If You Know You Know

Casey Kohn, the founder of Chicago’s Coup De Grâce, explores subculture’s influence on the runway and how to wear archival fashion as a uniform that reflects one's interests.

Text_ANNIE DAHL

founder of coup de grace, Casey Kohn, sitting on leather soft with coffee table in front of him.

Casey Kohn is not only a great vintage curator, he’s an archivist whose collection at Coup De Grâce spans infamous runway seasons, rare designer collectibles, and streetwear references. In an interview with Display Copy, Kohn recounts his path to finding his personal style and the particular art forms that inspired him to eventually deep-dive into the fashion world.

Display Copy: What first got you interested in fashion?  

Casey Kohn: I think I was nine years old. There was this skateboarding catalog CCS [California Cheap Skates] and every time an edition came out I would sit and sift through every page. It felt really exciting, looking at all the different clothes and shoes. I was interested in fashion, before I realized that I was into “fashion.” 

But I bought a pair of Adio skateboarding shoes in fifth grade that had leopard fur on the toe box. It was this really fun gimmick. Everyone at school was like, “let me touch the fur on your sneakers!” And again, this was before I knew any of the culture behind sneakers or collecting, but, I just knew, in the simplest terms, that I liked the attention of having something that was slightly out-there that people wanted to compliment.

Display Copy: How did that interest evolve over the years?

Casey Kohn: Identity politics are such a huge thing for teenagers. I was trying to figure out what my “label” was, so to speak. I didn’t feel goth and I certainly didn’t feel preppy either. I'm not sure when the term ‘Indie Rock’ was coined, but I remember seeing The Strokes perform on The Tonight Show and thinking, “damn, those guys are sick.” I related to it. They were rock and roll but not over the top dramatic. I was influenced by their aesthetics. Of course, this was before I was familiar with the work of Hedi Slemaine at Dior Homme. But that’s the exact kind of style reference that he utilized. So, when I finally did come across his work, everything just kind of clicked for me because the references were things that I relate to.

Display Copy: Can you talk about some of the designers in your archive? What inspires you about the work of Raf Simmons, Helmut Lang, and Undercover?

Casey Kohn: The reason I feel so partial towards Raf Simons is simply due to how well he executes subculture references that I relate to. Raf Simons has always been a fervent fan of electronic music. His ‘98 season was inspired by the group Kraftwerk—the Godfather of that genre. Or, you have his ‘04 “May The Circle Be Unbroken” that was inspired by the book Siddhartha, which I read in high school and thought was really cool. 

Nowadays, it’s extremely common to see subculture’s influence on the runway, but back in the 90s and early 2000s it was a brand new thing: to look at the youth as a motivator for aesthetics. Fashion was dominated by the idea of looking fabulous and letting people around you know that what you wore cost money. But, there was an interesting turnaround with designers like Helmut Lang and Raf Simons. They weren’t making clothes designed to signal wealth and be fabulous, instead, they made clothes that could be a uniform that reflected your interests.  

Helmut Lang is a brand that I wear often, simply because it tells a story without being too dramatic. I understand the idea of ‘peacocking’ but I don't like to get too much attention from my clothes. I want to be able to wear a garment multiple days in a row, look smart wearing it, and not have people say, “Hey, didn’t you wear that yesterday?” 

I love Undercover for almost the exact same reason—the ability to reference subculture and tell a story through design. Takahashi is a bit more heavy-handed in the language of his storytelling, and a strong aesthetic. He was one of the first designers to bring punk to the runway. He elevated the idea of what we thought “streetwear” was and put it in a brand new setting.

Display Copy: Do you have a favorite runway season that you return to for reference in your archive?

Casey Kohn: Yeah, definitely. My favorite reference seasons are Raf Simons AW ‘04 “Waves” and SS ‘04 “May the Circle be Unbroken.” The “Waves” season I liked as a moody high-schooler. It was all about existentialism: what is the meaning of life? He used a lot of over-dye which causes the clothes to age over time. I love this idea of owning products that you’re motivated to wear, beat up and abuse. 

Helmet Lang’s AW ’98 was a very seminal season that showed how “casual” could be done on the runway. Before this show, denim on the runway was an unheard of idea. Of course now it’s extremely common, and that is because of what Helmet Lang did with the minimalism of this ‘98 season. It's timeless. It looks like it could come out today and still be a mega-hit.  

Display Copy: Didn’t Drake buy that AW ‘04 “Waves” Paisley Hoodie off of you?

Casey Kohn: He did. He bought three Raf Simons pieces from me. 

Display Copy: What’s the relationship between celebrities and archival fashion?

Casey Kohn: Wearing archival fashion conveys a bit of education I guess, the idea that, “if you know, you know.” Everyone desires some sort of pedestal to place themselves on. Archive fashion is an easy way to place yourself on a pedestal. It’s a demonstration of wealth and knowledge. Fashion is obviously much more than wealth and power, but it’s an easy way to assert those things, simply to impress those around you.

Display Copy: What’s a piece that’s forever in your personal archive?

Casey Kohn: I have this Undercover jacket that I've been wearing for 10 years. I've found three of them. The last two I sold for about $1,800 each and this one I bought for $140 a decade ago. It’s made from blistered lambskin. I would never ever sell it. I also have this Rick Owens bomber that I've worn for 10 years. It’s wax coated cotton so it’s aged over time. You can see the creases on the arms and things of that nature. 

I think a product is designed to be used and the more use you get out of said product, the better value it has for you. This is why I love garments that motivate you to wear them. If I spend a lot of money on something, I want to enjoy wearing it and not feel bad about it. I'm not always very good at taking care of my possessions. I like something that you can beat up and not have to worry about having the value depreciate. I ruin a lot of things. [laughs] So, I like pieces that are easy for me to wear over and over.

“I want to be able to wear a product a couple days in a row and look smart while doing it.” — CASEY KOHN / COUP DE GRÂCE

“I like something that you can beat up and not have to worry about having the value depreciate.” — CASEY KOHN / COUP DE GRÂCE

“I really love the idea of products that you’re motivated to wear.” — CASEY KOHN / COUP DE GRÂCE