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London College of Fashion

Female model wearing red overall

LCF alumna Kris Keys on creating designs that tell powerful stories

Written by Alexandra R. Cifre
Published date 16 August 2019

The journey of a fashion designer can take many different paths. For Kris Keys, LCF alumna from BA (Hons) Fashion Design and Development, her personal experiences have shaped her vision as a designer, creating collections characterised by her distinctive style of illustration and the use of watercolours. In this interview, she talks about how she drew inspiration from an illness to create her first collection 'Haematology' and gives advice to LCF students who are thinking of launching their own brands after university.

Originally from Memphis,Tennessee, Kris Keys remembers how illustration or fashion weren’t really known in her area. Through her studies, she ended up working in merchandising in New York, and that's where she started learning about the insights of the industry: “Fashion was always on my mind, since I was very little. But I think it wasn’t until I moved to New York and then studied in London that I learned how many opportunities there were. It definitely helps when you are in a big fashion capital.”

Drawing was also a big part of her creative calling, and when she moved to London in 2011, her drive for illustration flourished like never before: “I was always drawing, and once I started doing it more I was able to find my niche. Living in London, I would draw everything that inspired me,” she remembers. “Compared to New York, people in London are much more experimental when it comes to personal style.”

As her skills in illustration grew alongside her interest in fashion design, Kris started attending fashion shows and illustrating what she saw on the catwalk: “It was amazing because I was in a world that I didn’t even know it existed. I started playing with different styles and different types of illustration, from wedding invitations to designer lookbooks.”

When she started her BA in Fashion Design and Development at LCF, Kris mentions how the course finally helped her to find the best way to mix her two passions as a designer:

It felt quite natural combining both sides of me. Illustration allowed me to express my designs in many different ways, from the lookbook to the packaging of my collections, and I really wanted to create something meaningful and tell stories with my designs. Being at LCF really helped me to explore that.

During her final year, Kris started using her own emotions and past experiences as elements of inspiration, turning her designs into garments with a very personal and powerful message: “My collection ‘Haematology’ is inspired by an illness I was diagnosed with when I was born, Hereditary Elliptocytosis, which makes my body produce abnormal blood red cells. Over the years, I’ve been collecting all sorts of imagery, like blood smears, tests, photos and research - I used all those materials to create unique silhouettes and prints for this collection.”

After graduating in 2017, Kris moved back to Memphis, where she launched her eponymous label for travelling women: “My brand provides luxury travel wear garments and illustrations for women across the world. I’ve always found airports to be truly inspiring - I love seeing the way women dress when they travel and the garments they use, it can be minimal but self-expressive and elegant at the same time." After the success of 'Haematology', the LCF alumna continued raising awareness about her illness through her designs, and is now working on a collection based on her genealogy:

I want every collection not only to tell the story of who I am, but also about my culture. For my next project, I want to go back in time and explore the story of my African-american roots, and see how far I can trace them.

For those thinking of launching their own label in the future, Kris wants to offer a few words of advice based on her entrepreneurial journey: "First of all, get as much experience as you can - don’t come out of uni and start your own brand! When you have your own business, you will always find some hiccups and you have to be able to come up with a plan B; if you’ve never seen these things happening before, you may be caught off guard, and it might damage your brand or cost you a lot of money.”

And eventually just try to find out your niche. There are so many fashion universities and brands, and it’s easy to get swallowed up if you don’t have something that makes you stand up.