Designer Ken Walker, founder of Detroit’s K. Walker Collective, on how he turned his fashion dreams into reality
By Ashlyn Delaney
Featured image photography by Darrien Pope
1. Tell us a little about yourself and your professional background. I’m Ken Walker, an eclectic fashion designer, marketing strategist and mental wealth activist. I was born and raised on the Westside of Detroit, attended Detroit School of Arts for high school before getting my Bachelors in Advertising from Michigan State University in 2014. This started my near-decade career in advertising while I also gave birth to my apparel company, K. Walker Collective that will be turning three years old in October.
2. How did you get started in the fashion industry? K. Walker Collective was born out of necessity — I could never find one clothing brand that fulfilled all of my apparel needs. While in college, I worked at Old Navy, Gap and Express. I would always envision having my very own store. Also during this time, I studied abroad in Rome, Italy for six weeks and became engulfed in fashion marketing from renown entities such as Gucci, Louis Vuitton and Ferragamo. I came back from that trip and immediately started to strategize my own imprint, K. Walker Collective. It took me nearly six years to finally bring it to market, but thanks to my advertising expertise, I like to think that it all worked in divine order.
3. What is your favorite thing about your job? I love that I have the ability to tell stories through every design that I create. The best feeling by far is when someone tells me about all of the compliments they have received while rocking one of my signature pieces. That has brightened up my days each time a customer, a friend or a colleague texts me, emails me or tags me in an Instagram post.
4. What is the inspiration behind your brand? It all started with a notepad in 2004. Every day after school, I would come home and do sketches of clothes. It’s hilarious looking at those drawings, but I eagerly dreamed of one day having my very own clothing store — right here in my city, and serving my community one outfit at a time. I was so inspired by Sean John, Marc Ecko and Ralph Lauren as a teenager. I would come up with all these dope concepts and ideas, and just imagined having my own imprint that impacts culture like theirs. And now here we are… it’s all surreal.
5. What was your biggest mistake or failure and what did you learn from it? K. Walker Collective is a completely self-funded company. My biggest mistake thus far was trying to start big and not progressively let things happen. There is a gift and a curse that comes with working as a marketing strategist and launching a business venture. You want everything to come to fruition just the way you imagined it. You don’t set a budget. You spend thousands of dollars on one fashion show. You surround every idea around your audience and attempt to pull out all of the stops in order to make a good impression on the people. You sometimes forget your “why” because you’re so caught up in the glitz and glamour but not around the customers’ needs. This all happened to me in June 2018 when I launched K. Walker Collective. I put myself in a mountain of debt because I wanted everything to be perfect and I emptied my bank account, maxed out every credit card just so that I could see my vision become a reality. Now, two and half years later I have learned the importance of active & deliberate budgeting. I have an accountant who I meet with quarterly to review my numbers and projections. Most importantly, I have become more nimble with my marketing tactics and product releases. I’m hopeful. Over time, things will grow and I will be able to do the massive things that I always dreamed of… as long as my budget allows.
6. Can you share some of your career highlights or moments you are most proud of thus far? So far, my biggest highlight is when I made it to New York Fashion Week in February 2019. I still pinch myself thinking back to that moment. Mainly because it did not always seem attainable. I knew it would happen eventually but never did I imagine that within only 8 months of launching K. Walker Collective, that I would be invited as an Emerging Designer to showcase my first collection. It still blows my mind but I am truly blessed to know that when I took a leap of faith for my dream, I reaped the rewards shortly after.
7. As a menswear designer, what is one thing that you believe all men should have in their wardrobe? I personally do not enjoy wearing ties — I feel so constrained and uncomfortable. I like to feel free and comfortable. I think every guy should always have at least three pairs of really good jeans, high-quality tees in black, grey and white as well as a nice overcoat / suit jacket to always be ready for business. Stay tuned for K. Walker Collective’s FW 2021 Capsule Collection… I’ll be implementing these must-have menswear items.
8. What is your current favorite piece from your collection? I absolutely love our K. Signature Black Velvet Face Masks. Funny story, I had no intention on designing face masks but the people kept asking for them. I wanted to create a mask that embodied the boldness, yet minimalistic feel of the K. Walker Co. brand. I chose to use eclectic fabrics like velvet so that every man or woman who wears their masks immediately gets the stares and questions about how distinctive the design is. After I designed the Black Velvet Mask, I was inspired to design another one to compliment one of my best-selling products, the Signature Velour Set in Midnight Blue.
