer to designer Karolyn Pho’s collection as eponymous is an understatement. Karolyn doesn’t just lend her name in the literal sense, she completely immerses herself artistically and emotionally. She’s a designer who uncovers the line between the dark and the beautiful, updating conventional femininity with hints of eeriness and edge. This was especially evident during her S/S 14 presentation held at the Peter Makebish gallery space. Her collection titled “Unknown” utilized faceless mannequins showcasing her clothing, alongside a video installation of the mannequins placed in different scenarios. Uncanny yes, upon first glance to view a mannequin donning a silk baby doll dress sprawled in a cardboard box labeled FRAGILE. It’s conceptions like this however that showcase Karolyn’s convictions in her artistry.
Pho has mastered the boundaries inherent to creating statement pieces that don’t speak too loudly. Classic silhouettes, even an everyday cotton t shirt, become unique via her intricate and detailed ornamentation balanced against a distinguishable mix of color palette and textures. What ultimately makes Karolyn Pho eponymous, in the most vital sense, is the transmission of her confidence speaking silently through her clothing.
Eden Herbstman: What are some themes you wanted to touch upon in this collection?
Karolyn Pho: Refinement with touches of darkness. I wanted to create this collection for the girl not defined by age but professionalism and attitude. Fun, fanciful, and dramatic. This collection in particular was inspired by 17th century 18th century Italian Fresco. I used this really raw red and white to play with the idea of what is etherial and pure, and what is it to be “good.” The red and the black in the collection play the other side. For me it is “reality,” but speaks to darkness as well.
EH: The color palette is unique in the sense of this muted white and paleness against the vibrance of the red and black.
KP: I loved how the red popped against the black. I believe black is the queen of all colors. I’ve always had this obsession with black. It is easy, effortless, and you don’t have to try to be chic. It’s black and you’re done.
EH: What inspired your use of video installation along side this presentation in particular?
KP: For the look book I shot the mannequin in different scenarios with different looks. The video installation was a nice way to add motion and action to the collection. It also humanizes her and gives her more of a character. For me the look book and installation are completely selfish, the collection too in a way I suppose, but really I just do the look book and installation because I want to and enjoy it. It’s another outlet for me to express what I want to say about the collection. I have a very direct concept I know what I want to see and how I want to see it.
EH: Is the use of the mannequin as a model intentional versus using human models?
KP: I felt a weird disconnect working with the models when I first came to New York. I didn’t feel that they were human in a sense, and I didn’t think that most people here treated them as human as well. I was drawn to the idea of a very simple mannequin that felt cold and detached. When you think of mannequins you think of coldness and lifelessness. I wanted to there to be some confusion or question when viewing the installation. In some shots of the video she is sweating, which is a human reaction. I wanted to have these moments where the viewer had to question these biological functions.
EH: As a designer what techniques or approaches do you utilize?
KP: There’s a minimalist body consciousness. Some dresses show the waistline, so it does have that feminine approach. I’m also really drawn to juxtaposition, so for instance I’ll bring in a mesh. It plays the dress down a little bit, but at the same time it dresses the mesh up. You have these two things working in conversation with one another. It’s also transformative in going from day to night. I love little details as well, such as contrast collars. I feel this collection is very much “me,” Similar through method acting in a sense. I want to live through the collection. When you are apart of it and immersed in the collection it helps. It helps in understanding what a woman wants to wear.
EH: You’re originally from California, but are now based in New York. Did moving out here change the way you design?
KP: I’ve been in New York for a year now, and this is my first collection in New York. The year I spent here I’ve been so inspired by the women that surround me. They’re very strong but they still keep their femininity. Moving from Los Angeles to New York you’re forced to take a risk. When you’re out of you’re element it’s either sink or swim. I think New York pushed me to go a little further with my designs, specifically with my silhouettes and fabrics. I’ve become more dramatic. I was doing a similar vibe in Los Angeles, but it was more toned down because I felt the market out there didn’t understand it or appreciate it as much. Los Angeles is more casual and easy going. Coming to New York I knew this was the place and the time and I’m ready.
EH: Will you use a different approach in your next collection?
KP: The silhouette is my aesthetic, so that won’t vary too much. The color palette is ever changing and susceptible. I have an initial concept of what I’m trying to say and what I’m going for, and that will dictate the color palette and the way I showcase the collection. Emotion and environment always drive my collections. I’m excited for next season though. I’ve already got the wheels turning on ideas. I’m going for an idea of self preservation. I’m planning on incorporating another video as well to add motion and action.
Karolyn Pho is a New York based fashion designer. Pho graduated from California State University with a BFA in 2007. She began her career as a wardrobe stylist for film and music videos. This is Pho’s third collection.
Written by Eden Herbstman
Photography Courtesy of MAO PR
Design by Marie Havens
Karolyn Pho, 2013, Photography Courtesy of MAO PR
All clothing by Karolyn Pho, 2013, Photography Courtesy of MAO PR