THE LUX­URY OF SIM­PLIC­ITY

A fine artist, en­tre­pre­neur and fash­ion mav­er­ick, Jonathan Koon may well be the most in­ter­est­ing man you’ve never heard of. Sarah Maisey meets him

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Jonathan Koon is end­lessly in­trigu­ing. The suc­cess­ful en­tre­pre­neur made his first mil­lion by the age of 16, looks far younger than his 35 years and has al­ready had more ca­reers than most of us would fit in over sev­eral life­times. Dy­namic and driven, he talks at a pace that only a na­tive New Yorker could sus­tain, owns a global fash­ion em­pire and is an ac­com­plished fine artist, shut­tling be­tween Paris, Hong Kong, China and New York.

And yet, when I meet him in Dubai at the launch of the lat­est col­lec­tion by his fash­ion la­bel Hac­ulla, I en­counter a man who is not only very en­ter­tain­ing com­pany (I later worry that he has made it all up – I checked, he hasn’t), but also not mo­ti­vated by money. It is some­thing far more in­tan­gi­ble that drives him.

He ex­plains how, as a young de­signer who was heav­ily into denim, he vis­ited the Okayama re­gion of Ja­pan, “the holy grail” of the denim in­dus­try, and found him­self in a tiny, non­de­script shop. “I wanted one pair of jeans and asked how much, but I was told: ‘No price, it’s not for sale.’ Then the owner takes the jeans and tells me to try them on. He looks at me, turns me around, and then tells me the price.

“For me, this was in­sane – that the owner would judge if you could have them or not. That if you aren’t right, it doesn’t mat­ter how much you want them, he will never sell them to you.

“It was not a lux­u­ri­ous place, it was a lit­tle hole in the wall, but that to me was ab­so­lute lux­ury. It was mind-blow­ing.”

You could, at this point, be for­given for think­ing that Koon was born into a life of priv­i­lege – a trust­fund kid, per­haps? Yet the ex­act op­po­site is true. “My par­ents are im­mi­grants from Hong Kong,” he ex­plains. “I was born and raised in Ja­maica, Queens, and there were 26 fam­ily mem­bers liv­ing in a stu­dio apart­ment. I had a re­ally in­ter­est­ing, strug­gling child­hood, where I never had any­thing. I had no toys; no video games.”

Watch­ing as his par­ents jug­gled mul­ti­ple jobs to make ends meet, Koon made his first art sale – at the age of 8 – to Hall­mark, which pur­chased three of his draw­ings and turned them into greet­ing cards. His par­ents, how­ever, were less than im­pressed. When he told them that he wanted to be­come an artist, they said: “No, you are an only child and you are go­ing to be a doc­tor or lawyer. We didn’t work this hard to bring you here so you can do noth­ing.”

Still on the look­out for ways to make money, a teenage Koon re­alised that no one was im­port­ing the Asian car-tun­ing parts that all his friends were rav­ing about. So he set up Ex­treme Per­for­mance Mo­tor­sports with a friend when he was 15 (“I had to wait un­til 16 be­fore I could legally file the pa­per­work,” he is quick to point out) to im­port car parts from Hong Kong, Ja­pan and Tai­wan into the United States.

While he ini­tially started out sell­ing to friends, de­mand mush­roomed un­til Koon was one of the main sup­pli­ers to the smash MTV hit show Pimp My Ride. “The press said I made a mil­lion dol­lars,” he says, mat­ter-of-factly. “It was pretty close to that; we were very suc­cess­ful.”

A er a se­ries of other lu­cra­tive busi­ness ven­tures, Koon even­tu­ally found his way into fash­ion – ini­tially as the man­u­fac­turer be­hind a la­bel be­long­ing to rap­per Cam’ron, of The Diplo­mats. “So, The Diplo­mats end up get­ting signed to Jay Z’s record la­bel, Roc-A-Fella Records,” Koon ex­plains, al­most sheep­ishly, be­fore adding that, by sheer co­in­ci­dence, Jay Z was in the process of set­ting up his own fash­ion brand, but was strug­gling to find sup­pli­ers.

“Jay asked Cam’ron: ‘How’d you get such a nice hat? I am the big star here, and I can’t get a hat like that.’ So Cam’ron said: ‘I have this golden child. You have to meet him.’” Koon pauses. “So I be­came the first man­u­fac­tur­ing part­ner for Ro­cawear, the largest hiphop cloth­ing brand in the world.”

De­scrib­ing him­self first and fore­most as a con­cep­tual artist, Koon is adamant that it is art, not money, that in­spires him. “Ev­ery­thing I do, I do for my par­ents,” he says. “I re­mem­ber, when I was young, ask­ing them if I could be an artist. And they said: ‘Jon, when you make enough money that we can re­tire and you buy us our dream home, then you can be­come an artist.’

“At their house-warm­ing party, I said: ‘Hey, re­mem­ber 10 years ago I said I wanted to be an artist? Well, I don’t think you and Dad are work­ing now, and I am pretty sure this is your dream home, so now I am go­ing to be an artist.’ I was 21 or 22.”

While art is his first love, Koon de­cided to stay within the fash­ion world, to fund what he calls his art “habit”. Re­al­is­ing that he needed more knowl­edge and to pre­vent him­self from be­ing pi­geon­holed as purely “hip-hop”, Koon went to work for Domenico Vacca, the menswear la­bel known for its A-list client base and US$20,000 (Dh73,450) off-the-rail suits. A favourite with Hol­ly­wood cos­tume de­sign­ers and di­rec­tors, the brand’s cloth­ing is o en to be seen on the sil­ver screen.

