@MusingMutley: Meet your new sneaker obsession
Calling all sneaker freaks. The next time you're in Melbourne, do yourself a favour and visit the Christian Kimber store. This recently opened boutique along Johnston street — in the increasingly gentrified and hip neigbourhood of Fitzroy — with its eucalyptus green walls, polished pebble floor, and footwear propped high on raw logs of redwood hand-painted with bold swathes of white, is a shoe-lover's dream.
Owned and operated by shoe and menswear designer, Christian Kimber, you'll find white high-tops inspired by the popular Cumulus Inc cafe (located at the top end of Flinders Lane in Melbourne) sharing a shelf with colour-blocked suede trainers as a nod to the coastal lifestyle of Byron Bay (a short drive south from Brisbane). But it's not just footwear. Having cut his teeth as a menswear buyer, including a stint on Savile Row, Kimber also offers handmade leather wallets, vibrant silk pocket squares, and a supple leather bomber jacket that's available for made-to-order. Want to emulate Kimber's tailored yet casual style? Stay tuned, because this talented gent is set to release a menswear collection early next year.
Seated at a cafe on a crisp Melbourne morning — me sipping a strong flat white, Kimber casually swirling a cup of tea; both of us searching for warmth in the early spring sun — I speak to Kimber about the courage to pursue a career in fashion; the milestone of opening his own store; the value of his creations; and naturally, given his success on social media, the joy and tyranny of creating a brand in the digital age.
How were you attracted to fashion or menswear? What was the initial draw?
I just really loved clothes. I didn't really talk about it much when I was young, but I was obsessed with clothes and shoes, from casual wear to the soccer boots I wore at school. I grew up watching my dad wear blue suits with cashmere coats to work and liked the way he always carried a briefcase. That definitely influenced me as a kid. Over time, I just found the passion for it, and decided I wanted to work in the industry.
What was your first role in the industry?
After studying business at university, I interned everywhere I could. In PR, in buying, in marketing. I couldn't get into design because I didn't study design, even though I had portfolio of sketches. So for me, I found the transition really difficult. I did a lot of fashion classes at night and just kind of worked on it for a while. Then I was working at Savile Row, doing some marketing and helping out where I could, before working at a shop on Clifford Street for two years. I worked for a shoemaker. They used to ask me, "Why do you want to work here?" and I'd say, "I'm obsessed with shoes and I'd like to learn more." They made shoes in the UK, and I learnt a lot about what to do, and what not to do, when starting a luxury brand from them.
How did you make your way to Melbourne?
I decided to follow my girlfriend to Melbourne. The immigration laws changed in the UK, so highly skilled workers not from Europe were told, essentially, "You have to leave", which was very stressful, as my girlfriend had to leave. I thought I'd come with her and see what it's like. And now it's been over five years. You know, I think it's the best thing, I really believe that everything happens for a reason.
Tell us about the genesis of your own brand? What gave you the confidence to do your own thing?
I was always sketching and thinking about creating a sneaker collection. All the time I was sketching, my girlfriend would say, "Why don't you just do this, because I see your passion for it." So I was like, "Fuck it, yeah okay" and started finding factories and working on the concept for my own shoes. I had a pop-up shop with friends and family. Slowly, I did more and more.
And then something really great happened about one and a half seasons into designing my own line: I was invited to design shoes for an American designer. So I did that on the side of doing my own stuff and I learned a lot from them. The designer used to work at Ralph Lauren and the way he works, his techniques, and vision of putting a collection together, really informed my way of thinking. That was a great journey, but now I'm just focused on my own brand.
Great. And you've just opened a store here in Fitzroy?
Yeah, we were getting a lot of demand at all our pop-up shops. For me, retail has always been a goal. I know everyone is moving away from brick-and-mortar, but in the luxury space I really believe there will always be demand for a top quality customer experience, and that's what I'm trying to offer in Melbourne.
For people to try on your products? With shoes, if you don't know the brand, you can't really buy online without knowing your size.
I've tried to take that concern out of the equation as I offer free return shipping on exchanges. Also, these days I design a lot more than just shoes. I started with shoes, and that's a massive passion of mine, but I also love clothing. I want to create a look beyond shoes. Guys would always ask me: "What do I wear with these sneakers?" So what better way to explain my vision for them than to create a menswear line? All that should be coming next year.
