KAELEN: The Label You Need to Know Now

Clean, classic yet modern, and infused with subtle notes of androgyny, New York City-based label KAELEN is designed for the effortlessly stylish, strong and modern young professional (YP) woman. KAELEN is owned and designed by Toronto native YP Kaelen Haworth, who was in Toronto last week to unveil her Spring 14 ready-to-wear collection (and accompanying fashion video) at Toronto’s Hazelton Hotel. This marks the first time Haworth has shown her collection in Canada. 

Thinking big from the start, Haworth left Toronto for New York City and studied at Parsons, The New School for Design. She unveiled KAELEN’s first collection during New York Fashion Week in 2010, less than one year after graduation. With one look around the showroom and at the video, it is immediately evident why. The collection’s sharp tailoring and silhouettes offer a contemporary meets traditional feel that gives the pieces a distinct element of timelessness. Rich with exaggerated shoulders and fabrics, KAELEN offers a whole new appeal to the female “power suit” in her union of different fabrics, textures, menswear-inspired patterns and unique, in-house created prints. Transitioning from the office or work event to a weekend social function, the collection also includes feminine dresses and sophisticated, subtly sexy Saturday night-appropriate pieces and ensembles.

Highlights from the collection include a double-lapel oversized tweed jacket, relaxed pants with higher waists to accentuate womanly frames, understated gingham shirt dresses, graphic jersey sweatshirt tank dresses and – our personal favourites – the melted Glen Plaid Neoprene cropped tee and pencil skirt combo and the Laser Cut Houndstooth Leather Muscle Shell Tank with its matching Slouch Shorts.

We caught up with Haworth to find out a little more about KAELEN.

Can you tell us a bit about the collection in general?
The general over-arching theme is that I wanted to focus more on the fusion of something that feels very traditional combined with the more high-tech stuff. The focus was using them together. A lot of this collection is very traditional for me. I usually try to use things that are a little more modern and monochromatic so this is a departure, but I like the look when it’s mixed with something different and unexpected. There’s a lot of what I initially felt was a strange mix, but it adds a different dimension to it that’s a little edgy.

How is it different from past collections?
This one is massive. Because I didn’t do a show, I spent so much time on developing and was able to be a little more unique and directional because I had more time to figure it out. Sometimes it takes a while to get it right, and requires fitting after fitting. I’m not going to show something that isn’t perfect. This collection reflects a natural revolution, but this is more edited, distilled, and tighter.

I notice a lot of black and white. Is this typical for you?
Not necessarily black and white together, that’s more of a recent development. I always love neutrals and to keep things simple I usually use one or two pop colours in conjunction with other colours. But I don’t do a lot of solid colours. Something that’s huge for us is print; we develop our own prints, and so they are all custom and usually pretty dynamic. It replaces our need for a lot of colour. We did two prints this season. One print this collection is inspired by a picture of the Lowell Glacier in the Yukon. It was taken from a floatplane so it’s super close-up and the actual detail was amazing. We chopped it up and put it together as a collage. The print pieces together the image to create this disjointed photomontage that can be found across the collection in blouses and dresses. Looking at the detail of it, I love this type of print; it’s a non-print print. I am never going to have the liberty floral. I like things to all look a bit organic. A lot of our prints are inspired by things like marble, or petrified wood. There’s a lot happening, but its not too busy, which I think is really great. Then we did this other plaid print. A lot of people like this. Again, it’s about taking something traditional and making it seem different. A few of the pieces feature this original glen plaid print on neoprene that just kind of drips or melts into a white space. Other patterns include houndstooth and herringbone.

I also play around a lot with texture to replace the need for colour. For example, I love this hammered silk. I got sick of using normal traditional silk. This feels sturdier, more substantial, and makes it look like liquid. The past few seasons, I really wanted to experiment with interesting textures and different textiles and fusing well-known elements of fashion. Like jersey, I never used a lot of this in the past because it’s hard to make something elegant in a jersey. This season pieces together iconic materials like tweed and gingham, juxtaposed beside prints and intricate construction to invent something unconventionally feminine.

Who is your target customer?
It’s definitely a little specialty and niche, so it’s not going to be a mass consumer. The person buying it isn’t concerned about trends, but rather longevity. The pieces are timeless but modern at the same time. The look is sophisticated and it’s not that easy, so you need to know exactly what you’re going for when getting dressed and have a clear sense of style. It is definitely not something that is based in trend. You have to obviously be aware of trends and what people are responding to, and sometimes capture general feel, but I lean toward timeless.

What is the price range?
It sits in the young designer price point. It’s not contemporary, but priced alongside the Phillip Lim, Alexander Wang price range. The pieces range from $250-$1500 CAD.

How did you end up in New York?
I went to Parsons and basically just stayed. I haven’t done anything in Toronto up until now. I don’t know why, really. I guess I wanted to make sure I was at a place where everything was cohesive and really representative of the line and brand. It definitely took a few seasons to get my footing on what worked. Now that we are at that point, I thought it was a good time to try out the Toronto market.

What was the most challenging part about starting your business in New York?
Well, the whole Visa process was a bit tedious. In general though, I don’t think it’s any more challenging that anywhere you are; I think it would have been equally challenging in Toronto. Starting a business was a challenge in itself, but I don’t know if it was compounded by being in NYC. It seemed natural because I had been interning for two years and making connections, so it didn’t seem impossible.

Do you notice a big difference between New York and Toronto when it comes to fashion?
I don’t know that I have spent enough time here to really notice too much, but NYC is very focused on facilitating buying and actually producing collections. It seems to be more focused on business directly, while Toronto is more about showcasing amazing talent. It’s a bit of a different vibe. In terms of the style of people on the street, I probably notice a bit of a difference, but I think there’s a difference in every city. I’d say New York is more advanced, but I don’t know if I have been here enough and explored enough to see a huge difference or not.

Is this the first video you’ve made?
No, I’ve done a couple before but usually for the website or social media and it lives on our sites. This is the first for style.com. They have a video fashion week now, which is interesting. We did this for that purpose. We’ll post it on our site after. The background of the video is kind of interesting; they are blown up textiles. It’s the actual print this season and the embossed leather background.

How long did it take to create?
The video and lookbook took two days to shoot. The editing took a while, though. That was the key. I wanted it to feel a bit collaged and choppy. But we’re all really sick of hearing that song that plays throughout it.

What does success look like to you?
Having people understand what the brand is about  and what I am trying to do really early. To have people understand that it isn’t a trend focus and to understand my vision. I want it to be specialized. Success to me isn’t about mass production; it’s about having it in the right places that have an interesting, edited viewpoint. It’s about the right places, not the most places.

Can you offer any advice for emerging designers?
I think that, in terms of design and how to curate that, I would say that it’s important to stick with your vision and do what you think is the most exciting thing. Come at it asking yourself: how do I convey this feeling exactly the way I want to? Don’t dilute it with pieces you don’t necessarily need to have. For example, if crop tops are trending, don’t do them just because crop tops are trending. For me, people respond better to the pieces that are sort of novelty. Don’t dilute the collection or try to fit into too many boxes.