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Akin to greatness

October 12, 2014

First published in Broadsheet, Spring print issue, September 2014 

You may not know it, but if you’ve got even a passing interest in fashion in this country, you’ve experienced Kelvin Ho’s work. From Dion Lee’s first store in the Strand Arcade, to A.P.C.’s Melbourne outpost and dozens of spaces between, Ho has shaped the way we interact with our favourite brands. For the cover of our spring print issue, we sit down with the fashion industry’s premier retail architect.

Kelvin Ho isn’t one to let a ruthless work schedule dampen his enthusiasm for it. The founder of Akin Creative, the Sydney design practice responsible for translating the visions of the country’s most renowned fashion brands into retail spaces, is recovering from a cold. It’s the curse of a devotion to his craft that can keep him up until 2am, but it’s done nothing to dissolve an energy that’s at once insistent and laid-back. Like many people who love their work, Ho is inspired by others with the same dedication. “I work with a blacksmith who’s just the most positive guy,” he tells us. “He only deals with this one metal and he’s devoted his life to it. These days, you get so used to people doing a bit of everything. I get so excited when I work with amazing people who are obsessed with one craft.”

Ho, who graduated from the University of Sydney in 2003, has spent the last decade perfecting his. In 2005, the architect collaborated with retail pioneer Belinda Seper to conceive the second outpost of The Corner Shop in the Strand Arcade. It’s a space where pendant lighting, unfinished-timber cabinets and gallery- style racks sum up the modern-day fashion legend while serving as a canvas for Chloe handbags and Kenzo bomber jackets. In November last year, Ho designed an installation that resembled a tree trunk that unfurls across Sass & Bide’s New York flagship, speaking to his client’s love affair with driftwood and the site’s legacy as a carpentry store. Then, earlier this year, he brought Dion Lee’s space-age fashion aesthetic to a bricks-and-mortar shop, using neon light boxes, mirrored fixtures and high-gloss floors for Lee’s first boutique in The Strand Arcade.

“I knew New York was a really important place for Sass & Bide, so I wanted to do something out of the box,” explains Ho, whose passion for unusual materials such as untreated and raw pine and wrought iron play a starring role in the 21 stores he’s designed for the label. “It was really about how we could take a space with a classic iron facade, and the detail of a Soho heritage building, and use an organic concept that makes people question whether it’s a sculpture or a retail space. I’ve always been interested in why people are drawn to certain brands. I think more than ever, designers want the physical format of their retail business to be defined as an extension of their brand. There’s an opportunity in every brief to really push an idea.”

Akin Creative’s client base includes A.P.C.WillowLoverBassikeIncu andVanishing Elephant, but its headquarters – filled with grey surfaces, angular workspaces and a loft-like meeting area that could have been lifted from a Tokyo apartment – seems less inspired by the fashion world than by the no-frills discipline of industrial design. At any given time, Ho and his 10 staff – whose jokey exchanges belie the intensity and breadth of their output – may be liaising with metal suppliers, drafting floor plans for luxury tree houses in the Maldives or masterminding a Merivale fit-out.

Although the firm is better known for retail, its partnership with the hospitality giant spans venues such as Ms.G’sPalmer & CoPapi Chulo and the newly openedCoogee Pavilion. Ho, who sometimes works on residential projects, is reluctant to acknowledge his hand in conceiving the city’s most well-known interior spaces. Instead, he tells us he owes his career to opportunities spun out of early creative experiments.

“When I graduated there was a lot happening in the fashion industry in Australia. Brands such as Sass & Bide and Ksubi were just starting to take off,” Ho recalls. “It was the GFC and there was no work, but a lot of creative stuff was happening and a lot of versatility and resourcefulness. I was working full-time on big projects at a large firm, but I was tucked into that scene through friends and acquaintances, and I became part of the culture I was interested in.”

The scene Ho is referring to was instantly noticed during the 2001 Fashion Week when Ksubi – then an unknown denim label – sent 169 rats down the catwalk. Ho, who was friends with founders Dan Single and George Gorrow, took part in the show, which fixed the industry’s gaze firmly on Sydney, and marked the city as an incubator for rule-breaking fashion and art. Ho says his own lucky break came in the form of a recommendation by stylist friend Emily McGuire, who was working atBelinda Seper’s The Corner Shop. That connection led to Ho’s first retail-design project. Seper’s reputation as a tastemaker doubled as a seal of approval, attracting the client base that would pave the way for Akin Creative.

“Belinda wanted to work with someone young who didn’t necessarily have a retail background, but had good ideas and an eye. What I presented was super conceptual and unorthodox, which she really responds to,” says Ho. “You know how you have some figures in your career that aren’t necessarily connected to what you do, but nurture you from the beginning? She’s become like a mentor. A lot of brands thought; if he’s good enough to be working with Belinda, he’s good enough to be working for us.”

It’s easy to be cynical about brands whose marketing promises individuality, but who then share a single design talent to create their stores. Ho’s approach is not uniform. His work can go from moody and layered, to light- washed and expansive, depending on his client. But it’s tempting to put his trajectory down to a city that conflates professional currency with insider status.

Huw Bennett has a different theory. The Vanishing Elephant co-founder says that Akin Creative’s devotion to simplicity is a welcome relief in an industry prone to complication. “We didn’t work with Kelvin on our first shop and we regretted it,” says Bennett. “When we opened our second store in Bondi Junction, we knew what we needed in terms of fabrication, but didn’t know how to achieve the architectural and building aspects. Kelvin’s a great communicator. He understands how things work and can bring a vision to life.” Dion Lee shares Bennett’s sentiment. “Kelvin has an ability to elevate retail concepts and create an experience for customers,” he says. “Partnering with Akin has been great for my brand.”

Ho showed his purist leanings early. Growing up with an engineer father on Sydney’s North Shore, drawing and building were part of his earliest vocabulary, along with the belief that ideas didn’t matter unless, when they left your head, they had a place in real life. “We were always building stuff and I loved seeing how things fit together. I knew that you could be creative, but if you couldn’t build it, there was no point.” Despite this practicality, there’s a poetry that marks out Ho’s vision.

“Drawing has always been a massive part of how I communicated. As a kid I was always drawing houses and dinosaurs,” says Ho, who admits he’s yet to work on his defining project.

“When I was studying, I wrote a thesis that paralleled architecture with literature,” he says. “It compared the way an author writes a story and creates texture in a novel, to the way an architect works with materials and space. In a way, what I do is just like storytelling.”


Posted on October 12, 2014

Tags: design, profile, longform