Interview: Krystal Phillips of Kaphill

Posted by Grant Roush on

Describe your brand’s style in 3 words:

Bold, confident, sophisticated

Describe your personal style in 3 words:

Confident, timeless, a hint of sex appeal 


Which collection or project are you the most proud of and why?

I would say Kaphill’s FW23 Collection because that’s when I broke out of my safe box and stepped into just what I wanted to do. I peeled back all the layers of what I thought I should be doing and just created whatever was on my heart and I think that has set the tone for the brand going forward.

It’s bold, has a lot of volume, and is unapologetic. It is just a perfect narrative to the space of my life that I'm in right now where I am unapologetically me and I am not afraid of taking up space, which is my brand's motto, standing in power and taking up space. I decided on that as really a chant to myself telling me to take up space. I feel like I've finally arrived at this place where I'm not afraid of doing those things and that collection is a direct reflection of that.


How long did you feel like it took you to even get to that point? I know you had a lot of other roles in corporate life and sector before this; were there ever times that you felt that confidence at moments or was it something that launching your own brand brought you to?

It took me 10 years to be completely honest, I had a line prior to Kaphill with my sister called Marie Annette and it was really successful. We had a lot of celebrity placements and strong sales, but it wasn’t my true design aesthetic and I didn’t know exactly what that was at the time. I was just seeing what was trending and following those where as now I don’t even look, I just design what’s on my heart. 

Also having my daughter and figuring out who I was as a mom and who I was outside of that has brought me to this point. Had I not had my daughter five years ago, I don’t think I would have been in a space of figuring out who I am and who I want to present to her as her Mother

What is your dream job/role? 

Well, my dream job was always to be a designer. I've always wanted to be a designer and I never thought that I could be because I felt I didn’t have the talent or the skill. So, I didn't go to FIT (Fashion Institute of Technology) for fashion design, instead I studied production management and kind of fell into designing. 

I used to sketch in my room and my sister one day came to me and said,”Hey, do you want to start a brand together?” and I was like, “Ok, sure.” I will say I do also enjoy teaching so I consult people on how to set up their product development organizations. But speaking and engaging with people, I really enjoy that and you see that through my personal collections. 

Where are all your designs being produced? And are you still sewing anything yourself? 

I don’t sew anything myself and all of my designs are produced in New York. I'm in Turkey right now trying to see if I can move some of my production out of New York, but I work with other small businesses and local artisans to bring my collections to life currently. I still want to keep that element of the business but also want to be able to service my demand. So that's why I’m venturing out to new areas. 

Could you give me one or two designers or designer houses that you look up to and why? 

One of my favorite designers is Jean Paul Gaultier. I love all of the structure and line work he used and how he really accentuates the female form. It's something the brand does well and that has also drawn me to a lot of vintage and eighties fashion. I love, love, love period pieces and watch movies based in the Victorian era. That’s my jam, I will watch them over and over again. 

I love the structure and the femininity of Jean Paul Gaultier, and I also like Giambattista Valli. His work is just very feminine and romantic and I think my brand is the perfect combination of those two elements as well.


How can you see the fashion industry becoming more equitable?

I think it starts from the top down and having more people who look like me and look like other minorities in those c-suite positions. I think that can lead to a trickle down effect within the company culture and it really opens up doors for other smaller and minority owned brands as well as people working within their organizations at large companies. 

I do realize that change can happen from the bottom up but you really have to have that person at the top that's buying into your idea and when people don't understand where you're coming from or understand your walk of life, it's kind of hard to buy into an idea and I understand that. 

I think that's important for organizations to continue to spread the word about minority designers and how it is a struggle for us to gain the capital to continue to grow, but making programs readily available to us that we may not be privy to is very important. 

Who would you say your brand is for?

My brand is specifically for black women. I think there is such an emphasis on European women and women of non black ethnicities that brands focus on and once a brand says that we are focused on a black woman we are automatically assumed that we're pigeonholing ourselves.

I want to dispel that narrative and show that there can be a luxury brand that's created specifically for black women, but obviously made for all. My brand is designed with the needs and values of black women since I am a black woman and I design for women who are just like me

Krystal Phillips - KAPHILL


What are some of your favorite fabrics to work with? 

