Embracing both the demands and distinctions of design and communications, the Keystone Design Union (The KDU) has established itself as a leader of international creative innovation. Founded in 2003, the Brooklyn-based agency specializes in strategy and creativity through a selective but widespread network of collaborative forces. The KDU’s approach to evolving technology and brand behavior is unique within the otherwise over-saturated advertising arena for its forward-looking and often cutting-edge zeal. For the next in our Fashion Rethinkers series, we chatted with KDU founder David Gensler about experimental brand building, the drawbacks of digital and his secret to success.
JC Report: What’s the idea driving The KDU?
David Gensler: The KDU was created as a system to give independent designers, artists, creatives and business owners a chance to network and help each other grow their brands. It has evolved and grown over the years into a full service strategy, marketing and design agency, while maintaining its original vision of finding, uniting and utilizing the world’s top creative talents. Each member brings unique skills, personality and vision to the group, which feeds us and pushes us forward into the future. So many systems fail because people are fearful of change. The KDU is an organic, living thing, constantly in a state of change, constantly attempting to evolve and improve, this fact alone gives us a great advantage. 1,350 members hailing from nearly 200 countries also separates us from parts of the creative industry. We are global, we are fast and we are effective—we offer brands an alternative to traditional, outdated agency models.
JCR: What about SVSV?
DG: SVSV is an experiment in how to build a brand from the ground up, putting as much design focus on the business model as the final objects we produce. It has been in a constant state of change since its inception in 2003, but now has mutated and relaunched with an acute focus on menswear.
JCR: What is SVSV changing?
DG: Before, I was more concerned with exploring the power of image and message. Now, I am focused on complete control of process. I want 100% control over every step of garment development. We established a partnership allowing us to have an in-house factory that produces 100% of our garments. The greatest advantage this provides is speed to market with new ideas. The digital reality we all live in demands instant consumption, but the traditional fashion calendar system is based on a giant lag between showing the original design and consuming them at retail. The entire system is out of sync, so we developed a model that is based on both old systems of craft and the realities of the digital realm. Instead of a six-month lag, we can produce orders in six days—feeding demand instantly, while never producing waste/surplus.
JCR: What were the most cataclysmic changes affecting fashion now?
DG: The digital reality of our modern age. The rate of consumption and the number of options (retailers) is overwhelming. You have big box retailers still hanging onto old systems, just now attempting to truly embrace what is our “reality” rather than a passing trend. I think those retailers and brands that find a balance between their digital experience and their physical reality will thrive. It really boils down to understanding the market and having the balls to walk a non-traditional path if you believe it will take you where you need to go.
JCR: Are there any drawbacks to the digital world, as you see it?
DG: The digital “social” state of things is not very conducive to innovation, especially for the youth generations for whom “being social” is a must. “Digitally Social” is a simulation of reality. I would hope that in my lifetime I witness a rebellion against this digital realm and a return to a punk state of mind. We need to return to a place where “better” is more important than “new.”
JCR: What was the fashion world like when you started your work with SVSV?
DG: It was dominated by the early years of the streetwear boom. It was an amazing time, filled with new ideas, new egos, new tactics, new designs. It seemed like a fearless age, but then, like everything, it faded away. You had some brands attempt to jump categories, but for the most part, the early energy is lost.
JCR: What did you want to change in the system then?
DG: We used to ask ourselves: “what is luxury colliding with streetcar?” We have since abandoned this question and shifted to the larger question: “what creates real value in this digital reality?”
JCR: Are there any practices needing to be retooled today?
DG: You really can’t attack the traditional calendar system enough. It is not just flawed, it is completely debilitating to the industry as a whole. [It's] wasteful and out of sync with consumers’ day to day consumptive patterns—we should all universally destroy it and just reinvent. The strangest part allowed to exist is the consumption of new designs online: by the time the product is at retail, it is very old news. One solution would be to demand complete trade privacy and show designs only to potential retailers, then debut to the public only before they ship to retail. Sadly we all know this will never happen, since “unplugging” is considered social heresy.
JCR: How would you change things?
DG: We changed the system on a very small level, which is proving very difficult to explain to traditional retailers. We follow no calendar, we constantly develop new designs and we can ship almost instantly. We did not theorize about a new system, we created one and proved it works. When a person sees something they want on the internet, they want it right away—not in six months or even six weeks.
JCR: Where do you see fashion five years from now?
DG: Hopefully more transparent, smaller and more focused on creating lasting value. We can make something better and sell it for more to less people, or we can make lots of stuff and sell it to everyone, forcing us to exist in a cycle of waste and excess.
JCR: Where does your iconoclastic approach stem from?
DG: If you are going to do anything, do it with everything you have. I become obsessed and hyper-focused once my mind is set on something. I think the transparency of what we are doing is what pushes us to really stay on our toes. You can’t just make claims and not back them up with performance. We took SVSV from basically a “fashion/art experiment” to a fully vertical consumer endeavor, while still maintaining a global consulting business. You better truly believe in yourself, your idea and the people around you.