“The Art of Seeing” by Michael Milton
I take interest in what I wear; my wardrobe, while not large, contains pieces to which I am drawn. Why? I’m not always clear; certain colors seem to boost my energy; certain fitting shirts make me feel thinner; certain slacks give me a sense of well- being, certain pairs of shoes connect with the pavement just so.
Recently, designer kien chu took my vague feelings and helped me to verbalize them by inviting me into his creative process while designing something especially made for me.
“I wondered, too, if in this connection with self in others, could clothing act as part of a dialogue that could actually heal through beauty and contemplation?”
kien came out of tumult in search of serenity. Born in Vietnam, he and his father became refugees after the war, part of the almost 800,000 others who became the legendary and tragic Vietnamese boat people of the 1970s. Father and son finally settled in America in 1979, thanks to the sponsorship of an Oregonian Quaker community.
10 years later, kien moved to New York, graduated from FIT and went on to work for various 7th Avenue clothing brands.
“It was a period of assimilation for me and I had the opportunity to begin putting together disparate pieces of who I was as a person, seeking to somehow find closure for the losses of my past. And I began to love the idea of design as a career.” Of course, it didn’t hurt that his family had been fabric retailers in Saigon for generations.
Yet, the artful and highly original designs of cloth of stillness were still several years away. Past traumas had taken a heavy emotional toll:
“I threw myself into my work,” said kien. “I knew I was searching to somehow express and fulfill beauty; I sought a connection with my deepest sense of fracture, wondering if I could find a wholeness, a healing, for myself in clothing design.
“I pondered, too, on the possibility of creating clothing which would somehow help others find their way into wholeness from out of confusion. I wondered, too, if in this connection with self in others, could clothing act as part of a dialogue that could actually heal through beauty and contemplation?”
This is a tall order for any artist, and when kien was for a time unable to find his road in the fashion industry, he took a much needed break, and during this period devoted his energies to teaching fashion at Parsons School of Design.
It was around this same period kien stumbled upon meditation and yoga. Through practice, he discovered a stillness that not only tranquilizes but deeply connected his being to “…the immeasurable creativity and freedom afforded each of us.”
“I chanted the 3 Refuges for the first time; (“I take refuge in the Buddha, I take refuge in the Dhamma, I take refuge in the Sangha.”) I began to come to terms with my past trauma while opening up to all sorts of new, creative possibilities for my future.”
The idea of starting his own line of clothing came to kien at a silent retreat in 2005.
“One morning, I saw a strand of red yarn draped across one of the meditation blankets and I became transfixed by it; I remember we had been chanting the 3 Refuges all week; I visualized one stitched red line with 3 knots, potentially representing the 3 Refuges,” he said.
As he watched the meditators move from sitting to standing, from walking to yoga, he was filled with ideas of clothing “…that could support and integrate these practices of body, heart and mind into a kind of seamless, awakened flow for everyday life.”
Since then, all clothing of his brand have both the red stitched line with 3 knots held by a hand written label, cloth of stillness.
“The cloth I choose for my garments comes from a selection of compassionate fabrics that embodies lightness and nobility to the sense organs. The organic use of spirals allows the cloth to move unfettered over the body, revealing the very seams of the garments as metaphors for both the gross and energetic anatomy. The union of compassionate cloth and conscious cutting results in designs that are free from conventions of right and wrong side, feminine or masculine, contemporary or classic,” kien reflects.
I had the good fortune of working with kien when I purchased a spiral shoulder and cuff button front tunic in a rich navy blue silk intended for wear to special events. The process of being fitted, kien working first on a muslin model which would become the blueprint for the final garment, was very fun.
“I feel like a billionaire,” I said to kien, private fittings not a part of my usual sartorial process. And my new tunic is definitely bespoke… wherever I wear it—in its quiet, elegant way—commands attention. Plus, he wanted my input with questions about what I thought clothing was about, how I chose what it was I wore.
Sharing this with kien was quite revelatory—I was subconsciously seeking some sort of energetic and meaningful outcome in what clothing I picked for myself, in the ways I chose to “reveal” myself to the world.
Moving to Brooklyn was a part of kien’s recovery process. “I needed quiet and calm and serenity and my idea for this clothing line emerged,” said kien. “The pulse of my creation came from the relative silence of my neighborhood in Brooklyn.
“Here, I have been so beautifully provided for. I have my retreat, my refuge in Brooklyn, where I can reboot and then reenter the stream of the center of the fashion industry in Manhattan. Brooklyn provides me with a balance. One of my favorite places is the Brooklyn Botanical Gardens and I often practice at the Brooklyn Bridge Park Piers. The gardens provide me with inspiration on many levels and the piers supply me with outer and inner vision.”
Poetry is an integral part of kien’s design– so much so, he sometimes handwrites the words onto the garments… and always onto the labels.
“I stand between fear, death and love
Whether I fall to my failures
Or ascend to some mythical heavens
It is here within these limits of hand and heart
Needle and resolve
That I may stitch all the brokenness into something like the wind.”
When I wear my tunic, I am energetically enthused throughout my body and spirit; I move with more purpose, I feel more upright, more contained, or as the artist himself would say, “…you are stillness in motion.”
www.clothofstillness.com for further information about kien chu’s design