I predominantly use silk, that's my favorite medium to use and all different types, charmeuse, satin, all of the different types. I don't even know how I fell in love with silk to be honest, I think it was just something that was readily available at the time I started my line and then I just realized how many different styles I can create. I love how it can be weaved in so many different ways and the fluidity, luxuriousness, and timelessness.


What would you wear in your version of Utopia? 

I think I would obviously wear Kaphill, but other than that I would definitely wear couture vintage pieces from the nineties like Versace, Jean Paul Gautier, and other designers of that era. I think if I could just be transported back to that time frame when it comes to fashion I’d be in a perfect world, that’s my jam.

I'm wondering what made you decide to step away from that corporate life and launch Kaphill?

For me I had this dream of climbing the corporate ladder and I wanted to be a head of a company. It wasn't really my dream to be the head of my own company, that was more of a pipe dream. It was something I wrote in my notebook in high school but never actively worked towards. I knew I wanted to be in fashion and once I got into the industry, I realized that I didn't have a voice and for lack of better words it started to piss me off. I just kept thinking, I'm here, I have great ideas, I know I bring something to the table, and I know I'm smart so why aren’t my ideas being heard? Even if they were heard, they weren't implemented. It would also be yeah, that's an amazing idea, but we can't do that right now or someone would take it as their own. That is really what pushed me in a different direction and then when my sister approached me, it was perfect timing. I will say that it is not easier working for yourself, but it's way more rewarding and I think that’s what is really driving me. 

How were you able to balance running a brand while also having your full time role in the corporate America? 

There was no balance, I'm not gonna lie and say that I did. There were things that fell through the cracks, whether it was work or it was the brand, but I was fortunate enough to have a partner at the time. Now I can't imagine running Kaphill and working for someone else full time in an office. I don't think I would be able to put the time, effort, and energy into it, but obviously having that financial support is so important. So it's a catch twenty two. People will say you can work after work, but you're tired when you leave a 9 to 5 or 9 to 8, whatever it is, you're tired. 

Something I noticed about the brand after reading through your bios was that you communicate a sense of unity through design. So, I'm also wondering while making these pieces that communicate this sense of unity, how do you also balance that with making pieces that can be styled more individually?

I definitely feel like the community aspect comes through with the blog. The brand was actually founded as a blog at first and talked about my journey as a black woman in corporate America  as well as being a new mom. That's how I found and grew my community and once I realized there were so many people who didn't feel seen and heard, I said I would now translate that into clothing. 

I would say the pieces I create are very authentic and individual. They are garments that if you don't put your own flavor on an aspect of them almost gets lost since I don't want anyone to be in a uniform and look like everyone else when wearing Kaphill. It is for that person who wants to be bold and wants to stand out, but who wants other people around them that they can connect with. So, building the community of people who are unapologetically themselves is something that the brand continuously works hard at and continuously cultivates.


In the time you have worked in the industry, especially since launching your own brand, have you seen any shifts in terms of more diverse representation? 

I definitely have, I think there's a really big boom right now of highlighting black brands, especially since 2020 and what happened to George Floyd. I think there's a community of us now and we all look out for each other. Even when it comes to magazine representation and what you see on the runway, there is this sense of inclusivity now where there wasn't before. I will say though that I do think that some of it has died off, which is unfortunate, but the brands that are making that a foundational principle are still going strong. 

But the community that black brands are building with each other is amazing and it's just nice to be able to find people who are on the same journey with you and understand your struggle. That part of the industry was non-existent before and now we are sharing resources freely versus gatekeeping things.

Krystal Phillips - KAPHILL

I read this Toni Morrison quote that said “in this country, America. American means white. Everyone else has to hyphenate.” So off that, do you feel like there are people that label your brand as a ‘black brand’? and is that challenging to deal with or do you embrace it?

When I first started designing, I never wanted to be called a black designer. I'm a designer and a black woman but now I wear that as a badge of pride. I am a black designer and I design for black women and I'm unapologetic about it. I will say though that when most people think of a black brand, my brand doesn't come to the forefront of their mind. My design aesthetic doesn't match the imagery they already have in their head and I think that confuses them. They see me as a black designer, designing for black women, but it's not inside their box of how black women should dress. My imagery is all black, but then the styles can go across multiple races and ranges of people and some don't understand that. But I want to show that black women are more than just one thing. We're not just as they always say “urban style”, we are everything and can wear everything. That’s something that I've doubled down on with Kaphill.

