Humans are complex beings and to even begin to try and fathom our depth is nearly impossible. We as people have the human experience through both conflict and catharsis, and the human experience is one that is uniquely our own—despite the fact that it is shared collectively among individuals. We as humans are living paradoxes.
With a love for politics, law, and art, fashion designer Kyle Denman shares a philosophical perspective on fashion and the interconnectivity and multi-dimensionality of the human experience.
Beyond its superficial meaning, fashion can be understood in a deeper narrative that defines its role in our society. Denman conveys an intelligent look at fashion, witnessed by how he thinks and how he creates. He makes the case that fashion has a multilayered effect as a communication vehicle for how we act, and given the EDGE philosophy, our talk was spirited on how we view fashion in its anthropological context. He believes “that fashion is the most powerful art that exists–it is the intersection of design, movement and architecture juxtaposed in social, political, and cultural contexts.” And he frames it within the dynamic nature that it is, “Fashion is expression, communication, and activism. It is inherently political yet neutral, communal yet personalized, and silent yet loud …it is paradoxical and so nuanced, just like the human experience.”
Denman, who was born in Seoul, South Korea, grew up in Cincinnati, Ohio, and is based in Los Angeles, utilizes his design practice as an educator. He teaches fashion design and art to youth, those who have been victimized or have experienced trauma through human trafficking, domestic abuse, gang violence, or are victims of a socially marginalized “system”. What’s unique about Denman’s teaching method is his application of the ‘human experience’ through connection, communication, and storytelling. The students learn more than the skill of drawing or sewing, they learn how to communicate to the ‘world and to themselves’. Denman expresses it this way, “I think it’s more important for a student in my program to learn more about themselves and how they’re uniquely positioned in this world. I want the youth with whom I work to learn about vulnerability and how powerful their voice and their art are …”
Premiered at New York Fashion Week September 2021, Denman’s most recent body of work, “mul·ti·po·lar—ex·ist·ence”, is profound and has garnered its well-deserved attention. An emotional and personal project that took over a year to create, Denman takes a deep dive into the social context of human interconnectivity and the psychological aspects of our fundamental need to belong, to connect, and be loved, referencing Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs. “Humans are social creatures and interpersonal connections are vital to our existence”, Denman says. Carefully composed with sculpturally defined shapes, “mul·ti·po·lar—ex·ist·ence” showcases multi-dimensional aspects of the human experience specific to evoking emotions or states of being, with each look in the collection named as such – Detachment, Derealization, Anxiety, Catharsis, to name four out of the eight looks. Stories are born through pain and suffering, and this body of work demonstrates Denman’s storytelling of how humans are able to connect through these emotions.
By staying true to his art, he overcame pushback of doing experimental work from an industry that does not value concept over sale ability.
A designer recognized with high-profile honors including Grand Prize Winner of the Project Runway Remake It Work Contest and Young Fashion Designer of the Year 2018, and winner of the International Design Award 2021 Fashion Design of the Year, Denman is humbled as a steward of fashion’s purpose. He sees fashion as a record keeper of our times, artifacts of history, and a powerful art form that cannot be ignored.
Our talk is divided into three parts: Denman’s philosophy and perspective on the industry, the development, details, and story behind his body of work “mul·ti·po·lar—ex·ist·ence”, and his celebrated accomplishments.
From my experiences, I have learned that fashion design is one of the simplest yet most complex ways in which people communicate with the world and themselves. In order for the fashion design industry to truly thrive, there needs to be an understanding of how people affect and are affected by the industry, from start to finish and from design conception to the last wear of a garment.
RP Hill: I know that you are based in Los Angeles, but where are you from and at what point in your childhood or adult life did you want to pursue a fashion design career? Tell us about your journey, particularly since you were destined for a career quite the opposite of the arts.
KD: I was born in Seoul, South Korea and was adopted when I was three months old. I was raised in Cincinnati, Ohio and lived there until I moved to Los Angeles in the fall of 2016. I have always loved art. My parents told me that I could draw before I could talk. However, I have also loved politics and law. When I was in high school, I was the Youth Mayor of Cincinnati and attended national conferences on policy and youth advocacy. When I was completing my undergraduate degree in Political Science at Miami University in Oxford, Ohio, I was working with the Scripps Gerontology Center and was supporting their research on the impact that art has on people who have dementia, Alzheimer’s, and other neurocognitive disorders. Their research was conducted through an intergenerational art-making program called Opening Minds Through Art, which connected youth with these artists with neurocognitive disorders. Here, I truly began to understand the significance of art and creativity in people’s lives. I decided to pursue fashion design, as I saw it as a form of expression and communication in everyone’s lives every day. I guess my passion for art never left me!
