To the outside eye, Scottish designer Christopher Kane is at the peak of his career. He has come a long way from the small village of Newarthill – population fewer than 7,000 – where he was born. Now his shows are must-sees on the international fashion week schedule, and he’s celebrating ten years in the business. It has been a big decade. Kane’s 2006 Central Saint Martins MA graduate collection won the Harrods Design Award. In 2010, off the back of consistent womenswear hits, he launched a menswear line. Three years later, Kering, the powerful luxury group that owns Gucci, Balenciaga and Alexander McQueen, bought a majority stake in his label. Last year, he opened his first store on London’s thriving luxury strip Mount Street.
Yet, in other ways, Kane is experiencing his most challenging time to date. Fashion loves and rewards the new. Once you’re no longer the freshest young graduate or 22-year-old boy wonder, it can be hard to achieve the same levels of buzz. Terms such as “new establishment” get thrown about, and you get stuck in the middle. Too old and respected to be new kid on the block, racking up column inches about how you’re “revolutionising” fashion; too small to have the might or budget of a mega brand that can demand coverage and manipulate the press. Kane’s clothes are still great, but today’s fashion world is about so much more than clothes. It’s the twists and changes, the front row, the collaborations, the “Instagrammable moments” and the red carpet. But Kane has ambition. He’s pushing onwards and upwards in his own way and at his own pace. This summer saw the debut of the brand’s e-commerce platform – a late addition in the eyes of many, given the dominance of digital.
The day we meet, Kane is hot and bothered. Partly because it’s one of the hottest days of British summer and the light is glaring punishingly through the windows of his east London
studio. And partly because, despite all his success, everything seems a bit chaotic right now. That chaos includes the “broken fashion system” – a vague and newly popular term that comes
up in nearly every interview with a designer at the moment. You can’t move for pieces arguing that the industry is moving too quickly, that its punishing work schedule and constant production deadlines are unsustainable, and that the current climate is hindering creativity and rewarding the mundane. These are topics close to Kane’s heart, topics he’s keen to offer a fresh perspective on.
The sense of chaos pervades the world in general. We meet a few weeks after the Brexit result is announced, the day after the massacre in Nice. “It’s a hard time to sit here and talk about clothes. I keep wondering, what’s the point of it all,” sighs Kane. “We employ so many brilliant people who they call ‘immigrants’. How disgusting is that word now? It’s become a hateful word…”
Surely there’s a light at the end of the tunnel? The new British prime minister, the formidable Conservative Theresa May, is known for her luxury shoes, and the national press seem to want to turn her into a kind of fashion icon. Won’t Kane dress her? “I’ll send her something if she does something. If she proves she’s worthy to wear it,” he smiles.
Kane has high standards for his women. That’s why his collections tend to be just that little bit off, a touch perverse – see those dresses constructed from panels in the shape of writhing naked bodies, those plastic “bin bag” skirts, or the overtly sexual – “tarty”, to quote the reviews – super-short stretchy neon lace frocks that put him on the map at his graduate show back in 2006.
He makes clothes that challenge our taste, and thus appeal to those with flair and conviction. His most recent collection for A/W 2016 was a reaction to the times, an antidote to the ordinary or mundane. He talked of “thinking outside the box” resulting in almost comical plastic rain hats, madcap embellishments and decorations, and a multitude of flouncing feathers and mismatched prints. His girls were beautiful hoarders, stylish eccentrics. The show followed a run of critically acclaimed collections. Kane’s S/S 2016 show was received particularly tenderly. Made during the months following his mother’s death, it was both highly personal and strongly relatable, toying with themes of damage and repair and of building things back up – ideas that feel even more apt now, given the times.
Kane is a polished designer. It’s rare to read an interview where he talks out of turn. He is careful and considered. He likes to let his clothes do the talking. But, right now, during these strange, uncertain times, he’s in the mood to speak out.
Today, young designers tend to start e-commerce very early, after just a few collections. You took your time. Many speculated you were anti-web. Did you get annoyed when people wrote that you’re against digital?
It used to really piss me off. Do you know how much money it takes to run a digital platform that isn’t just a holding page? It doesn’t happen overnight. Before, I was putting money where we really needed it: bringing in staff, employing pattern cutters. I was running a business. E-commerce was always on my agenda, but it’s not £50, it’s not your pal doing it in their bedroom; it’s a whole department. It had to happen at the right time, when we had the funding to do it. It’s not because I hate technology. What harm did waiting do me? I’m still here, I’m still showing, I’m still making clothes.
You must have felt a pressure over the past ten years. Today, the importance of a web and social media presence is impressed upon young designers constantly.
