An interview with Christopher Kane: “Sometimes things grow on you, like a work of art”
A true creative
Ten years ago, Christopher and his sister Tammy set out to launch the Christopher Kane brand—four hours or so after his graduation. Fashion was different back then, Christopher remembers it being simpler. Graduates studied in libraries, designers took their time. After a much praised debut that caught the eye of Donatella Versace and lead him to design for Versus shortly after, Christopher was allowed to take what he describes as "baby steps" to success. Over the past decade, Christopher Kane picked up heaps of awards as his main line spawned a multitude of new categories: menswear, handbags and shoes, resort and pre-fall collections—all done without compromising on the quality and character of his designs. Last year, with the support of the Kering group, he opened his first flagship store in London's Mayfair. An e-commerce website, currently in the making, promises to follow soon.
Looking back and looking forward by turns, but keeping his feet firmly on the ground, Christopher speaks fondly of the ducklings and swans who inspire him, and of his ever-changing girl—bandage dresses, lace and tape, phallic florals and abattoir shoes. Because if "good is great, bad is even better" sometimes:
We're here in occasion of the 10th anniversary of Christopher Kane the brand, and I thought we could begin by looking back for a moment to how it all started. You've often said that making mistakes is the best way to learn, so I wonder what kind of mistakes you've made and what did you learn from them, and what would your advice be for new fashion graduates today?
I was much younger back then, and it was ten years ago so the environment, landscape and industry were all very different. Today it's so much faster. Whereas 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, because they were such a new thing at that point; everyone would ask, what's that? And now all of a sudden they're fundamental to grow any business. I think I was very lucky, I was surrounded by the right people at the right time, but I had to work really hard. 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, so...
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, and nothing is ever perfect so that's always a work in progress for sure.
It's interesting that you say it used to be easier to start a brand before, 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 stuff that people want, there's so much demand on them. But I came at a point when I could take baby steps, you know? It's true that today you can create your own model, you can do it your own way. And there's never a right way, like there never was a right way, it was really always a bit of going by your own gut instinct. But I think today it's okay to just do what you want. Although the fact is you still want to create a business, and it's great to be successful, so there just are things you need to follow. People need this, people want that, whereas when I started there were just these two collections. In between those, a short holiday? But now, you do not stop thinking about work.
And social media come as a double-edged sword—while they allow for instant exposure and praise, from which young designers in particular can benefit plenty, they could also be quite misleading, or lead to a misleading sense of confidence at least. Because our attention span is much shorter too.
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, and so on. Whereas I remember going back to the library in college, and that's where I'd do my research, in a library! 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, do your research the way it used to be done, 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 allowed, which isn't necessarily a bad thing.
Yes, and I totally get that. Like when the bloggers came up and that 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 would just want to tell them: shut up! When there are other bloggers like for instance Susie Lau or Bryan Boy, who also have fun but are never negative about it, they love what they're doing and can't believe the industry they work in, they're so happy. But others are just like: nah, that was terrible, that was shit... I'd like them to try it themselves and see how hard this is before they judge. 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 sometimes it takes time for things to process, to resonate. Sometimes things grow on you, like a work of art—and it's not all about posting them on your 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 who got on Instagram. Because it was one of those things that is, you know, just another demand. Nowadays there is this curiosity to see the insides of a company, or a designer, but for me the mystery should still be there. When I was at college I loved to wonder about Cristobal Balenciaga or Yves Saint Laurent, and the mystery that always surrounds them. What they did, you can only imagine; you would love to follow them, but it's ok that you're not allowed to. Sometimes things are better left unknown as well.
"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."
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 even 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 hardly any time. And then resort comes in, which has to be even more creative than the main line, but more affordable, so you really need to have scientific problem-solving skills there.
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 me about this decision and how did you select the ones you did?
Sometimes it's important to remind people that I did that first, because at times others can cherry-pick from my old collections and just own my ideas for themselves - It has happened in the past. But now when I see that, I can just move on. I've got such a vast archive of my work now, and it's always good to go back and look for images or toile that I have, because there could be something you've been working on for a collection. It could be weeks or just a few days before a show, and you're trying and trying to make it work but it doesn't feel right, because it just hasn't developed yet and it needs more time. So you keep it there, and that's why it's always good to go back and revisit old pieces and pictures.
