Hot Steppin’ with Designer Jeremy Karl, Discussing techspec, Emotional Functionality, and On-Chain Creating
A redacted version of this interview was originally published on SSENSE.com in January 2022.
“I don’t sign a lot of NDAs anymore,” Jeremy Karl tells me, ahead of our interview. I’m relieved, given his frequent involvement in many of the most anticipated, often celebrity-backed, fashion projects of the last few years. You may be familiar with Karl’s curriculum vitae, the usually behind-the-scenes designer’s work includes Arc’teryx’s new streetwear-leaning SYSTEM_A collection and Drake’s NOCTA collaboration alongside Nike. What makes Karl’s approach different? While the style-minded may ask, “What does my clothing say about me?” Karl would rather ask, “What does my clothing do for me?”
Karl started out in Montreal around 2010, working alongside other local creatives like Vincent Tsang (Dime) and Justin Saunders (JJJJound) as part of the Virgil Abloh-led DONDA team. Karl describes this design incubator as a “sniper squad” that worked across projects like Been Trill and YEEZY. Karl recalls one particular project that he had a hand in, Been Trill’s Montreal-exclusive long sleeve with Off the Hook, which riffed on hockey jersey aesthetics, with an inverted fleur-de-lis on the chest, flanked by Been Trill’s signature hashtags.
It was in 2011 that Karl founded techspec, a resource library blending design and utility that was partly inspired by Karl and Tsang’s love for functional gear that could withstand harsh Montreal winters, like the now highly sought-after Arc’teryx LEAF. Starting out as a blog on Tumblr, techspec is now one of Karl’s driving philosophies, which informs not only the products he creates but also provides a structure for how he works and collaborates.
As a response to perceived failures and shortfalls in the creator economy, Karl recently authored a series of essays outlining how blockchain concepts can ensure autonomy, equity, and representation in creative communities. He sees the future of this design and creator marketplace as a decentralized space where he and his colleagues can profit off of their own designs, make living wages, and share their knowledge freely. The end result that Karl hopes to achieve is an open-source system for transparent and community-owned apparel production.
Below, we dialed up Karl who he’s residing in Los Angeles to chat techwear uniforms, blockchain, and more.
You went to school in Montreal, how did that time influence where you are now? What were your interests then?
I took some visual arts and design courses at Concordia. I was almost going to get kicked out of university, so I left in my last year. Everything on my LinkedIn is a scam, I didn’t graduate.
At a certain point, I met Vincent Tsang, who is the founder and designer of Dime. Vince taught me more than I had learned at university. He was my first mentor. Through Vince, I connected with Justin Saunders and Virgil Abloh. Around that time, we started techspec on Tumblr. I think of it as a repository or library of tech moods. I was using techspec a lot for the work we were doing for Justin, Virgil, and Kanye. That was the Been Trill sniper team. I designed the Been Trill Montreal T-shirt. We all shared big responsibilities and huge decisions for YEEZY, like colorways and silhouettes. We would always ask “Is it techspec approved?”
I was obsessed with Arc’teryx LEAF and Veilance too. Those brands blew my mind. Especially in Montreal winters. Vince and I would hunt for certain pieces.
Recently that love for Arc’teryx came full circle when you helped design SYSTEM_A. When it launched, you Tweeted “This is for us.” What did that moment mean to you?
SYSTEM_A is an intersection between Veilance and LEAF. Regular Arc’teryx is great, but the bird logo is really loud, the cuts aren’t ideal, and Veilance is too tailored. Mainline Arc’Teryx is great, but the bird logo isn’t covert and most cuts are specific to extreme outdoor activities while Veilance is the most advanced tailoring but something was missing for the streets. We wanted to make something more universal. The kids really rode for Arc’teryx: kids that are into skateboarding or into rap. SYSTEM_A was a love letter to those people. The SYSTEM_A Dume jacket has the LEAF velcro patch, and we included references to the RECCO detectors because we used to wear that stuff, even though we never used our gear to go skiing.
Vince introduced me to ACRONYM and William Gibson when I was like 18, they both inspired techspec a lot and inspired my design career. Taka [Kasuga] and I spoke a lot about Errolson Hugh and William Gibson. It was like I’d been preparing for this my whole life.
[Editor’s Note: ACRONYM founder Errolson Hugh was an early consultant for Veilance, and William Gibson’s ‘Spook Country’ introduced a fictional martial-art form named systema, which inspired the name for Arc’teryx SYSTEM_A]
What brought you to Nocta? I would love to know how the golf concept came into play.
Golf has the best material packages, whether it’s Nike or adidas. They use a lot of GORE membranes, some of the best details like zip-off sleeves or short-sleeve windbreakers, interesting details that capture the eye.
I wouldn’t say NOCTA has any direct relationships with SYSTEM_A, because it’s way more universal and way more accessible, but both are still based on street kids from London, Toronto, Montreal, and New York, wearing all the same gear, whether it was The North Face Steep Tech hard shells, baggy Nike trousers, and the sportswear, lad, roadmen type of energy. I think NOCTA is the best Nike apparel brand after ACG from the early 2000s.
I really love the name Hot Step for a sneaker. It’s the perfect name for a Drake sneaker. But it looks pretty hard, like a Tn.
The Hot Step is probably one of the first things we worked on. I would say the inspiration for the Hot Step is early-2000s Nike basketball models. Really simple details, perforations or pillow stitching, things that gave it a little bit of speed, but didn’t have this aspect that it was a basketball shoe necessarily. Drake picked the outsole. It’s actually a hiking outsole. So, the Hot Step is a minimal basketball upper with a hiking outsole, but the idea was, “What’s the new version of a Tn?” But also make something as universal and wearable as an Air Force1.
