In Conversation: Karlmond Tang

“I liked the idea of it being shot on an entirely white background, because that’s essentially what a website is – it’s a blank page” says Karlmond Tang of Symbiotic, his four-part oki-ni editorial. Following on from Nayaab Tania who saw us through November, Karlmond takes the helm as our December guest editor, with a series of shoots – or rather, one shoot that’s been broken down into four correlating segments – that explore his connection with oki-ni and what it means to him. And when we say that Karlmond has used that ‘blank page’ to full effect, we’re not messing around.

Enlisting a cast of models and dancers who leap and fall across the site entwined with floral arrangements that become one with their ‘hosts’, the images offer a full 360° view of the garments Karlmond selected; “the clothes are at the centre of it all, but, without background distraction, they also become the set. I wanted the clothing to breathe, to feel alive – the opposite of the usual flat-shots that e-commerce is renowned for” he continues.

As the first chapter of Karlmond’s Symbiotic editorial launches today, we sat down with him to discuss the inspiration behind it, the importance of a forward-facing, immersive shopping experience and how we should be dismissing trends for the sake of the planet.

Karlmond – welcome to oki-ni. Tell us a little about your background and how you ended up working in fashion… I studied Chinese and economics and was all set to start a lengthy career as an accountant following an internship with Ernst & Young – and I was kind of okay with it, but it wasn’t exactly what I wanted to do, you know, it didn’t really excite me. Then I went to China to work for a company out there and a friend of mine that knew I liked clothes invited me to a Dunhill party. While I was there, I got talking to this photographer about fashion and he asked me if I worked in the industry myself, and of course I said no. “You should” he replied and I was like “okay then, sure!” He introduced me to this hot-shot stylist and the next day I was assisting him on this catwalk show he’s doing before being taken out for dinner with a journalist from Vogue, the photographer and the stylist – and I was totally sold. Then I came back to London and started working in the fashion industry here – I was incredibly lucky to have seemingly been in the right place at the right time with the right people, and then I worked hard to keep the wheel turning and get to where I am – and whatever it is that I do – today.

Tell me a bit about some of the projects you’ve worked on… I used to have quite a close relationship with Jocks & Nerds, which is a magazine that really spoke to me because Marcus, the founder, had such good vision – they really care about products and where they come from, but it’s also really important for them to tell a story; they never use models and I really liked that because it felt quite new and not at all fabricated. I also work with Harris Elliot a lot too – he had worked extensively with J&N and that’s how I ended up collaborating with them quite a bit. He asked me to come be his right-hand man or his assistant and, because back then I was so totally up my own arse, I was like “I’ll take the right-hand man title, it sounds better than assistant” (laughs). I ended up working with him on and off for quite a long time, on projects with the likes of Kasabian, Gorillaz and a lot of Japanese brands that have amazing stories to tell, and we’re still best friends to this day.

With the blog (formerly Mr. Boy) I worked under a different kind of remit, where you’re not on the outside creating stories as you do for brands, but where you become part of the story, which is an interesting perspective, and sometimes its worked and sometimes it hasn’t.

Probably one of the projects I’m most proud of is one I worked on last year with Kate Tempest. Harris used to style her but obviously Kate is much more invested in her work than what she wears and a lot less style-conscious than some, so instead she brought him in to create visuals for a special show at the Rivoli Ballroom that was filmed by the BBC, and Harris in turn enlisted me to help. It was highly stressful – telling the story of seven different individuals across seven screens with no cues as Kate just performs however she feels – but it was amazing to pull it off in the end. At the end of the show I think you could hear us cheering backstage because we’d managed it without hitch!

You were part of the wave of OG bloggers that emerged just over a decade ago. How do you feel the landscape has changed since? I started a blog because I liked writing and I liked images; I’d always kept a diary as a kid and having a blog offered some continuation of that – it was like an online diary to tell things how I saw them, particularly when it came to style and fashion. It wasn’t about brands and sponsorship and selling shit and telling people what and what not to do or wear, which I’m not a fan of, it was just a way to share your story.

Sadly, I think it’s become quite elitist and, more often than not, a bit of a vanity project, you know “here’s me, look at my fabulous life and my fabulous clothes, like my photos and if you don’t, then you’re not cool enough to get it’ – I don’t like that, I think it’s very shallow. It’s very Instagram-focused and although these people call themselves influencers, all they’re doing is influencing the way they spend their money, they’re not making them think.

We all understand that fashion is capitalism, we don’t need to keep egging it on in that way. There are beautiful ways whether written or otherwise to talk about fashion and design without it being ‘buy me buy me buy me’ and sadly I think the people that are doing it in a creative, imaginative way are being buried by the sheer volume of influencers who are only in it for the likes.

