Christopher Kane: "If good is great, bad is even better sometimes"
A decade in discussion
The Scottish design wunderkind opens up to Buro correspondent, Silvia Bombardini, about the lack of mystery these days, and his concerns regarding the breakneck speed of fashion
Ten years ago, and four hours or so after his graduation, Christopher Kane and his sister Tammy launched his eponymous label. Much different was fashion back then; Kane remembers it to be much simpler. Graduates did their research in libraries, and designers took their time. And after a much praised debut that caught the eye of Donatella Versace — that would lead him to design for Versus shortly after — Kane was allowed to take what he describes as 'baby steps', towards the success he enjoys today. Over the past decade, Kane picked up many an award as his main line spawned a multitude of new categories: Menswear, handbags, shoes, resort and pre-fall collections — all without compromising any aspect of his work; the quality and character of his designs remained intact. Last year, with the support of the Kering group, he's opened up his first flagship store in London's Mayfair, and has an e-commerce website in the works. At his studio in Hackney, as we're surrounded by life-sized nude sketches from his FW15 'Lovers' Lace' collection taped to the walls, Kane opens up about the fashion industry that's gained plenty of speed but, lost some of its mystery; and where its people still love a good surprise, but are often too quick to judge. Speaking fondly of the ducklings and swans that inspire him and his ever-changing Christopher Kane girl — from bandage dresses, lace and tape, phallic florals to abattoir shoes — his vision is crystal clear: "If good is great, bad is even better sometimes."
As we're speaking on the 10th anniversary of Christopher Kane, the label, I thought we could begin by looking back for a moment to how it all started. There's been quite a few industry figures lately who have spoken up to discourage young designers from starting their own company straight after school. In the context of this debate, you often come up as the exception to the rule, succeeding there where many have failed — even promising brands like Meadham Kirchhoff which debuted in the same year as you did. You've often said that making mistakes is the best way to learn, so I've been wondering what kind of mistakes you've made and what have you learnt from them? I was much younger back then and it was ten years ago. The environment as well as the landscape and industry was very different. Today, everything goes at a much faster pace. It was much easier to start up back then because you were only doing two collections a year — you weren't necessarily doing pre-fall and resort because they were so new at that point. Everyone would ask, "What's that?" And now, all of a sudden, they're fundamental to grow any business.
That said, I think I was very lucky. I was surrounded by the right people at the right time, and although I worked really hard, it was a lot to do with having talent. Regarding Meadham Kirchhoff, they are actually talented people that are still working in the industry, so this doesn't really mean they failed. I think there's a misconception that doing this is easy when really, it isn't at all. It's a very hard industry to break into and to work in; there's so much competition. I went to Central Saint Martins which is the most competitive college in the world when it comes to our work... It really prepares you. Yes, and you honestly work with the best teachers from beginning to end, and you're taught to really just be yourself. It's a very independent course and you just have to make mistakes to go forward. 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 actually start, there's so much stuff that people want and there's incredible demand and pressure on them. I came at a point when I could take baby steps, you know? It's true that today you can create your own model and do it your own way, and that there's never a set formula. It was really part gut instinct. I think it's really okay to just do what you want today. 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 out, there were just those two collections. In between that, a short holiday perhaps. Now, you do not stop thinking about work.
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, why not?
Social media comes as a double-edged sword. While they allow for instant exposure and praise — from which young designers in particular can benefit from — they could also be quite misleading. Or rather, bring about a misleading sense of confidence. Our attention spans get much shorter too. We get bored a lot faster. 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, why not? I'm not a robot and I'm not a machine. I'm a human being and 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 as there's just so much information at your fingertips. Your phone, computer, magazines, and so on. 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, to do your research the way it used to be done, and not just look at your Instagram feed. 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 allows, which isn't necessarily a bad thing. Yes, and I totally get that. When the bloggers came up, that was such a big issue for everyone to talk about. I'm totally for it and 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. Unless you've been there and done that, how could you possibly know? People are so quick to inject their opinion. Sometimes, you would just want to tell them: Shut up. There are other bloggers — 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 then you have those who lament, "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 own opinion, but they should have respect for one another too. You may not like it now but things can grow on you. Two weeks or four months later when you see it in the store, you might love it then. It takes time occasionally for things to process and to resonate. It's not all about being instant. Sometimes things grow on you, like a work of art. And it's not all about posting them 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 to adopt Instagram. It was one of those things where it's just another demand. Nowadays, there is this curiosity to see the insides of a company, or even the life of a designer. That said, I'm never going to post a picture that goes, "Look, this is my boyfriend! And this is me in the bathroom!" Some people do and it works for them, 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 be able to follow them, but it's okay that you're not allowed to. Sometimes things are better left unknown.
But there are different ways of adapting to the increased speed of the system. You're actually able to show both menswear and womenswear, resort and pre-fall collections... And those clothes are not even on the shop floor for long. See, when you work really hard on your main line collections, you want to push the boundaries — project an image or whatever you're trying to put out there, but they're on the shop floor such a short period of time. Resort comes in, which has to be even more creative than the main line, but more affordable. You really have to have some scientific problem solving skills there.