Tell me more about your shoes, because you don't just go to a manufacturer and say, "Hey, I like what you're doing, let me make a few tweaks and put my name on it." You design your shoes from scratch and then source the best manufacturers to turn them into reality.
Yes, I make the majority of my shoes in Italy — a tiny town that's just outside Florence. I also make shoes in Valencia. I start by sketching. Mostly I'm inspired by culture and travel, and my last collection was based on my time in New York. Basically I try to emulate the vibe that I had at that time in that city or space, and how I would dress with that in mind. So I worked on the technical drawings, and then a pattern is created for my technical drawings before the leather is hand-cut and fully assembled in Italy. It takes about five months from the initial drawings to the finished shoe.
What do you want people to feel when they're wearing one of your creations? What keywords come to mind?
Confident. I have this idea about selling confidence. I sell luxury things but I want people to feel like they're buying something that makes them feel the best versions of themselves; something that gives them value for money, but also a design that suits them too.
You know, I love your aesthetic because it's like the blend of something very tailored, but with a casual nonchalance, and a streetwear edge.
Yeah that's what I'm trying to do. I'm trying to blend my background with classic menswear and my interest in fashion, streetwear and workwear, into something that feels new. It's a combination of how I want to dress in things that I like. The concept for me is quite relevant because guys now, there's so much inspiration online. They might look at fashion pieces, they might look at streetwear pieces, and they don't just wear one thing.
One of my best friends in Melbourne, he's an environmental lawyer. He wears tailored suits during the week with my classic shoes, and on the weekend he wears Visvim with my sneakers. They're very different looks. His interest is so broad, and I kind of feel like that's a modern guy for me — it's a guy whose interest is more than just one genre. He takes what he likes and combines them to make his own style. It's the explosion of street style and digital giving people confidence to just be themselves.
Looking at the international runways over the last few years, you hardly see a tie anymore. They've moved away from that really dressed-up look. It's more a casual way of dressing, with that whole athleisure trend really coming to the fore. What do you see here in Melbourne, having been here for the past five years? What are the trends?
I've only been here for five years, but I think menswear has become more accessible and men are starting to take more care in their appearance. In Australia, there's a strong lifestyle culture. So now, for me anyway, I make products that suit guys' lives. I want to make something they're going to wear when they visit a winery; when they're on their way to the surf; or if they're in the office on a Friday. That's what I see. I don't want to sell fashion, I want to sell a lifestyle. A lifestyle without being cheesy. I want people to look and think: "Oh I want to wear this when I'm travelling on the plane because it's so comfortable, and those shoes are beautiful and they kind of represent me in a way that I can't explain."
Maybe I'm biased because I grew up here, but I've always felt that Melbournian men tend to dress better than other guys in Australia. I feel like people in Sydney tend to be more trend-focused, whereas, because the weather is so erratic in Melbourne, and the art and culture scene is a bit more celebrated here, people kind of use fashion as a form of self-identification. It tends to be a little bit more varied here.
Yeah, I think in terms of cities, Melbourne is the most stylish. Men take more risks here and there's obviously more of an arts culture, but I think it's also because we're not really by the sea. A city which is by the sea, like Sydney, will focus on that lifestyle more so than arts and fashion.
How do you want Australian men to dress?
Not like kids. For example, if you're a simple guy that likes wearing a pair of jeans and a T-shirt, don't just wear sandals or flip-flops. By throwing on a pair of loafers for example, you can change your whole look. It's still casual, just more thoughtful. It's about being the best version of yourself, or rather, knowing how to express yourself in a meaningful way.
Looking at your current collection, what are you most proud of?
There's this pair of shoes called Lower Fifth; it's a really complicated shoe to design and create, and it's been really well received by my customers old and new. I'm really proud of that one. I'm just really proud and humbled to be able to do this and have a shop with my name on the front door.
It's a milestone.
Yeah, to me it's a milestone. The next step is to grow my vision with clothing and menswear in general. You know, at the moment I feel like I've been selling products with really deep design inspiration. What I want to do is create more of a feeling, and sell it. You think of Ralph Lauren, and you immediately have a feeling of what it is and what it stands for.