Above all, the ‘Let Freedom Reign’ tee is my proudest design to-date. In early 2018, I listened to Nelson Mandela’s inaugural speech from May 10, 1994. He was a man of great wisdom and courage. I was most inspired by this line in the speech: “Never again shall it be that this beautiful land will experience the oppression of one by another and suffer the indignity of being the skunk of the world. Let Freedom Reign ” so I developed a shirt made of 70% cotton and 30% spandex with that line on the strip on the back.
9. What is your most coveted fashion piece that you own? Is it biased that it’s one of my own pieces? I’m in love with this vegan leather crossbody bag that I’m releasing this fall. I tried so many other brands and failed to find a bag that was compact and looked good on me. It’s sacred to me and I can’t wait for my customers to get theirs in October!
10. If you weren’t a business owner and a fashion designer, what would you be instead? I definitely would be a pediatrician or a child therapist. I love kids. I value mental wellness and the effects that our upbringing has on it. I would be a physician writing books, speaking all over the world and researching cures for things such as early childhood depression and anxiety.
Now onto some fun…
11. What was your first job growing up? I worked as a Grill Cook, Drive-Thru Clerk and Manager-in-Training at McDonald’s in Redford from 16-19 years old.
12. What’s currently on your playlist? I like a little bit of everything… Alina Baraz, Lil Baby, Jhene Aiko.. and that new Juice WRLD is a vibe. I have been listening to a lot of Nina Simone lately. She calms a lot of my anxious thoughts and gets me through some of my lowest days.
13. What was your favorite TV show as a kid? All of the black 90’s sitcoms were the epitome of excellence. I loved Martin, Moesha, Living Single and the Fresh Prince of Bel-Air.
14. Three things you can’t live without? My iPhone, my AirPods and my iPad… yikes, I need some stock in Apple!
15. Dream vacation destination? Before the pandemic hit, I had just turned 30 (on March 1) and made plans to finally go to Jamaica and Bali this year. I guess they will both be on my radar for my 31st!
Local Love Questions…
16. Your current favorite local spots for breakfast, lunch and dinner?
Breakfast: The Clique on E. Jefferson. The egg-white, feta cheese & spinach croissant sandwich with a Cinnamon Roll and Coffee… top-tier! You also can’t go wrong with a veggie omelette, hot grits and their signature silver dollar pancakes.
Lunch: YumVillage in New Center, the Classic Village Bowl is jerk chicken, joll of rice, spicy plantains… or right across the street at The Kitchen by Que. They cook up some of the best cauliflower tacos and rice that I’ve ever had. I also order my pescatarian meal-preps from them every week.
Dinner: Definitely has to be SavannahBlue. I often call them the bougie soul-food spot. I love the ambience and the service is always great. One of my favorite meals is the Whole Red Snapper w/ Red Rice. The seafood chowder is top-tier, too.
17. Your favorite place to shop locally in Metro Detroit? Any local brands that you love? I love to shop all around the city, rather it be on Livernois (Avenue of Fashion), Downtown, Royal Oak or in New Center. A few of my favorite stores are Detroit Is The New Black, Three Thirteen, Mature, Krispy Addicts and The Dirt Label. However, I have been investing heavily in self-care products by shopping online with Body Beautee by Tiera Lamb (the Icewood Body Butter is the best thing since sliced bread, after applying it before leaving home, I rarely have to wear cologne), Shade Non-Toxic Beauty by Jordan Truesdale (the Anatomy Polish with Eucalyptus & Mint is the perfect exfoliant to use in my morning shower). Jordan also makes a great daily 3-in-1 face toner and a new favorite and recent purchase I made, Superb for Men (a new cologne created by Detroit native, Blake Hare).
19. What do you love about Detroit? I love how resilient we are. Detroit is a trailblazing city known as the underdog that never gave up. I relate to this as a person and through my company, K. Walker Collective. The strong sense of community, appreciation for the arts and progressive, yet daring attitude of Detroit’s makes it the no-brainer choice to open K. Walker Collective’s U.S. Flagship store location.
20. Favorite quote or words to live by? The biggest lesson that I have learned as an entrepreneur and fashion house executive is that there are many people tied to my dream, so I must delegate in order to make my vision a reality. One of my favorite quotes is by Aristotle, where he once said that, “The whole is greater than the sum of its parts.” In other words, when individual parts are connected together to form one entity, they are worth more than if the parts were in silos.