An Interview with Anya Kamarek and Hektor Kowalski

Monochrome is a conceptual unisex fashion label that integrates visual arts with fashion. Founded in 2012 by Polish fashion designer, Anya Kamarek and creative director and visual artist, Hektor Kowalski, the working couple has created a clothing line that showcases their inspirations, identities and personal experiences. STYLEFAN.NET got the exclusive chance to talk to the creative minds behind Monochrome in their first published interview. 

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'My first memory of fashion was that I did not fit into social gender distinctions...I have had this natural tendency to blur the differences between gender insignias since a very young age.' - Anya Kamarek 

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'We want to see and experience the merge between fashion and other art forms, both to be distributed alongside each other, bound by a certain mood and concept. We want our brand to be a significant part of this cultural transformation.' - Hektor Kowalski

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Tuck Muntarbhorn: Tell me about the past five years of your life.
Anya Kamarek: After I completed a BA in Sociology in Poland, I came to London in 2007 to study for a BA in Fashion Design at Middlesex University. Upon graduation, I went on to study a postgraduate course in Innovative Pattern Cutting at Central Saint Martins, followed by an MA in Womenswear at London College of Fashion. After my studies, I started designing under my label 'Anya Kamarek' before I decided to launch Monochrome with Hektor last year.
Hektor Kowalski: Five years ago, I was finishing an MA in Digital Fine Arts at the University of Arts London and I was getting into fashion - slowly. It was around that time that I met Anya.

TM: So, how did you guys meet?

AK: At that time I was doing research for a menswear project for my BA, based on the 'Cremaster' series by Matthew Barney. This series wasn't widely distributed since it was only available in galleries and so I asked a friend whether he knew someone who would be able to get hold it. My friend told me about Hektor and that's how we met!

TM: Anya, how did you progress from sociology to fashion?
AK: I have always been interested in the fashion aspect of sociology. I really got into the change in womenswear alongside feminist movements. I wanted to create these works myself and so decided to create unisex clothing for Monochrome.

TM: Why did you choose your respective postgraduate university courses?
HK: I chose the MA in Digital Fine Arts course because I became interested in digital media and video installations. At the time, I was also interested in the interactive aspect of digital arts. The course was very open in terms of the format and media we could use, which really drew me in.
AK: I really wanted to learn pattern cutting because I already had knowledge about the creative side of fashion after my BA. This course at Central Saint Martins gave me so much technical knowledge on how to transform creative ideas into reality.

TM: What was your time in Poland like before you moved to London?
HK: I lived in Krakow, which was an inspiring and very interesting place when the Soviet Union collapsed. We were the generation to experience this transformation. When the Berlin Wall collapsed in 1990, borders opened for a wide range of new influences.

TM: What was it like when you first moved to London?
HK: I came to London a few weeks after I finished my BA to stay with a couple of friends living in East London and spent a lot of time around the Truman Brewery which was then the place to be. I decided to do my MA here straight away because I saw how free and how inspiring London was and still is - people have open political views and don't stick to strict rules.
AK: I felt my unisex personal style was strange when I was in Poland and used to question whether there was something wrong with me. But when I came to London, I was able to express myself.

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TM: What's your earliest memory of fashion?
AK: My first memory of fashion was that I did not fit into social gender distinctions. I have always been sporty, had short hair and wore boyish clothes. I have had this natural tendency to blur the differences between gender insignias since a very young age.
HK: I took fashion more seriously when I got into the punk movement at the age of fifteen. That was the first time I started expressing myself through clothing by adopting the punk aesthetic. People would notice me on the street, which was exciting, and made me feel unique - special for me as I came from a relatively small, undistinguished town.

TM: Anya, can you tell me more about your mother's clothing label? Did she inspire you to work in fashion?
AK: My mum really inspired me - I followed her around a lot when I was young. She started her clothing business under the label 'Hanna' (her first name) in 1992. That was the time when communism in Poland started to collapse and it was a difficult time to find clothes. As a teenager, she travelled to America with my grandmother to gain inspiration for her clothes such as tailoring and eveningwear. She wanted to express herself by making clothes she wanted to wear and started making clothes to sell to others. In a way this really inspired me as I'm now doing just the same thing. 

TM: Why did you name your label Monochrome? How did this idea come about?
AK: The name represents our aesthetic, deriving from things that inspire us and stem from our origins. Eastern European Brutalist architecture, grey and foggy industrial cityscapes and dark snowy winters create a mystical atmosphere which we find inspiring. Monochrome also represents our fascination with urban and utilitarian wear and our passion for the monochromatic color palette and dark imagery.

TM: Who's the Monochrome man/woman? What's their lifestyle?
AK: Monochrome garments are made to function within an urban setting, tailored to different lifestyles and weather conditions. We imagine the Monochrome client living in urban cities such as London, New York or Tokyo. They get up very early to head to the office or studio, then head to galleries and off to parties wearing the same waxed cotton jacket which can be transformed into a backpack for cycling. The utilitarian aesthetic in our designs reflects our objective to create garments that are practical whilst also modish. 