Despite Koon hav­ing no for­mal train­ing or ex­pe­ri­ence, Vacca was im­pressed enough to sign him up to de­sign the Domenico Vacca Denim dif­fu­sion line, cre­at­ing high-end but ca­sual cloth­ing for the likes of Den­zel Wash­ing­ton, For­est Whi­taker and Mickey Rourke. “My polo shirts were go­ing to re­tail for $550, so I had to make them worth that,” he says. “I learnt a lot about ex­trav­a­gant tex­tiles and hand tech­niques.”

In 2013, Koon opened Pri­vate Stock, a fash­ion store set over two lev­els in Andy Warhol’s for­mer stu­dio in SoHo, New York. “The Warhol es­tate did not ap­prove, and ev­ery­one asked me if I re­ally wanted to pay SoHo rent to carry out my weird project, and that I would never make the money back. I ended up spend­ing ridicu­lous amounts of money to ren­o­vate this space.”

Un­fazed by the crit­i­cism (“You are mad. You are the weird­est guy in fash­ion. Are you mafia? Where is the money com­ing from?” he re­calls be­ing told), Koon took two years to trans­form the space into a to­tally new re­tail con­cept. “The store is 5,000 square feet and there are only 28 hang­ers,” he says. Hous­ing slid­ing lac­quer walls, art in­stal­la­tions and a koi pond that cost Dh184,000, Pri­vate Stock was de­signed to be un­like any­thing in re­tail.

“It’s like a gi­ant work of art. I be­lieve a brand is not just about clothes, it’s about all five senses. When peo­ple walk in, what it looks like, what it smells like, what sound is play­ing, it all mat­ters when they touch that gar­ment for the first time, be­cause that is the ex­pe­ri­ence you are sell­ing.”

Per­haps it was his up­bring­ing, or his in­ner artist, but Koon was de­ter­mined that his store would present a com­pletely new way of think­ing. “I wanted to open a fash­ion store that was anti-fash­ion, be­cause there are no re­tail ex­pe­ri­ences now. It’s all about the It bag that you need to spend $3,000 to $4,000 on or you are not rich enough. I thought this is just silly and it just plays into peo­ple’s in­ad­e­qua­cies.”

Aimed at of­fer­ing the ul­ti­mate in men’s fash­ion, Pri­vate Stock can be viewed as Koon’s per­sonal take on lux­ury, and as such, is highly cu­rated and strictly lim­ited edi­tion. “In Pri­vate Stock, I want it to be the new age of lux­ury, so I only pro­duce eight pieces per size, and 28 pieces is my max­i­mum. Imag­ine a T-shirt with runs of eight. And ev­ery sin­gle item is hand­la­belled. The min­i­mum run for la­bels is 100, so I throw away 99 of them, just so I can have an in­di­vid­ual, wo­ven la­bel. That only hap­pens in be­spoke suits. In­side the clothes is a birth­day card, which says, for ex­am­ple, that this item was made on Au­gust 16, 2017, and is piece number 3 of 8 pieces in the world that I will never, ever repli­cate.”

Un­der the um­brella of Tykoon Brand Hold­ings, Koon saw an­other gap in the mar­ket – for up­scale streetwear. So he also cre­ated the Hac­ulla la­bel, with graffiti artist-turned painter Harif Guz­man. “If you look at all the places that are evolv­ing – Rus­sia, China or Hong Kong – and you wear a suit and tie there, you’re a blue-col­lar worker. If you’ve got ripped jeans and a T-shirt on, you’re a mil­lion­aire. I re­alised there was go­ing to be a gap for high-end street-punk stuff.

“Five years ago when we took it to mar­ket, peo­ple laughed at us. That cot­ton hoodie for $350? When it cost $10 to make? I said it’s not what it cost me to make, it’s about what it stands for in this world. I am sell­ing you a hoodie with art work by Harif Guz­man on it. If you took it to an art gallery, it would sell for $50,000. I am giv­ing you a bargain. But if you feel it’s just a $10 hoodie, go and shop at H&M.

“I like au­then­tic lux­ury, but very, very few peo­ple ac­tu­ally do this. Lux­ury is not meant to be some­thing we have all the time. If we did, it’s not lux­ury. If you eat caviar for lunch and din­ner, it’s not lux­ury, it’s just food. But for the guys who eats it twice a year, be­cause it’s ex­pen­sive – for him it’s a real lux­ury.

“We grew up with noth­ing, and now can en­joy some of the lux­u­ries of the world, but when peo­ple mar­ket some­thing to me of a cer­tain pedi­gree, I ex­pect it to be of that pedi­gree. And a lot of the time, it’s not. So if I wouldn’t ac­cept it, why would I sell it to oth­ers?”

As we part com­pany, I can see why Koon has achieved so much. Bub­bling with in­fec­tious and bare­ly­con­tained en­ergy, he is also a nat­u­ral sto­ry­teller (who, in­ci­den­tally, never watches TV). Funny, in­formed and self-ef­fac­ing, he is al­most im­pos­si­ble to dis­like, and al­though dressed in an over­sized T-shirt and dropcrotch pants, Koon is equipped with a ra­zor-sharp view of the world and a re­fined, al­most el­e­gant way of think­ing. With enough money to buy any­thing he wants, it is per­haps his busi­ness card that says most about him. Made to re­sem­ble an all-white credit card, there are only six words on it: Jonathan Koon. The sim­plic­ity of lux­ury.

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