New York City was a pipedream at first, its skyline set as his lock screen as a reminder of what life could look like beyond his small, predictable hometown.
It’s all thanks to a 2004 commercial for Chanel No. 5.
Andrew Kwon would never forget the moment Nicole Kidman appeared on his TV screen, perfectly polished and dripping in diamonds at a glamorous red carpet event. The scene painted a world vastly different from the one he’d known, where even the sleek black dress worn by the actor seemed to take on an ethereal quality powered by the gazes it drew from the sidelines.
In 2014, Kwon chased after this image, moving away from Colorado to pursue a career in fashion by way of Manhattan’s Parsons School of Design.
The now 27-year-old fashion designer wakes up to the sight of the city every day from his 31th floor Midtown apartment, which doubles as his atelier. Sunlight pours in through his floor-to-ceiling windows, illuminating the luxurious fabrics of his latest works inspired by the city’s lights.
The past several months have been busy for Kwon, who made his New York Fashion Week (NYFW) debut in September before holding yet another presentation for the The Council of Fashion Designers of America (CFDA) at its bridal event last week. Gowns that were showcased at these events made their way back to Kwon’s home, and were splayed all around as he walked me through the journey it took to reach this point.
The Korean American designer’s career kicked off during the height of the COVID-19 pandemic, when anti-Asian hate crimes, particularly in major cities like New York, were at an all-time high. But there was a silver lining to that tragic period, he recalls.
“As sad and despairing as it was, I’ve seen even more Asian Americans and the community really come together,” he says. “I think in some ways, some people feel they’re in competition amongst other people. But for me, I always felt that everyone was so supportive of one another. I think that was a time where so many of us wanted to support one another.”
It was then he was able to connect with some of his earliest supporters, including “Good Morning America” co-anchor Eva Pilgrim, Soko Glam founder Charlotte Cho and actors Ashley Park and Arden Cho, with each utilizing their network or platforms to shed light on the new designer.
Though the woman he says he owes the most thanks to is none other than his mother, a supporter of Kwon’s passion long before he even figured it out for himself. It took some time to get comfortable with sharing his aspirations in fashion design, in fear that the other kids back home would ridicule him for being too “girly.” He stuck out enough as one of the few Asian boys in the towns he hopped around growing up.
But with his mother, he’s admired the way that she’s held her head up even in the face of adversity. “Everywhere we would go, people would see how [my mom] dressed and glammed herself up. She built this confidence around herself by using fashion,” he says. “And so I think in my head, subconsciously, that’s what I wanted to do for other women. I wanted to create that same confidence I saw in my mom, for other women out there.”
Kwon developed a similar sense of confidence within himself by taking hold of opportunities where others might stall in fear of rejection. In fact, many of his major supporters were those he reached out to himself — a DM here, an email there.
“I feel like it never hurts to ask. The worst that can happen is that they won’t reply. Or they’ll say no. It’s about getting past that.”
Prior to any official collection launch, there were several who saw Kwon’s potential simply because he reached out. Olivia Palermo, for one, has kept in touch with Kwon ever since he first approached her at a fashion event in Paris with images of his designs on his phone. Kwon also came across former Girls Generation member Jessica Jung one night and approached her with similar intentions, later following up on social media. It took a year for Jung to respond, but nonetheless, her simple repost of his by-then released bridal collection “Reminiscence” had Kwon’s work blowing up on social media overnight.
Within months, Kwon quickly seized the opportunity to launch his eponymous line for the 2021 New York Bridal Fashion Week after reaching out to the CFDA.
“I sent an email just saying hello. And they were like, ‘You know, your designs are so different from what we’ve seen in the bridal industry in a while. So why don’t we just put you in the calendar,’” he recalled.
The interaction with Jung gave him the push he needed to reach out to others in the community over social media. A direct message sent via Instagram to Tony-nominated actress Ashley Park led to his designs being shared across her Instagram Stories and subsequently viewed by thousands of her followers. Arden Cho, who most recently led the Netflix series “Partner Track,” was among one of the viewers who later reached out to Kwon in hopes of supporting an Asian American designer. She’s since done photoshoots showcasing his creations and made an appearance at Kwon’s most recent NYFW presentations styled by the designer.
“Always take an opportunity when it appears the opportunity hasn’t come,” he advises. “There’s always some way to make something happen.”
The plan from the beginning was always red carpet design for Kwon, who still has the image of a Chanel-donned Nicole Kidman seared into his mind. The elegance and poise exuded from other stars like Gemma Chan and Olivia Palermo also serve as his inspiration when designing, with Michelle Yeoh being the “epitome of class” he says he one day hopes to dress.
A bridal collection, originally planned for some time later down the line, was pushed to the forefront of his career when pandemic restrictions effectively canceled all major gatherings, red carpet events included. Though Kwon says there are similarities between the two forms of occasionwear, with the experience of walking down an aisle being its own unique “red carpet moment.” He decided to push the boundaries of what constituted bridal design, incorporating color into the traditionally white garments for his second collection, “Dreamer.”
Eventually, for September’s NYFW presentation at the Baccarat Hotel, guests were welcomed to his first-ever evening wear collection, “Reverie,” with the film scores of Max Richter, Mari Samuelsen and Abel Korzeniowski, among others, playing in the background. He’d chosen to play the same dramatic compositions he listens to when his ideas exist as merely lines on paper, as though inviting viewers into his own creative processes.
“I’m not a doctor, I’m not a lawyer, I’m not doing something that is saving lives, like a lot of Asian parents wanted. But for me, I think beauty in this world — it sounds really fluffy — but beauty to me in this world is really important. During our darkest times, we look at things that are beautiful. And that’s why I create the collections that I do. Whether it’s too grand or too much, when people see the designs that I do, I hope that even just for a moment that they feel some type of beauty from it, they see the beauty from it, and that makes them feel better, or heal even in a little way.”
All Images Courtesy of Andrew Kwon
Grace Kim is a New York-based Entertainment Contributor for NextShark
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