Christopher Kane: “Sometimes things grow on you, like a work of art”
In conversation with the fashion designer
T en years ago, four hours after his graduation, Christopher Kane and his sister Tammy set our to launch the designer's eponymous brand. However fashion was much different back with Kane recalling that graduates studied in libraries, while designers took their time. It wasn't long after his much praised debut that Kane caught the eye of Donatella Versace, a move which would lead him to design for Versus Versace. Here, Kane was allowed to take what he describes as "baby steps" to success. Then, over the past decade, Kane has noteably gone on to become the award-winning designer that he is today, simultaneously expanding his mainline, which has now spawned to include a multitude of new categories: menswear, handbags and shoes, resort and pre-fall collections. Without compromising on quality or the character of his designs and with the support of the Kering group, Kane opened his first flagship store in London's Mayfair — with an e-commerce website, currently in the making, which promises to follow soon.
At his studio in Hackney, life-sized sketches taped to the walls, Christopher talks frankly with Silvia Bombardini about an industry that has lost some of its mystery as it gained speed, an industry where people are often too quick to judge, but still expect a surprise. Looking back and looking forward in turn, while keeping his feet firmly on the ground, he speaks fondly of the ducklings and swans who inspire him, and of his ever-changing girl — the bandage dresses, lace and tape, phallic florals and abattoir shoes. Because if good is great, bad is even better sometimes.
We're here on the occasion of the 10th anniversary of Christopher Kane, the brand, and I thought we could begin by looking back for a moment at how it all started. There's been quite a few industry figures, who lately have spoken up to discourage young designers from starting their own company straight after school, and in the context of this debate, you often come up as the exception that proves the rule, succeeding there where many have failed. You've often said that making mistakes is the best way to learn, so I wonder what mistakes have you made and what did you learn from them?
I was much younger back then so the environment as well as the landscape and the industry, was very different. Today it's so much faster. Back then it was much easier to start up because you were only doing two collections, you weren't necessarily doing pre-fall and resort. Now all of a sudden they're fundamental to grow any business. But I think I was very lucky, I was surrounded by the right people at the right time, although I had to work really hard, and it had a lot to do with having talent. I think there's a misconception that doing this is easy, when it's really not easy at all. It's a very hard industry to break into and a very hard industry to work in. There's so much competition. But for me, I went to St. Martins which is the most competitive college in the world.
It really prepares you.
Yeah, and you honestly work with the best teachers from beginning to end. You're taught to really just be yourself. It's a very independent course, you just have to make mistakes to go forward. Nothing is ever perfect so it's always a work in progress for sure.
It's interesting that you say that it used to be easier to start a brand before, when most people would believe the opposite.
I think that's a total lie. Today there's a lot of pressure for designers to start and then when they do start, there's so much that people want and demand of them. But I entered the market at a point where I could take baby steps. It's true that today you can create your own model, you can do it your own way. But now, you don't stop thinking about work.
And social media comes as a double-edged sword — while it allows for instant exposure and praise, from which young designers in particular can benefit, it can also be quite misleading.
Yes. It's weird because as soon as I've done a collection people are asking me about the next one. But I've just done one, give me a break?! I'm not a robot, I'm not a machine, I'm a human being, I work with human beings, we can't predict the future even though we try. It's ridiculous how much they expect. People are spoiled now, there's just so much information at your fingertips: your phone, your computer, magazines. Whereas I remember going back to the library in college, to do my research! Does anyone even go to libraries anymore? Do they look at books? Now you can just Google. But I believe that it's always nice to have books to look at, to do your research the way it used to be done and not just look at your Instagram feed because that's other people's stuff, and you should make your own.
At the same time though, there's this kind of democratisation of the spotlight that the internet has allowed, which isn't necessarily a bad thing.
Yes and I totally get that. Like when bloggers began and it was such a big issue for everyone to talk about. But I'm totally up for it. I think it's actually a really tough job. What I don't like is when they have a negative point of view when it comes to fashion. Because unless you've been there and done that, how would you possibly know? People are so easy to make opinions, sometimes you just want to tell them: "shut up"! Of course everyone in this industry is entitled to their opinion but they should have respect for one another too. Because, you may not like it now but things can grow on you.
It takes time for things to process, to resonate. It's not all about the instant. Sometimes things grow on you, like a work of art. And it's not all about posting PICTURES on Instagram.
Still, you seem to have adapted quite easily...
You think so? I think we're pretty old-fashion here (laughs). Compared to other brands I think we were one of the last on Instagram. Because it was one of those things... just another demand. But now there is this curiosity to see the inside of a company, or a designer. When I was at college I used to wonder about Cristobal Balenciaga or Yves Saint Laurent, and the mystery that always surrounded them. What they did, you can only imagine. Sometimes things are better left unknown as well.
But there are different ways of adapting to the increased speed of the system. You're actually able to show both mens and womenswear, resort and pre-fall collections...
And those clothes are on the shop floor for longer. See you work really hard on your mainline collections, you really want to push boundaries, project an image or whatever you're trying to put out there, but then they're on the shop floor for a limited time. And then resort comes in, which has to be even more creative than the mainline, but more affordable, so you really have to have scientific problem-solving skills.
That's why I really liked the idea of your pre-fall 2016 collection, in which you've somehow revisited the highlights of your brand so far. Can you tell us about this...
