The KOI Creative Director on the softer qualities that allow her to bring a community together.
By Sheila Lam, she/her
As a kid of an immigrant family, the past few years have been an equal measure of heartwarming and heartbreaking news cycles. Yet, in the good and bad, I cling to the fact that these stories are being told. Full stop. I can now recognize myself, my family, and my friends in a broader narrative that wasn't always being told. When I spoke with Debbie Gonzales, Creative Director of Kids of Immigrants, we relished that kind of occurrence.
"I don't think I realized it until I experienced it," Gonzales says. "You suddenly feel like, 'Wow, my whole life has been without this,' and then all you want is to be seen."
During her career as a fashion stylist, Gonzales met Kids of Immigrants co-founder Daniel Buezo at Opening Ceremony. Recognizing that they both had distinctly different cultural backgrounds—Gonzales, whose family is from Mexico, and Buezo from Honduras—from their other fashion contemporaries, they became immediate friends. After a tour with the musician Kehlani solidified their friendship, Buezo, along with co-founder Weleh Dennis, placed their focus on building a movement. As Gonzales puts it, "They wanted to create a brand that made love the coolest shit ever." This May marks the sixth anniversary and just the beginning of KOI.
Gonzales's affinity for creating has always been fuelled by her exploration of making something out of nothing.
"Not having too much access or finances to buy clothes when I was growing up, there's a mentality of 'How do I work with what I have?'" she says. "I saw in my father his ability to always make something for his family, and my grandmother is a seamstress." In addition, Gonzales was always told to look a certain way as a person from an immigrant family. To not wear certain things that expressed a culture of "other" or to make sure she presented in a "socially acceptable" way. As a result, fashion became her form of rebellion as much as it did a form of expression.
As Creative Director, Gonzales leads Kids of Immigrants in its directive, marketing, and design. Slightly nebulous, it's difficult to confine KOI into one category. While their main focus is designing fashion and apparel, it has developed into a voice for an entire collective. A culture. Hybrid projects honor the immigrant experience and support underrepresented communities of people. Absorbing hidden, often challenging experiences and transforming them into celebrations of love and joy. But it wasn't always a bright and easy road.
"It's definitely a different mindset now, where community comes first, and people are at the forefront of brands," Gonzales explains. "At the beginning, everyone kept saying, 'Are you sure you want to be talking about immigration and immigrants and love?' But it was a beautiful struggle that I'm glad we kept up with." With press mentions from titles like Vogue, GQ, Paper, and more, along with sold-out collaborations with Nike and celebrity comedian Hasan Minhaj, KOI continues to be an agent of change.
Each new project is an opportunity to lift people up and relate to a larger Kids of Immigrant plan for Gonzales.
"We've been doing world-building exercises internally and always talk about KOI being more than just the product," she says. "It's about experiences like Love Day [KOI’s anniversary celebration], scaling them, and creating bigger moments and experiences that connect to people." Gonzales jokes that she is a "super host," but just in our first conversation, I can feel the depth and sincerity of her hospitality.
"I've realized that that's one of my strengths, and I love nurturing and taking care of people," she says. "I used to think it was something that I couldn't bring into the professional world, but it's at the core of who I am, so I started looking at it more like a superpower." We exist in a society that promotes such hard qualities in people that we lose sight of the power and necessity of softer qualities.
As an organization, Kids of Immigrants is writing its own story about the future. What that holds for Gonzales, both with KOI and personally, includes developing getaways, big community dinners, accessible shared workspaces, and enterprising business endeavors with her family. To those whose backgrounds are like Gonzales's, she is a radiant testament that a rich and full narrative can unfold not despite being a kid of immigrants but because of it.
Written by Sheila Lam for Youth To The People
Image courtesy of Debbie Gonzales