Voyager Journal

I remember the first moment I opened one of my mother's Harper's Bazaar in the 90s. It was when I first laid eyes on a 1997 Prada advert by Glen Luchford with Amber Valletta looking coquettish in a misty lake, when I learned about some guy who made a boot that looked like a horse hoof and when I learned that "less is more" in a Calvin Klein silk dress. It was an epiphany when I realized that fashion had a brain and fashion was functional art.

Rarely do I ever have this moment with a brand where I feel that feeling like I did as a kid, but somehow 17 years later, I had it again with Kaarem. Perhaps it is the Southeast Asian connection since my Chinese parents were born there and i am just a little bit Vietnamese. Or perhaps it is their modern silhouettes that remind me of the minimal style that I fell in love with so many years ago. Whatever it is, it is a connection that is felt not only by me, but all of the ladies at Revolver.

It is what all of the sexy, funny, clever women of this company truly bond over. A triumph for intelligent dressing that we are all working so hard to bring all of you. Something modern, well designed and has a beating heart. We are so excited and honored to introduce to you the team behind Kaarem. We think, like us, that they want you to wear functional, inspiring, beautiful things everyday of your life.

How did the brand Kaarem start?

Kaarem started as a creative project and evolved into something beyond our expectations. Chuong was taking night classes at FIT after slinging as an engineer during the day. Brian was working at HUGE as a product developer and starting to really dive into photography. After a recent trip to Vietnam, Chuong and Brian both were inspired by the energy, and challenged themselves to do beyond what they were doing. The original idea was Chuong would design the clothes and Brian would take the pictures and build the website. As it became more tangible, Ben and Kathy joined the team. Ben’s experience working in tech makes our site really complete. We have an incredible, custom built, platform that we’re lucky to have as a young brand. Kathy brings an entire career of digital and fashion experience, last coming from Opening Ceremony, and she has been so essential to our growth with her focus, dedication, and ability to do everything. Working together, each of our talents complement each other. We came together to share our perspective on design and garment-making. The biggest thing that we were not able to anticipate was the opportunity it gave us to connect ourselves to Vietnam, where each of our families are from.

So what are all of your roles in the company?

Chuong designs the clothes with an influence from his background in mechanical engineering. Brian shoots most of the photography and handles all the graphic and UI design. Ben built the entire infrastructure of the web site with his bare hands, usually while listening to 80s house music. Kathy brings experience working online and in fashion and manages just about every facet of the company, all the while wrangling three men. We’re fortunate that we’ve been friends for over 12 years now. Lots of trust and respect, so we naturally talk about everything, and work on everything together.

If my Vietnamese serves me right, "Kaa rem" means "ice cream." What are your favorite flavors?

In a way Kaarem means ice cream, which is something we all enjoy. Kaarem is phonetically of how crème is pronounced, cà rem, which means ice cream.

Chuong - thrifty’s chocolate malted crunch
Brian - cherry vanilla from chinatown ice cream factory
Ben - ice cream sandwich
Kathy - bi-rite’s ginger

We know that you are mainly based in Ho Chi Minh City, which is not known for being a cosmopolitan fashion capital, but is instead more recognized as a beautiful city rich with culture and history. How has HCMC influenced what you do?

It’s a very exciting time in HCMC right now. It’s a place where creative individuals, both old and young, can carve out opportunities. In this age of technology, information is more accessible, contributing to the transformation of the city. The younger generation is constantly pushing boundaries in art and culture. There’s an inspiring energy and a creative momentum happening across all fields. This really inspires us and we hope to contribute to it as well as collaborate with local artists and creators in HCMC as well as abroad.

How do you think the concept of "Made in Vietnam" is changing globally with brands like yours who are contributing to fashion innovation?

For Kaarem, we care deeply about craft, construction and quality. We put value into the craft of making a garment: from draping, pattern-making by hand, cutting, sewing, to hand-detailing. We gave ourselves a challenge to build our own production space where we could instill our appreciation of traditional construction techniques, handsewn detailing and the concept of taking things slow. We are a small team. Every garment is designed, handcrafted and produced in our KAAREM studio in HCMC.

Some still associate “Made in Vietnam” strictly with big box factories, mass-production, and sacrifice to quality. But, we have seen great garments produced out of the factories in Vietnam with good quality and attention to detail. We hope that some will look beyond the “Made in” label, and begin to appreciate the garment and the process it went through. Kaarem is simply here to offer a different perspective and appreciation for the crafting of clothes.

The traditional áo dài is stylistically a symbol of Vietnamese femininity. A garment that both seems to show both precision tailoring and a soft flow and ease. These two ideas seem to echo in your collections. How does Kaarem interpret modern Vietnamese femininity?

The áo dài, in its many forms, have been an inspiration to our approach with design and garment making. We love the loose-fitting, and somewhat masculine aesthetic to the traditional áo dài, and the confident femininity through subtle design details in the modern áo dài. We like to explore the idea of femininity through masculinity, and enjoy designing different subtleties that brings out the confidence and curves of a woman that isn’t overtly “sexy”. We draw towards looser silhouettes, or what may seem like solid shapes that interpret a firm foundation, but along with that, we design revealing moments like our open back triangles, or slits that activate through movement.

We really appreciate the traditional craft of making an áo dài, specifically the use of the blind stitch. It is rare to find traditional áo dài construction techniques, not even in modern áo dài making. We challenge ourselves to cultivate these techniques of handsewn details and blind stitches in our own garments. We hope that Kaarem women will value these attention to details and quality in our craft, and feel the confidence, in both a feminine and masculine way, when they wear our clothes.

What bands/musicians are on heavy rotation at the studio?

Mixes and youtube playlists. We recently had an event in Hanoi at Tadioto, and we put together a playlist that represents some of the music we’ve been inspired by. Some tracks on it like Imagination - Music and Lights and Surface - Falling in Love represent the older disco we like. Tracks like Trịnh Công Sơn - Tình sầu and Phương Tâm - Đêm Huyền Diệu represent 60s and 70s era Vietnamese music we like, stuff our parents were into when they were young. Tracks like Still Going - Still Going Theme and Inner City - Good Life represent our sensibility to all types of house. Nostalgic tracks like Modern Talking - Your my Heart and Erasure - Oh L’Amour represent the cheezy new wave/italo most Vietnamese people are familiar with who grew up in the 80s, especially in places like Orange County and San Jose (where the four of us were raised).

Tells us about your inspirations for the SS14 collections?

Chuong is the keeper of our studio garden, where he has a collection of orchids. While nerding on the details of an orchid, he found inspiration for SS14. With each orchid, there was so much detail, imagery and colors relating to both life and death. We designed our first two prints: “Orchid Leaf” representing the death of an orchid plant, and “Sprout Leaf” representing life. Overall, we draw a lot of inspiration from nature and our environments. You’ll find earth tones in our collection. 

We saw Chuong likes to skate. Where are your top 3 favorite places to grind?

I enjoy skating anywhere that I can.

Top 3:

1) New York City. There are so many places. A favorite spot is Tompkins Square Park. It’s relaxing and where you meet up with friends, old and new.
2) Saigon. My favorite is skating through traffic near Nhà thờ Đức Bà.
3) Skating in front of my parents’ home.  It’s where I first started and I still enjoy it.

Thank you to Kathy, Chuong, Brian and Ben for taking some time to talk to us and shop this special collection HERE.


*all editorial images, product shots and Kaarem's HCMC studio photos are courtesy of Kaarem.

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