Are there specific criteria that you keep in mind for everything you design? Do you have a design hallmark or something that you’re always hoping to achieve?
Everyday protection from the environment. Clothes that you can do a lot of things with, and you don’t have to worry. That’s what I feel is important. And obviously, my designs come with deeper research and obscure references. But it’s mostly about, if it starts raining, you’re good to go. If you have to be somewhere last minute, you’re good to go. If you feel insecure that day, you just wear the hard shell, and you feel amazing. Which is also function, you know? I speak a lot about emotional function. You’re like, “Oh. This jacket makes me feel great.” To me, that’s part of functional clothing.
So what is that jacket for you right now? I want to know about your wardrobe. What are you rocking? Which pieces are most indispensable for you?
We talked about William Gibson, one of his characters is Cayce Pollard from Pattern Recognition. She has these Cayce Pollard units or C.P.U.s where she’d always wear the same things, and for me, it’s the same. I have soft-shell pants that I wear from SYSTEM_A or Patagonia. I wear a bomber made by Colin Meredith. If not the bomber, it’s a hard shell or the SL, the super light shell from SYSTEM_A. I only wear triple-black shoes. I wear a lot of Loro Piana. There has to be some type of universality to how I roll. It’s just easy for me. I don’t want to think about it.
I’m dying to get my hands on one of Colin’s creations, but I’m not getting my hopes up.
Yeah, it’s from like six years ago. It’s a bomber he made for me. I wear things that friends make, samples from Arc’teryx, or vintage stuff, military stuff. I only wear Dime socks.
I guess the pandemic also made me realize that it’s all about friendships. And making clothes that your friends wear and seeing all my friends wear the clothes that I design is the best. It’s just the best communication, especially if we had design or fashion relationships.
Other than Vince, who do you consider your biggest mentors? Are you mentoring anyone yourself?
My biggest mentors were Vincent, Virgil, and Taka. Even Virgil, our last convo was like a couple of days before he passed. And his mentorship was something that I was blessed with.
I try to give back, as well — and to give more than I have received. Find the new kids, and give them paid work. Even if there’s no work this month for them, I’ll still get them paid. That’s the school that got me where I’m at right now, and that’s what I want to give back, especially to young kids of color that feel misunderstood. They’re probably right, and they should trust their gut. But Virgil taught me to trust myself. He taught me that my point of view was valid and that I need to keep rolling. So, it’s not even I feel the responsibility. It’s natural and easy to just link them up with someone or find them some work, teach them Illustrator, or buy their software licenses. It’s part of the whole game because traditional schooling isn’t necessarily for everybody. I think it’s so important.
You work in this very functional world, but how do you see high fashion? What is your view on luxury products that are not functional? Do you have a soft spot for a Bottega card holder or a Goyard tote bag?
Yeah, as much as I love an ACRONYM bag that I’ve had for a decade, I also love a Louis Vuitton bag. Virgil basically solidified our point of view on Louis Vuitton. I think luxury has the best tools and budgets, and I often compare it to technical sportswear like high tech. At Arc’teryx, the staff is almost like a couture atelier where the attention-to-detail is super important.
I love luxury more than streetwear. Performance wear and luxury are the most important to me because luxury incorporates design without the need for function. So, it’s not functional, but it kind of is, because it makes sense to culture, and it makes sense to the kids. I see that as a function, and I do think luxury is doing this.
I was checking out your OpenSea. What do you think about NFT aesthetics? I think some people are turned off of NFTs because they all look like these goofy cartoons. Of course, it’s subjective. Some of the NFTs I see in your collection are more refined, I guess you could say.
One hundred percent. It’s not really tied to culture. It’s very far from art currently, aesthetic-wise. And that’s actually what made me really interested in it. It’s like, wait, there are all these amazing tools, all this amazing technology for us, but no one’s doing anything interesting with it or relevant. For me, the Bored Ape Yacht Club is probably the least interesting thing on-chain. All these NFTs based on hype are empty and have no content or no value.
That whole aesthetic is just a result of not having onboarded a diverse set of creators. I’ve learned not to look at it, and I’ve learned not to spend time on it that much, because I’m just like, well, all artists can own their work.
I feel like this Tweet says a lot about you right now. “Stated my day rate for design consulting in ETH (Ethereum) today. Felt normal.” I see that you’re more active on Twitter than on Instagram, why is that?
I think Twitter is like the intersection where I have fashion friends, tech friends, and crypto friends. Blockchain Twitter is a whole new different world. Twitter is basically the only censorship-free social media. I am active on it because there’s a lot of talk about blockchain, new tech, social justice, and decolonization. It’s easy for me to create a circle of people that I want to interact with, without having the feed of 100 million people just posting their sneakers with their feet on their beds.
What are the larger concepts that we can take from blockchain and apply to creative autonomy or creativity in general? What is the parallel there?
I think blockchain will allow many creators and designers to live to design. To live to create, instead of creating to live. It will decentralize everything, giving us different ways of funding, and different ways of capturing profits from collective creations.
It’s kind of like the designer version of owning your own masters.
Yeah exactly. Brands own the designers, but the designers should own their product and their ideas. It’s going to be led by culture or led by people like me, like a designer who saw blockchain as a tool. For me, blockchain is the most human future, and the future of fashion.
Photographer: Keith Oshiro for SSENSE