the unknowable karlmond tangBack
Jennifer Lee O'Brien
Karlmond Tang is all about identity, lately. He’s been ruminating on it. For example, sexual identity; specifically, pansexuality. Do I know what pansexuality is? Not everyone knows what it is. He was speaking to a train inspector about this — sexuality, that is — just the other day.
He’s been thinking about Britishness too. Millenial-ness. Diasporic identity. Identity in relation to ancestry, nationality, writing, careers, creativity, fashion — especially creativity, especially fashion. He’s been thinking about the way humans shed their identity like snakes, or adorn it on their bodies. He talks about moving to a new city and blending into a it’s colours, like a chameleon. “You’ve almost got to find your identity again,” he says. “But you don’t want to forget where you’re from.”
Karlmond is interested in the way people act when they think that no one’s watching. The way the outer layers of our egos unravel when we’re alone. Like that woman eating by herself, on the table to our left. Who is she? What can we learn about her, by watching? He could build a story around this woman and the release of her unconscious Id. For an article, photo or art installation.
Karlmond’s fascinated by people, he loves people! Actually, he hates people; absolutely hates people. But also, he loves people. Which is why he likes doing interviews — people are just so fascinating. He likes to travel the terrain of conversation like a 15th century explorer seeking out the end of the world; he wants to know its limits. How far can he get? At what question will someone draw the line? Maybe it sounds a bit twisted, he says. But he likes to know what people really think. In return, he’ll give something real right back.
“I’m a very open individual,” he says. “Open in the sense that I’m not going to give you a premeditated answer or bullshit you.”
In the afternoon we spend together, Karlmond gives me almost ten thousand words of answers, which does not include the two hours that didn’t make it onto the recording. We had the kind of conversation you only see between strangers, in airports, in films.
Things we spoke about: the difference between loneliness and depression; British-born Chinese fashion; financial struggles; his family; a love letter he wrote when he was nine to a girl called Sky. Conversation; we had a whole conversation about conversation!
I asked questions and he gave me seventeen pages of no-bullshit answers, and we each drank two cans of American Pale Ale (Gamma Ray, 5.4%) and it really didn’t feel like an interview, anymore. The lines between question and answer weren’t really there, anymore.
At the beginning of our conversation, Karlmond says, “I was reading recently that you should never express your opinion to someone until they’re done speaking, otherwise you’ll skew whatever people are saying.” He had tried it out that morning, in a meeting. Someone was making a pitch to him. He wanted to say: I love that, I love that, I love that. But instead, he stayed silent and waited until they had finished speaking. He wanted to know what they really thought; I love that, I love that, I love that might have changed their pitch.
So, I tried it out on Karlmond. For the most part it worked. He talked and talked and talked. And the more he talked, the more unknowable he became.
“Everyone who doesn’t know me, thinks they know what I do,” he says. “And everyone who knows me really well, doesn’t know what I do. They’re like, ‘Karlmond does a couple of things.’”
The ‘couple of things’ that Karlmond does are: photography, styling, writing, direction (creative & art, if you don’t consider them interchangeable) and social media consultancy. He has produced, curated and contributed to art exhibitions. Last year, he created an installation with designer Kei Kagami for YKK’s London Showroom, worked with poet Kate Tempest and has ongoing involvement with Dean Chalkley and Harris Elliott’s Return of the Rudeboy exhibition. Previously, he ran a successful menswear blog called Mr. Boy. Before all that, he lived in Shanghai and worked for an accounting firm; and before that, he was studying Chinese and Economics at University of Leeds.
You can write it down, nice and clear and lined up like a CV, and you can know what Karlmond does, which is manifold. But who he is? That is unknowable. He is expanding, like watercolour paint on paper.
