Ken Walker is the founder and creative director of K. Walker Collective. He graduated in 2014 from Michigan State University with a Bachelors in Marketing. He has used his abilities and knowledge of running a business to create his own fashion brand. Ken has opened his first store front for his brand in Midtown Detroit. In the future, he hopes to expand globally as he works with international suppliers and work to become a well-known luxury fashion brand. His craftsmanship and attention to detail will help him excel in meeting that goal.
Describe your role within the fashion industry.
K: My role in the fashion industry is to bring vibrance and to also normalize inclusivity and gender neutrality to an industry where it is supposed to serve all people.
Tell us about the K. Walker Collective. What makes your brand different than other up-and-coming brands?
K: I created Ken Walker collective out of necessity and for me it was already on my mind before I went to middle school. When I was in college at Michigan State I was really inspired as I got my degree in marketing, and I worked at an agency and as I was developing this brand I saw there was a big sea of “sameness” in this industry. Brands would just be stamping their names on a shirt. I saw there was a missing piece that represented or included the need for all urban professionals. I saw other brands tried to chase a design language, but for me it was having a brand that could have a variety of options, so street, comfort and refine garments. I have an eclectic way of pulling things together. I can take a fabric and an aesthetic from another garment that you’re used to seeing and making this fusion with them as well. I feel like I look at it like you’re engineering these things together. I think it’s something that people chase, but I do see a lot of brands kind of leaning on their names and graphics. For me I'm always so concerned, and I obsess over the details.
When did you feel you wanted to start your own fashion brand? Why did you choose to pursue a career as a fashion designer?
K: The aspiration came very early for me. I was about 14 and in middle school. My grandmother had this book about the standard jobs that Americans have. I got really intrigued about all these definitions and reading “Chief Executive Officer” I remember telling my grandma that I really liked that description of what that was. I went to a charter school as I grew up and my grandmother had asked me what I wanted to be when I grew up, and I had said that I wanted to become a fashion designer. I’ve always naturally been an entrepreneur and wanted my own record label. I was very immersed in music and loved creativity. I didn’t know exactly what creativity was at that time, but I just felt intrigued by creating something. So I had gone to art school at the Detroit School of Arts. And I remember that I wrote in a notebook when I was learning computer software “K. Walker Apparel” and wanted to develop all these different ideas in 2004 and was really inspired by Polo Ralph Lauren as he had a house of brands. And the younger me was so enamored by the thought of creating something. So when I went to college, I went into marketing and took until 2012 when I went to Italy on a study abroad trip and got so inspired by how important craftsmanship is. We had learned about what the Italian label means like when you see it on Prada to Ferrari or GUCCI bags. And when I came back to America, I had to start K. Walker and said, “I don’t know how I will develop this, but I can do this”. I’m glad I didn’t launch the brand early on as I learned how to position the brand and create my brand identity because I had a career in marketing.
Who are your favorite black designers or other POC’s that you gain/gained inspiration from?
K: I get inspired a lot from early 2000’s and I love what Pharell did with Ice Cream. He really showed that he was very focused on color and normalized that for men and women. He made it cool for men to wear pink. Shon Jon did so much with me as a young designer. It told me when I was younger that I could own a clothing brand, because another black man does. And seeing how he created suits and all these other things. Tommy Hilfiger was very instrumental in launching Shon Jon and giving him advice on being successful. Currently I do love Kirby is dope, Pierre Moss. Obviously, Virgil and the vision that he translated engineering to how to create garments. But it was the wisdom that he gave as a emerging designer. It really showed that he told people that it is hard, but how you can develop a brand. And I think also it was really dope of what Jerry Lorenzo. I embody what he does as simplicity. There is such elegance when you know a simple color palette and an aesthetic and I think, you know, those may look like basic hoodies to people, but when you see any Essentials piece, you can tell that there is craftsmanship there.
Tell us what your values are as a black designer.
