Cologne-born designer Eva Balg has always had an unusual approach to fashion. Despite undergoing formal training in fashion design at Antwerp’s Royal Academy of Fine Arts – studying under fashion maverick and member of the original Antwerp Six, Walter Van Beirendonck – it was Balg’s passion for graffiti art that came to inspire her debut line.
‘I always loved hip-hop culture, streetwear and art, and I am obsessed with clothes,’ says Balg. It was during her time in Antwerp, where she shared a house with a group of other creative people, that she became involved with the city’s music and street art scenes. ‘People were making art and clothes in our atelier downstairs, which gave me the idea of starting my own brand,’ Balg explains.
Launched in 2006, Kid Vanilla was started with €500 that Balg borrowed from her parents – along with a little help from her friends. She describes her brand as ‘sporty, yet feminine (womenswear), a bit sexy and I try to keep it not too serious.’ Her signature motif is an ice-cream cone filled with brightly coloured scoops of smiley-faced ice cream. The motif adorns sweatshirts, t-shirts, dresses and a range of childrenswear. Another of her sweatshirts, which plays on the cachet of Chanel’s double-C motif, has been spotted on street-style icons and underground hip-hop artists across Europe.
Although Kid Vanilla is now stocked in stores across the US, Canada, Europe and the Middle East, Balg always reverts back to her roots by referencing local street art. One of her most popular early prints – a spray-style motif of a dog’s face – was based on a graffiti sketch of her English bulldog, Berta, and she continues to work with leading street artists.
Keeping it real
As international attention grows, Kid Vanilla is now being lauded as part of the new vanguard of streetwear brands, alongside labels such as London’s AnyForty, Dutch brand Rockwell and Barcelona’s Animal Bandido – all brands known for combining edgy style with artistic flair.
Previous collections have seen Balg collaborate with a number of different artists, from a collection in aid of the Sumatran Orangutan Society with artist Apetown to a series of Orangeman T-shirt illustrations with Bfree, as well as a forthcoming project with producer and rapper Nag. ‘A lot of my friends are artists, a lot of them from the graffiti scene. It was just a natural process to work together,’ says Balg. ‘I like to keep it authentic.’
A hint of rebellion
As well as collaborating with respected artists, keeping things authentic means that each of Kid Vanilla’s pieces are screen-printed by hand – every garment is unique. Balg also ignores the fashion industry’s demand for twice-yearly seasonal collections by producing one collection a year and focusing on jersey pieces that work in summer or winter, all featuring her fun, colourful designs.
Despite her slightly rebellious stance, Balg still enjoys being part of the fashion community. Perhaps due to her high-fashion background, she continues to be inspired by leading designer brands, from Bernhard Willhelm and Maya Hayuk to Lanvin and Wood Wood. Her work has also been influenced by her childhood in Cologne, her time in Antwerp and her more recent stints working as a stylist in New York. ‘I think that these three different cultures that I grew up with not only influenced my style a lot, but also my way of working. I am very organised and precise – I think that’s the German part of me! I love American culture and style. Everything is bigger, cooler and over the top – I love that. And the Belgians – especially in Antwerp – are more relaxed than the Germans and have a very elegant, slightly French style.’
This international outlook has led Balg to work on high-profile projects, including creating a limited-edition bag design for rucksack brand Eastpak’s Artist Studio initiative. At 2014’s Art Basel, Kid Vanilla collaborated with Key Of Aurora’s Art+ project, an event where visitors could bring a personal item to be customized by artists, creating a bespoke work of art.
After the success of her most recent collection, which saw her cheeky aesthetic applied to childrenswear, in graffiti-like zigzags of pink and leopard print, Balg is working on something completely different for 2015. She’s keen to keep the details secret, but as international appetite for her pieces grows, they won’t stay secret for long.