Mark Khan: Inside The Mind Of A Universal Reject
"Just waking up one day and wanting to make clothes, there really weren’t that many people who were like,“Oh, I’m going to help him out”."
Minnesota isn’t known as a major fashion house and it’s typically not the first place most people think of when discussing music. It’s also not really known for art, or rather, there isn’t a large spotlight on the creative community as a whole. It kind of sounds like the wrong place to live if you want recognition in these industries. However, that doesn’t seem to stop the creative community from growing rapidly here.
Many creatives have the mindset that we aren’t known for those things, yet. But, with limited resources and limited mentors in these industries, can it be a long and lonely road ahead? For the Creative Director of Universal Rejects, Mark Khan; it was.
Mark Khan went from making DIY T-shirts in his college dorm, to having one of his designs featured in the “Hold Us Together” video by musician H.E.R. from the Disney+ movie, “Safety”. A wonderful accomplishment for the young Designer, but it did not come to him without hard work and the discipline of having to learn the industry from the ground up all on his own.
Mark's first Universal Rejects project was a SS2020 collection titled “For What It’s Worth”. The collection represented his ability to be vulnerable and really allowed himself to share intimate parts of himself in how he introduced the garments.
The collection was influenced by his upbringing in Nigeria and was inspired behind a Nigerian stamp that he had found one day in his fathers briefcase. He also incorporated the colors, plants and concrete structures that one would find in a Nigerian compound. His look book from the collection delivers exactly that, bringing sentimental pieces of Nigeria to the Minnesota fashion scene in a refreshing and innovative manner. The collection was more than just presenting us with clothing, it was about conceptually taking us to a place that means so much to him and who he is. To view the full look book, it can be found on the universalrejects.com website.
Since releasing the "For What It's Worth" collection, Mark has released an ongoing collection titled "Teenage Liberation" and celebrated Universal Rejects most recent drop on November 19th, 2021. The collection features; knitted sweaters, body suits, graphic tee's, bandanas and most notably — the "UR Teenage Liberation" Varsity Jacket. While the collection does not appear to have an official look book, the concept of the collection seems to be geared towards a more global audience versus the individual story he told with his first collection.
On the official Instagram page(@universalrejects) the looks are showcased on people in New York, LA and Minneapolis in a variety of settings. You'll find people rocking UR on private planes, on public streets, in museums, and by the ocean. There also appears to be a Tokyo influence in his concept art for the project, featuring posts of 3D models on the Instagram page wearing the "TL Ringer" Graphic Tee and a second post in the "Global" Trucker Hat and "Star Logo" Body Suit.
The overall tone for the collection seems to imply that there really are no limits on where and who the clothes can be worn by, keeping in line with true streetwear fashion. I think initially streetwear was really intended to be worn by subcultures of individuals who feel unheard or unseen, and Universal Rejects does a great job in showcasing the universality of the underdog. Most of the pieces in this ongoing collection can be purchase on Universal Rejects official website universalrejects.com, as well as pieces from the "For What It's Worth" collection.
After learning about Universal Rejects I wanted to sit down with Mark to see how the brand came together, and really get a peek inside the mind of a universal reject.
When did you know that you wanted to become a Fashion Designer? Is it something you always wanted to do?
I guess I knew I had interest in fashion in 2015-16, just from seeing certain pieces when the Yeezy craze started going insane. I was following all of that and Off-White as well. With everything going on at that time, it was my first introduction into fashion. I also got into watching complex videos that were being shot outside of Supreme stores. So, I really think that me wanting to work in fashion started my freshman year of college when I realized I can do this too.
Was there anyone you had met at that point who inspired you or helped opened up doors for you?
Honestly, no. It was just me saying "fuck it" and taking things into my own hands because I didn’t know that many creative people who were doing that. Just waking up one day and wanting to make clothes, there really weren’t that many people who were like “Oh, I’m going to help him out”. I just had to figure a lot out for myself and it was a process.
Where did you start?
I started with bleaching T-shirts. I bleached a Kurt Cobain T-shirt in my dorm room bathroom and I didn’t really know how to bleach T-shirts that well. The chemicals were insane and everybody was lightheaded on the floor, it was bad. And from there I started bleaching T-shirts for friends. I bleached so many U of M T-Shirts, I was always going into Coffman and buying a bunch of shirts and bleaching them. That was kind of like my introduction into DIY stuff. From there it was like, I wanted to figure out how to start my own brand. That's how I started Khans Kloset.
