An artist, entrepreneur and fashion maverick, the Chinese-American entrepreneur made his first million by the age of 16
Jonathan Koon could be the most interesting man you've never heard of
Jonathan Koon is endlessly intriguing. The successful entrepreneur looks far younger than his 35 years and has already had more careers than most of us would fit in over several lifetimes. Dynamic and driven, he talks at a pace that only a native New Yorker could sustain, owns a global fashion empire and is an accomplished fine artist, shuttling between Paris, Hong Kong, China and New York.
And yet, when I meet him at the launch of the latest collection by his fashion label Haculla at Harvey Nichols - Dubai, I encounter a man who is not only very entertaining company (I later worry that he has made it all up — I checked, he hasn’t), but also not motivated by money — despite the fact that he made his first million at 16. It is something far more intangible that drives him.
He explains how, as a young designer who was heavily into denim, he visited the Okayama region of Japan, “the holy grail” of the denim industry, and found himself in a tiny, nondescript shop. “I wanted one pair of jeans and asked how much, but I was told: ‘No price, it’s not for sale.’ Then the owner takes the jeans and tells me to try them on. He looks at me, turns me around, and then tells me the price.
“For me, this was insane – that the owner would judge if you could have them or not. That if you aren’t right, it doesn’t matter how much you want them, he will never sell them to you.
“It was not a luxurious place, it was a little hole in the wall, but that to me was absolute luxury. It was mind-blowing.”
You could, at this point, be forgiven for thinking that Koon was born into a life of privilege – a trust-fund kid, perhaps? Yet the exact opposite is true. “My parents are immigrants from Hong Kong,” he explains. “I was born and raised in Jamaica, Queens, and there were 26 family members living in a studio apartment. I had a really interesting, struggling childhood, where I never had anything. I had no toys; no video games.”
Watching as his parents juggled multiple jobs to make ends meet, Koon made his first art sale – at the age of 8 – to Hallmark, which purchased three of his drawings and turned them into greeting cards. His parents, however, were less than impressed. When he told them that he wanted to become an artist, they said: “No, you are an only child and you are going to be a doctor or lawyer. We didn’t work this hard to bring you here so you can do nothing.”
Still on the lookout for ways to make money, a teenage Koon realised that no one was importing the Asian car-tuning parts that all his friends were raving about. So he set up Extreme Performance Motorsports with a friend when he was 15 (“I had to wait until 16 before I could legally file the paperwork,” he is quick to point out) to import car parts from Hong Kong, Japan and Taiwan into the United States.
While he initially started out selling to friends, demand mushroomed until Koon was one of the main suppliers to the smash MTV hit show Pimp My Ride. “The press said I made a million dollars,” he says, matter-of-factly. “It was pretty close to that; we were very successful.”
After a series of other lucrative business ventures, Koon eventually found his way into fashion – initially as the manufacturer behind a label belonging to rapper Cam’ron, of The Diplomats. “So, The Diplomats end up getting signed to Jay Z’s record label, Roc-A-Fella Records,” Koon explains, almost sheepishly, before adding that, by sheer coincidence, Jay Z was in the process of setting up his own fashion brand, but was struggling to find suppliers.
“Jay asked Cam’ron: ‘How’d you get such a nice hat? I am the big star here, and I can’t get a hat like that.’ So Cam’ron said: ‘I have this golden child. You have to meet him.’” Koon pauses. “So I became the first manufacturing partner for Rocawear, the largest hip-hop clothing brand in the world.”
Describing himself first and foremost as a conceptual artist, Koon is adamant that it is art, not money, that inspires him. “Everything I do, I do for my parents,” he says. “I remember, when I was young, asking them if I could be an artist. And they said: ‘Jon, when you make enough money that we can retire and you buy us our dream home, then you can become an artist.’
“At their house-warming party, I said: ‘Hey, remember 10 years ago I said I wanted to be an artist? Well, I don’t think you and Dad are working now, and I am pretty sure this is your dream home, so now I am going to be an artist.’ I was 21 or 22.”
While art is his first love, Koon decided to stay within the fashion world, to fund what he calls his art “habit”. Realising that he needed more knowledge and to prevent himself from being pigeonholed as purely “hip-hop”, Koon went to work for Domenico Vacca, the menswear label known for its A-list client base and US$20,000 (Dh73,450) off-the-rail suits. A favourite with Hollywood costume designers and directors, the brand’s clothing is often to be seen on the silver screen.