We meet at the restaurant in the Ace Hotel in Shoreditch. At the front desk you can buy quilts, vintage vinyl, guitar strings and Moleskine notebooks. Rent the Ace Suite and you get a Rega turntable with a ‘selection of vinyl, an acoustic Martin Guitar, Reva radio with Ace-curated radio stations’ and also a ‘sexy’ oak table ‘for dining or work’ or maybe sex. At the rooftop bar (it’s called: The Rooftop) you can dance to DJs and eat brunch and look out at the city from ‘a giant purple telescope’, and really, what more could you want? There is a photo booth in the lobby, as well as fifteen good looking young professionals slash models crammed next to each other on laptops. They’re drinking Square Mile Coffee Roasters coffee from Bulldog Edition, the Ace Hotel’s very own ‘neighbourhood cafe’. The whole thing has a wonderfully staged feeling about it, like an Instagram-themed Disney World. It is ridiculous and beautiful.
The restaurant, Hoi Polloi, is very mid-century Scandinavian but also very mid-century French brasserie. There are glowing light orbs along wood-panelled walls, black and white tiles on the floor and Ercol chairs. There is a couple sitting closely in the corner speaking French, who are not actual fixtures in Hoi Polloi but should be. The entrance to the restaurant, I kid you not, is a flower shop.
Karlmond used to work from a booth at Hoi Polloi almost four days a week. He came here so much that he became friends with the staff. “Most of them have left now,” he says. But when a waiter offers us the bill they talk and talk and talk.
Karlmond wrote that his website, or blog, is about ‘thought processes, people, fashion and culture’ and that is true. Read his writing and you get the feeling that he lives all these things at once, like he’s standing knee-deep at the border of one hundred rivers draining out to sea. An article about a parka is really a reminder to not be confined to one aesthetic, but it is also about: functional clothing; dinner with a friend; the feeling of Paris. And all of these things are also about the importance of ease and leisure.
“It’s very much a trail of thought,” says Karlmond. “I didn’t train in journalism,” he adds. “I didn’t expect to be doing that kind of writing.”
His interest in style came from his mum, who has fantastic taste. “She used to dress me in the coolest clothes when I was a kid,” he says. “She’d go to TK Maxx, pick up Calvin Klein jeans. Ralph Lauren. This fleece I wore for like six years — I can’t remember where the hell it was from.”
He has two brothers, nine and ten years older. “And they were into their brands,” he says. “Back then, British-born Chinese was it’s own subculture. We used to wear brands like Superdry — brands with Asian connotations.
“The modern day British-born Chinese style is probably more British than Chinese,” he adds.
Karlmond studied Chinese and Economics at University of Leeds. He was always good at maths, but just as good at English. He went down the accountancy route because it “made sense”; “in Chinese culture it’s natural to go into something a little more academic than creative,” he says. In the last year of his course he completed a three month internship at Ernst & Young; “an accountancy firm, one of the Big Four.” They offered him three years of accountancy training, on the condition he graduated with a 2:1.
“But then,” he says, “my personal life went wrong.” He graduated with a 2:2, lost the offer and moved to Shanghai to work as a Research Specialist for a company called the China-Britain Business Council. “It’s funny,” he says. “If I didn’t have those two bad years I might still be working in finance.”
He describes Shanghai as chaos. “So fast-paced in a vacuous way,” he says. Karlmond worked really hard, and partied “really, really, really hard”. Sometimes, he was lonely; like we all are in a city abroad, working hard and partying really, really, really hard.
“I liked it because it felt soulless,” he says. “I liked it because it was chaotic. You have no inhibitions, and it’s quite a nice experience to have.”
In Shanghai, at a party in an underground bar, he was approached by a photographer. “He asked me if I worked in fashion, I said I didn’t,” says Karmond. “He goes, ‘I think you should.’”
I ask him what the transition from business to fashion was like.
“Very different,” he says.
But then he starts to tell us about trends. Trends are a way of forecasting what people should be dressing like, he says, but also, trends are a forecast of what people are buying; a predictor of what people will buy. “And buying means money, and money is circulating around the fashion economy, and then eventually, indirectly, other economies,” he says.
