Kay Wong, co-founder of home-grown sustainable design collective Fashion Clinic, is on a mission to upend the fashion world—by transforming one wardrobe at a time. The designer tells us about her road from Karl Lagerfeld’s studio to becoming a “surgeon” for a seasonally driven industry that’s rife with waste.
Pairs of jeans made into a funky patchwork denim jacket, menswear work trousers upturned into a belted dress, and an oversized old shirt tailored into an off-shoulder number. These are just a few of the ingenious pieces found in Kay Wong’s upcycled capsule collection, recently on show at luxury drycleaner Jeeves. Since 2015, the Central Saint Martins-trained designer has launched a plethora of creations, all backed by a serious quest to reshape today’s fashion industry—the result of a transformative stint in Denmark that spurred her to confront the brutal truths of the fashion industry. The “green artivist” sits down with us to chat about her journey, and why choosing well and buying smart should be sewn into our fashion consciousness.
Before founding Fashion Clinic, you had an illustrious career as the creative director and co-founder of Daydream Nation, with your collections showing across major Fashion Weeks; they were even handpicked by Karl Lagerfeld for inspiration. Can you tell us about that season of your life?
My background is in textiles and fashion, while my brother’s [Wong Jing] is in theatre, so we thought it would be interesting to marry the two in the form of fashion storytelling and fashion theatre. That’s how we founded Daydream Nation, which we ran for ten years. Our pieces were selling at more than 100 retail points around the world, and we did shows in Beijing and New York. We had three retail stores in Hong Kong, with agents across Asia.
One of the most memorable moments was when our pieces were recognised by Karl Lagerfeld. We joined a trade show held at 31 Rue Cambon in Paris and we didn’t even know it was on the same street as the Chanel studio. Someone from his team came by and we thought, “Why would Chanel want to buy our collection?” But he was so serious about it that he came back the next day and invited us to the studio, and it was real—models were in the latest designs, strutting around the studio preparing for the show. We thought, “Are we going to bump into Karl Lagerfeld?” Then there he was! They bought out our collection to inspire him. That was in 2010. We also won the Inside White Award and Vogue Italia’s New Talent award.
At such career heights, what spurred you to switch gears into creating sustainable fashion? Was there an a-ha moment?
It got to a point where I asked myself, “Am I still doing what I really want to do?” It seemed like most of what I did was managing the team and making sure we got enough orders to economically sustain the business. I wasn’t 100 percent focused on design and it felt like I was moving further away from our original passion. I also knew the fashion industry had a lot of problems, yet I kept my head in the sand because I didn’t want to confront them. Towards the end, my brother decided to pursue another passion and there was a personal tragedy when my then-boyfriend, a successful set designer who helped build all our shops, passed away suddenly in 2014. It was a wake-up call. I couldn’t really deal with the tremendous stress, yet had to keep the team running. I rethought a lot of things and in 2015 decided to stop the business.
Around that time, I won a Young Design Talent Award and was given the chance to work for a design house in Copenhagen for a year. The opportunity came at a perfect time and changed me profoundly. Everything was a culture shock and the whole thing opened my eyes towards a different way of life. Designers I met were inspiring and deeply cared for the environment. I met a Czech girl who had faded blood tattoos of fast-fashion brand logos to show that “fast fashion is so bad that it hurts”. I watched documentaries like The True Cost, explaining the problems of fast fashion and the mistreatment of cheap labour. It’s horrendous. There is one suicide among India’s cotton farmers every 30 minutes and the average lifespan of a textile worker in India is 40 years. Cheap, fast fashion really comes at a cost.
I committed to not buying new clothes for a year and started to explore second-hand shopping, clothes-swapping, redesigning, and restyling what I already owned. I was still passionate about design, so I made a rule that I could take on projects as long as I stopped using virgin materials, which I haven’t since 2016, and I continued with this mission upon my return [to Hong Kong].
How would you describe what Fashion Clinic does?
I [and partner Toby Lam] set up Fashion Clinic in 2018. Though we stopped using new materials, I kept thinking about how we could close the loop of the consumption cycle. There’s too much buying and wasting; the most sustainable piece of clothing is actually what’s already in our wardrobe. We want to help customers repair, reshape, and redesign what they already own, and aim to be like “surgeons” to help heal the fashion industry.