That's why I really liked the idea of your pre-fall 2016 collection, where you 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. At times, others can cherry-pick from my old collections when these ideas were mine. It's happened in the past. By now, when I see such an occurence, I can move on. I've got such a vast archive of my work now that it's always good to go back and look for images, or fabrics that I have.
There could be something you've been working on for a collection, and 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. That's because it just hasn't developed yet — it needs more time. So you keep it there, and 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. Your collections are always quite unanimously believed to do so. 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 we have some stuff coming up this May as well. We're really lucky that we get asked to do these things. We have a few pieces at the Manus x Machina exhibitionat the Met. It's all about technology, handmade technology and the contrast between the two. At the same time, I also think that clothes are not museum pieces. They're nice to look at sometimes but 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 that looks back to your past. Absolutely. Everything points back to something or someone whom I grew up with. Just because I'm Scottish doesn't mean everything needs to be either tartan or kilts, although I do love both. There's always a silhouette and 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. That's the people I grew up with in Scotland and the characters I went to school with; the ugly ducklings that became swans. That happens in every walk of life. These are the people who made a difference — strong teachers I've had. I'm still in touch with an art teacher today, and a great professor from CSM too. I think everyone has had an experience with a really good teacher that pushed them, that'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, but then it's always good to look forward too. Right now, I'm just living in the present and getting stuff done! (laughs) So that's funny.
I did want to ask about your brand evolution in terms of your female inspiration. 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' — as you've termed it — that your work addresses. You know, I don't even have moodboards. I mean, I have some now because I work with merchandisers and you do have to put images up — more for them to understand references than anything else. And I don't quite want to give her away I think, for anyone to walk in and see it. It's good to be private.
Of course. But from the girl in the bodycon 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 bodycon dress as well. She's young, bright, sexy and cool. The hoarder is really cool too but she's not for everyone as she's quite eccentric. The bandage dress girl can still own a piece of that and the hoarder may still want a piece of that bodycon dress. We try to be inclusive and we try to bring in everyone, but some seasons we may lose some people because they don't get it. 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, but it's not so noticeable to everyone else. 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've gotten 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 Alaïa. His work is so beautiful and he's such a craftsman, but I couldn't do it. 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. When I go to fashion shows, I like that too. The anticipation. Nowadays everyone loves a surprise; the newness. Yes, that loss of mystery that you were talking about before. We are all so informed now that many new collections are worth a guess before the show season has even begun, if not quite predictable. Yes, and also, why would you put clothes there that have been seen before? Fashion is all about moving forward and that's how I create. Don't think about people being able to share it on social media. Think about reaching the height of creativity and from there, you can make all these other great pieces. Someone mentioned the other day, "I think ideas have run out." I'm like, "What? How can ideas even run out? Why don't you just get off your phone and think for a little bit?"
No, but really, I think collections should be ever-changing. But of course, there are also the things that we always do. We always use lace and we always have florals. For me, florals are just so phallic and erotic. That's why we did the Lovers' Lace collection. I think the penis and vagina look like the reproductive system of flowers. It's nature and it's beautiful. People are quite shocked by that and I always marvel at these reactions. Well, just go buy a normal floral dress then. That's okay. But it's not okay for me because I'm about pushing myself.
Now that the brand is entering its pre-teens, what are your plans and hopes for the weeks, seasons, and decade ahead? Oh, that's really sweet, I never thought of it that way. It's weird because like I said, I'm always in the now and I try not to think about the future. 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. Of course, on the optimistic side, it'll be more stores, and the e-commerce platform we're launching now. Just the usual stuff that keeps a business afloat. Also, obviously new categories which could be anything from cosmetics to perfumes. I'm open to anything really. You've already got handbags, shoes, and also, those sneakers. Are they all based around the same theme as the main collection, design wise? Well, things need to link, so yes, normally a bag would reference the main collection. Occasionally, they can also be totally apart if that looks okay too. Someone will tell you that it doesn't fit, and you'll have to argue about it, but that's the whole point — it doesn't need to be perfect. Of course technically and 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 those shoes, people were like, "Abattoir shoes?" I said, "Yes, they wear plastic bags over their feet to cover them from blood." That's a reference.
We've talked a lot about change, and how essential the notion of change is to the idea of fashion. With how fast the turnover has become now, quite a few talented designers have been unable to keep up. Some say we might soon reach 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 Simons left Dior, I was so sad because I love going to the shows and Raf is just one of the most talented designers ever. For a while, everyone was talking about how things may change. I mean, when you think the difficult position he was in, and he's a really strong guy, he just couldn't do it anymore. So as a smaller brand, you'll realise that we're quite happy with being small. We're lucky that Kering is very supportive on this. They're all about being creative; pushing boundaries and standing out. That's what they truly believe in. Without them, my flagship store would have never been possible.
If what happened with Raf got people talking about this issue, designers already had been talking about it for five or six years at least. The demand, the pressure... That weight is on everyone, no matter how small or big. His departure highlighted it for a few minutes, but then everything went back to normal. 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 Prada. And I'll respect everyone else, even though I may not like what they do, but I'll always be respectful. That's 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? For more interviews with designers, click here.