Khoi Le is young, charming and insanely talented. You’ll find his bags on models, Joe Jonas, Old Hollywood veterans and the usual downtown set. He’s created a space for himself in the accessories world where he can offer everything Americana you want from the old school belt wrapped book carrier to the beautifully pared down utilitarian backpack that you’ve always dreamed of. Here, we talk about making an American classic when you’re not quite American, the power of a brand, and the moment when you know what success is. Simplicity is power and Khoi Le has it.
Did you move to Los Gatos, California from Vietnam?
I moved to Sunnyvale, which was really close. It’s a really interesting town.
My suburban hometown is very homogeneous – boxy silhouettes, soccer mom vibes. Would you say that’s how it is in Los Gatos?
Yes, because it is suburban. It’s not like NYC where people know about the newest and latest thing because they happen to – because it’s always around them. In Los Gatos it’s a bit more forced.
Is it like Malibu?
Eh, sort of, but more sophomore and less surf. But it’s fun.
Do you think your assimilation into a brand new culture encourages you to create things you thought “born Americans would like? Or do you think your creation of heritage leather pieces was an attempt at assimilation?
I think its really subconscious. I didn’t intentionally think “Oh that’s cool”. I went to the Chelsea flea market every Saturday. That’s where a lot of my original aesthetic came from.
You didn’t know what you wanted your goods to look like until you came to New York?
Yeah, not at all. I knew I wanted my bags to be fashionable and light. People think of Marc Jacobs as extremely fashionable. I wanted to be in that sphere of fashion insider, of the “Oh, they know something that we don’t know.”
That’s interesting because Marc Jacobs is well regarded in the exclusive fashion circuit as well as in the general public, commercial circuit. He has the Marc Jacobs line and then all of the Marc By Marc By Marc By Marc etc subsidiaries that get cheaper and cheaper. It’s crazy to have your company exist for 14 year old girls as well as really rich fashionistas.
Yep, there’s something for $1.40 and something for $140k.
Is it just because he could lower his price that much?
I think so. It’s really good groundwork for a brand because you have to have a really strong identity to have some items be so expensive while having the same name on something as low as a condom that is $1.40.
Prada has a new sable coat for $300k.
Is it full length?
Yes. Or almost. I think it’s to your knee.
It’s probably like “free range sable.” “Grass fed sable.”
I don’t think sable eat grass.
But, you know, they pick the best stuff and its for these hyper wealthy customers.
So anyways, you decided in New York what you wanted to emulate.
Not emulate, but what my values were in terms of my future brand.
Did you always know that you wanted to design accessories?
Yes. I just knew that I wanted do accessories. It was the only thing I drew. I got into Parsons and was like, “I’m gonna go for the accessories program.” They didn’t have an accessories program. And now, someone told me that the other day, they finally do!
You went to school for an accessories program that didn’t exist?
Yeah! Right, I was very focused on the fact that all of these designers went there [like Marc Jacobs], so it must mean something.
Why do you like Marc Jacobs so much?
I don’t know. I just really do. He’s brilliant. I’m sure every girl in the world has a Marc Jacobs item. I never look at his clothes just the shoes and the bags. I got really obsessed about fashion when I first started looking at Louis Vuitton bags. Remember that collection for Murakami? It was the gaudiest thing ever. And still to this day I really like it. It’s so great. That was what really turned me on. The pieces were so coveted and people were on wait lists. They were shopping on eBay and buying those bags for hundreds of dollars more than their retail prices. I think covet is a really big thing for me when it comes to accessories because they’re highly regarded, but also utilitarian. That collection is what sparked it for me.
Turning a utilitarian thing into a collector’s item?
Yes. Customers like it so much. It’s really nice. Even if no one liked and I was alone, I would just want to look at it and touch it. I dunno, there is just something about these bags. They’re miniature architecture.
Do you really think that those purses, those papillon were so beautifully made? That the manufacturing was amazing?
Yes, I looked at every single stitch and everything was perfect. Perfect! A lot of other brands waver on quality but Louis Vuitton has consistent quality.
