For someone whose flying time vies that of a commercial pilot, shouldering the weight of an agenda that would overwhelm the most zealous of overachievers, and a pocket of side projects enough for two, Joel Knörnschild — the creative designer and founder of the L.A.-based menswear label KZO — is jarringly relaxed.
As the surfboards hanging from the walls of his L.A. studio suggest, Knörnschild is a consummate Californian. His roots are sown deep into the KZO ethos, described by him to be a Southern California representation, with elements derived from his time spent away from beach culture in Tokyo and New York.
As pleasantly perplexing as his seemingly impenetrable equanimity is the manner in which the up-and-comer has managed to allow the media love-fest (a recent front page profile in the Los Angeles Times style section, plugs in The New York Times Style Magazine, GQ and MensStyle.com) encircling his career, to zip past his ego and float up into oblivion.
“I think that it can become dangerous, like putting the cart before the horse,” says Knörnschild on the subject of courting press and critical acclaim. “It takes away from the product at hand, and once the product goes bad, so does the press. Product is everything, product is king.”
Knörnschild was learning the value of “product,” while most his age were cruising the mall. Just ask the Department of Labor. He was fifteen and hired for the summer by his father, Joe, a co-founder of California surf company, Hurley International, to oversee quality control at multiple sewing contractors across L.A. and Orange County, when the Department of Labor came knocking. “I made the Los Angeles Times business section as an example for child labour laws and sweatshops, even though I was just working for the family,” the designer recalls. “Now looking back, it was pretty funny, although the fine wasn’t .”
Despite having grown up in what he affectionately refers to as the “rag industry” cutting swatches in the pattern room, Knörnschild didn’t nurture any childhood aspirations to be a fashion designer. He went on to study in Florence, evolving his interest in art history, graphic design, and film, later transitioning into a directing career after graduating, working on short films, skateboard videos, and music videos. “It could [have] gone in any avenue really,” he says of his professional path. “I knew that I wanted to work in the creative field. I wanted to become a more well-rounded person, and Florence was a great location to do that — going to the Uffizi after school to study the masters [and] Duomo on field trips was great.”
Asked if it now seems almost inevitable that he ended up in fashion, this jack-of-all-creative-trades isn’t convinced. “I don’t think that it was a factor as inspiration for designing my own collection,” Knörnschild asserts. “It was more of a creative ‘full-circle’ journey, coming back to the fashion roots after experimenting in other creative avenues.”
When not consumed by design season, Knörnschild still engages in other creative exploits, including playing guitar in Barnacle alongside band mates Brett Westfall of Unholy Matrimony, and his sister Katie Malia. This November the trio were in Osaka, Japan, to perform at Remix, where Knörnschild and Westfall staged their art installation, “Voice of Nature.”
When you visit Knörnschild down in L.A.’s arts district — where music streams without pause and animated conversation about the day’s track list waits to be had — the designer’s affinity for the art becomes obvious. More than just a hobby, music and his background in directing music videos define his work as a fashion designer. “I treat every season as if I were approaching a music video, by writing a treatment,” he explains. “This includes four basic “plotline” questions, a soundtrack of the collection, and a video. The questions I always ask for each season is: What’s the story? What’s the soundtrack? What’s the palette? What are the categories? These questions help the seasonal story stay on track.”
Splitting his time between his L.A. studio and overseeing production in Japan, elements of the latter country’s distinct fashion culture sporadically find their way into Knörnschild designs by sheer osmosis. While KZO is primarily a West Coast label, inherently there are strains of Japanese influence, particularly with construction and fabrication being executed there overseas. “I don’t set out to have a “Japanese” aesthetic to the collection(s),” he says. “Some of my favourite brands are Japanese, but for myself, growing up in Southern California and being fourth-generation Japanese, I’m pretty removed from the Japanese roots, except for travelling there quite often.”
It’s difficult to imagine this Orange County native, with his drawn-out gait and unbent cool, falling into sync with Tokyo’s storied sonic pace, but with his production workshop in the city, the young fashion designer has become proficient in the art of living and working at a-mile-a-minute speeds.
“Sometimes I feel like I live multiple lives across the Pacific Ocean,” Knörnschild laughs. “Tokyo’s extremely fast paced. The second I get off the airplane I’m moving at the same pace as the people who live there. Rushing through customs, rushing to the train into Tokyo, rushing to the hotel, rushing to the office in the morning, working late, eating dinner even later, and starting over again. In Los Angeles, it’s really more relaxed (on purpose), so I have enough energy when I get back to Japan.”
Now designing his seventh season, Knörnschild’s schedule is piling up in anticipation for the February shows. An extended recoup in L.A. is in his future.