Being a minority designer, you're often breaking into spaces that someone such as yourself has not been present in. Do you ever feel an elevated level of pressure and scrutiny and how have you managed that pressure?

I definitely feel like there is pressure in a way, but I would say it's more confusing for individuals over anything else. It often feels like people want to ask what are you doing here? I get those questions and looks without it being blatant. Also, when I worked in corporate America, I felt the same way and that had given me some training and taught me to have tough skin and to recognize that I belong in every space and that there is no space that's not for me. 

It did take me time to get to that point because there were instances where I believed that maybe I don't belong here and I would shrink. Now I just always remind myself that I'm here for a reason and if someone else is here, why can’t I be here? What is the reason that I wouldn't be allowed in this space or why would it not be for me? 

I will say that we as black designers have to work a lot harder to get into those rooms and spaces and are pushed at times to bend a little more when it comes to something like working with wholesale partners or catering to different standards for various people. So working twice as hard is something that I had always done in my corporate experience and still do working for myself. I think it's something that black designers can all agree on that we have to do.

How do you find yourself being empowered? Not only through design, but also your day to day style. 

I have days where I'm just not in it all the time. I think as a designer, people from the outside looking in think that we’re always put together and always confident in our looks. Honestly though, I feel like most of the time I look like I've just run to the gym or been hit by a bus because we're so busy most of the time. 

But I definitely lean on my style like a foundation, which is not just by timeless pieces and things that are of good quality which you can always rely on to look put together. So even if you don't feel it, you can always look at it and sometimes you gotta fake the funk a little bit. 

What would you recommend to someone that is still trying to find their own personal style? 

I would say just try new things. It's okay to change your style. That’s what I am realizing a lot recently, especially with Tik Tok and Instagram, there are always aesthetics or capsule wardrobes that you can see. No one, I don't care how structured you are, can avoid change. People evolve and it's always going to be that way. I was just saying to my intern that my style has completely changed and I have not shopped for other brands besides my own in so many years that there's nothing that I can even think of that I wanna wear. 

I've evolved and it's ok to try new things and see what feels comfortable. But I would say if you're discovering your style, try the things that you are interested in, even if you think it's not gonna look good on you, just try it, you never know. 

Krystal Phillips - KAPHILL

Do you see your design language changing with your own personal growth? 

Definitely, I see where I used to only do statement pieces and clothing that are like, wow. I see designing in a more balanced way where I have things that can translate in multiple situations versus it being that one statement item. I also see my design being more refined and I really love that because it spans multiple age ranges. It is not just a customer that's 22. My age range is 25 to 50 and I can see different women wearing items at different stages of their life. But I wanna make sure that I'm making pieces that are accessible and flexible that can transcend time and age. So it's definitely changed since I launched my first collection until now and I can imagine that it's gonna continue to grow and evolve but not to come too far off the brand's DNA, it's always gonna have that. 

What's your go-to coffee drink? 

I'm not a coffee girl but if I do drink anything it would be a decaf cappuccino with a pump of chai. But I am a tea drinker. My family is Jamaican and we drink tea all day long and I’ll drink black tea, English breakfast, and chai. I love tea.  

Could we get a couple of your favorite movies or a couple that you could re-watch over and over again and you never get tired of? 

Oh, my gosh. Well, my favorite movie is actually Love Jones and not for the fashion, but just the overall vibe of their energy, they were just so cool. When it comes to period pieces I do love The Great Gatsby, Mahogany, and Marie Antoinette.

Could we just get a couple of book recommendations? Are there any books you're reading right now? 

Well, right now I'm heavy into the business books. I'm reading a book called Profit First. But what book did I really enjoy that is not business related? I read Black Cake which was really pretty good. It's a book about a Jamaican family and because I'm Jamaican, I read all the Jamaican things. I have also read Passing was good and Black Girls Must Die Exhausted. There are three parts to that. I read all three. It was great.

Check out Kaphill's website here. Follow Kaphill on Instagram.

Idlewild is hosting a trunkshow featuring Kaphill's collection February 23, 24, 25 in-store.

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