Where are the bags made?
Their show items are made in Italy or Spain or France. But regular stock items are made in California. There was uproar because people were like “I don’t want my Louis Vuitton bag to be from California.” It’s the same quality.
And better for the planet!
Yeah that’s true, the carbon blah blah blah is less.
What does your mom do?
Nothing. She’s a homemaker. She’s one of those people who does and has done everything. When I was six, she went to school for computer engineering and after my brother was born, she went to school for child care and education. And after that, she went to school for graphic design and after that she went to school for fine arts. Right now she’s painting. I dunno, she’s one of those people who isn’t built for the work force. She’s very thinned skin. When you have so many interests, they kind of get in each other’s way. If she doesn’t work, she goes crazy. My step dad is a computer engineer and is very good at what he does. Computer engineering is what my little brother likes to do too. My dad used to import and export goods from Japan to Vietnam. Even though he worked a lot, he had a lot of downtime. I get a lot of my work ethic from him, which is could be a good thing or a bad thing. He’s really chill about everything, but gets a lot done.
You’re a production machine. I don’t how much work goes into making backpack, but it looks like a lot. I’ve heard you say “I need to make 5 backpacks today” and then do it.
If it’s important to me, then I do it.
School didn’t work for you, why not? Do you think fashion programs are geared toward a duty of production that you aren’t interested in? Or do you think everything taught in these programs are better learned through real world experience?
I didn’t like what people were telling me to do [when I went to school]. I would always end up doing what I thought was the best thing to do. They’d give me a project on flats, and I would make a heel and be like “This heel is amazing.” But it’s not what they asked for. A lot of people are really good at task completion but I’m not one of them. Even in job scenarios. I interviewed with JCrew a long time ago. They said that they could tell that I was too independent even though blah blah blah I was talented. They said they didn’t think it would work because of my thought process. They were right. If I had worked there, I wouldn’t be doing them a service. I would just be there getting a paycheck while trying to figure out something else. They need a team player. I believe everything just works itself out in the best sense. This was when I first moved to New York and tried to do the whole corporate fashion thing but then that fizzled out and I moved back home. But right before I moved back home, I met with the American Two Shot girls. And that Fall I did my first collection for them.
Did ATS Launch you?
I’d been in a store before, but it was a random store. Two Shot was a very built support system that helped a lot. Two Shot led to other stores, and to press and eventually to here: my own brand.
What did you want to be when you were five?
I wanted to be an architect. I remember playing with blocks and another kid had these blocks built up and I was like “blah!” [knocking them over], and the kid told the teacher. For some reason, she saw that it was me and was like, “Oh it’s fine.” I started building it back up and had so much fun doing it. I actually had the thought that I wanted to be an architect. My mom always wanted to be an artist so I definitely got some of that. It was a mixture of the two. When I was sixteen, I wanted to be a designer because it was art but I would be able to make a living as a designer.
What do people believe about you that isn’t true?
I don’t know. I haven’t spoken to people about their thoughts on me. But a lot of the time, and maybe this is just me being critical on myself, people come and say, “Congratulations and this and that, and New York Magazine” and I feel like I make this face, like “Oh, really?” I just feel like I should be doing more and have a grander luxe life. You know, an Architectural Digest magazine life. It’s just not quite there. Life is good, but not as good as these people make it seem. They think it’s such a big deal to have all this press, but I’m just getting by and trying to shovel up my next collection. I think thereare very defined points in people’s lives as designers where they can say “I made it” butthat isn’t where I am right now. You know what I mean? They think where I am is this really grandiose type of thing. What I’ve been able to do is respectable, it’s great, amazing. I’m happy with where things are and I’m happy with where I am but I’m expecting to see more from it.
Being 24 and sustaining on the money that you make by selling the bags that you like making is really important.
Just to be able to say that you do what you want to do and not have to have an investor’s assistance is good. I dunno, I always feel like I’m on the cusp of something. I feel like everyone is on the cusp.
What famous person do you most identify with?
I don’t know. And I kinda refuse.