Wit (and Eyeliner) Sharp Enough to Cut Glass: An Interview with Kei LaVonne

Posted by Katherine Rose on

Written by Lucy May

The aura of sophistication and class I have and always will associate with Kei LaVonne is unparalleled. Stylistically, she emulates everything that this fashion means to be in terms of opulence and rebelliousness. She means business. And that business is the dazzlingly dark glassware jewellery pieces that she makes under the guise of her brand, Néant Glass. Kei works tirelessly to bring the gorgeous glass coffin jewellery pieces we all know and love to life! Despite a time difference of five hours, I was able to grab some of Kei’s precious time ahead of today’s R.R.Memorandum X Néant Glass exclusive product release to chat. I started by asking her how it felt to be the boss lady of such an up-and-coming lolita accessories brand.

‘Don’t get me wrong, I love it and wouldn’t have it any other way…but it’s hard work, more than any full time job I’ve had!’ Kei laughs as I sit there, in open-mouthed awe, ‘On top of generating and cultivating ideas for new collections, its 40 hours a week of measuring, cutting, grinding, coppering and soldering. I’ve had a lot of time to make these processes more efficient, and I have learnt a lot over time about how to make my work cleaner. When I first started, I was scoring and breaking the glass pieces by hand. Now I have a glass saw. I may be able to cut curved edges and cleaner lines, but it doesn’t really mean I injure myself any less. If I don’t bleed myself on the glass, I burn myself on the soldering iron…if I’ve not accidentally hurt myself in the process of making it, it doesn’t really feel like it’s my project!’

As well as being responsible for the production of each product, Kei also has all the other little pieces of the business puzzle to slot together by herself, too. Marketing, for example. She had just returned from a promotional photoshoot for her new products before our interview, and had changed from the outfit she had worn for that into something slightly less uncomfortable, though still stunning and Victorian Maiden no-less.

‘I’m still in love with old Victorian Maiden,’ she tells me (rather relatable), ‘I get a lot of inspiration from their old advertisements, and Moitie’s, in Gothic and Lolita Bibles. You know the ones I mean…the dark, regal mournfulness. Those are really inspiring for me aesthetically, and also from a marketing perspective. And of course, the shapes, colours, concepts I work with in my products all harken back to the darkness those brands tend to explore thematically: the coffin shape, dark colours, florals encased within…it’s all very Victorian mourning.’

It so happens the EGL accessories Kei makes for Néant Glass are inspired by historical architecture as well as Victorian mourning, such as cathedrals, and artefacts in the stained glass museum in Chicago, Halim.

‘Another key source of inspiration for me comes from my clients. People bring ideas to me all the time for pieces they would like to commission. These are ideas, quite often, I would have never considered myself. It is always a pleasure and privilege to be able to bring someone else’s ideas to life in my work!’

Kei stated an example of this the lavender pieces she has made specifically to be sold through the R.R. Memorandum website. The idea was given to her by someone who specifically had memories of lavender scented walks in the English countryside.

‘It was really important for me to bring that to life, to be honest. Working with flowers in my recent collections has felt quite special. One of my favourite parts of making those pieces is getting the flower supplies. I’ve recently been working with a really sweet gardener. She’s a little old lady named Patsy. She has helped me so much to be able to get high quality supplies of the florals I used within my pieces. Probably my favourite collection to work on was my most recent rose collection, because Patsy was able to get me small, perfect roses with stems. This meant the collection turned out better than I could have possibly imagined it!’

Kei’s original glasswear designs, however, were a far cry from EGL. Despite being deeply inspired by goth culture, aesthetic, music, old horror movies etc., Kei’s first pieces were very much inspired by gaming, television and anime. These are themes she would like to return to in the future with her glasswork.

‘Actually, to be quite honest, the first glass pieces I made were gifts for other people. I never really intended for this to become a business. Working with stained glass was just a pastime to start with. I got so much out of the process of actually making the pieces that giving them away to my friends and loved ones was the last beautiful piece of the puzzle at that time. It wasn’t until I made some coffin-shaped rings to raffle off at the 2019 Vampire Party that I realised how in demand my products might be,’ Kei explained, referencing her annual teaparty she runs on Halloween for the Chicago lolita fashion community, ‘after that, I did my first made-to-order run of the coffin rings to gauge interest. At that point, I got 58 orders. Nowadays, with made-to-orders, I get anywhere from 200-300 orders per run, which is just crazy to me!’

Having read Kei’s story on her website about how she ventured into stained glass, I wanted to briefly touch on the topic the power of creativity in self-rejuvenation (as this is something many people have person experience with).

It’s in the name, really,’ Kei explained when I asked her what had inspired her brand, ‘Néant is a French word meaning nothingness, or a void. When I first started working with stained glass, I was in a really bad place in my life: my personal void. The thing about glass is that it is transparent, so there is a sense of nothingness with glass too in many ways. But the special thing is that, with that transparency, you can see through it to the other side…to the better place. Working with glass was what helped me move beyond the void, to better things. That’s where the name comes from.’