So, moving on to the shoot – what was the idea behind it? I obviously wanted to show the clothes in their best light, but I didn’t want models that were just clothes-horses – I wanted them to move and show the garments in motion, not just flat but full of life. I just kept saying ‘Symbiotic’ to the models and dancers on the shoot, and asking them to imagine themselves as one with the flowers and plants that we used throughout – they weren’t just holding them, they were part of them. I wanted everything to appear as if in harmony, because clothing as I’ve always said, is like a second skin. So yeah, Symbiotic – it sounds really pretentious, but that was the word that was at the forefront of my mind both before the shoot and throughout it (laughs).

Why did you choose the models you did, what did you see in them that made you think they’d be able to portray what you wanted within the shoot? Something that was really important for me was working with people that I knew I could trust, particularly given the scale of what we wanted to do in such a short space of time – there was just no time for introductions! I’d worked with Oscar and Kennedy, the dancers, previously alongside Paul (Phung, photographer) and they were just fantastic – they work in such a way that you’d tell them something that you wanted them to do and they’d take a minute to think about it and then present it in their own way before asking if it was okay. It was very much a two-way thing and really interesting as I’d been tasked with reinterpreting what oki-ni mean to me, which was then being reinterpreted again by these totally different artists. While they weren’t models, they were really adept at moving their bodies in a way that showed off the clothes.

O’Shea, who was our actual model (and a good friend of mine) was great too – we were chatting afterwards and he said he really enjoyed the direction and back-and-forth element of the shoot, not just being told “stand here” or “stand there”. I barely edited any of the final images out – everything was great and everyone involved just really got ‘it’, which was really important given the timeframe.

Where did the idea for the plants come from and what do they symbolise? I wanted to show all angles of the garments in motion and how clothing becomes kind of a second skin as I said previously. The plants were the next layer of that, like a parasite or a growth taking hold as the clothing developed over time.

I spoke to Jack, who created the arrangements, and told him that we’d be shooting in black and white, which he loved because even devoid of colour, flowers could add so much texture to the compositions – he grabbed this plant next to us and was like “feel the leaves” and “feel the thorns” and we were both just immediately very excited by the idea.

I think the plants give something extra – next to the smoothness of the skin and the hair, they provide something that is very enveloping. You’ve got that very stark non-set, but the florals mean the model has kind of become the set, you know?

Did you ever go to the oki-ni store? What do you hope it would look like if it opened its doors today? I never went to the store, no, but I know a lot about it. It always seemed to traverse the line between history and innovation, you know, as a space on Savile Row that was one of the first digital retailers, really pushing the boundaries of anything that came before it.

I think if it were to open now, I’d hope that they’d play with the idea of digital again – how do you marry bricks-and-mortar with a digital presence and create a fully-rounded experience in-store? I’d want it to feel like “holy shit, I’ve walked into the future”, but it doesn’t feel like the future, it just feels like the next step. A new world. So not too much to ask (laughs).

Tell me about the clothes you chose to include in the shoot… There are a lot of trousers. I was really interested in exploring the variety on offer as I think it’s quite a new thing that there are so many to choose from – so we had some really great Comme des Garçons corduroy ones and an amazing pair from John Lawrence Sullivan amongst them. I really just picked the ones that were most interesting to shoot to be honest. The John Lawrence Sullivan ones had zips all over them and could be worn in a number of different ways which made for a great silhouette, but I think actually the ones everyone went crazy for were the Stone Island Shadow Project ones that could be zipped off at the knee.

In terms of the other brands, I’m always going to love Comme and Junya and Y-3, so they feature quite prominently, and I chose a lot pieces for their amazing textures; a striped, synthetic shirt from Acne Studios for example, which I paired with a great jacket from Facetasm – their proportions together were really interesting too. I tried to get out of my comfort zone and choose things that challenged my usual conception of style.

Were there any trends you wanted to portray within the shoot? I’m not a huge fan of trends. I got an email the other day with the subject line “Are you a forward-thinker? Are you about creating your own identity? Are you ahead of the latest trends” and I was just like…what? Such a massive contradiction!

I think trends can be positive in that they get people thinking about the reason they’re buying things – it’s not just mindless consumerism – but I prefer to buy into things with longevity. I want people to buy things with the intention of having them for as long as possible, particularly because fashion is one of the biggest polluting industries in the world, and this so-called ‘fast fashion’ is just not sustainable. So, for me it’s about being considered and by all means considering trends, but adding them to your wardrobe in such a way that’s mindful and responsible.

Finally, who do you think the oki-ni man is? I think the person that heads for oki-ni does so for a specific reason, although when you get there, there’s a lot to look at and you’re likely to find something new – be that a brand or a specific product. I think the oki-ni customer is ‘in-the-know’ so to speak. I think he’s probably quite adventurous and a bit ‘out-there’ in terms of his taste. When he’s buying something, I think he knows what he’s buying into. He’s quite informed.