In Discussion With: Kapono Chung and Pete Karras of Combo
3x1 is a brand defined just as much by our unparalleled commitment to making the finest jeans in the world, one pair at a time, as we are by the community of people who wear them. Who are these people? They are our friends, collaborators, and partners. They are inventors, entrepreneurs, artists, and teachers... It is here, within the Atelier Journal series "In Discussion With...," that we highlight who these people are and the tether that ties them together which ultimately is authenticity, passion and an appreciation for the best of what life has to offer - and, of course, their collective love of jeans by 3x1. We hope you enjoy their stories.
Kapono Chung and Pete Karras, co-founders of Combo, are winding down their work week as we begin our video conference. They are calling in from their Canal Street office in Chinatown, and before long, familiar faces from the shared space – Brennan McGrath, Greg Matson, and Phil Graham from Verdes, Bridie Picot from Augusto New York – pop up on the screen to say hi. We all met during the golden “Bond Street years” at the agency Mother New York before the office moved up to its permanent midtown west location. That was over 12 years ago.
Now, Combo is an independent design agency that collaborates with clients to create their brand. As Pete puts it, "In our definition, a brand is the emotional attachment that a person has with a business. When you're building a brand, the job is to find all the right ways to put emotion into their business." Combo guides the creative process and helps its client's businesses reach their full potential as a brand. Designers at heart, they lead the creative, but point out that there is so much more than that to running a business.
“I wasn’t looking for a business partner. We’re lucky in the sense that we’re friends. We have a deep understanding. I think Kapono and I are just on that level.” It was in 2013 when Pete returned to New York from a year back home in Olympia, Washington, that Kapono brought him on to a project that he was working on, to rebrand the iconic American footwear and accessories brand Cole Haan. This is what makes Combo unique - a strong foundation of friendship grounded in “understanding and empathy, with someone who gets where I’m coming from so I can be honest.” Kapono also describes their successful working relationship as one of “humility - it’s coming to the table not knowing everything, but with hope to create.”
After a successful relaunch of Cole Haan, Kapono and Pete continued to work together on Tommy John, Ann Taylor, and Away. Kapono explains, “Pete and I had long conversations before starting Away because we knew it was going to become a big thing. We knew the luggage space was not disrupted yet. We knew that something was going to happen. So we said, if we’re going to work on this, we need to have creative control over all the touch points. We need to be the creative directors of the brand.” It’s an understatement to say that Away, founded in 2015, has indeed become a cult favorite largely due to its smart design. After Away, Combo worked on a project with Nike, as well as the Gap. It’s not difficult to see why brands that value style, seek out a collaboration with these two creatives.
Pete has an off-handed and casual style that has a certain Pacific Northwest ease to it – his uniform of jeans, t-shirt or sweatshirt, sneakers, and cap stays consistent. Kapono has a more considered street-inspired “look” that is pulled together with just the right amount of cool and comfort. When Kapono begins to describe his current oversized, baggy style, Pete quips, “you always look so fancy though. You look clean.. and that makes you look fancy.” Kapono responds, “Actually, my 3x1 jeans have made me feel more comfortable in a slimmer pant, which I really like. So these have become my favorite pair of jeans.” “Just like that?” Pete questions and Kapono confirms, “just like that.”
Across the screen, Kapono is wearing his 3x1 M4 in Dark Fortress; Pete is in his 3x1 M3 in Lucas. Their individual style reflects what style means to them – Pete’s style reflects a reconciliation with his own identity and self-image; whereas Kapono’s style is strategic – edginess as professional marketability. It is apparent that they both care about style, that they take pride in their choices, and they want to communicate through what they wear that they are in tune with, and a part of current culture.
“We have to know what the trends are, to make informed decisions. Just like we need to know what the history is for us to make informed decisions,” Kapono responds when I ask how trends impact their design work. “It seeps in, no matter what.” When so much inspiration and design research is done online, it naturally comes through in their mood boards, where they work with the client to understand where their brand fits within that spectrum.
“We believe in the creative minds of our clients as much as we believe in the creative minds of young people,” Kapono says. They mention designer Nadia Lung, who they say is “a third partner” and “why we’re a business, is a huge part because of her.” Nadia is integral in that she is a younger designer, and brings a fresh perspective to Combo. “We want to cultivate talent in our studio by bringing up young talent. Along with that, we want to be part of the movement of diversifying the creative industry, and we are working with S.O.W. (a talent development agency for underrepresented young people that aims to establish equity in the creative industry) to do that.”
“In 2019, we’re trying to build a larger company, and trying to create a better culture,” Kapono says. Pete adds, “we’re in it for the long haul.”
Pete has to get to his tattoo appointment before I get a chance to ask whether it will be of Mugs, his sad-faced 65-pound English Bulldog that’s been in the office with them every day for 3 years, he exits left off the screen.
So we’ll end with a few Q&A’s below.
What are you listening to while you work right now?
Pete: Always comes back to Country then back thru Frank Ocean, Ariana, and some top 40s
Kapono: Usually some 90’s R&B
Where is your coffee spot?
Pete: Grumpy or Integral, sometimes 12 Corners
What’s the worst thing about working in Chinatown?
Pete: We don’t like the WIFI
Follow Combo @combo.nyc
words by Akiko Kurematsu @akikokurematsu
photos by Elena Mudd @elenamudd