Illustration by Guilherme Valente

Illustration by Guilherme Valente

TM: Did you start off designing for men or women? How and why did you progress to designing for both?
HK: Anya started to produce clothes for herself and expanded this to Monochrome. The initial point was womenswear but cross-gender dressing has always been Anya's approach, a concept to which I also relate.

TM: Do you think men and women can relate to the same aesthetic?
HK:
Some men (and women) may find it difficult to relate to the same aesthetic but we want to progress with this vision. The shape of the body is the only obstacle and we want people to express this in a way that is unrelated to sex.

TM: Do you think unisex garments have limited commercial opportunities? Will you divide into menswear and womenswear?
HK: In a practical context we may need to obey the rules of fashion and present our collections to womenswear and menswear buyers separately, but each collection will have a coherent and similar vision throughout. 

TM: Anya, what's your approach to designing? Do you start from e.g. research, sketches or draping?
AK: I start by draping to set my vision for the collection and establish shapes and silhouettes. I then do some research into particular themes to build a concept for the collection before drawing up technical sketches to prepare precise patterns for each garment.

TM: Do you often feel like you know what fabric you need to execute a certain concept or idea?
AK: Yes. For example, with the idea of functional urban clothing we used waxed cotton to make waterproof jackets and capes that were durable. Wearers can cycle in this in an urban setting which would protect them from the wind and rain. Also, we are interested in using bio-fabrics such as coated cotton, which is a good replacement for leather and much more environmentally friendly.

TM: Do you incorporate other art forms into your designs let it be art, film, music or literature?
AK: Yes. I really appreciate Suprematist works of Kazimir Malevich and black-on-black compositions by Ad Reinhardt - at the moment I am incorporating different shades of black fabrics in our current Autumn/Winter 2014 collection and using a variety of embossed and texturised fabrics. In terms of films, I really appreciate the works of Béla Tarr, especially his film ‘Turin Horse’. Apart from art, new technologies and scientific research especially in the field of space travel and military clothing also interest me and are main sources for my inspiration.
HK: We continue to seek and collaborate on unique projects that combine our clothing and accessories with other conceptual art forms. In our first collection (Autumn/Winter 2013), we collaborated with Nat Urazmetova, a visual artist and photographer. For this collection Nat used microscopic photography to reveal the strangeness of organic patterns, textures and formations to create prints for t-shirts and trousers. 

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TM: Fashion is moving at such a fast-forward pace in this digitalised era. What role does social media place in fashion?
HK: That is the way that information travels these days. One can express and show one’s vision through these mediums and different channels where narratives are constantly changing. Social media is crucial. In the past one had editorials and that's the way one promoted fashion. Social media is an inevitable way to go, as it is parallel to having editorials to promote one’s brand. It gives more freedom and one’s own space to express one’s concepts. We are now able to express ourselves visually with platforms such as Instagram or Tumblr. People always wanted to broadcast themselves but there was no platform to do so. In the past, one could have one’s own blog, but that was about it.
AK: I agree with Hektor. Social media is important because one can show one’s vision and aesthetic of the brand. Sometimes with editorials one doesn't have control of the press.

TM: Given the choice and financial backing of either showcasing your collection in the form of a catwalk show or presentation, which would you choose?
AK: We would choose to present our collection in the form of a fashion presentation or exhibition which gives us the possibility to experiment with different art mediums to showcase the mood of our collection. Moreover, I believe it is a much deeper experience for the audience than an ordinary catwalk show accompanied by loud music. I think a gallery space is the best place to present our collections where everyone can get involved by wearing our clothes.
HK: Yes, indeed, we would like to present fashion by other means as opposed to that of a traditional fashion show. I think it is good to experiment given that there are so many possibilities to present fashion nowadays. I mean, it is great to experience fashion on a model, but for instance a gallery space or in fact any other space is as effective as showing on a catwalk at fashion week. Also, we have access to all media which can be used to send our message and concept of our collection to the press.

TM: Where else would you like Monochrome to be stocked? Do you consider having your own boutique one day?
AK: We would love to stock in our own flagship store!
HK: A place where we could work, sell and exhibit, perhaps a combination of a work and gallery space. We would like to have unisex mannequins to display our products and give customers the chance of meeting the designers behind the works.

TM: Finally, where will Monochrome be in 5 years time?
HK: Monochrome represents a particular aesthetic and approach to fashion. In five years or so, we want to see and experience the merge between fashion and other art forms, both to be distributed alongside each other, bound by a certain mood and concept. We want our brand to be a significant part of this cultural transformation.

View the Monochrome Spring/Summer 2014 collection below:

Photographer: Felipe Enger
Fashion Illustrator: Guilherme Valente
Photographer's Assistant: Tony Donson