Our New Favourite Smart Casual, Slow Fashion Brand

It's that time of life where the jeans I’ve had since I was 18 – despite stretching ever-so-politely over the years – are now, undeniably, 700% too small. And the zipper is so broke that I’m the bloke with his flies undone scoffing biscuits in the company meeting. I need a new pair of jeans – with a cut that makes me look like a grown-up lady instead of an overgrown Blink 182 fan, although, if possible, I’d still like to be both. Enter Kéji, the small but perfectly formed brand designed by Katie Green for chic women with punk hearts. Having worked as a pattern cutter, then closely with Katie Grand at LOVE magazine, and as a buyer at Net-A-Porter, Katie started her own label in 2015, offering a concise collection of 11 styles of denim. Kéji has since evolved with skill and precision into a full ready-to-wear collection worn by skater teenagers and high-flying women alike. Raised in Hong Kong but London-living since she fell in love with the capital's fashion scene after working alongside Christopher Kane’s graduate collection on the shop floor at Browns, Katie now sources most of her fabrics from Japan. Except the outerwear, which includes a waterproof velvet that’s high-tech enough to withstand being bunched up in your bag, too. Katie’s spring/summer 17 collection directly referenced skate culture in checkerboard denim, baggy shirts with white T-shirts underneath and Sharpie decals (a decal is the writing on the bottom of a skateboard, like a tag or a slogan). Her autumn/winter 16 collection, pictured here because that’s what’s in the shops right now, presented a new shape of jeans: high-waisted and seriously wide-leg, which as Katie explains below, is the most flattering shape. In the way that Céline predicted exactly what every woman wanted to wear in 2012, Kéji – whose é acute accent sits in the same place – is giving us wearable, desirable looks with the same quiet iconicism. I paid Katie a visit in her Hackney studio to talk about the art of smart dressing down and how the right jeans can make the woman.
You’ve worked in many areas of the industry, as a buyer and a stylist. Why did you start Kéji? What was it a reaction to?
My background very early on was in design and pattern cutting but I didn’t feel ready or confident enough to start my own thing because I hadn’t been down the traditional route of going to fashion college. So I carved out my own path into the industry, which ranged from working for designers pattern cutting and tailoring, to working for Katie Grand at LOVE magazine and buying at Net-A-Porter. Was design always the end goal?
I felt ready to start my label when I saw a gap in elevated daywear. There’s a really strong market of cocktail and occasion wear but when you look at everyday clothes, there’s a jump down into a lower section of the market. Being a woman designer, you realise how much we have to deal with during the day, running around – there’s no time to go home and change. Kéji is the ethos of clothes that can carry you through your day. There’s no such thing as ‘off-duty’ – just because we’re dressing casually doesn’t mean we’re not doing it in an elevated way. Then there’s the nod towards slower fashion – I bring back shapes every season, tweaked or with a different fabrication because I think women like to know that they can come back to you for something that they know works for them. I often get repeat customers asking ‘Can I get that jacket in a different colour?’ or who have four pairs of our classic jeans. It’s about building a wardrobe.

What are your classic jeans?
The cigarette jean. It has an Italian pocket. It’s not skinny and it’s not boyfriend style, it’s a cigarette trouser. That’s a style we launched with for autumn/ winter 15 and people still come back to it, asking for that style. It looks and feels like a trouser that happens to be in denim. We’ve also introduced a wider jean that I think is becoming a classic as women get their head around a non-stretch jean. The bright blue on the denim is a chemical-free indigo dye so it washes to this true-blue. But we’re very much not a denim brand anymore!

Tell me about the departure from being a denim brand...
We never intended to be a denim brand exclusively but I thought it was a really nice way to make a clear statement for the first season. I love that denim never goes out of style and isn’t trend-driven and the fabric is so hard-wearing. Our jeans can last 10 years or more.

How do women relate to your clothes?
One example is our flocking that we developed for autumn/winter 16 that is heavy velvet but flocked onto a waterproof base so you’re wearing this beautiful piece, and if it starts raining, it’s fully waterproof. Everything I do has something that nods to our real life; you can shove it in the washing machine, you can get it wet, there’s always that attitude. All the clothes I make actually get put to work and will see you through your day. I wear trainers every day but I like to look smart and be able to go into a meeting or to a nice restaurant and not feel underdressed. Tailoring is a huge part of what we do so that all elements fit the body beautifully.

As a tailor, what shapes do you find flattering?
Generally speaking, if the waistline goes up a bit to be tailored around the body, you get the illusion of a flatter stomach (if that’s the look you’re into.) Then I lengthen the leg and maybe make it wider to show off the contour of the bum. I also think a lot about where I put pockets and seams. I think about where I’m drawing the attention to with those details.

Tell me about your new collection for spring/summer 17...
It started with this one photograph from the late ‘80s of Christian Hosoi, who’s a brilliant street skater, doing this very graceful aerial jump. The skate reference is super cliché, everyone’s done it, but this photograph got me thinking how I could do it in our way. Print was a heavy part in the collection. I wanted to incorporate skate decals into the print, like biro or Sharpie artwork, so we did that but in a delicate way. We presented the collection in a square in Soho, it was like a metaphor for a skate park – I think it’s so beautiful how these kids hang out in these sculptural landscapes. There’s so much beauty in those references.
What’s your definition of fast fashion, and how can designers and consumers help to slow it down?
We talk to women’s everyday lifestyle and we hope that once you buy a piece it’s with you for a long time; it’s not throwaway. We have an emphasis on quality and fabrication. There’s this demand to see complete newness from designers every season, and now consumers are already bored of what’s in store. The cycles are off, and we’re trying to combat that by making pieces that women will love and wear forever. That’s my small contribution to slowing down the pace. We’re not trying to be a flash in the pan, what we’re doing is a bit quieter and longer-term.

Who are the women in your life who inspire you?
Oh god, all of them! I don’t design for a fantasy woman, I design for the women around me. I’m lucky to be great friends with super high-achieving, intelligent women, and I know their lifestyle and I want to cater to them. Our customer base spans from my mother to teenagers.

Where are you stocked?
Net-A-Porter, who have been hugely supportive of the brand. Selfridges, Barneys in Japan – which is hugely satisfying because I really want to make an entry into the Asian market. Le Bon Marché in Paris, Au Pont Rouge in Russia and The Store in Berlin. Among others!

How do you find the market post-Brexit as a young brand?
It’s a tough time. People are a bit unsure about what the future holds and don’t really feel in the mood to shop. All we can count on is retailers taking a chance on us and believing in what we do. That’s what the fashion industry is lacking in a little bit, because it’s all about making money with sure-fire bets and buyers are becoming more and more safe with what they want because the industry is struggling, so they’re betting on things they know have worked in the past as opposed to introducing something fresh. So it’s tough, but you have to stick to what you stand for and hope you attract people who genuinely support the brand. www.kejidenim.com

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