To be honest I don’t like the name of it or anything about it now, which is funny. I started that and it was cool, it was really my first introduction into how I was going to make the product and do the process of designing. But, it was so early on that I didn’t really know what I was doing, I feel like with anything you do you have to learn on the job. That is what I was doing, and it got to the point where I couldn’t keep learning on the job and had to take a break and really figure this fashion stuff out.
So then I took a break and it lasted longer than I had expected. It lasted about two years. The break was really about taking that time to learn and understand the process of making clothes and designing and why I am designing. It ended up being me on YouTube watching so many videos of designers and lecturers. This was around the time Virgil Abloh did a bunch of lectures, like the one he gave at Harvard. Those were super helpful in just understanding what I need to be doing to make this work out. It was that and traveling that helped me find the inspiration to come back with Universal Rejects.
How did you come up with the idea for Universal Rejects?
Universal Rejects was just a feeling for me I guess. I love being from Minnesota but it sucks that Minnesota is being overlooked a lot in the arts, there aren't many opportunities here. I was stuck here with no opportunities or mentors, and a lot of people didn’t understand my interest in fashion. You know? Like why I wanted to do it and where I really wanted to go with it.
While I was in school everyone was talking about internships and I was over here trying to design clothes and watch these lectures. That was when I noticed there was a divide in them not getting it. I was feeling like I was rejected in so many ways is how it came about.
I think the idea behind the image for the brand is I wanted it to be a reflection of myself and all the interests that I have. I didn’t want it to be just one thing, so with each collection I kind of take it in a different direction and that’s what I want to continue doing. I didn’t want the brand to have a name that is super specific to one thing and that really helped as well.
I find myself interested in story telling with art, so I ask myself "what stories do I want to tell and how can I tell these stories?". Like with my first collection For "What It’s Worth", that was basically saying "if I am going to be telling stories through clothing, let me start with mine".
How has your design process changed since your first collection?
Honestly my design process is pretty similar, but it has slowed down. I feel like I am taking more time with it and not rushing to design something new. It’s kind of a balance, I realized I am working on my own time. If there is just a month that I want to design a bunch of stuff and put it out, I can do that. I can really do whatever I want with it.
Often times you look at how fashion has gone on for so long that you feel like you put constraints on yourself, if that makes sense? Things like following the fashion calendar, when in reality, I am not on the fashion week list in New York so I don’t need to follow the fashion calendar.
Just realizing that you can break these rules if you want to and still be fine. Now it’s more experimental and I think early on it was more about getting it off the ground and letting people know this is happening. Now I am moving into a space where I can make what I want and kind of turn it into a playground.
Have you thought about your next collection after you're finished with"Teenage Liberation"?
Yeah, I have thought about it but I haven’t named it or anything. I don’t want to get too into detail but it is more experimental, and not typical streetwear. There are elements of it, so it is definitely inspired, but it’s not from the origins of streetwear. It is different in the other sense that I am going to release it differently. In the first collection I put out, the collection was put together and planned out because it was the first one.
The second one was kind of tough with finding funding and figuring out manufacturers, which ended up being an ongoing collection. It started last December and has been ongoing until now. I have two more pieces I want to drop for it and then I am done. And that goes with the breaking of the rules, I can do whatever. I think I have done three or four little drops for the collection and building it here and there. For this next collection I want to put together a complete look book and tell that full story.
Where do you see the future of Universal Rejects?
Obviously I see the brand getting bigger and doing more projects, and including more people on projects and hiring more of a team. I am getting to the point where I can’t really do everything on my own. Also expanding, with working in fashion the goal is to always dream big. One of my biggest inspirations was Virgil Abloh. The goal is always to dream big and not put limits on yourself. I always felt that, while I do love Minnesota, it is definitely a goal to take Universal Rejects to NY and LA and become big all over the world. Why set a limit on yourself?
What would you tell other creatives who want to get into the fashion industry here?
I would say keep trying things. Go ahead and make mistakes and keep trying things but don’t forget to take the time to learn. With that process of learning, don’t see everything as law because you can still break the rules that you’re learning in fashion.
Don't stop doing what you're doing. As long as you keep going and keep putting in the work you will figure it out. And make sure that you eventually find a support system because it’s not really something you can do alone. It’s nice to have the relationships I have now with other artists in the industry and people who understand where I'm coming from.
I am sure many creatives share similarities with Mark's story of having to figure things out on their own, and not giving up even though others may not understand the vision. I thought his message, while prevalent in Minnesota, can be felt all over the world especially in such an oversaturated market of creativity. I wanted to tell his story in the hopes of inspiring others who feel lost to keep trying to make waves in their industry, even if they have a long road ahead. You can follow Mark's journey and see the other projects he is involved in on Instagram @iam_markkhan.