People just want everyone to conform. In the world that we’re in now, everything has to be so visual and so immediate. I don’t know what is going to happen next, but I’m getting bored with it all now. Instagram is a great platform in some ways, but it is fake – it’s make-believe.
Do you think Instagram is bad for fashion?
I do. And I’ll stand up and say it. I do see the greater good in it, the educational stuff. But a lot of it is not putting fashion in the right light. And I hate the word “influencer”. I went to college for six years and I worked my ass off. With some of these people, I just think, who are you? Some of these “influencers” are getting paid £40k to put up a blog post about a bag. Seriously? I do think kids and viewers are starting to see through it. They’re not stupid. Especially if these people are wearing one thing one minute, one the next. Often, they aren’t even disclosing that they’ve been paid. I feel dirty sometimes when I look at those pictures. Sure, they talk about freedom of speech and freedom of expression, but have some integrity!
Do you think social media has also fuelled negativity?
Designers work so damn hard. It shouldn’t be: that’s shit and that’s good. Everything is just different, and it’s OK to have that. I hate that part of fashion, that negativity. We’re the second biggest industry in Britain. It’s not all Ab Fab.
Was this culture starting when you were at Central Saint Martins? Or is the fashion world a very different place now?
At Central Saint Martins, you worked really hard because everyone else was always better. My tutor, the late Louise Wilson, instilled that in me: “Everyone is more talented than you, Christopher, so you need to make sure that you work ten times as hard.” Nowadays, it’s all picture, picture, picture. Or “I’m wearing this.” It’s not real.
There’s a sense of entitlement among those coming into fashion, I would argue.
Definitely. We all see it with interns. This desire for instant fame: the Kardashian model. All of a sudden, everyone wants to be in fashion – it’s like the movies now. It is great in a way, because you’re reaching out to people who should see beautiful things, who deserve to see beautiful things, but it has to be taken seriously… When I look back at the people I loved and respected when I was at college, they worked so hard. I would never have thought of going up to Alexander McQueen in a club and saying, “I hated your last collection”. I’d see him out, but I loved him and I respected him so I’d just admire [from afar].
Has that happened to you? That comment in a club?
Yes, after the last collection. He was a cocky shit!
Everyone has an opinion now, which is great. But often how it’s voiced isn’t.
You’ve seen that first hand as a journalist. I remember when Tavi [Gevinson] sat front row at couture [at the Christian Dior couture show for S/S 2010]. Everyone was saying how fantastic it was, but I wasn’t so sure. I don’t read the reviews any more, because I work too damn hard and my team work too damn hard for some flippant comments. People claim to be an ambassador for fashion, but they’ll praise collections that have just ripped off Vivienne Westwood and Balenciaga
from years ago. They’re saying it’s great. I’m not that person, I’ll never follow trends. I’ll always be a little bit anti.
Everyone working in the industry seems to agree there are some big problems.
As an industry, fashion is in a bad way, I think. But I think this is a really good time for people like me to be as creative as we can possibly be. Because creativity really comes out. Cut and paste mentality doesn’t last. There are so many collections now that are so derivative, and I don’t think people should be given accolades for that. Louise Wilson was always breathing down my back saying, “That’s Margiela. That’s Dries Van Noten. Why are you doing that? Why would I want Rei Kawakubo in my office? I want you in here.”
Did you fit in at college?
I was isolated, because I wanted to do my frills and spandex and lace. It was when everyone else were mini-Margielas. I didn’t want to copy, it didn’t work for me. And when I showed Louise the lace she said, “That’s fucking brilliant, go make another six.” And I think it showed people in my year. They realised I was onto something because I wasn’t fucking copying and pasting! I was digging deep inside myself to try and push myself. There’s even more ripping off now. It’s not
being creative and it’s not being a designer. It’s lazy. Let them be. But it upsets me that kids are looking at the fashion industry and thinking it’s that easy. It’s not.
It seems like you have brilliant relationships with your peers – other London designers such as Erdem Moralioglu or Roksanda Ilincic.
It’s nice to have a community, and have people you can talk to and have a laugh with. We’re extremely lucky really, with our work. The job we’ve got. The people we meet. Karl Lagerfeld. Miuccia Prada. Donatella Versace. To me, they are the real deal. They’ve seen it all. How do they feel in these times? I’d love to know.
Do you want to still be going at Lagerfeld’s age?
Yes. I’ll be grumpy, but yes. It’s hard, because when I started you made two collections a year. Now young designers are expected to do pre and cruise, and if they’re not, they’re frowned upon. At some point, does it just become stuff? It stops being heartfelt.
You work very closely with your sister Tammy. Does it help to work closely with women?
