Just two years on from Sean Kelly’s Project Runway win in 2014, the designer’s career truly took off, recalls Phoebe Watt.
I arrived at the designated meeting place five minutes early. Sean Kelly was already there. Slightly stressed, I stepped out of the taxi, lost my balance, landed on all fours on the side of Auckland’s busy Ponsonby Road and then, as if establishing a common bond would make him unsee what he’d just seen, I blurted out, “I’m from New Plymouth, too!” He laughed, helped me up, gave me a hug, and so it was – the least chill of first impressions.
It’s not that I was particularly nervous to meet Sean. Sure, he’s very cool. Two years post-Project Runway he’s still hanging out with Zac Posen, tweeting Nina Garcia, and spending Thanksgiving and Christmas Eve at Tim Gunn’s house.
He’s also doing very well for himself – the collection he showed at New Zealand Fashion Week [in 2015] was well-received both here and abroad, and [in 2016] he was a nominee for Young New Zealander of the Year, for which he was back in the country. Despite his success though, Sean is relatable. We talked about our shared love of Survivor.
He told me he used to work at the favourite surf shop of my former 12-year-old self, and we bonded over our most cringe-worthy school mufti-day outfits. He mentioned that during this visit, he was planning to climb Mt Taranaki with his sister. I wanted to be his friend.
Models backstage at NZFW wear Sean Kelly’s SS16 collection.
Too bad for me that he lives in New York now. Initially there on a student visa, it was never meant to be a long-term thing, but in the wake of his Project Runway win it made sense for him to stay put. Sharing an apartment with his former Project Runway ally, Alexander Knox, Sean juggles being a freelance designer for a major luxury retailer, and running his eponymous label.
Just days before his Auckland trip he had participated in his second New York Fashion Week, this time eschewing a traditional runway show in favour of going down the digital presentation route. “It was a strategic decision,” he says. “I was thinking, ‘do I get into the circus of NYFW and try to pull buyers and editors against huge New York names, or do I slip my lookbook in their inbox first thing before they are totally saturated with everything else?’”
Sean Kelly’s AW16 lookbook was released for NYFW 2016.
Sean Kelly is a born strategist. In Year 12 he wanted to go on a high-school exchange, but coming from a small town in South Taranaki, he didn’t want to end up somewhere remote, so he chose Denmark for its population density. “There’s six times less land in Denmark than in New Zealand but four times more people,” he explains.
“So basically, even if I was billeted to the country I was always going to be 10 minutes away from a big city.” He wound up in Horsens (population 55,000), 20 minutes from Aarhus (population 300,000), and fell in love with the place. In his second year of university, when the opportunity arose for him to return to Denmark and intern at Copenhagen fashion house Henrik Vibskov, he jumped at the chance.
AW16 lookbook was released for NYFW 2016.
At Henrik Vibskov, Sean learned that as much as fashion is a commerce-driven industry, “at the core it’s an art as well”. His own attitude to designing has been informed by the boundary-pushing he experienced there on a daily basis. “There was always a freedom and a playfulness to everything,” he says. At Alexander McQueen, where he interned next, the lessons were of a different kind. “McQueen was all about expensive fabrics, tailoring and refining every detail,” he says.
“I remember having to redraw a suit jacket six times because the lapel curve wasn’t right. Another time I had to present 200 different button options for a single shirt.”
Sean during the shoot of his AW16 lookbook.
As with Henrik Vibskov, Sean says there are definitely elements of McQueen “infused in the denier” of his designs. But he doesn’t like it when I ask him to describe his design aesthetic. “Only because it’s a constant evolution,” he explains. “And it’s a reflection of the state that I’m in at the time of designing.”
He concedes that there are repetitions of shape and slight undertones of menswear in every collection. “But I’m also only four seasons deep,” he laughs. “Give me 10 seasons and maybe then I can look back and pick up on some patterns and see key aesthetics.”
Despite it being early days for his brand, the designer has come a long way since starting out. His knowledge of textiles and techniques grows daily, and although he doesn’t try to think too much about what will sell – “that’s a whole game of mentally taking your designs somewhere else” – the commercial side is increasingly front of mind.
“Fashion is very expensive,” he says. “It’s crazy to even start breaking down the numbers of how much it costs, in New York especially.” This is partly the reason he’s freelancing. The more industry contacts he makes, and the more opportunities he has to build trust with factories and suppliers, the easier it will be to scale-up production of his own work when the time is right.
Sean Kelly SS16.
For now, he’s producing a large portion of each collection himself out of his studio – not bad for a kid who never took a sewing class at school because the prospect of making a pillowcase was “just too lame”.
As for what he got up to in New Zealand, he didn’t win Young New Zealander of the Year. The accolade went to Lydia Ko, and he’s fine with that. On his trip to New Plymouth, he did climb Mount Taranaki, posting a photo to Instagram as proof. Feeling like we’d made quite a connection, I commented ‘you did it!’ Perhaps the high-five emoji was too much. He didn’t reply.