Kat Su is a designer for Calvin Klein Underwear where she works mainly in women’s sleepwear, as well as with various other special projects. Most of her Are.na channels are evolving mood boards that she keeps to research new designs and collections; since her process for accumulating and categorizing images is both instinctual and systematic, her channels feel at once expansive and self-contained. She can’t share much about the finished products, since they are owned by Calvin Klein, but it’s easy to get an idea of them just from her research. That’s what attracted me to her channels in the first place—sifting through them feels like watching an idea take form. I asked her to elaborate on her research and design process, and we struck up the below correspondence over email.
How do you begin a design project?
Some designers come up with a great idea on the spot, and then they execute it, and that’s their entire design process. My process is the polar opposite. I am extremely methodical in my approach, and do tons of research and thinking to produce a great concept. Twenty-five percent of the research that I do is done IRL in NYC or abroad (visiting shops/museums/trade shows/libraries/etc), and 75% is done online (visiting shopping sites/news sites/blogs/Instagram/Google/etc).
When I was first interviewing for my job with Calvin Klein in 2015, I started the calvin klein heritage research channel to fully understand the brand’s attitude, aesthetic and message before I showed up to my interview. I was already infatuated with the brand, but I was only familiar with the contributions that Calvin Klein, the designer, had made to the brand, based on books I read. The channel condensed both the brand’s history and present moment into one place, and helped me envision its future in terms of what I think the product should look like. I did all the research online. After I got the job, I expanded the channel even more, and the channel has become a North Star that I follow to make sure the product that I work on is aligned with the brand.
What are your favorite museums or libraries in the city? Are there any libraries in New York that you’ve found are particularly good for image research?
I love the Neue Gallerie and the Guggenheim in Manhattan. I also really like the Noguchi Museum in Long Island City. With regards to libraries, Pratt Institute has an incredible library that is open to the public; it’s housed in a stunning, very old historic building, and the floors of the stacks are made out of brushed glass. Super lovely atmosphere. They have a wide assortment of rare art and design books.
The New York Public Library 5th Ave Mid-Manhattan branch is a great resource as well. Their Picture Collection is sort of like a real life Are.na, in that all their pictures are catalogued into a wide variety of topics. For instance, they have files about everything from college life in the ‘90s to french gardens to russian furniture design.
Where do you source your images, in general? Or how do you go about sourcing them?
I have two approaches. One approach is to just let things happen organically; sometimes I find pictures that I love by looking through the social media accounts of artists and photographers that I follow, like Genieve Figgis and Romy Northover, to name a couple. Sometimes a news article or a blog will post an amazing photograph that I want to save.
Another approach is to have a concept first, and then do research to flesh it out. For example, Gap just launched a ‘90s reissue campaign, and it reminded me of how perfect Gap’s clothing and advertising used to be in the ‘90s. I feel like many brands are still trying to use that moment in time as a benchmark for how their product and ads should look and feel right now. The ‘90s vibe in general is making a resurgence, but I think that Gap achieved something more significant that still resonates with a lot of people today.
Can you expand on that?
To be clear, I am not talking about their late ‘90s ads with the synchronized dancing and singing. I’m referencing a very specific spirit and attitude that they were honing in the late ‘80s and then really excelled at in the early and mid ‘90s. Under [CEO] Mickey Drexler, Gap’s goal was to sell well-made, affordable American wardrobe staples: Gap Jeans, Gap Khakis, Gap T-shirts, Gap turtlenecks, Gap oxford shirts. They figured out a way to romanticize and elevate basic pieces into aspirational items, and ended up essentially giving an entire generation a uniform. In addition to using models and celebrities, they also casted unconventional subjects like Joan Didion (Gap beat Celine to it by 26 years), Andy Warhol, Arthur Miller, Miles Davis, and Muhammad Ali. Gap’s marketers subverted fashion trends by highlighting the archetype of the complex, high-achiever who embraces simple, elegant, unassuming clothing. The idea of wearing simple shirts, jeans, and khakis became indicative of a certain lifestyle, as well a symbol of classic Americana.
When you look at the retail landscape today, there is one side of the spectrum that tries to capitalize on all the things that are trending and currently in fashion. The opposite side of the spectrum consist of brands and boutiques that are trying to achieve what early ‘90s Gap achieved. And there is definitely a market for it—just look at all the articles that proliferate on the Internet about how Steve Jobs, Mark Zuckerberg, and Elizabeth Holmes only wear one outfit, or all the companies that have huge wait lists for a basic hoodie or a basic 5 pocket jean.
I know you said you use the site for collecting and categorizing images, and for creating mood boards. Is there an order, or a rhyme or reason, for you in curating these types of channels? Is there a methodology, or is it more of a place to just deposit and store for later?
There is no real methodology except that I collect images that make me react. Most of my channels are private, but I keep some of my channels public in case I think it might be a topic of interest to other people who use the site. But it is mostly a reference bank for me when I am working through an idea or concept. If I have to make a mood board, it is incredibly time-effective to draw from pics that I have vetted through and collected over the years.
You also collect landscape images, plant images, images evocative for their textures or colors. These have a less direct association with your design work as, say, the heritage channels. Are they still used in the same way—as inspiration?
Yes, definitely. At my current job, I don’t work on things like color and concept, but there might be a time when I will have to do it again. I just want to make sure my cache is always up-to-date.
Also, the plant channel is because I’m an avid apartment gardener. I’m currently tinkering with the idea of grafting different plants together to create frankenplants, so some of those blocks are my research about this potential new pursuit.
I think as more of a text-based researcher, what fascinates me about very visual research is the point at which collecting found images leads to an original design or idea taking form in your mind. Is there a moment when you’re collecting images as inspiration for a design that you feel like you have it, or have a better idea of what you’re working toward?
When I am researching, I almost always have an idea of what I am going to do before I start to design it. The research process is more about refining rather than going from zero to one.
What typically is the final result of this research, if any? Do you stop using the channel after that?
Once the research phase is complete, I go into execution phase and work on prototyping my ideas with some factories. If things go my way, the product ends up making it to stores.
I don’t think I’ve ever retired a channel; over the years, I’ve noticed that my taste hasn’t really changed that much. I’ve always been attracted to the classics, so every design problem is about refining something that is a classic, rather than coming up with something totally new.