It took a while for people to grasp the idea. In the beginning, many thought we were a charity shop. They couldn’t understand why they had to pay us when a new item from the store is just a couple hundred dollars. That was our biggest challenge, since everything we create is handmade and made-to-order in Hong Kong. We have to sustain our business, and there is time and craftsmanship involved.
In the beginning, we hosted talks and workshops before evolving into designing for theatre and concerts. We also curated a ten-day sustainable fashion festival in November 2019 at The Mills. To work more directly with the fashion industry itself, I ventured into redesigning unsold textiles from handpicked brands. Since July last year, we have done eight collections for brands such as Cocktail and Tove & Libra, and we just wrapped a collection for Atsuro Tayama. At Slowood and Cocktail, we also offered one-to-one redesigning services for their customers. One person came in with 30 clothing items for us to repair, reshape, and redesign. It was a very interesting shift in our business that came to be extremely rewarding.
As an acclaimed fashion designer, how has the creative process changed when it comes to designing versus redesigning?
The creative process is so different. Before, we perused fabric markets for materials and a major problem was that we had to order extra buffer textiles; in the end, we were always left with so many leftovers from all the collections. Because we had to keep up with the fashion cycle with the spring-summer and autumn-winter seasons, after ten years and 20 collections, some of that waste is still sitting in storage. However, now we don’t need to push out two collections every year—instead, we work with whatever brands give us.
Creatively, we’re thankful the brands we work with all have exceptional-quality pieces, so we’re provided with a beautiful canvas. We work with whatever materials are given to us by customers. It ties back into the roots of designing, which is to help people solve problems. That might be the difference between an artist and a designer. I heard a Dutch design graduate say, “Design only when there is a need.”
For the longest time, luxury fashion and sustainability seemed like a complete paradox. Have you seen that relationship evolve over the last decade?
Yes, and it feels like a long time coming – I hope this isn’t a temporary trend. Fashion giants like LVMH are also starting to take their brands’ leftover fabrics online to sell. I do think it has to change from the top down and it has to start with luxury brands. Upcycling is still currently more labour- and cost-intensive, so only when it becomes more accepted and common can the cost come down.
Who are some fellow eco-warriors in the fashion world that have inspired you and what are you most excited about?
It’s been really encouraging. For our sustainable fashion festival, we scoured the world for sustainable material innovators, and it’s very exciting that so many people are doing such cool things with circular and responsible design. Toby Clark, the former menswear designer at Margaret Howell, decided to only wear one set of clothes for the rest of his life. It’s a bit extreme, but I was so inspired by his manifesto.
On my journey, I have met some very interesting people. I also joined Fashion Revolution, an NGO based in London championing sustainable fashion and labour rights, and I became their Hong Kong representative. It’s been encouraging to see a community share in the same passions.
In your work in sustainable fashion, what have been some of your most memorable creations?
There have been so many. Singer-songwriter Jonathan Wong and I have been friends for a decade, and I have done his stage costumes and music videos since the beginning. Ten years on, he came to me and asked if we could upcycle his costumes from ten years back and convert them for his new concert. Same with singer-songwriter Chet Lam, a long-time friend; we also upcycled his old costumes from his archives for his new shows. It’s been so exciting and memorable to be able to transform something like an outdated red jumpsuit, or multiple different pieces into one stylish new creation. There’s truly a story behind each of these pieces.
In Hong Kong, there always seems to be that materialistic drive. What is one small step that anyone can take to become more sustainable and minimalistic in their approach to fashion?
I think clearing out and reorganising our closets is a good place to start. I’ve done that a few times and each time it made me aware of things I didn’t even know I owned. When it’s cluttered, there are all these pieces being overlooked, but when you treat your wardrobe like a library—take it from Marie Kondo—there’s less inclination to purchase new pieces. It’s very therapeutic. It feels like you’re confronting what you’ve pushed aside. You’ll feel very refreshed after your edit. There’s that concern of not being able to afford higher-quality fashion pieces, yet when you think about your many unworn or infrequently worn fast-fashion items, their cost per wear is even higher.
What’s your next focus?
I’m excited to announce Fashion Clinic’s first flagship store, which will be on Star Street in Wan Chai. It will be a Fashion Clinic x Kapok redesign and repair space. We’ll have our sewing machines there and everything will be done in-house. We’re thrilled to have a tangible outlet and we hope for it to be a one-stop destination. It will span a whole collective— from hats to jewellery and embroidery, we’ll have various restoration specialists for customers’ upcycling and redesign needs.