If Jacques Cousteau were alive and looking to update his wardrobe, he would feel right at home inside Kai D. Utility on Grand Street in Williamsburg. Menswear designer Kai Fan has filled his new shop with workwear pieces for the explorer in all of us–even the ones without a Y chromosome (it’s an ideal place for a female shopper to pick up oversized knits and work shirts other than her boyfriend’s closet). Expeditionists aside, Fan’s store is quickly becoming the go-to place for the city’s creative class who are looking for classic menswear pieces that won’t come apart at the seams at season’s end.
Fan’s designs are functional with military and utilitarian influences-he’s reimagined timeless wardrobe staples from the turn of the 20th century, like waistcoats, trousers, leather-strap suspenders and ties that are modern in cut and tailoring–slim fitted with clean silhouettes executed in rich fabrics (Italian wool and cashmere, cotton twill and moleskin). Fan says he designs with the New American Artisan in mind, a muse he devised after completing a photo project of the same name.
“Basically, I sought out people who were doing their own thing–that could be creating a product or mastering their craft,” he explains. “I sought out interesting people I could photograph in my cloths and put together a look book. I had a conversation with them, found out their story, then I asked them to put together two outfits from my collection. It turned out, every single person was from Brooklyn.”
At the time, Fan was working out of a studio in Chelsea but living in Williamsburg. The look book project was the lightbulb illuminating moment that made him decide to move his entire operation across the East River.
“I just thought, ‘I should be in Brooklyn,'” he says. “This is my customer.”
The truest expression of Fan’s ability as a designer comes from is outerwear offerings, where ingenuity and engineering combine to create field jackets with storm flaps (perfect for a Polar Vortex), concealed nylon, water-repellant hoods, inner breast pockets big enough to hold an iPad, passport and smartphone, large outer pockets and even a leather loop inside where you can hang a scarf.
“I feel like a lot of times, people come in here looking for that one jacket,” Fan says, “so that they don’t have to buy so many. That jacket can suit the purpose of being casual or being dressy. You can travel well. That’s what I like to do–continue to offer those solutions to my customers.”
Whether its in the cut or the cloth, elements of the casual and the luxurious are interwoven into all of Fan’s designs, making them versatile.
“I am very, very particular about blending the casual wardrobe with the dressy wardrobe,” Fan says, ” because I feel like a lot of my customers today are consultants, entrepreneurs, photographers. They need to be presentable for their clients, but at the same time, they need to work in this suit and feel like they can wear the clothes and got to work. They don’t really have a separate wardrobe.”
All of Fan’s designs, which range in price from $50-$795, are made in New York, conscripting himself to the slow-fashion movement and attaching his collections to the city’s storied garment manufacturing traditions.
“I like to make things that you could wear today, next year, five years from now,” Fan says. “I have always been fascinated by anything that’s utilitarian–clothes that were made with a specific function, as opposed to just this look of it. That’s always been the foundation of my design philosophy.”