There have been so many amazing women in my life: family, friends. I never think of them as just women, though. I think to do that puts people in a corner. I hate the idea of, “She’s strong, but she’s a woman.” You see that all the time. Take, for example, Anna Wintour. She works so bloody hard, but she’s seen as a bitch. She has helped me and every other designer on the planet. If she were a man it would be all, “He’s a hero, he’s a tough guy, he gets things done.” She’s phenomenal, but she gets defined in certain ways just because she’s a woman.
Talking of corners, for a long time you were known as the master of party dresses. People pigeonholed you as that.
That term! Shut up! Why do they always say that? I did suits at Savile Row – I do great suits, great knitwear. Yes, I do a great dress – and it’s really hard to do a great dress. But don’t just reduce it to that name, party dress. I see how Tammy wears dresses, with trainers, in the daytime, any time. Are we really that pedestrian that dresses are just party dresses or cocktail dresses? It’s just a good dress.
That said, I see a definite sexiness in your work. Is it a comment on how women shouldn’t have to, or don’t have to, dress in a mannish way to feel smart or be taken seriously?
Yes, that’s so important. That idea that you shouldn’t be wearing a short skirt – I hate that.
I’d say we’re seeing efforts across Western culture to allow women to be more sexually liberated. Has that affected your designs?
It’s great. But then I don’t think I’ve ever put women in a box. We did collections with short neon dresses, and then the next minute it’s Women’s Institute. But I always want to make women powerful.
Have you had any surprising customers?
[The late architect] Zaha Hadid. [TV journalist] Kirsty Wark. So many older women wear our clothes. I think we’re inclusive: kids to grandmas are wearing them, and that’s so important to me. Many people shun others because they’re older. “Why is she wearing a short skirt? She’s 65.” I’m like, why wouldn’t she? She looks great. We believe we’re open-minded, but sometimes I think people are getting more conservative. Especially when it comes to age.
Talking about conservatism, it seems like fashion shows are getting safe. You mentioned McQueen before. I think about how truly innovative and fearless that generation was, Hussein Chalayan, as well. We don’t see many shows like theirs today.
Those names are the reason I love fashion – that’s what got me into fashion. It’s hard [to do what they did] now. Often, when people do things like that it looks like they’re just trying to get press. It has to be so genuine and so heartfelt. Because it was when [McQueen and Chalayan] did it – it was so personal to them, it was never just for the sake of it. And those shows will always remain imprinted in my head, because they were genius.
When you sold the majority stake in your company, did you worry that your ability to be that personal or free would be compromised? Before, it was your label and you could do whatever you wanted…
I still do whatever I want. But we had to move with the times. Tammy and I couldn’t do everything, we were burning out. We couldn’t keep the business going, and we wanted to be here in ten years. We couldn’t just give up. We’re so ambitious, and we really want success, so it was the right thing to do. People say it’s great being independent, and we did meet with other partners that wouldn’t have respected us, but Kering have built great brands, such as McQueen and Stella – I trusted that.
You wouldn’t go head up an existing house?
At this point, I just can’t be fussed. Designers chop and change all the time. How can the consumer keep up? I’ve got a lot on my plate. That said, I’m getting phone calls constantly from journalists about rumours: Balenciaga, this and that. But things happen for a reason.
You never wish you’d done Balenciaga?
No. Would I be able to go on holiday? Would I be able to do all I do here? I can’t even remember how I did it when I was doing Versus, as well [Kane helmed Versace’s sister line from 2009 to 2012]. I really don’t want to burn out.
Do you worry about burning out?
Well, it is really hard to be creative every day. You go from hating everything to thinking, this is amazing. It’s a vicious cycle. You go from being a Debbie Downer to dancing with happiness – you get that little hair tingle when you know it’s good.
Have you not been happy with certain collections?
I would never put things out I’m not happy with. Sometimes the hardest times produce the best work, strangely. My mum died last year, and I produced the best collection of my life, because I needed to do it – I needed to get it out. Certain things just make you do things, they bring out something. It’s about circumstances. Similarly, I do think the world we’re living in is allowing certain things to happen, and we need to reflect on that… Is it a time where underachievers are coming forward? Maybe it is. Maybe it’s their time.
Will there be a point where you think you’ve made it? Where you’ve achieved your goals?
I feel that every season. I think we have made it. We’re just adding new chapters to the book. And I’m so proud every season: it’s 100 per cent my work, no one else has influenced it. I’m strict about that with the team. “That looks like Balenciaga 2009. Burn it! That looks like Prada. Out!” I don’t want to ever be derivative.
Is that why you reference your own past work so much in new collections?
Yes. Always hammer it home. You have to. Fashion is so much more than clothes – it’s a spirit. It’s something you wear that can change your life. It’s super cheesy to say that, but it’s true, and you have to always remember that. So yes, I want to be a household name, but I don’t want to lose my integrity doing it.