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Exclusive: Karolyn Pho from Manson Music Vids to MBFW

Heading a fashion brand is often more multifaceted than it may seem. While a creative mind and an eye for design are certainly essential, there are a plethora of tasks to oversee and decisions to make. Karolyn Pho, head of her eponymous label, seemed ready-made for the responsibilities.

Pho began as a wardrobe stylist in Los Angeles, where she gradually moved into costume design, “which actually got me in the factories working with the clothes, translating ideas from paper to actualizing it as a physical object,” she tells me over iced coffee at an outdoor café in Williamsburg. She’s dressed casually in a white tee and jeans, a style that she tells me has inspired an upcoming collection of ready-to-wear being released later this year. She frequently demonstrates her attachment to the physical objects of her production process, whipping out her phone to show me pictures of reams of fabric stacked seven feet high in her warehouses. Her attention to detail was fostered early in her career, working as a wardrobe attendant to a variety of music videos and short films around LA, including work on several Marilyn Manson music videos, all while simultaneously going to school for marketing. It was from these dual practices that the Karolyn Pho label was born.

Milk Made’s Jake Boyer spoke to Karolyn about working her way out of the LA scene to being a bicoastal designer, the ‘rockstar feeling’ she gets when showing her collections at Mercedes Benz Fashion Week, and what it was like for her to take her first keg stand.

Did you always have a natural affinity for clothing?

I knew I wanted to be in fashion. I was already working as stylist when I started college. For me, college was a way to get my parents off my back. I didn’t take from college as much as I should have. If I could go back, I would totally buckle down and be more serious. It was hard because work was such a huge distraction and in this industry, things change weekly. So often I felt like my professors would tell me information that seemed kinda dated. They hated me.

Do you feel like young designers nowadays need formal training?

I think it depends on the type of person you are. If you prefer to have a more direct track and know what your next step is, I think school is great for that. But, people like me are a special kind of crazy and we act erratically and that’s kind of how I started my business. It may not be the smartest way, but it’s a gamble.

So you finished school and then you immediately knew that you wanted to start a brand?

Yeah, it was bold. I mean in retrospect — I can say this now — I did it out of fear. I didn’t want to go in as an entry level position at some design house and design t-shirts for the rest of my life. I wanted to do something more, so I felt like if I started my own thing I could do that. It seemed like such a naive thought at the time because I had never run a business before and I kind of dove right in and got really lucky. I was really fortunate with the people I came across that were able to help me build a line.

If you’re dry of inspiration, do you have something to help kick start your inspiration again?

Travel. Even if it’s just like driving out of the city to go some place — even Queens. Just to some place I’ve never been, and it’s important to go by yourself, I think that’s the only way. When I’m trying to shake things up I have to travel by myself, wherever it is. No matter how much money I have. Just fucking do it and go alone. When you’re in a strange environment, all of a sudden you act different. When you’re out of your element, it’s interesting, it’s fun. That’s my main way to shake things up. It always helps. Even if I don’t land on that inspiration, it leads you to something else. It’s a nice catalyst.

Tell me a little about some of your patterns and colors. What is informing your aesthetic? I noticed in your most recent collection that there were some really intricate patterns happening.

In general for every collection it always starts about this girl, whoever she is, and what she’s doing, who she’s friends with, whatever it is that her environment is. From there, once I put her in a place and a time or era — it doesn’t have to be modern day. One of my collections S/S last year was set in Miami, FL in the 60s. The colors from that time or era or architecture influence the color palette.

Is this girl that is inspiring you the same girl across your collections?

She’s always different. I mean she has more or less of the same sensibilities, I mean it’s the Karolyn Pho girl so she’s young, she’s 25-35, professional but artsy and appreciates travel and art. I guess more or less an extension of myself. It just depends each season. I don’t really ever know until I’m already developing the first 10-15 pieces. It’s like titling a book before you actually write it. I like to create my feeling and then assess it because maybe it’s gone in a different direction. It’s a process.

When it comes to runway shows…do you get more excited or more anxious?

I love it. I’ve never had a 9 to 5 aside from working retail when I was younger. I like being really intense for one or two months. Even if I’m working 7 days straight during Fashion Week, I’ll go out every night. I like that no sleep, chaotic imbalance. And then after the rockstar moment, you sleep forever. I love that. The show is always super fun for me. It allows me to do so many things from styling to music to sound design. It amplifies the collection and helps create a better experience for the audience. I feel like when the clothes are pulled for editorial by a stylist and photographed, the vision’s gone. And it’s crazy because it’s literally 10 minutes and then it’s over. Done. Nobody cares, moving onto the next show. I always try to plan a trip after the show or else I’ll go insane.

Are you the kind of person who takes time to read the reviews of your work?

I don’t like it. I give myself a month to remove myself. Because, like anything, you put out a piece of your work which is so much of yourself and it’s up for judgment. That’s the whole thing about being any type of creative person. That’s what you have to get used to. I try to emotionally detach as much as I can. Even days before the show, I’ll start planning the next collection. Otherwise I’ll go into a downward spiral of self doubt. I really do everything that I can to take it out of me and be able to speak objectively about it. But after a month, I like to read them, though my agency will only send me the good articles right after.

Do you have a favorite piece of clothing or era of style?

Mod-rock 60s. I’m into that right now. I’m actually creating a diffusion line for men and women which is based on my favorite article of clothing, which is a white t- shirt. I feel like that kinda harps back into that mod-rock 60s thing. Just that black jeans, white t-shirt, leather jacket feel. This whole diffusion line is going to be all white, I don’t want to be unisex because I feel like that puts me in a hole in terms of design. But I think a girl and a boy would wear it as like a boyfriend/girlfriend couple thing. It’s going to be at a lower price point and more tangible for the market. I just did a run of 30 samples from the collection. It’s called Standard by Karolyn Pho.

If we were at a party with you, where would we find you?

That’s a loaded question (laughs). At the bar, probably. It’s funny that you say that, I did my first keg stand yesterday. My friend opened this spin studio and she was having this event and they had a keg! And my friends and I were like ‘Fuck it! Let’s do keg stands.” The bartenders seemed cool with it. And I have a picture, I had to document of course, it’s my first keg stand. I did it for about five seconds, I don’t even like beer.

If you weren’t a designer, what do you think you’d be doing?

I don’t know. I think I would probably just live in the country and grow vegetables and cook all day. I would love to be on a big plot of land in the middle of nowhere and cook and grow stuff. I feel most relaxed and myself when I’m in an open space and in nature, where it’s quiet where I can be myself. I like working with my hands. I love gardening, cooking — all that stuff is so therapeutic. I don’t know, this kind of sounds like a retirement dream. [laughs]

Check out Karolyn’s website here

Photography by Michael Flores

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