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Decades Celebrates the Vest of Wong

LOS ANGELES — It all started with the vest. <br><br>After the news broke in late March that Nicolas Ghesquière had, indeed, copied the 1973 patchwork vest by a relatively obscure designer named Kaisik Wong, the San Francisco fashion artist...

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LOS ANGELES — It all started with the vest.

After the news broke in late March that Nicolas Ghesquière had, indeed, copied the 1973 patchwork vest by a relatively obscure designer named Kaisik Wong, the San Francisco fashion artist (as he’s often referred to) who died in 1990 was suddenly not so obscure anymore.

As is the case when a new generation discovers a forgotten innovator, the fashion fusion pioneer went from historical footnote to cult status almost overnight.

Recent runway references to surrealism, particularly Salvador Dali, are linked to the exhibition collection Wong created for the artist in the mid-Seventies. And fashion watchers noted him again this year at the release of the documentary on the late Sixties-era all-gender drag troupe, the Cockettes, with whom Wong collaborated.

So, inevitably, the buzz would move into a more official context.

This Monday, a Kaisik Wong retrospective opens at Decades, the Melrose Avenue vintage boutique here whose second floor exhibition space has revived interest, and even careers, of designers who had been relegated to the history books. What began as “a little show,” noted Decades owner Cameron Silver, has evolved into a revival that he and his fans and friends — many of whom are flying in for the event — hope will cement Wong’s place in fashion history.

The infamous vest — the only piece of the 100 archival items on sale Monday night — will then travel from Decades to the Oakland Museum of California as part of its upcoming exhibition, “Iconic to Ironic: Fashioning California Identity,” opening March 15.

And Rizzoli is publishing a catalog, now running at around 200 pages and featuring dozens of archival photographs, many taken by Wong. It is the first book devoted completely to the designer and will include his textile designs. “Radiate — The Life and Work of Kaisik Wong” is slated for a fall 2003 release, according to a Rizzoli source.

“There’s a lot more to Kaisik Wong than the patchwork vest, which is why art historians, designers and the fashion press are becoming increasingly interested,” believes Silver, who counts designers looking for “inspiration” as more than half his business.

New York and European designers and their representatives have dropped by in recent months to see the collection up close. It’s not so much his technical skill they appreciate, said Silver, admitting that wasn’t Wong’s strength, but his artistry in collage. What’s more, they haven’t been able to buy — yet.

Finding vintage Kaisik Wong is nearly impossible, which likely only lends to his cache. Silver has discovered that “those who knew Kaisik don’t give up their pieces.” Wong, who kept residences in New York and San Francisco, sold his one-of-a-kind designs to art-to-wear store Obiko, as well as Henri Bendel and I. Magnin.

Ten percent of Decade clothing sales and 100 percent of proceeds from the eight-page catalog the store published for its show will benefit the Asian Wellness Project, an AIDS outreach charity in San Francisco. Wong was H.I.V. positive, though he died of leukemia, according to family members.

Inez Brooks-Myers, curator of costume and textiles at the Oakland Museum is encouraged by the newfound attention, though she laments Wong isn’t around to enjoy it.

“He was really a moving force in the field of wearable art,” she observed. “He had a unique vision. It was dramatic, theatrical. But it was sensitive and totally his. Certainly Kaisik’s sensibility of openness to integrating Asian and Western ideas is one of the important aspects of his contribution to California fashion.”

A child of San Francisco’s flower-power Sixties, Wong dropped out of high school at 15 and began making his own clothes, said his older brother Kailey Wong in an interview with WWD earlier this year. “My mother was not a seamstress. But she had a love of fashion, [and] glamour influenced by New Orleans, where she grew up before moving here [to the Bay Area].”

Kaisik Wong used San Francisco, from the botanical gardens to the Palace of Fine Arts to the family’s neighborhood in Chinatown, as a backdrop to photograph his models. He was also an accomplished ink illustrator.

The elder Wong and his daughter, who first showed him the modern copy, believe the recycling of Kaisik’s ideas are “part of fashion.” Besides, Ghesquière’s not the first, he said. “I saw things in the ‘Return of the Jedi’ that are a poor knock-off of Kaisik dressing.”

In late February, Silver took a $100 taxi ride to an Oakland suburb to meet the surviving Wong family. Silver happened upon the designer only weeks before on the opening night show of Wong contemporary and patchwork peer Koos van den Akker. A client brought Silver a video from a 1996 Kaisik Wong exhibition in San Francisco.

“I flipped out,” said Silver, who had sold Ghesquière several van den Akker items the summer before, which the Balenciaga designer did credit as inspiration. As for Wong’s vest, Ghesquière told the New York Times in April that he thought it was simply a theatrical costume.

The Wong family said that as Buddhists, they are letting go of the archives to keep the work’s “chi,” or life force, going.

“Everyone responds to Kaisik’s humanity and this incredible otherworldly aspect of his fashion vision,” Silver continued. “It’s so over the top. It’s pure fantasy. It’s what the world needs now.”

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