Los Angeles-based designer Kenneth Nicholson caught our attention with his adventurous new menswear line. His work does not shock or sting but rather subtly question–just what is menswear? What is masculine? How does the modern man move? Kenneth’s background, a Texas upbringing, formal fashion training at the Academy of Art in San Francisco, and then serving in the United States Navy all, somehow, comes through in his work, a mixture of experiences and perspectives.
I spoke with Kenneth Nicholson from his studio in Los Angeles.
Tell me about your time in the Navy. How did the transition come from serving in the Navy to starting a menswear line?
My infatuation and experimentation with design actually pre-dates my Navy deployment. For me, my time in the Navy was spent in a state of hyper awareness. In fact that is one of the main tenets of training; to be sensitive of your environment and to be knowledgeable of your personal quarters. My USN experience in part, helped to further develop this sensitivity and I still apply those principles today.
Could you share some of the best and worst parts about running your own practice?
The best part about running my own fashion line is getting to actively participate in building a contextual world in which my artistic ideals can exist. Additionally, once this world is established I have the opportunity to invite those who share similar sensibilities to participate by way of wearing and living moments of their life in my designs. The down side is, as with most professional art forms, one must oversee day to day tasks which have nothing to do with the creative process. Though this is not my favorite aspect, as a designer I stay focused knowing that if I place one brick upon another eventually I will have a complete structure. It is those series of small steps that allow you to make seismic leaps when the time is right.
I stay focused knowing that if I place one brick upon another eventually I will have a complete structure.
How do you balance creating designs that you love versus designs that might get a wider commercial response?
It’s funny, this question has been posed to me several times as of late and sometimes self imposed. I feel like I’ve recently arrived at this place where I simply want to make clothing or even artifacts that excite me on some level. I’ve concluded that I will be a designer who creates that which I find inspiring! I love art history, I love fashion history and I am deeply interested in the black diaspora and the cultures that emerge thereof. I also love pop culture and drink in as much visual information as I can on the daily. I have had a reconciliation of sorts in that I view design on a broader spectrum with more of a historical trove of references which I site in my work. I am more interested in engaging in a deeper conversation concerning design. If I create a minimal pair of white stockings for men in fall 18, I would want to provoke a dialog centered around the ridiculous notions of contemporary masculinity by sitting empirical 17th century data. When you actually observe historical data these problematic conventional arguments surrounding masculinity fall apart.
Tell me about your time in Afghanistan. What has stayed with you?
The people, and their love of life and celebratory gatherings. It was as common for me to engage in Afghani tradition with my age group as it was to head bang and belt out lyrics to Radiohead. My world travels have taught me many things and one of the most profound is that we all are so very much alike, one body of humanity desiring a full happy life, good food, beautiful clothes and great music.
What are you currently working on?
I’m currently working on introducing the e-commerce front of the brand. Its been a long time coming and I am eager to share it with everyone that has been following us since the beginning.
There will be the core collection which consist of carefully curated items that will be available year round as well as limited seasonal items. These items will be available for purchase at kennethnicholson.us in the upcoming months.
What keeps you up at night?
Singing, dancing and staying up having drinks with my wife.
Do you ever get “designer’s block?” If so, what’s your remedy?
I do get designer’s block sometimes. It is usually when I’ve been extremely busy and caught up in the monotony of simply completing tasks to check them off a list as opposed to being fully present while I work. A remedy that I often employ to rid myself of an artistic block, is to first stop and allow myself stillness of schedule, emotion and thought. This commonly transitions into a mode of observation. Once in observation mode I can better accomplish that which I believe I was created to do, compose compelling visuals. For me, it is essential to have a spirit of stillness to create, you have to be in a position to thoughtfully take in information to inform your output.
It is essential to have a spirit of stillness to create.
There are definitely other, more unorthodox tactics that I’ve been known to engage. While in college I would sometimes fill the bath with warm water and sit in it fully clothed, which may seem a bit odd, it got a rise out of my dorm mate at the time, who is actually one of my good friends now. My thought was if I allowed myself to do things that were out of the ordinary it would provoke my imagination to see things afresh. This was one of several practices I experimented with including sleeping under the bed as opposed to on top, sleeping in a closet, randomly jumping in pools in the middle of winter (fully clothed naturally), shaving a circle on the crown of my head for God to kiss, etc.
But yes, I also visit museums and galleries.
Additionally, it helps having friends that are abundantly talented. In LA I am surround by some of the most thoroughly talented musicians. Hanging out at jams sessions with George Lewis Jr. of Twin Shadow who has the ability to convey power, sensuality and longing in one bar, along with Wynne Bennette keyboardist of Twin Shadow who is an amazing classically trained musician and producer as well as Guillermo Brown of Pegasus Warning who is one of the most naturally talented vocalist I heard, his innate ability at the improvisational is truly inspiring & he is a killer drummer. In just a few notes I’m taken to new levels of inspiration.
What’s a favorite piece of design in your home? Where did you get it, and why do you love it?
The piece that comes to mind as my favorite design feature in my home is a painting that I found discarded on the side of the street in West Hollywood that hangs in my home studio. It speaks directly to a portion of my artistic sensibility. It is composed on canvas and features a floral bouquet rendered in somewhat of a ghostly pallet of lilac and honeydew. Its has been weathered and generously distressed. To me it’s a poignant embodiment of literal beauty opposite something that could be perceived as less desirable, yet it feels very harmonious.
Lastly, just how much do you love Donald Glover?
Basically, like a lot…
Ok, so my into to Donald Glover was via Issa Rae’s Awkward Black Girl in it’s youtube phase. I believe it was on a season finale & toward the end of this particular episode in which he was featured. It wasn’t necessarily his character as he was playing himself, it was that I related to him as an individual. It was so refreshing to see a black male lead that I felt I could see myself in. The authenticity in his work was framed front and center and his ability to highlight the awkwardness in a black male experience which is almost never realistically portrayed. It made me feel like in a way I had found a kindred, needless to say I am a huge fan of Atlanta.