Ryohei Kawanishi: turning research into business with LANDLORD
Ryohei Kawanishi is not conventional but he is pragmatic. The New York-based Japanese designer graduated from the Fashion Knitwear BA at Central Saint Martins in 2011, and then headed to New York to complete the MFA Fashion Design and Society programme at Parsons. Like his CSM final collection, Kawanishi’s MFA show in 2015 was avant-garde and highly conceptual. Titled ‘The Bride Stripped Bare By her Bachelors’ after the work by Dadaist Marcel Duchamp, Kawanishi created nine wearable ‘readymades’ from consumer items including a shower curtain and bath mat. Post-graduation and with the arrival of a baby daughter, the designer decided to leave his Dada-ways behind and add a bit more commerce to his creation. He joined forces with Daniel Huang and founded LANDLORD. “I wish I could be an artist but I realised there is no money in that. Being creative doesn’t make money, I needed to be realistic,” says Kawanishi on his transition into ready-to-wear menswear.
LANDLORD is already stocked in Opening Ceremony in the U.S. and in various locations across Japan. When asked to define the brand, Kawanishi asserts that it is more streetwear than luxury due to its price point, which is similar to that of Our Legacy, Gosha Rubchinskiy or A.P.C. “Of course, if we wanted to put a higher price it would be easier but I want to speak to the youth, I want them to wear my garments. For us it doesn’t matter if they are men or women, but they should feel comfortable and brave in our clothing,” the designer explains.
The eclectic essence of New York resounds throughout LANDLORD’s collections. The utilitarian aesthetic of the brand also reflects and responds to the manufacturing process. The garments are designed and produced in the New York factory of CEO Huang and his family, which specialises in the production of military uniforms. Kawanishi uses bright colours and a variety of textures to elevate his simple wearable workwear inspired pieces. For example, this season he introduced a variety of synthetically coloured oversized fur jackets, layered by stylist Akeem Smith.
“MY WAY OF WORKING IS QUITE EXTREME, I STILL DON’T HAVE ANY TECHNIQUE AT ALL – I DON’T KNOW HOW TO DO KNITTING OR PATTERN CUTTING, I DON’T KNOW HOW TO SEW! BUT I WAS SUPER GOOD AT RESEARCH BECAUSE WHAT I DID WAS ALMOST ALL ABOUT RESEARCH.”
Since his CSM BA collection Kawanishi has worked with Smith, who has previously styled for Hood By Air, Claire Barrow and Yeezy Season 2. “I did a lot of projects with him in the beginning before we began working properly together. We started to understand each other’s tastes and what we liked and he knows what I can do and also what I cannot do. So he brought a lot of the taste to Landlord,” Kawanishi divulges. “Akeem is trying to understand what the Landlord boy should be and we are trying to develop those ideas together now.” As well as styling, Smith also cast the presentation using a mix of models, street casting and friends of friends, conjuring up an image of a self-assured yet jadedly cosmopolitan LANDLORD customer.
“My way of working is quite extreme, I still don’t have any technique at all – I don’t know how to do knitting or pattern cutting, I don’t know how to sew! But I was super good at research because what I did was almost all about research,” Kawanishi reflects on his working practice.
Indeed his references for LANDLORD are as wide-ranging and heavily researched as those of his graduate collections. This season Kawanishi admits to nostalgically taking inspiration from music and in particular Southern hip-hop artists; their album covers and their wider impact on fashion in the 1990s and 2000s. “There are a lot of personal references in the collection. I’m trying to bring back what I saw when I was young and what made me fall in love with fashion,” says Kawanishi. “When I was growing up in Japan I would see hip-hop fashion and brands like Stüssy, Supreme or A Bathing Ape (BAPE). My original interest in fashion was in streetwear.” And the footwear provided by Italian company Mauri carries through the nostalgia vibe.
Although less conceptual than his work produced at CSM and Parsons, Kawanishi’s wearable and utilitarian designs for LANDLORD are still heavily informed by art. His AW16 and first collection for LANDLORD referenced the photography of Wolfgang Tillmans. SS17 took inspiration from the installation artist Isa Genzken, whose work he had seen at MoMA and David Zwirner gallery when he first arrived in New York. For AW17 Kawanishi looked to the work of Joseph Beuys.
“I WANT TO KEEP WORKING WITH ARTISTS BECAUSE THEIR SENSIBILITY COMES FROM A COMPLETELY DIFFERENT PERSPECTIVE. THE FASHION SYSTEM CANNOT AFFORD TO THINK ABOUT THAT TYPE OF SENSIBILITY MUCH.”
In addition, this season LANDLORD also collaborated with digital artist James Howard on a capsule collection of graphic T-shirts and hoodies. “I saw James Howard’s work at the Saatchi Gallery about seven years ago, but I kept thinking about the exhibition… I really liked his use of spam emails and the bootleg nature of his artwork,” says Kawanishi. Drawn to Howard’s cut-copy-paste style he also admired the ostentatiously kitsch and luridly garish ‘bling-bling’ hip-hop album covers designed by Pen & Pixel at the turn of the millennium. “At the beginning I was not sure on graphics, but I really wanted to play contextually with streetwear and graphics are always important to streetwear,” Kawanishi explains. “But that’s why I wanted to work with people from fine art or artists rather than just a graphic designer.”
In addition to working with Howard, LANDLORD also partnered with Finn Mactaggart who produced the soundtrack and French photographer and CSM graduate Basile Mookherjee who shot the lookbook, which launches later this year. Mookherjee’s book ‘Fully Fueled’ – which glossily documents the luxury lifestyle of the young people of UAE “through the lens of the car” – was also a reference point for the collection. Multidisciplinary collaboration is essential to Kawanishi: “I want to keep working with artists because their sensibility comes from a completely different perspective. The fashion system cannot afford to think about that type of sensibility much,” he explains. “Most of my job now is organisational as a creative director. Rather than producing one work, I don’t have time to work on it myself… To achieve what I want I have to work with a lot of people.”
Apart from a mandatory month at Uniqlo (the sponsors of his full scholarship to Parsons), Kawanishi didn’t do any internships or work experience whilst studying and LANDLORD was his first job. “Instead of interning I was doing more freelance jobs, even if there was no payment I helped a lot with the people who wanted to use my work, or work with me. I made this decision because my personality didn’t really fit with any corporations,” he admits.
What next for LANDLORD? “I really want to go to Paris for sales and see the reaction from the Europeans too because obviously I graduated from a European school,” says Kawanishi. “There are also a bunch of collaborations and projects on the horizon but I’m not sure which ones will happen and which ones won’t yet. But I try to do as much collaborative work as possible.” Kawanishi might have chosen a more stable route, something tells us the artist in him hasn’t left yet.