Photos by Margaret M. Sison
The first time many fashionistas heard the name of Kaisik Wong, the late San Francisco–based designer once celebrated for his wearable art garments, was in spring this year after Balenciaga designer and style-mag golden boy Nicolas Ghesquière was busted for blatantly copying a collage vest made by Wong in 1973. The scandal sparked new interest in Wong’s work. In one of those curious moments of serendipity, Decades owner Cameron Silver, who had himself just discovered Wong a few months earlier and had bought a number of pieces from Wong’s family, was in the midst of preparing to mount a retrospective of Wong’s fantastical one-of-a-kind pieces which opened last week.
Wong once said, “I think the whole body should be a jeweled, radiating beauty.” His designs conjure up a sense of both motion and containment, creating an illusion of spiritual armor: a gold-blue-and-purple starburst gown seemingly held together by an oversize red mystic-knot in the center, or a flowing, translucent, triple-layered, orange wing dress, which captures both Tibetan fire and the grace of a butterfly. Brightly colored, multilayered fabric constructions are intricately detailed with embroidery, piping and padding; belts, bibs and vests add an ornamental layer.
The controversial collage vest (bottom) and Purple nylon Phoenix coat; fish dress (painting by Prairie Prince) with gold trim; green jersey wrap dress with trim
The shapes of his robes, gowns and headdresses are both futuristic and tribal; the combining of metallic, Mayan and Chinese textiles is his way of fulfilling Aquarian prophecy. “I like the progressive state, the forward movement, the concept of the Aquarian Age,” he said. He certainly lived it. Wong’s personal fashion sense directly related to theater — he appeared in public often dressed in character of the Monkey King, a mischievous trickster deity from Chinese folklore.
About 15 years ago, I learned of Kaisik Wong through a mutual friend, actor/model Juan Fernandez. With Juan, I attended salons hosted by the late photographer and former Cockette Steven Arnold, whose loft was adorned with layers of red Chinese lanterns, anything golden, and a trapeze hung in the center of the room. The walls usually showcased Arnold’s current photo projects: The only constant images were of Kaisik as a Pharaoh, Juan as Christ, and the Surrealist painter/model/actress Pandora as Venus de Milo.
“Kaisik took the love and spirituality that came out of the movements of the late ’60s, and transcended them into a magic that was felt by people,” says Fernandez, who notes that Wong didn’t use patterns: Rather, with a pair of scissors in each hand, he let the spirit or “energy” of the fabric guide him through cutting it. “Working with mythology, he was trying to connect the past with the future — his creations were the kinds of things goddesses would have worn. I think this is why he didn’t want to be bothered with making ready-to-wear.”
Juan and Wong were part of an intimate group of artists that had collected around Salvador Dalí. “I met Dalí in Paris in 1969, and brought Kaisik, Steven and Pandora to him,” says Fernandez. In a relationship that spanned almost 10 years, they worked on a series of projects which included films and plays, and in 1974, Dalí commissioned Wong to make an installation for the grand opening of his museum in Figueras, Spain. Wong created seven mystical garments, which he called “Seven Rays.” When the exhibit opened, according to Pandora, “The collection brought people to their knees.”
Light-blue chiffon poncho with netting and chiffon pants
Of course being brilliant doesn’t necessarily make one famous. Although Wong enjoyed a certain renown as a seminal art-to-wear designer, it was l’affaire Ghesquière that put him on many style mavens’ maps. A fashion archivist/aficionado and video director who goes by the name of Chorro discovered Ghesquière’s deception. Chorro, who gave the Weekly his first interview on the subject, was at a trade show where he was looking through the seminal 1974 book Native Funk & Flash: An Emerging Folk Art, when he spotted a spread on Wong. “I turned to the page with the Kaisik Wong vest, and was like, wait a minute! My employee, Sameer Reddy, worshiped Ghesquière, so I made the vest connection immediately. I went to Sameer and said, ‘I have something awful to tell you . . .’” Reddy was so disenchanted with Ghesquière’s thievery that he took the story to hintmag.com, where he was interning, which broke it in the Chic Happens column. Publications from The New York Times to WWD to The Guardian weighed in.
Wong briefly launched two commercial lines in his career, carried at Henri Bendel and I. Magnin as well as Obiko, an innovative art-to-wear boutique in San Francisco. But he always returned to custom work. His clients ranged from Tina Turner and Elton John to Dodie Rosekrans and Ann Getty. In December 2003, Rizzoli is releasing the definitive book on the art and fashion of Kaisik Wong, guaranteed to keep the legend and collecting fever alive for some time (among the first to buy pieces from the Decades exhibit were Linda Evangelista and Jennifer Tilly, as well as a few designers who prefer to remain anonymous for obvious reasons). “His influence on contemporary fashion is both profound and controversial,” says Silver. “I think he always functioned a little under the fashion industry’s radar, yet he still infiltrated. It’s totally what we need in the world again, someone as over the top and eccentric as Kaisik Wong.”