The man with the creative craft that will force you to question, from his toy gadgets to his punk rock band, there is something to be said about the avenue Keanan Duffty takes and one that is solely his own. I sat down with Mr. KD with the inclination and desire to know more about the designer who attended Central Saint Martins, worked with David Bowie, rocks the Vivienne Westwood bandage pant while now living and teaching product development in San Francisco, and still continues to design and travel back and forth to Norway; it seems as if he hasn’t stopped living the dream.
How and why did you choose this field to work in?
As a child, I was always very interested in visual creativity and wasn’t the best when it came to academics, I excelled in hands on subjects that allowed me to naturally be inclined to want to be a part of the creative fashion industry.
How did you get started in your professional career?
I graduated from Central Saint Martins; I started my own label immediately with governmental help, which magically used to exist during this time in the UK. The government was able to help emerging designers in the industry and I quickly began to realize I did not exactly know what I was doing.
Did you work for an internship or internships along the way?
I interned on Savile Row where I made hats for a store, but I was quite the rebellious type and didn’t want to intern. I made clothes, for music acts, and sold them throughout college, right out of my college dorm room window to other students!
How did you get to this position that you are now in your career and how many years did it take you?
I graduated in 1996, 27 years ago-Jesus that was a long time ago, 17 years being out of college, wow. I either worked for myself, for most of my career, and for about 6 years I worked for larger fashion companies while I ran my own business. I worked as a consultant for other brands and I find that even up to today, I stay connected to the industry, and you need to, because it changes so rapidly.
Tell me more about your specific design path, your business and collaborations with other fashion companies.
My label, Keanan Duffty, launched in 1998 and sold to high-end boutiques such as Fred Segal and over 150 stores such as Bergdorf’s, Selfridges in London, to Hong Kong and all over the world. My design studio was in New York, tri-state areas were my faculty had 12 members; we are a full production team and were able to fulfill orders within weeks. The business began to be difficult to run, there are so many intangibles, even with the retailers we sold to had problems no matter how fancy the store may have been or still is. In 2006, I struck a deal with Target; I was out of the boutique business, and worked with Target for 3 years. It was a very, very good experience and learned a lot about their business model and I was able to just design and not worry about production and distribution, I specifically designed menswear, and had built a strategic alliance with Target that kept me from going back to the boutique business.
Tell me about some of the difficulties you yourself have had or that may come up for someone new to this field?
Well, my wife and I had a business together and there is always going to be challenges in the business world and when my personal life and business were intertwined-that was the most challenging. I think the one most challenging aspect for any creative person is when you feel like your creativity is not appreciated and that comes in many shapes, and it may be you create something that doesn’t retail. That has happened to me loads of times, where I have created things that didn’t necessarily work in the marketplace, and that can be challenging.
Other challenges you faced?
I closed my design studio in 2006 through necessity, and the business for whatever reason had changed. I was able to lead myself into a business with Target, but to sit down with people you have worked with for a long time, people you love and respect and to have to let them go, that was extremely difficult. I had to let everyone on my design team go, I’ve continued to work with them in other ways and have kept a relationship with them and even till today, there is still a mutual respect for one another. A business that requires a lot of hard work and dedication is sometimes one that you are not often financially rewarded with. When it is your name on the door, you get a lot of credit, but when there is no money in the bank, people are knocking on your door as well. That is the yin and yang of this business, being a designer, which is whom I see myself as when I close my eyes, when you are a president or sole designer of a brand, you receive all the accolades- the positive and negative things do fall on your shoulders.
What advice would you give someone trying to break into this field?
Number one- do what you love! Because if you are doing what you love, when it becomes challenging, it won’t seem as though it is challenging. The one thing helps you to sleep at night, is knowing you do what you do because you love it. Most people spend 8 hours a day not really doing what they love or what they want to do, even if its challenging in anyway, whether its from a business perspective, in fashion we can play, just as we were when we were kids, you get to play and express yourself. I am a glass half full kind of person.
How important are personal contacts in order to advance in your profession?
Actually, contacts are everything! Absolutely. I cannot think of an opportunity that hasn’t come through a personal connection, not necessarily all about who you are know because you have to be able to deliver. But I have never gotten a job through a headhunter, and always had opportunities come by way through strong networking. I believe personal contacts are extremely vital and it takes much energy in a fair and honest, straightforward way as it does in an opposite way- a good standard to uphold is key in this business.
If you could go back and do something differently in your career, what would that be?
I would have interned more. Why? Because I would have learned more form other peoples experience and when you are young, you have a naivety that can actually get you to places, because you don’t know what you don’t know. When I was in college, I had a little bit of arrogance, I wanted to do things MY way and I didn’t necessarily learn through other situations. If I went back to college again, I would definitely have more internships and learned the business a little more.
What projects would you like to work on, before the end of your career?
When I was 26, I remember a guy came to sell me a pension plan and he asked me when I was planning to retire; I simply responded with, “I never want to retire”. I just never saw myself as retiring and I will keep doing this until nobody wants me to anymore. I designed toys, sneakers, fragrance, I wrote a book, and I am completely open and interested in doing more. I am always open for new projects!
How do you go about setting your professional goals?
I list, I always write things down and find it fascinating to look back and see what I have written and what things actually end up coming true. I love that and I believe in making lists and putting your desires out in the universe, as cliché as that is, but it is a way of highlight what you want to do and making things happen. And the things that don’t happen aren’t meant to happen. I am in San Francisco now, didn’t know this was a place I’d be, but I am very happy to be here and its all part of the journey of life and you kind of have to go with the flow.
What is your advice about handling failure or rejection as a professional?
Get up and dust yourself off. Go at it again. You will get loads of rejections. For some reason the other day, I came across a few chat rooms, I read comment after comment from kids critiquing my toy heads that I had produced, and they were brutal, very negative, but everyone is entitled to their own opinion. You can’t let negativity bother you, people are always going to have an opinion, they may not like the shoes you are wearing today, but as long as there is no physical damage done to you, you just have to have thick skin.
Any other things that you would like to add that may have not been covered?
Fashion is one of those things; it is not purely about the art anymore. In fashion, it is art meets commerce, not many designers, brands, manufacturers, etc. get into this industry to make one thing, and you make stuff for people to wear. When you have been involved in product categories that people wear and you see someone wearing something you’ve designed- it is quite amazing, to be recognized for the fashions you’ve created and to be stopped by individuals on the streets, it is really great.