And that passion continues with your involvement in education, teaching fashion and art. What motivated you to teach and what exactly are you doing in this arena? What are the rewards, what makes you feel good at the end of the day when it comes to educating others?
I began using fashion design and art as a vehicle for learning social-emotional skills several years ago. I’m an educator in Los Angeles who primarily works with historically disenfranchised youth who have been systems-impacted or who have experienced trauma, like human trafficking, housing insecurity, gang violence, or domestic abuse. Many of the young people with whom I work are New Arrivals to the United States or are young mothers. I have used fashion and art as a way to connect with these young people and co-create a space of trust and compassion while delivering programming that is rooted in both equity and empathy.
If I can teach a young person how to sew or draw or pattern draft, that’s great. But it’s more important for me to go deeper than that and to teach, through the lenses of fashion and art, these young people what it means to be alive and to share their unique stories. Sure, a student can learn technical skills, but I think it’s more important for a student in my program to learn more about themselves and how they’re uniquely positioned in this world. I want the youth with whom I work to learn about vulnerability and how powerful their voice and their art are. I want others to see how beautiful my students are and how much they have to offer the world.
I love what I do. And let me tell you…I have learned that there is no limit to the human capacity to create, to be curious, and to hope.
Broadening how your value can contribute to the arts community in multiple ways is a feat that many don’t pursue. One of the reasons why we connected is that I like how you bring value to the philosophical, ecological, and social zeitgeist of today in your work. I’m not surprised that your academic work goes hand-in-hand with your design ethos; blending the importance of cultural and social responsibility in your design practice. Share your philosophy and principles and how this is all interconnected.
My mission is to use my platform and privileges to create social change, share cultural narratives, and humanize the relationship that people can have with art and with each other. I believe that fashion is the most powerful art that exists–it is the intersection of design, movement and architecture juxtaposed in social, political, and cultural contexts. Fashion is expression, communication, and activism. It is inherently political yet neutral, communal yet personalized, and silent yet loud. That’s what I love about fashion; it is paradoxical and so nuanced, just like the human experience.
If I am working with a client, I want to ensure that I listen to their voice. I do my best to set my ego and personal needs aside and just provide feedback based on my own skills and experiences. For instance, it’s important to communicate with a client that all fabrics have to be treated differently from one another and each type of fabric will not work for all silhouettes or designs.
If I am working on a runway collection or a personal project, I begin my creative process with a question. I ask myself, “What story do I want to tell?” Once I have that answer, I begin my research. I find quotes and images relating to my chosen story, research historical events and literature if applicable, and place my findings in an inspiration journal. Then, I will start finding fabric swatches, begin sketching, and drape silhouettes. In my process, I also write a short essay about the theme and intention of my collection. This allows me to refer back to what I wrote as I get deeper into the creative process and ensure that each look in the collection remains relevant and coherent with the overall theme.
Humans are social creatures and interpersonal connections are vital to our existence. I believe that art and creativity drive empathy, and that is why I think design is so important. From my experiences, I have learned that fashion design is one of the simplest yet most complex ways in which people communicate with the world and themselves. In order for the fashion design industry to truly thrive, there needs to be an understanding of how people affect and are affected by the industry, from start to finish and from design conception to the last wear of a garment. In a way, the fashion industry itself is a form of globalized team collaboration.
When thinking about how fashion can be used to represent a socio-political or cultural zeitgeist of today, it’s important to think about how fashion has been used to represent historical allegories of the past.
The trend forecaster, Lidewij Edelkoort, once said in The Business of Fashion OP-ED piece that fashion design is no longer valued. When we speak of fashion, it is identified as mass merchandise, “simple as clothes”. She says, “speed and greed have deflated and devalued the significance of fashion and textiles, the world needs a complete overhaul of its educational systems in design … fashion design has become a commodity … is on its way out, suffering from overproduction and under-creativity.”
I concur with her statement and feel that your generation of designers refuse to march to the beat of today’s fashion system. How can the fashion industry expose the work of designers to the public, like yourself, who are part of an elite group, that are building an ecosystem of purposeful, imaginative, responsible, and culturally astute designs that are not ‘cut and sew and sell’, but offer coveted pieces of timeless storytelling, a missed value in fashion today?
First off, thank you for thinking so highly of my work. It is really such an honor to speak with you, share our love of fashion and art, and co-create this future of fashion together. And that’s exactly what I would say that the fashion industry needs to do: co-create this future with its designers, artists, and storytellers.
