Born: Masan, Korea, 21 May 1954; immigrated to the U.S., 1969. Education: Graduated from the Art Institute of Chicago, 1979. Family: Married Charles Chang-Lima in 1984 (divorced, 1994). Career: Design assistant, Cathy Hardwick, New York, 1981-84; designed freelance before establishing own business, 1989. Address: 224 Centre Street, New York, NY 0013, USA.
Bizer, Karen, "A Designing Couple," in WWD, 22 July 1988.
Hartlein, Robert, "Gemma Kahng Emerges on Her Own," in WWD, 23 August 1989.
Staples, Kate, "The Kahng Formation," in WWD, 1 April 1991.
Darnton, Nina, "The New York Brat Pack: Their Clothes Are Coming Soon to a Closet Near You," in Newsweek, 29 April 1991.
Schiro, Anne-Marie, "With Help, Gemma Kahng's Star Soars," in the New York Times, 5 May 1991.
Saeks, Diane Dorrans, "Gemma's Jewels," in West, 16 June 1991.
Phillips, Barbara D., "Gemma Kahng: Paper Dolls to Haute Couture," in the Wall Street Journal, 6 August 1991.
Servin, James, "How I Got That Look: The Exotic Route," in Allure, June 1993.
"New York: Gemma Kahng," in WWD, 4 November 1994.
"Kahng Sets Secondary Line of Sportswear for Nordstrom," in WWD, 24 May 1996.
White, Constance C. R., "Patterns: Gemma Kahng Retrenches," in the New York Times, 30 December 1997.
"Hot Copy: Kid Luxe Update: Gemma Kahng," in Children's Business, April 1999.
The inspiration for each of my collections comes from my desire to create clothing that is sexy, witty, glamorous, comfortable, and most importantly, practical. I reflect on my own personality and lifestyle and think of things I would like to wear and what I need to expand my wardrobe.
Each of my collections begins with high-quality fabrics, an important tool for good design. Mostly I choose wools, silks, cottons, and linens that are luxurious yet basic, so that my design aesthetic becomes more prominent than the fabric itself. The details of clothing from the historical past are a good influence for my ideas. I am fascinated by the cultures of different time periods, especially the Victorian era, and find it challenging to combine them with the look of today.
This design sensibility appeals to my customer, a consistently busy woman who doesn't have the time to experiment with her image. She is a person who has enough confidence to incorporate a sense of humor in her style and can rely on my clothing and accessories for a complete look. Over the past five years, my image has become recognizable throughout the United States and is rapidly growing in foreign markets, especially in Hong Kong and Taipei where I have freestanding boutiques.
My goal is to perfect upon what it is that my customers like about my clothing and create something new. Design is a growing process and each season I experiment further by bringing more of my self-expression to a collection. What makes it exciting for me is the challenge and risk involved in taking the next step. No one can tell me what to bring to the future. I just have to be aware of the everyday world we live in.
"She's a lot like her designs," wrote Barbara Phillips of the Wall Street Journal in August 1991 of Gemma Kahng, "a winning mix of playfulness and practicality, forthrightness, and charm." Kahng's fashion design is practical, but at the same time, the chief trait of her work is to render a classic idea slightly askew or fresh with a theme of whimsy, exaggeration, or notice. The charm of the work is its perturbed normality: it is all just right but for that one eccentricity or detail that seems gloriously juvenile or marvelously anomalous in the template of a traditional garment.
Kahng's clothing is undeniably serious, addressed paramountly to an American working woman of some means, but always with a note of self-expression. Buttons can be almost as whimsical as those of Schiaparelli; pockets are unexpectedly given colorful flaps in accent colors; and pockets bounce with asymmetry. Schiaparelli is Kahng's soulmate in fashion history, not for the flamboyant garment but rather for those most restrained tailored suits that Schiaparelli created with nuanced absurdities and minor amazements. Kahng's identifying style resides in such quirky twists on classics, attention inevitably being drawn to the garment by an outstanding detail, but restrained in every other aspect of the composition.
Kahng works closely with her former husband, Charles Chang-Lima, who helms his own well-respected design line. For many years, Kahng worked out of Manhattan's Seventh Avenue garment district in New York, keeping production within the neighborhood rather than seeking large-scale production elsewhere. It is a matter for Kahng of quality and control; by keeping production local, she is attempting to guarantee production standards by watching the process, an old tradition of the garment industry now abandoned by many bigger companies. It is a working philosophy she has continued, even after her office moved to SoHo. Of course, there may be a reason for a designer not born in the U.S. to appraise American traditions and Western dress with a reasoning, potentially ironic eye. Kahng recalls that in her Korean childhood there were no store-bought dolls and that she had to fantasize and create clothing for her paper dolls.
"Classic with a twist" is a conventional goal of many young designers who take a minimal risk in construction and allow one lovely or bizarre note to make a memorable difference. The concept, however, is difficult to carry out, as one disturbance from the norm can seem to be an unwelcome aberration, especially in clothing that depends upon our sense of recognition of formality. Kahng has demonstrated an unusually sure and decisive sense of distorting or contributing enough in the gesture of discrepancy but without destroying the practical validity of the garment. When a tweed jacket is trimmed with red, the effect is at first of the most diabolically arresting house-painting on the block, but the combination settles into a rather winsome palette of clothing for the hunt. A pea jacket modified by horses on the pockets and jeweled buttons on the front ensures it will not be worn by Popeye, but deliberately softens the military regimen into a feminine and whimsical jacket. The anomaly for Kahng is never mere kitsch or cuteness: it is a feature that alters our perception (whether color or content) of the entire garment, an abnormality making us see the normal in a wholly new way.
Kahng departed somewhat from her established style in the late 1990s as she began to refocus both her design and her business strategy. While retaining her signature decorative accents, Kahng's designs and fabrics became softer and more delicate. Aside from moving her office to SoHo, she scaled down her staff and reduced the number of pieces in her new collections. Kahng also placed her couture line as well as her more affordably priced clothing in several high-end department stores under various labels. The designer ventured into the children's market in 1999 and also helped design the costumes and sets for fellow Korean American Margaret Cho's acclaimed one-woman performance piece.
From her emergence in the late 1980s, Kahng has stayed true to her proven and effective design statement; never unduly impulsive, the design is nonetheless different and enchantingly whimsical: Kahng honors the great traditions in dress and yet gives a happy surprise with each garment.
updated by Megan Stacy