K: It is really about how you are interacting in the industry as a brand. Inclusivity is a big value for me, not with just race, but body positivity, I think that is always important. I am challenged with that now because depending on some collections depending on suppliers, I can only do four sizes. So if I want to include someone who is more petite or a man with broader shoulders, I can’t create for that audience. And I am always thinking about that and how I can’t be exclusive to someone who loves the piece but doesn't fit them the right way. And that keeps me up at night, but that is also how the brand evolved. We started as a menswear brand in 2018, and about 80% of my sales were from women. And it’s the women that are trend-setters within fashion. Men are more logical as shoppers, but women are more emotional and will say “I love the vision, I can see what you’re trying to do.” Men, we must be more convinced. The women are the ones that told me that I need to use more colors or more pastels. I’m always looking for way to be more inclusive. Craft is a huge value that is lost within the industry. I never call them pieces, I call them garments because the power in creating something since I want to be able to keep something forever. I never rush the process, and craft is something that is getting lost in the industry. Integrity is good as well, I have always been rooted in the people that I’ve tried to work with more and working with black models and everything else like photoshoots, creative direction, marketing and even legal, you name it. Creativity is so engrained in black culture and once you’re around other creatives that think the way that you’re thinking, it’s a high vibration.
What ethics are important for young fashion designers who are POC? In your opinion, what are important skills that are needed when being a part of the fashion industry?
K: I would say there are a few things. Curiosity, but also ambition is important. If you’re not curious means you’re not open to new things or asking “Why?”. Like “Why is there a string on a hoodie?” and now all my hoodies don’t have strings anymore. But my curiosity pushed me to research. Curiosity is the conduit to innovation; it’s going to be asking more questions. I think when you don’t have curiosity you’re staying in your own focus and not open to what is out there already. Ambition is important because creation by nature because we’re always overthinking what we are creating. And someone told me early on in my career when I released my first collection, he said, “You’re going to get tired before the public does...you’re going to get bored of some designs and want to create something else.” Ambition is just putting something out there. I tell that to young designers and see what the public has to say about it.
Do you have a favorite trend(s) that could be seen going into 2023-2024? Is mainstream media playing a role in how clothing is perceived differently between black influence and non-POC's?
K: I think that people want to dress up now. It’s kind of expected that brands have athleisure where it is where it is often seen. In 2018 when I launched, that was kind of the trend. Comfort is very big in my design language and how can I help people dress. I want to have pieces that help people to “put that sh*t on!” But it is hard, because you’re spending a lot of time on making it comfortable but also having them be able to show it off. Mainstream media is with how they highlight different public figures and athletes and what they wear. And seeing athletes when they just get off the bus, walking to the stadium and wearing the most bold and eye catching and bold and how the sports industry has been becoming more fashion forward. And getting away from this idea that fashion is feminine. Like it’s almost excepted like “What are you going to do?” and they’re waiting to highlight what athletes are wearing. And I remember about five years ago, they would become the laughingstock, especially with Russell Westbrook and what he would wear. I do feel like rap music is influential because of the name dropping of brands, especially as designers of color, we wish that we could get that endorsement. Having more influence there I would hope to happen for more black designers.
How do you handle criticism in the industry as a young designer?
K: I use it to innovate. I don’t even call it criticism, I call it feedback. I don’t think anyone has told me that they didn’t like a piece, but where I could improve on a piece. Sizing has always been the biggest thing, like “What you got for me? What you got for the big dudes?” But I use the criticism to better communicate in what we’re doing. But I do remember I was showing a friend my collection with velour shorts and he said, “Who would wear something that like?” and I responded, “Who wouldn’t wear something like that?” And I took that and told myself that, “I’m going to show him.” So, I don’t take it to heart since I am still learning and a student to art, just by nature. But I’ve never had the harsh feedback since I am already obsessed about the quality and knowing that I have created so many samples that won’t get created because its too synthetic or it’s too thin. So taking the criticism in order to innovate in very important.
What does fashion mean to you as a black designer? Do you feel fashion has gained more influence from black celebrities or artists within the fashion or music industries?
K: Fashion is synonymous with individualism because you are using garments to tell something about yourself and it. And I call any garments from K. Walker is a co-conspirator because it’s something about when you put on a certain garment, it gives you that confidence. Fast fashion has made it very much diluted where you just either just put something on and never wear it again or you’re just going out one time. And I am a victim of that, and I bought things that I would wear again after a trip. But true style is getting away from fashion because style is forever because it is what you do with the clothing. And it is something more emotive for you. I love seeing how other people show their sense of style or what they like or what they’re feeling. And I know for me, fashion has become very emotive because there are days when I am like, “I don’t feel happy today, I need to wear some yellow”. I was stressed out going to the store because I was so busy, but wearing yellow had helped me be like, “Okay, you have opportunities and more stuff to do.” But individualism is the superpower that really translates to style overall.