As I mentioned, fashion is the most powerful form of art that exists. It plays with the raw ingredients of life–from cellulose and protein fibers–and weaves them with the ingenuity of humankind. From the technological advancements of machinery and synthetic fibers to the geometric genius of pattern drafting to the social responses to the needs of our environment and ecosystems through the development of sustainable resources, fashion design is not only creating monuments to the future, but it is also creating artifacts of history. Not only does fashion predict the future and respond to those possibilities, but fashion is also record keeping. It protects the zeitgeist of the past and predicts the zeitgeist of the future… It is essential to human development, and the industry needs to understand that and create a space where humans can continue to be inspired.
“mul·ti·po·lar—ex·ist·ence” is my conceptual, personal, and poetic vision of what humanity was, is, and will be; it is both an homage and a criticism of my own juxtaposition of the pain and pleasure of dissociation and derealization of the relationships in my own life.
“mul·ti·po·lar—ex·ist·ence” is an amazing body of work, aesthetically, but powerful in its messaging of the human condition in relationships. What inspired, influenced, or drove you to create this collection?
Premiering at New York Fashion Week, “mul·ti·po·lar—ex·ist·ence” was inspired by the interconnectivity and the multidimensionality of the human experience. I personally think some of the strengths of “mul·ti·po·lar—ex·ist·ence” are the unique silhouettes (featuring profile-views of faces in most of the looks), the creative construction techniques, and the emotional significance. I believe my work is relatable to most people, as “mul·ti·po·lar—ex·ist·ence” can best be summarized in just six words: soulmates will always find a way.
Through my experiences, I have learned to never underestimate the human capacity to turn stories—and pain—into art. Through our lived experiences, humans are able to form connections surrounding pain and suffering. That is one of the ways through which we are connected. “mul·ti·po·lar—ex·ist·ence” is my conceptual, personal, and poetic vision of what humanity was, is, and will be; it is both an homage and a criticism of my own juxtaposition of the pain and pleasure of dissociation and derealization of the relationships in my own life.
I see how creating this body of work was on a personal level.
Creating “mul·ti·po·lar—ex·ist·ence” was deeply emotional and personal for me. I had worked on this project for over a year before it was showcased on an international stage. I can honestly dedicate this collection and this story to one person in particular—someone I love and will forever call my soulmate.
My understanding is that there was a push back on what many would consider experimental work or not commercially viable, am I right? How did you react or respond during this time?
I have almost always received the same criticism for my work—my clothes are “too weird” or aren’t marketable. Sometimes people have told me they “don’t get” my work. Before presenting “mul·ti·po·lar—ex·ist·ence” at New York Fashion Week, I shared some of the designs with some mentors and friends. At first, some of the criticism was the same that I have always heard. It was disheartening, to say the least, to hear negative feedback about such a personal project.
However, I really tried to think objectively about my work. It’s always important to listen to others regarding my work so I know how to improve and evolve as a designer and artist. After some editing, one of the most controversial looks in my collection (Look 003: Circularity) became one of my favorites and one of the most praised by the public! I had to remind myself that it was my goal to create walking and wearable art, and I don’t know if I would have been able to fully achieve my goal if it wasn’t for that negative criticism. I doubted myself in this creative process but learned to never doubt my capacity to create controversy and to challenge others’ views. I have to keep asking myself, “What art isn’t controversial?”
I love how you overcame this, embraced the controversy, while remaining true to yourself and your art.
After this experience, I think I can say that I’m much more confident in myself and am definitely not afraid to make some more waves.
Now the details. Building a collection is all about storytelling of which you have masterfully done, and it can be valued even more by understanding the details. Talk to us about the materials, the use of color, composition, construction, and, in particular, the design detail of the ‘profile-view of faces’ on how it relates to the story. Plus, the titles (Anxiety, Detachment, Catharsis, Derealization, etc.) of each look bring you front and center to the work’s meaning.
There was a lot of intention and care in the development of this collection. The fabric was chosen carefully to create these sculptural shapes that could stand on their own. I intended on creating walking sculptures and wanted to manipulate fabric and trims in ways that I have never seen before. Each look in the collection has its own name. I wanted to evoke certain emotions and phases of the human experience. When I told this story, I did it with intention.
