Imogen Kwok — The Perfect Blend

Photography:
Ryan Rivers
Styling:
Yana McKillop
Words:
April Wan

To be a storyteller takes an instinctive amount of precision and commitment, and that’s the basis of Imogen Kwok’s work. Attaining an art history degree in Scotland before training at the prestigious Eleven Madison Park in New York City allows her to fuse art with food and establish her space in fashion. Unlike many artists, she presents herself as the face of her work, unafraid to be in the limelight and part of the fantasy she’s created. Imogen’s itch for curiosity has led her to where she is today, occupying a space at the intersection of fashion, design and food.

Alaïa top & skirt, Manolo Blahnik shoes, Ferragamo earrings, Completedworks bracelet & ring

Chanel waistcoat & necklaces

April Wan: Being creative comes with a long list of titles to adapt to and the way your food merges with fashion, art and design is unconventional. What do you say when asked, “So, what do you do?”
Imogen Kwok: I used to be concerned about my title because I wanted to show people I had this artistry in my work. Food in itself is wholesome and tasty, but I want people to understand that there is a solid conceptual side, and there’s a reason behind every detail. For example, why we’re using this specific ingredient or this shape that we’re assembling, or this material that we’re constructing. It felt architectural to me and I was always dithering around it, like, ‘How should I introduce myself?’ Now, I leave it free for interpretation because it gets complicated. I usually work in the food world but in collaboration with fashion houses, design and art.
AW: You were raised cross-culturally between Sydney and New York City. With a Chinese father and Korean mother, how has that influenced your approach to creating?
IK: I was born in Sydney, then moved to New York when I was five and ended up living there. I would go back every year to visit my family, who’s still there. I feel like a New Yorker very much. New Yorkers grow up very quickly, and they’re exposed to so many different cultures and older things at a younger age. Everyone was very independent and opinionated, and the city was fast-paced. It was like a whirlwind growing up there. But I come back, and I’m like, ‘Wow, it’s very stressful living here.’ I actually prefer London now. On the Chinese side, we have such an exciting understanding of texture. It’s such a thing to love something gelatinous, like a snow fungus or a 1000-year-old egg. On my mum’s side, who’s Korean, that was more of the pungency and intensity of flavours. We would use dried anchovies and fish sauce, everything’s quite strong and intense. I don’t have any reservations regarding what I’m willing to eat or explore. Everything is super open for exploration. I derive a particular joy from those textures or specific feelings of something, which is fantastic. It works so well with being in food and having trained as a chef.
AW: You graduated with an art history degree in Scotland and pursued your career in New York City while working in galleries. You then moved on to working at The Eleven Madison; how was this transition? Was there a moment when you decided to follow a career in food indefinitely?
IK: I was not feeling stimulated in how I wanted to be. Doing internships at galleries left me craving using my hands, and I didn’t know what it was. At that age, too, there’s a lot of pressure to be like, ‘What do you want to be?’ I knew that I had to go into something very hands-on and creative, and I had a lot of energy as a person, and I was just wondering where to throw it into. And culinary school was just very appealing. It was like, ‘Okay, I already have this strong connection to food from my family.’ It’s meticulous and detail-oriented and requires a lot of vigour, resistance, stamina, and creativity. I decided to pivot a bit to try it out and see where it went.
AW: Your food design is a work of art in itself – it’s still life. What is your approach to food design and curating an event? Do experiences from your gallery days feed into the creative process? If so, how?
IK: We have an ongoing folder of reference images for the studio, which is really expansive. I’ve been visiting galleries and museums, viewing permanent collections. This is so we can see our initial mood board. I would gather or try to remember, like, ‘What was that weird sculpture that I saw of that place when we were doing that job?’ It always starts under a big umbrella of visual references. I just moved into a new studio space in London, which is amazing. We’re always experimenting in that space. We take blue tape and put it all on the floor, we map it all out. With those particular foods or tablescapes, you must understand people’s personal space and relationship to the food. You have to know how someone will reach forward and eat it. You need to realise that everything about it is related to your body.

Nensi Dojaka top & skirt, Christian Louboutin shoes

Chanel waistcoat, shorts, necklace & bracelets

AW: You’re fashion’s favourite chef; most times when we think of chefs, it’s the people behind the scenes in white uniforms and sturdy shoes. How did you find this missing gap in the industry?
IK: Maybe it’s just because I’m an attention seeker. When I cooked in restaurants, I loved the team and the solidarity of working together, hidden in the back. I wanted more than just wearing the same thing as everyone else, or even practical shoes and a jacket. I had a lot of personality that wanted to burst out. Whatever the theme or the project scope is, I really want to embody it. It’s nice to fit in with what you’ve created and see the continuity between a new collection and a food installation.
AW: In a world where so many of our experiences are virtual these days, food is one of the few things that can only be experienced in real life. Do you feel like technology is slowly replacing the real? And what parts of life do you think should never be recreated in the digital realm?
IK: I’ve hosted online workshops, especially during the pandemic, and done alternatives to being physical with people. There’s a specific part of me that loves the recording of my work, and that’s something that my studio works on, too. We take our own images, and we do all the editing and all that stuff. As a person who feels strongly about the tangibility and multi-sensory part of cooking, you must be able to taste, smell, and touch things. Maybe some hybrid alternative, in the future.
AW: Everyone has done it: posting photos of their food on Instagram. What are your thoughts on this? Do you think the constant need to share stops us from enjoying the moment and savouring what we eat?
IK: I’m also guilty of that. If I’m at a restaurant or I’ve just made something, it’ll just be one snap, and then that’s done. So I keep it apart because when everyone has sat down, and we’re trying to move the glasses around to get that nice angle, it’s delaying the experience. Before Instagram, people had been photographing food, like [Nobuyoshi] Araki, Martin Parr, and [Wolfgang] Tillmans’ fantastic work. People have been doing it for ages. Right now, we’re just at this moment where it’s slightly insane. The best meals are often when you are too busy having a good time and drinking to think about taking a photo. Those unrecorded meals are the best.
AW: What is your favourite part of hosting people? Whether it be in your home or for events.
IK: I mean, I love both, and I love having people over as well. I make so much more effort when cooking for more people than just myself. That’s always given me pleasure; it’s my way of showing people love. You show that you care about them, the thoughtfulness of curating a meal for them. It’s very attached to how I express affection for people.
AW: What’s next?
IK: I have been doing so many art and fashion-oriented projects. I love being able to invite my own friends to these events and have them there. I’m looking into other residencies of that similar world to do either this year or early next year. I’ve been able to reconnect with being in the kitchen and really going at it instead of doing things in an exact, structural and artistic way. Having that balance is really good.

Saint Laurent by Anthony Vaccarello top, skirt, bracelet & belt

Order your copy of issue 18 here
Photographer: Ryan Rivers
Stylist: Yana McKillop
Makeup: Jinny Kim using Equinoxe de CHANEL & No.1 de CHANEL Revitalizing Serum
Hair: Kachi Katsuya
Photographer’s assistant: Betty Martin
Stylist’s assistant: Sofi Chetrar
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