Then he tells us how he read the British Fashion Council’s finance reports, and how he started thinking about the billions of pounds that the fashion industry contributes to the GDP. And he started thinking about all the accountants, financial advisors and bankers that would have to work around this economy.
And it made him think: this is just business, like everything else.
“Business was always going to be one of the key points of interest,” he says, in a way that sounds now, very business-like.
“That love for creativity probably came later.”
His approach has always been the same; how can he get from A to B?
“It probably stemmed from mathematics, finance and business,” he says. “Formulas, systems, programs.”
After a year in Shanghai, Karlmond returned to London and applied for an internship at a PR firm called Coffin on Cake. He showed up to his interview in a three piece suit, tie and polished shoes. “Because that was what I was used to,” he says. “I walked into the PR office, who primarily look after skater and surf brands. Everyone was looking at me like, ‘who’s this wanker banker?’”
Karlmond launched a menswear blog called Mr. Boy as a portfolio and began documenting the fashion industry as well as his own personal style. The Mr. Boy website is no longer online; Karlmond.com feels like a better fit for the evolving nature of his work. He still writes about style.
“Since day one I’ve been interested in personal style,” he says. “And by personal style I mean how people dress, and what effect that has on them.”
He talks about the transformative power of clothing; the way a good suit can make you feel, or a wedding dress. He talks about clothes as a way of acceptance; how a shared sense of style can become a language between strangers. How people show the world who they are, through the clothes they wear.
“I’ve always seen clothing as a second skin,” he says. “Clothing can tell you as much about a person as the freckles on their face. It’s a shape and form of identity.”
Often, he talks in questions; he lives through questions. He is driven by his own intrigue; a Socratic method that suspends Karlmond in a state of ceaseless becoming, so that he can be a photographer, writer, stylist, art director, creative director, social media manager, producer, artist. He can be all these things, because he has tried to be all these things and it has worked out.
“I want to know if I can do something, and then I’ll try to do it,” he says. “I loved English, so I started writing. People liked the way I wrote, so I carried on doing it. I tried a bit of proper journalism; writing fact, rather than fiction. It was okay — didn’t come as naturally, in the sense that I found the pieces less interesting. Probably has it’s limit.
“Styling? I liked clothes. I tried styling and I liked it and I got better. I found new ways to make styling exciting, which is working with different people. And not working with different people like, you’re a photographer, I’m a stylist, let’s do something. It’s more like, you’re a photographer, what do you want to do? Then we’ll bring the makeup artist into the conversation, and we’ll all tell a story together.
“Photography? I like doing as a hobby, but then I exhibited some photography. And then I did the sculpture, which again, for me, was logic. I want to make something, can I make it? I wonder: if I use fabric with wax, what will that do? So, I bought some wax, got some fabrics, melted the wax, dipped the fabric into it. And it gave me a shape. I thought: that’s really cool. And that lead to the next step, and the next step. Like, how big can I make this? How do I support this? And then: how do I turn this into a story, into something I want to tell?
“That’s why my career has allowed me to be the writer, or the stylist or the photographer. This artist guy,” he laughs, “whatever you want to call it. I know the end goal. I know B, I just want to know about the process to get to B.
“I guess you can say my career has been made through this love for creativity,” he adds. “You can be as creative as you want — you just need to know how to create it.”
We left Hoi Polloi and got in a taxi. Karlmond was going to a bar to meet some friends, and he invited me to join. He joked that it was a vampire bar; it was called Garlic & Shots, which are the proud purveyors of one-hundred-and-one (!) vodka-based shots and also lots of garlic. We talked the whole way in the taxi, and in the beer garden of the vampire bar we drank more beer and talked some more. We were squeezed together at a tiny table with people who actually knew him in a non-interview way, and still — I couldn’t figure out Karlmond Tang.
Who was he, really? How can anyone be all these things, all these identities, all at once?
It was on the train ride home that I realised he had been telling me exactly who he was, and who we all can be, all along.
Originally published in The City Talking: Fashion, Vol. 2