Ryohei Kawanishi arrives with his daughter strapped to his chest. “The day care was closed this week so I had to bring her,” he said politely.
This story first appeared in the September 21, 2016 issue of WWD. Subscribe Today.
It was a fitting scenario. Kawanishi’s daughter, a quiet six-month-old who slept through the meeting, is the reason he started designing his men’s streetwear line Landlord, which is in its second season and made its New York Fashion Week: Men’s debut this past July.
Kawanishi, who’s Japanese, started out as a women’s conceptual designer. While attending Central Saint Martins and later The New School’s Parsons School of Design, he created fantastical pieces including a shower curtain and shower rod fashioned into a dress and a strapless garment modeled after an oversize backpack. That piece in particular caught the eye of Daniel Huang, a 32-year-old who owned a manufacturing factory in Sunset Park, Brooklyn and reached out to Kawanishi about creating a line.
Kawanishi obliged and Landlord, which was named after the career path immigrants often take to achieve success, was the commercial endeavor he needed to make ends meet for his wife and daughter. He brought on Naoki Masuda, who formerly worked at Thaddeus O’Neil and Brooklyn Tailors, as a business director and technical designer, to help realize his vision.
“For me, men’s wear was always boring,” said Kawanishi, whose cartoonish eyeglasses make perfect sense on his affable face. “Landlord is very commercial if I compare it with what I used to do, but it was a choice I made because of [my daughter].”
Landlord is commercial, but Kawanishi’s knowledge of fashion and his background in women’s wear lend the collection the edge it needs to stand out in the very crowded men’s streetwear market.
“It’s an interesting time now that high fashion and streetwear have crossed over. It was a concept that started in America, but right now it’s being influenced by Europe. I wanted to bring it back to America,” said Kawanishi, who lives in the heart of Harlem at 125th Street and Lenox Avenue and looks to his neighbors for design inspiration. “I wanted to bring it back to the idea of what I saw in the Nineties when Sean John and Pelle Pelle were popular. I want to bring back those types of styles but redone in a contemporary way. That’s the direction I’m going.”
For his spring collection, the designer started with artist Isa Genzken’s 2013 Museum of Modern Art retrospective, which he saw when he first moved to New York. Genzken is known for her sculptures, collage work and installations that sometimes utilize construction worker uniforms. Kawanishi used these references to create everyday streetwear pieces that were amped up with a neon color palette, modern fits and shiny fabrics. Although the line, which retails from $70 to $485, isn’t conceptual, it’s derived from interesting concepts — sometimes a rarity in streetwear — that have resonated with retailers including Opening Ceremony, which currently sells the assortment.
“Rick Owens brought a new concept to men’s wear, which is a massive achievement,” said Kawanishi. “I want people to feel special when they wear my clothes, but people don’t want to wear anything that’s overdesigned — especially men.”
This endeavor is new territory for both Kawanishi and Huang, who finances the brand. Huang joined his family’s manufacturing business, which makes its money producing gear for the military, six years ago. The Queens native always had an interest in fashion but couldn’t find a designer to work with until he saw Kawanishi’s work.
“I pretty much don’t know anything, so I’m learning as I go, but it’s fun,” said Huang, who still devotes most of his time to government contract work. “I was getting kind of bored so I needed this in my life.”
Kawanishi and Masuda understand how beneficial Huang’s manufacturing background has been for Landlord, but Huang admits that his family isn’t thrilled about the line, which is made alongside bulletproof vests and military uniforms out of the Brooklyn factory.
“They don’t like it. They don’t think it’s going to succeed,” Huang told WWD. “They say, ‘You shouldn’t be doing this. You should be doing real estate.’ But it’s something I want to do and I want to prove to them that I can do it.”