Yet at the same time, the very best fashion is often considered to be the kind that comes as a reflection of the time in which it was made and your collections are always quite unanimously believed to be. 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. We're really lucky that we get asked to do these things. There's the exhibition at the MET, Manus x Machina, that's opening on the 5th, which is going to be amazing, we've got a few pieces in it as well. It's all about technology, handmade technology and the contrast between the two. I'm excited to see what they've done with it, but 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 again, you've got this autobiographical thread that looks back to your past.
Absolutely, everything points back to something or someone who I grew up with. And it's not like because I'm Scottish, everything needs to be either tartan or kilts, though I do love both. But there's always a silhouette there and there's often a person that's referenced in each collection. Not always, but 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 people I grew up with in Scotland, characters I went to school with, the ugly duckling that then becomes a swan. That happens in every walk of life. These are the people who made a difference, like strong teachers I've had. I'm still in touch the best art teacher I've had, and a great teacher at St Martins also, Professor Louise Wilson. I think everyone has had an experience with a really good teacher that pushed them, it's so important.
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, at the same time it's always good to look forward. But right now I'm just living in the now and getting stuff done! (laughs)
I did want to ask also about your brand evolution in terms of your female inspiration—and I wouldn't quite call her a muse because that's perhaps too limiting a concept when there's just so many, "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 so you do have to put images up, but it's more for them to understand references. And I don't quite want to give her away I think, for anyone who walks in and sees it. 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 AW16, 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—she's young, she's bright, she's sexy, she's cool... and then the hoarder, she's 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, and some seasons we may lose someone, because they don't get it, it may be too far ahead, but then we also bring more people in and maybe get more customers. You can't always please everyone.
That's true, especially if they're inspired by real people.
Yes, and 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. It's because we change directions every season, and the reason for that is that I get bored really easily if I'm honest with you.
As most people do these days: we all got used so quickly 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. And when I go at fashion shows, I like that too, the anticipation. Nowadays everyone loves a surprise, the newness.
Because of that loss of mystery that you were talking about before. We are all so informed now, that many new collections become, if not quite predictable, at least worth a guess before the show season has even begun.
Yeah, and also why would you put clothes there that have been seen before? Fashion is all about moving forward, that's how I create—by being really creative. Don't think about people being able to share it, think about reaching the height of creativity and from there you can make all these other great pieces but you just really need to aim high. Someone said the other day: I think ideas have run out. I'm like, what? How can ideas even... how would you know? Why don't you just get off your phone and think for a little bit?
I think collections should be ever-changing. But then there's also things that we always do. We always use lace, we always have florals. For me florals are just so phallic and so erotic. That's why we did Lovers' Lace because for me, a penis and a vagina look like the reproductive system of flowers. And that's ok because it's nature, and it's beautiful. But people were quite shocked by that and I always marvel at these reaction. Well, just go buy a normal floral dress then, that's ok. But while it might be ok for them, it's not ok for me. I'm always about pushing myself.
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 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 and 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 the e-commerce we're launching now. Just the usual stuff that keeps a business afloat. And then obviously new categories, which could be anything from cosmetics to perfumes, I'm open to anything really.
"I'll respect everyone else, even though I may not like what they do, but I'll always be respectful. Because it's a hard job."
And you've already got handbags and a shoe line, and sneakers. Are they all based around the same theme of the main collection, design-wise?
Well, things need to link so normally yes, a bag would reference the main collection—but it depends. Occasionally they can also be totally apart, and that looks ok too. Someone will tell you that it doesn't fit, and you'll have to argue about it: that that's the whole point, it doesn't need to be perfect. Of course technically, construction-wise, they do. But when things are too perfect, that's boring. 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 to cover them from blood. 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, that quite a few talented designers have been famously 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 and Raf is just 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 we're quite happy with being quite small. And we're lucky that Kering are very supportive on this, that they're all about being creative, pushing boundaries and standing out, that's what they truly believe in. And without them my flagship store would have never been possible.
But see, what happened with Raf got people to start talking about this issue, and designers already had been talking about it for five or six years at least. The demand, the pressure, it's high on everyone, small to big. That happened to highlight it for a few minutes, but then everything was back to normal. I don't know if the system will change, though everyone seem 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, but I'll always be respectful. Because it's a hard job. And fashion itself, that always changes. It's like... evolution. We may have four arms one day. Will people question that?
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