The color yellow exists as a paradox in the collection; it is both representative of purity and youth as well as degradation and cowardice. In Buddhism, the color yellow represents knowledge and learning. Aren’t we as people constantly learning in the hopes of evolving? Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs places the idea of interconnectivity as one of the psychological needs that humans desire; “belonging” is positioned on the third tier, which is most often colored yellow. The fabrications and materials were intentionally chosen in order to create completely new silhouettes. Many of the outfits demonstrate the breadth of movement and identity. The looks are meant to be sources of physical and sensational vibrations, explaining that the vibrations of one person’s actions should and will impact another.
This collection attempts to delineate the human profile in abstract, psychological and literal ways through silhouettes and storytelling. Each look in the collection is intentionally created to demonstrate different aspects of the human condition and how we as people are interdependent elements whose souls become intertwined through chance and circumstance. Half of the looks features a silhouette of a face. Whose face this is, is unknown and left to interpretation by the audience. In one perspective, that face is meant to represent the human experience. In another, it is meant to represent the onlookers themselves. Whoever this may be, his, her, or their emotions are left up to interpretation. The garments feature a concept of duality and facade—one is not as it appears. Humans are complex beings and to even begin to try and fathom our depth is nearly impossible. We as people have the human experience through both conflict and catharsis, and the human experience is one that is uniquely our own—despite the fact that it is shared collectively among individuals. We as humans are living paradoxes. Interestingly, these faces are meant to represent the human profile through the use of a literal human profile.
Bravo! Thank you for your depth and care in creating this project.
What is the significance of the final dress in the “mul·ti·po·lar—ex·ist·ence” collection, Homeostasis, to the total context? I see that it was worn by the professional ballerina, Miriam Miller, at New York City Ballet Fall Gala in September 2021.
The finale dress in “mul·ti·po·lar—ex·ist·ence” was named “Homeostasis.” Homeostasis is defined as “the tendency toward a relatively stable equilibrium between interdependent elements, especially as maintained by physiological processes.” This look is inspired by the hope that one may have when with their soulmate. Each circle is now white—in contrast to the black circles in Detachment—symbolizing the dichotomy of purity and maturity. Finally, these two souls that have experienced so much strife on their journey realize equilibrium—and peace—with one another. With whimsy, Homeostasis is meant to be the release of breath at the end of the collection. As humans, aren’t we constantly yearning for a release and for balance? Truly, this look embodies the quote that best summarizes the collection as a whole: “soulmates will always find a way.”
Just two days after presenting “mul·ti·po·lar—ex·ist·ence” at New York Fashion Week, I received a phone call from a stylist who saw my show and asked to use Homeostasis for a client’s red-carpet appearance. At the New York City Ballet Fall Gala, professional ballerina Miriam Miller walked the red carpet in the finale dress at the Lincoln Center just two weeks later.
You have an impressive list of accolades. Please acknowledge the importance and association of your work with each one. But, mostly, as an emerging designer, how have these honors propelled your career, opened doors, and exposed your work in moving forward?
It has been a huge honor and has been incredibly humbling to be acknowledged and celebrated for my work. Each accolade has been instrumental to my growth professionally; each one has validated my experiences and has provided me with a bit more confidence in myself.
Prior to New York Fashion Week, I was named the Grand Prize Winner of the Project Runway Remake It Work Contest, the 2018 Young Fashion Designer of the Year, and a 2021 30 Under 30 Changemaker in Education. Each of these awards has significantly contributed to my career and my evolution as a designer.
Winning the International Design Award 2021 Fashion Design of the Year Award and three additional Gold Prizes for my first collection at New York Fashion Week was special and humbling. To receive such a prestigious award alongside well-known and established companies was incredibly validating. When I first found out that I received the Fashion Design of the Year Award, I couldn’t believe it! I’m proud but am also so thankful for the award and the experience.
It really opened a lot of doors for me. Since receiving the Fashion Design of the Year Award, I have also received the MUSE Design Award, and have been featured in fashion magazines like Vogue and Harper’s Bazaar. I even had the opportunity to present at Vancouver Fashion Week! I’ve also gotten more celebrity clients and opportunities. I really am thankful for these awards and accolades. They’ve been game-changing for me.
Looks from Kyle Denman’s “mul·ti·po·lar—ex·ist·ence” will be exhibited in “CLOTH, Construct, CULTURE: fashion builds a story” at Parallax Art Center, Portland, Oregon, October 2023 – January 2024.
For more about Kyle Denman and “mul·ti·po·lar—ex·ist·ence”, go to Kyle Denman Fashion.
Feature Photo Credit: “mul·ti·po·lar—ex·ist·ence” 008 Homeostasis, Kyle Denman, designer, worn by Miriam Miller, 2021 | photography: Riccardo Piazza