Fashion wasn’t Som Kong’s first career choice, but that’s hard to believe when seeing his small but tidy workspace, lined with a rack of clothing and filled with garments scattered around the drafting table and sewing machine. Kong thought photography was his calling after taking his first photo, which was of his parents hugging, and he recalls falling in love with the fact that he could capture such an emotional scene in a picture.
The desire to design
However, when he was given the chance to do some fashion photography, Kong realized he didn’t like what the models were wearing, and wished he could dress them. And so his career in fashion design began.
Growing up, Kong had a knack for sewing. His mother, who was a seamstress, had the resources that helped him do so at a really young age. But it wasn’t until Grade 11 or 12, when Kong switched schools to attend a basic sewing program, that he started designing.
He recalls a professor who told the students to “… remember the name: Som Kong.” Kong says he couldn’t believe he was being put on the spot, but the professor saw something in him that he didn’t see himself.
Originally from Hamilton, Ontario, the young designer chose to go to Ryerson University in Toronto. During this time, he visited Hong Kong, which was the “epitome of his influences,” and also headed to San Francisco for an international design competition.
“It was unbelievable — I’ve never felt more humble. I got to see the amount of passion [in the industry], and that’s when I felt I needed to up my game,” he explains.
Before leaving for San Francisco, Kong had to choose the theme for his final collection, which was going to be showcased at Mass Exodus, a student show at Ryerson. However, when he came back from San Francisco, he felt that he was losing his voice as a designer and no longer had a connection to his initial idea.
“You feel this anxiety [that’s] going to spiral down into despair, when you know it’s not going to work out your way,” he says.
After many discussions with his professor, the designer eventually changed his collection to Sweatshirts by Som Kong.
Kong wanted to create universal, yet marketable pieces that he would enjoy wearing himself. That is how he came up with the idea of concept sweaters. He decided to take a staple piece of clothing and add intrinsic details and messages by using Braille.
When Kong was around 16 years old, his parents went through a divorce. He says that his mother had a hard time dealing with their financial situation, which eventually led to the bank taking their home. This event inspired Kong to use the Braille messages on his sweatshirts.
“I promise to buy my mom a house,” reads the Braille on the front of his favourite, all-white sweater. Its back has a map of the world and shows the places his career has taken him: he says no matter where he is, he will always keep that promise.
Kong keeps the silhouettes of his designs very basic and wearable, with a creative edge. The messages and detailing on sweaters are achieved through trapunto quilting, which uses two layers of fabric and a layer of stuffing to create a puffy feel. He chose white sweaters with black bottoms — a simple combination and aesthetic.
The theme for Mass Exodus 2014 was innovation. Kong used a variety of techniques, such as laser printing on denim for his Coco Rocha sweater. He modelled the sweater based on Coco Rocha after seeing her backstage at a Jeremy Laing show. He looks up to her as an ambassador of fashion, and he left a place on his Coco sweater for her autograph.
What the future holds
Kong considers this collection his first, but says there will definitely be more. He is also interested in exploring the Big Apple.
“I guess it’s the novelty behind New York, but at the same time I’m comfortable here in Toronto, and from a business perspective comfort is riskier,” says Kong. And if New York doesn’t work out, he is prepared to go to London, U.K.
Overall, Kong plans to develop his brand and enjoy the process. “I’ve been so fortunate to build connections — they are actually more like friendships, and I feel very grateful,” he concludes.