Being able to create something so beautiful from a time so dark is, for me, truly the mark of an inspirational woman. Delving into the processes of decorative stained glass shaping and creation of wearables and wall-art in her Kentucky home, Kei has created a life that is equal parts business, and equal parts tranquillity and respite.   

‘I moved out here because my business allowed that to be within my means to do. Before I started working with glass, I was trapped in a job where I had to sit behind a desk. Since I am someone who likes to be very active physically, sitting at a desk for so many hours of the day really wasn’t good for me. After I moved here to Kentucky, I finally felt like I had space to live a more outdoorsy life. I can go for a run in the Kentucky mountains if I want to. Nature is something else that brings me some of the most incredible inspiration for my pieces. In fact, the first wildflower glass jewellery collection I did was inspired by and included some of what is growing right here in the mountains.’

Kei lives with her two cats, Laika and Garlic, both of whom I was able to meet during the interview.

‘Both the cats seem to love it here. Laika loves to keep me company, and has been sleeping beside me this entire time…’ at this point, Garlic makes his appearance. He is a large cat, the size of a small polar bear and as snowy white as one, too! ‘Garlic and I have a very special bond. When I’m working, Garlic is always by my side…when I first got him, I had to foster him for six weeks before I was able to adopt him fully, because he had been in the shelter for ages and was very nervous around people. We fell in love with each other, and so I adopted him. I’m a person who likes to wear all black, and has dark furnishings…so getting a white, long-hair cat who sheds like he does was like sacrificing my entire aesthetic identity…but he’s so worth it. They both are. They’re great company!’

Still, the move to her own little haven was and still is challenging in some regards…

‘I don’t have as much space here as I did at my old place,’ Kei laughed when asked about her studio space, ‘ideally I’d love to have a studio but that’s just not really possible at the moment. My current office space is a small area by my front door. It used to be a whole spare bedroom in my old place…but that’s alright. I’ve a lot of storage space. I have my custom coffin that I had premade. But since it isn’t being used right now for its primary purpose, I currently store some stuff for my business in it. It’s got a good bit of space inside…enough to fit a whole body in, you might say…’

She laughs again, a mischievous grin playing on her dark-red painted lips, ‘I’ve thought about it a lot, and I know exactly the outfit I’d like to be buried in, when that time does come. It’d be either my Victorian Maiden Lace Up Doll OP, with my Antique Beast coffin headbow, and red rose and coffin accessories.’

Kei volunteered this information without prompt, completely candidly. This is probably why we ended up conversing for nearly three hours! Naturally, one of the major topics common to us both was EGL fashion, in particular the old school era.

‘I’m still am a massive nerd for this fashion. One time, when we were about to go out to an event, I help up proceedings because Wunderwelt updated with my dream bag I’d been trying to find for years. I had to get it! I guess it helps me understand what my customers go through during the bloodbath to get my products…’

We know that feeling well here at R.R. Memorandum, ourselves…like us, Kei loves to see happy customers only!

‘Actually, one of the big goals for my business for the future is to do in-person events, where I am able to walk customers through their purchase. Have it be part of their shopping experience that they meet the designer, make a genuine connection with me and with the products they’re buying. Making that special memory to go along with their purchase. That is so important to me, as I know what an experience like this can mean to someone in this fashion. It’s like when I went to Japan for the first time in 2018, after being in this fashion for 12 years. I cried when I saw the Harajuku bridge, just because it is such a symbol of the history of this fashion…where it all originally came from. For the same reason, I went to the basement of La Foret, fully not intending to buy anything, but just to be able to browse in the way the original wearers of the fashion were able to, to see all the clothing brands together, in situ. I went to Japan was a lot of money, and I honestly ended up not spending that much, because I bought pieces second hand in the Closet Child shops I went to that I felt that connection with. For me, there is no point in owning something without that sense of personal connection, and memories attached…becoming part of the history of something/something becoming part of your history, if that makes sense?’

That makes perfect sense to us: its part of what R.R. Memorandum is about. Aside from in-person retail opportunities, I asked Kei what her plans were for the future of Néant.

‘Honestly, one of my big goals is to make the business as sustainable as possible. Aside from that, working with more independent brands in the community. A massive pipe-dream of mine is to one day be able to work with Moitie. You know, I met Mana, and was able to present him in person with a glassware coffin box I had made.’

When asked if he had thanked her, Kei grinned widely.

‘In his way…his mouth twitched into what I think was a smile, and he shook my hand…and held it really tightly! I knew that was him saying that he appreciated my gift. I was honestly shaking the entire time!’

Even while establishing her own unique brand for the EGL market, Kei still clearly is one of us geeks in the end!

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Many thanks to Kei LaVonne for taking this time with us! It is safe to say that it is an honour and a privilege to have had this opportunity to interview Kei, and to be a stockist for Néant Glass products here in the UK! We look forward to seeing what the future holds for our partnership, and for Kei’s business!

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