How does a person go from fashion school to dressing celebrities like Carrie Underwood and Kehlani by the age of 31? Ask Kenneth Barlis.
Originally from the Philippines, he’s a fashion designer with a home base in San Diego whose work can be seen on red carpets and in magazines around the world. He’s glad now that he left behind a career in medicine and a degree in biology for hours and hours at the sewing machine.
“It never crossed my mind that, when I grow up, I want to be a fashion designer,” Barlis said in an interview with the Name Drop San Diego podcast. “Nothing like that. Now I’m here and I love every minute of it.”
He’s a designer of elegant menswear and bridal and evening gowns for women, though his latest ventures includes ready-to-wear sweaters and lounge wear that’s a fit for the pandemic era of being comfortable yet fashionable at home. Some of his recent work can be seen in music videos for Janet Jackson and Cardi B as well as at events like the Golden Globe Awards.
Jeannie Mai, wearing a Kenneth Barlis gown, attends the 76th Annual Golden Globe Awards.
(Frazer Harrison/Getty Images)
With no proms or major events taking place since the pandemic’s stay-at-home phase began, Barlis has also been making masks for sale and to donate to elderly San Diegans. Read excerpts of his interview below or listen to the full episode in the player above of by searching “Name Drop San Diego” in your favorite listening app.
Tell us about your mask making project.
It started back one month or two months ago when the whole pandemic just really became a shutdown where we couldn’t go anywhere. How it started was I had a lot of clients and friends that were trying to order something online and trying to get masks, but there was nowhere to find them. So they asked me if I could make something. In the beginning I was like, “It’s not my expertise.” I was still kind of scared to get into that area, but I guess like all these people are trying to help me and make me feel comfortable doing what I do so I just did it. I have a degree in biology, so I’m quite aware of bacteria and viruses, so I literally used what I know in the science field and incorporated it into fashion. That’s why I made the front of the masks very fashion forward with bold colors, bold prints — the list can go on with our selections — however, the way that it was built and designed, it’s very functionable.
How did you know fashion was the right industry for you?
First, it’s a time-consuming project. In this career, if you don’t have patience, good luck. You’re never going to survive. You just have to keep going and going and going, and you don’t know when it’s going to be finished. … What keeps me excited is having this idea in your head of what you want to do, this visual, like, ‘OK, I want to create this collection.’ From that concept, developing the concept, creating samples, creating the patterns, into the final product and then sending it out to the consumer, and consumers have this amazing feedback, then that keeps me excited. I love the idea of creating something from nothing. That is self-fulfillment for me. Every time I have something in my mind, I just write it down and then days and months go by, and if I keep thinking about it over and over again, then I have to do it.
What do you want to convey with your brand?
My brand is all about that modern sexiness but yet still very whimsical. I want my audience, when they wear a Kenneth Barlis, I want them to feel excited, I want them to feel that it’s not just a garment. Especially with our evening dresses, I want you to feel like you’re the most beautiful woman in that room. I want you to feel sexy. I don’t want you to be sitting in the corner ashamed or shy about what you’re wearing. I want you to go out there and reach your goals and be in front of all these people enjoying your time. … Every collection, every season is different but I think the common thing for me is going back to being whimsical and very fairy tale like. I’m a very hopeless romantic.