The many hats of a designer…
“I’ve been called crazy both behind my back and right to my face more times than I can remember. I got so used to it that it has since lost its barbs. One of these days I’m going to take it as a compliment, a term of endearment even,” the eccentric milliner tells me over coffee.
In the local and international fashion industry he’s known as “Kan Kanemura,” to his Vietnamese friends he’s “Kamasutra” (because they can’t pronounce all the Ks, Ns and A’s in his name) and to the rest of Saigon he’s “that crazy hat guy.” But regardless of what name you know him by, the consensus is that Kan is the foremost hat designer in Vietnam. His headpieces have adorned the heads of models on runways from downtown Saigon to Hong Kong and Sydney.
Born in the early 1980s to a family of traditional embroiderers, Kan’s affair with the visual arts grew from a childhood of helping out his mother with her work. His first foray into fashion was winning first place in a design competition held by Muc Tim, a Vietnamese teen magazine, at 16 years old. IT college soon followed and while this educational choice may appear out of place, it eventually became the gateway to learning the basics of fashion, visual arts, and digital graphics for Kan.
“Most people forget that back then there was nothing like a fashion school. What I wanted to learn, nobody was teaching,” he explains. “The internet was – and is – an endless source of such information. It was my only source then too. Back then internet was a new thing in Vietnam and cost VND20,000 an hour on a dial-up connection. I sat there every day.
“In a way I was lucky. I came into the fashion world in the same generation as other first generation Vietnamese designers like Minh Hanh and Dieu Anh who are now famous designers in Vietnam. The Vietnamese fashion world may be a lot bigger now, but it’s been tamed, commercialized. People prefer safety now. In those first years, fashion was madness, recklessness, spontaneity and a crazy chase after one’s personal sense of aesthetic. Because we were the first, there were no rules, no precedents to limit us.”
Without such limits, Kan was able to perfect his skills through the process of trial and error. “I took up a lot of jobs: photographer, makeup artist, stylist, creative director and art director. To bring a single design of mine to life utilizes all the skills I learned in my other jobs. The eye of the photographer, the coordination and management skill of a director, the hands of an embroiderer. In a way, I feel like I came full circle to my embroiderer’s son background.”
Competing with Helmets
During his many photo shoots and runway jobs, Kan would create his own accessories to adorn the clothes and models sent to him. “I always felt that the clothes alone were not enough. Too simple. I like richness, layers and depth. Nobody was protesting the end result.” For simple pieces, he says, it may take anywhere from four to five full days to complete. For more complicated pieces, where cost isn’t an issue, it may take a month for the individual parts to come together and hold shape.
“To wear a hat is to enter a three dimensional game,” he claims. “A hat, or headpiece, sits on top of your head, a globe shape. It has to be able to sit on that round surface without slipping off and then maintain its shape without the frame of the wearer’s body underneath, like a sculpture.” Each and every one of Kan’s creations is unique – a one-off, created from various materials from basic fabric, thread, yarn and lace to heavier industrial components such as plastic, rubber and metal. Not one of them is similar to another.
The past two years mark important milestones for the Vietnamese hat designer in different ways. In 2013 he officially launched his designs publicly – they were previously only available to a select few – and this year will see him commercially enter the mass market. Kan wants to bring his hats to the urban Vietnamese culture. His debut consumer collection is scheduled to go on shelves July 2014. A risky move considering most of his targeted customers wouldn’t leave their house without a helmet.
“So far I’ve stayed in the safe zone, with the people whose ideas of beauty correlate with mine and who can appreciate my work. But, I feel it is now time. I don’t think the ordinary Vietnamese will think of my designs as ‘crazy’ forever. People’s tastes have evolved, matured. So have their desire for an expression of their personality.”
Images by Ngoc Tran