Despite Koon having no formal training or experience, Vacca was impressed enough to sign him up to design the Domenico Vacca Denim diffusion line, creating high-end but casual clothing for the likes of Denzel Washington, Forest Whitaker and Mickey Rourke. “My polo shirts were going to retail for $550, so I had to make them worth that,” he says. “I learnt a lot about extravagant textiles and hand techniques.”
In 2013, Koon opened Private Stock, a fashion store set over two levels in Andy Warhol’s former studio in SoHo, New York. “The Warhol estate did not approve, and everyone asked me if I really wanted to pay SoHo rent to carry out my weird project, and that I would never make the money back. I ended up spending ridiculous amounts of money to renovate this space.”
Unfazed by the criticism (“You are mad. You are the weirdest guy in fashion. Are you mafia? Where is the money coming from?” he recalls being told), Koon took two years to transform the space into a totally new retail concept. “The store is 5,000 square feet and there are only 28 hangers,” he says. Housing sliding lacquer walls, art installations and a koi pond that cost Dh184,000, Private Stock was designed to be unlike anything in retail.
“It’s like a giant work of art. I believe a brand is not just about clothes, it’s about all five senses. When people walk in, what it looks like, what it smells like, what sound is playing, it all matters when they touch that garment for the first time, because that is the experience you are selling.”
Perhaps it was his upbringing, or his inner artist, but Koon was determined that his store would present a completely new way of thinking. “I wanted to open a fashion store that was anti-fashion, because there are no retail experiences now. It’s all about the It bag that you need to spend $3,000 to $4,000 on or you are not rich enough. I thought this is just silly and it just plays into people’s inadequacies.”
Aimed at offering the ultimate in men’s fashion, Private Stock can be viewed as Koon’s personal take on luxury, and as such, is highly curated and strictly limited edition. “In Private Stock, I want it to be the new age of luxury, so I only produce eight pieces per size, and 28 pieces is my maximum. Imagine a T-shirt with runs of eight. And every single item is hand-labelled. The minimum run for labels is 100, so I throw away 99 of them, just so I can have an individual, woven label. That only happens in bespoke suits. Inside the clothes is a birthday card, which says, for example, that this item was made on August 16, 2017, and is piece number 3 of 8 pieces in the world that I will never, ever replicate.”
Under the umbrella of Tykoon Brand Holdings, Koon saw another gap in the market – for upscale streetwear. So he also created the Haculla label, with graffiti artist-turned painter Harif Guzman. “If you look at all the places that are evolving – Russia, China or Hong Kong – and you wear a suit and tie there, you’re a blue-collar worker. If you’ve got ripped jeans and a T-shirt on, you’re a millionaire. I realised there was going to be a gap for high-end street-punk stuff.
“Five years ago when we took it to market, people laughed at us. That cotton hoodie for $350? When it cost $10 to make? I said it’s not what it cost me to make, it’s about what it stands for in this world. I am selling you a hoodie with art work by Harif Guzman on it. If you took it to an art gallery, it would sell for $50,000. I am giving you a bargain. But if you feel it’s just a $10 hoodie, go and shop at H&M.
“I like authentic luxury, but very, very few people actually do this. Luxury is not meant to be something we have all the time. If we did, it’s not luxury. If you eat caviar for lunch and dinner, it’s not luxury, it’s just food. But for the guys who eats it twice a year, because it’s expensive – for him it’s a real luxury.
“We grew up with nothing, and now can enjoy some of the luxuries of the world, but when people market something to me of a certain pedigree, I expect it to be of that pedigree. And a lot of the time, it’s not. So if I wouldn’t accept it, why would I sell it to others?”
As we part company, I can see why Koon has achieved so much. Bubbling with infectious and barely-contained energy, he is also a natural storyteller (who, incidentally, never watches TV). Funny, informed and self-effacing, he is almost impossible to dislike, and although dressed in an oversized T-shirt and drop-crotch pants, Koon is equipped with a razor-sharp view of the world and a refined, almost elegant way of thinking.
With enough money to buy anything he wants, it is perhaps his business card that says most about him. Made to resemble an all-white credit card, there are only six words on it: Jonathan Koon. The simplicity of luxury.
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