How would you describe your own style and aesthetic?
K: My personal style is collectique, I guess. My taste is all over the place sometimes because I love vibrants. I used to not like a lot of color growing up. But I look at coordination all the time. That is the Detroiter in me. Coordination helps keep longevity for a lot of things, like shoes. And I looked at it within history and loved seeing how a lot of men would wear suits like gators, furs and really got inspired by that and find subtlety ways to do that. I focus now on the simplicity of that and that translates to me helping customers. But that all goes back to individualism and how I can help express their own individualism. I am always looking at colors and coordination.
Explain your process for choosing fabrics and materials for your brand.
K: That’s the beginning. That’s how I stood out, out of the gate. It was always about the fabrics and the materials that I would use. But that is how you stay up to date with the fashion calendars. But also with suppliers, they have a surplus of a certain fabric or something else. I look at fabrics and materials as a way to be bold. Let me put a little Razzle Dazzle on that because if we look at how detailed a garment is, like how a certain stitching will pop. I had saw a varsity jacket and how to I take that aesthetic and add that to a hoodie. But also don’t anyting to look like it’s from another brand.
What was one or more of your biggest challenges when becoming a designer and making your brand?
K: I can be my best friend or my biggest enemy. I got really self conscious early on. I thought I needed to go to fashion school to validate me as a designer. I didn’t think about using the skill sets that I already had and transferring that into building a business. Which also goes into the second challenge, because when you’re creating a creative, art-driven product, you’re not thinking of the value just yet. And that was a challenge for me. It took me time but with mentors and figuring out price point and value of my products. Other would understand the value of a product that I didn’t see overall. And I think that for us younger designers, we think about what people would actually pay for something. What got me away from that was that I was not in this to just make money. I also got away from looking at my friends as my customers. There needs to be other people from other races for this to achieve being a global brand. I am big on people being selective when it comes to finding groups that would wear your brand.
Tell us about your experience working with models and other professionals within the industry? Do you mainly search for black or POC models who are aligned with your aesthetic?
K: I have had really good experience with working with models and other creatives. They have always been a muse for me. I look for who will help elevate the look. I hand select every model for my campaigns and some are emerging or have never been modeled before. I have helped a lot models get into the work. And by nature, I felt that I had to show mainly black men in a positive light, as that was a big passion point for me. It was something I had a responsibility to do. I am in a weird space now because I need to think of me showing different people in the brand. And I think naturally, I think models who are people of color aren’t being reached out by bigger brands. And I’ve had models tell me that it took them multiple shoots or shows for them to get signed. But I think it’s very interesting to look at brands like Burberry that have gotten very inclusive with their models and traditionally, they’ve never been like that before. But it was because that is who was consuming the product. We need to see more black men and women shown in luxury houses and it shouldn’t just always be a celebrity or an influencer that is being the model. But now I am in the space of having inclusivity with body positivity like when I show models who are more curvy. And Rihanna does that really well with Savage Fenty. It is the most transparent way for people to feel more sexy. But she normalized it.
What does the future of fashion mean to you?
I see fashion going into being more responsible, but in the form of transparency. People are going to demand transparency and that is going to be needed. But what I love is that this is a way for brands to explain in a creative way, what inspired the garment, you know, where they made it and what went into it. But I see that with more emerging brands to use that as a superpower. When brands explain their inspiration that, it gets a lot of engagement. Responsibility isn’t going to be just an option for a brand and explaining ethics that go into the brand and like a hiring process for the brand. In fashion it’s all about the people. We are going to see more creative directors be revitalized because of that leadership. But in fashion, I think it’s going to be all about the people. It’s never been like that before, because you’re used to only seeing the one designer who’s name is on the clothes. But now they’re like, “Who is the team they went to?” But it’s the creative lead, and I love seeing more people of color getting those roles because it shows you that now, they know where the culture is. It shows you how fashion brands are chasing ways to be relevant. But now they’re not just going to do it with campaigns, but with the creative leadership that they put into these positions.