Sometimes it's important to remind people that I did it first because at times others can cherry-pick from my old collections and just own ideas that were mine. It's happened in the past. But by now when I see that, I can also move on. I've got such a vast archive of work now, it's always good to go back and look.
Yet at the same time, the very best fashion is often considered to be the kind that comes as a reflection of the time. There's a lace and gaffer tape Christopher Kane dress at the Fashion Museum in Bath that was chosen to represent 2013 in their Dress of the Year collection, as a case in point.
True, and there's a lot that's coming up this May as well. There's the exhibition at the MET, Manus x Machina, that opened on the 5th, which is going to be amazing and we've got a few pieces in it as well. It's all about technology, handmade technology and the contrast between the two. I also think that clothes are not museum pieces — they're nice to look at sometimes but they're mostly great to be worn.
So they're both inspired by, and belong to the present. But at the same time, you've got this autobiographical thread...
Absolutely! Everything points back to something or someone who I grew up with. And it's not because I'm Scottish that everything needs to be either tartan or kilts, although I do love both. But there's always a silhouette there and there's often a person that's referenced in each collection. But not always. The past two collections, for example, were all about outsiders, outsider artists, or recluses, who create their own world and are so unsophisticated that they're actually better than anyone else, though they may not know it. And that's in reference to the people I grew up with in Scotland, characters I went to school with, the ugly duckling that then becomes a swan.
But you can always reach a balance between these two seemingly contrasting influences, of the immediate present and the memories of your past.
It's always good to look back, but then it's always good to look forward. But also right now I'm just living in the now and getting stuff done!
I did want to ask also about your brand evolution in terms of your female inspiration, or "spectrums of femininity" I think you called them, that your work addresses.
You know, I don't even have moodboards. I mean I do have moodboards now because I work with merchandisers, but it's more for them to understand references. But I don't quite want to give her away. I mean, it's good to be private.
Of course. But from the girl in the body-con bandage dress of your first collection for SS07, to the faded beauty of the hoarder in FW16, a certain gradual growth can still be traced. We can almost see her blossoming into a complex and complete woman, in a way.
Yeah, it's an evolution for sure. But I still love that girl in the body-con dress as well, because she's young, she's bright, she's sexy, she's cool. Then, the hoarder is really cool but she's not for everyone, she's quite eccentric. But that bandage girl can still own a piece of it and that hoarder may still want a piece of that body-con. We try to be inclusive, we try to bring in everyone. But some seasons we may lose someone, because they don't get it. It may be too far ahead. You can't always please everyone.
That's true, especially if they're inspired by real people.
Yes. Plus there's still a common thread throughout all of them, though they might appear completely different. I see it and the people I work with see it. It's not so noticeable to everyone else but that's alright too. We change directions every season and the reason for that is because I get bored really easily, if I'm honest with you.
As most people do these days... We've all become used to these new rhythms.
Yes, but that's me in particular. Other designers are good at doing the same thing over and over, like Azzedine Alaia. His work is so beautiful, he's such a craftsman, it's amazing, but I couldn't do it. I mean, you never know, maybe I'll slow down as I grow older. But for now, people also love coming to our shows because it's always a surprise. Nowadays everyone loves a surprise, the newness.
And now that the brand is entering its preteens, what are your plans, and your hopes, for the weeks, seasons, and decade ahead?
Oh that's really sweet. I've never thought of it that way. But see it's weird because like I said, I'm always in the now, I try not to think about the future. Because when I do, I feel that I've got too much to think about. If I start stressing about it now, I'll never get anything done in the present. But of course, on the optimistic side it'll be more stores and we have the e-commerce launching now. Then obviously new categories, which could be anything from cosmetics to perfumes.
And you've already got handbags and a shoe line. Are they all based around the same theme as the main collection?
Well, things need to link. So normally a bag would reference the main collection, yes. But it depends. Occasionally they can also be totally apart, and that looks ok too. They need to have a little spark. Good is great, but bad is even better sometimes, because you've never seen it before. It could be a plastic bag, that did happen on the runway, or the abattoir shoes. When I did the abattoir shoes people were like, "abattoir shoes"? And I was like, "yes, they wear plastic bags over their feet". That's a reference.
Finally, we've talked a lot about change, and how essential the notion of change is to the idea of fashion. But also about how fast the turnover has become now, to the point where quite a few talented designers have been unable to keep up. Some say we might soon be reaching the point where a revolution will be necessary to avoid collapse. Do you believe that will happen? How do you live, and prosper, in times of change?
You know, when Raf left Dior I was so sad because I used to love going to the shows. Raf is one of the most talented designers ever. And for a while, everyone was talking about how things may change. I mean, when you think about how he was in such a hard position —and he's a really strong guy — but he just couldn't do it anymore. So as a smaller brand, you realise that you're quite happy with being quite small. We're also lucky that Kering are very supportive on this, that they're all about being creative, pushing boundaries and standing out. Without them my flagship store would never have never been possible.
So I don't know if the system will change, though everyone seems to think so. I think that you need to be loyal to your designers. I'll always love Raf like I'll always love Miuccia. And I'll respect everyone else, even though I may not like what they do because it's a hard job. Fashion itself, that always changing. It's like evolution. We may have four arms one day. Will people question that?