Yup, Ralph Lauren has created a world for his man.
Exactly, so that's what I'm working towards. When you buy my shoes, I want you to know that you're buying into something beyond the product. You're buying into a feeling and lifestyle. I'm really determined and ambitious at the moment to create that. But we're a small business, we're doing it slowly and we'll see how it goes, but that's the dream.
You mentioned that you're store will be opening up in phases. The next stage is revealing your menswear line. How will your retail experience be different to other doors in the city?
I used to live in a bed-and-breakfast with my mum in the south of England. And what she does is all about hospitality. And so, my vision for retail is very much about that. People come in, they have a coffee with us, they can play chess and hang out with their friends. I'll have a fireplace in the back, so it's a really calm space for people to just relax. I think men's retail is really lacking that element, especially in Australia. So many times when I go shopping I just feel terrible. I think many men hate shopping because they feel intimidated and uncomfortable. Most men I speak to, they have the means to buy whatever they want, but why would they want to do it in an environment where it's uncomfortable? So what I'm trying to do is anti-retail.
And the clothes that you will be introducing? I'm guessing the way you dress is going be reflective of the clothes you'll be dropping in six months?
Yeah, I think so. I've done polos, T-shirts and jackets, and kind of a wider fitting chino. How I want to dress is very much part of the brand, it's very casual. You might see it as this Australian-Italian feel. Everything is beautifully made. Garments are dyed, they start as white so they're washed in, but over the years, the colours will slowly fade in a way that makes it more beautiful.
Any brands that you can call as references?
I like Engineered Garments a lot, I have a lot of their trousers. Blue Blue Japan is pretty cool. I love Visvim. There's a lot of stuff that I like that I wouldn't wear, but I like looking at them. I like looking at a lot of fashion. And in general, Ralph Lauren is my all-time favourite.
Who is the Christian Kimber customer?
My clientele is so broad. I'll have 23-year-olds coming in, but I'll also have 60-year-old gents buying my shoes as well. Ultimately, I think my customer is the guy that was into skating as a kid, or was really interested in that world, but now he's like an architect and has to wear something more grown up. He wants to wear something casual but at the same time it needs to be comfortable and reflect his creativity.
Do you think it's important for you to create a buzz online? You have a healthy social media following but how important is it for you to further amplify your brand on digital?
Somehow, we've been able to share what we do on social media and people seem to continue to really like it. I have clients in America who bought the first season's pairs and now they're really excited to see how it develops because they feel emotionally connected with the brand. With designers like Tom Ford or Ralph Lauren, no one saw how they were starting out. And I'm not saying I'm in that league, but with social media now, it's a different game because people are following your journey which also means they see your mistakes.
Yes, your life is online for everyone to scrutinize.
And you have to keep sharing, and I find that quite difficult sometimes. I try to be authentic on social media, but I sometimes feel like it's very difficult to do that. I never try to create a buzz. I just share pictures of my friends or what I'm doing at the time and maybe people will like it. I guess fashion has changed so much because it used to be about creating a great advertising campaign for magazines, and people would talk about it and how iconic it was. But now it's more about what a brand's doing on social media and whether they're doing something crazy. I'm just gonna do me, and if people like it, then great. I'd rather have 10 followers who love what I do than a 100,000 that don't give a shit. A guy might have 150,000 followers, but is that real? And that gives a false idea of success.
Exactly. It's like having a number attached to your success.
Right? But what really matters is whether you're happy. It's interesting. My favourite things to do at the moment are the things that don't involve my phone, like going surfing or going to the cinema.
It's important to be present in what you're doing. Not just staring into your phone.
Also, as a designer, it's so easy to get influenced by what people are doing all the time and I'll be like, "Should I be doing that?" or, "Man, they're doing so much better than me. What am I doing wrong?" It's easy to get anxious. I don't want that. I just want to do me, man.
The Christian Kimber store is located at 264 Johnston Street, Fitzroy, Melbourne.
Not in Melbourne? No problem. Visit the Christian Kimber online store.
Check back every Monday for another @MusingMutley column from Norman Tan, Editor-in-Chief of Buro 24/7 Singapore. For more columns from @MusingMutley, click here.
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