Fashion designer Catherine Holstein has an unusually long memory of her personal fashion history. She claims, for instance, to remember the fit of her baby clothes. She remembers adjusting her nappy as a toddler “to make it more comfortable around my waist”. She also remembers, at around age five, the feeling she got when she wore a hand-me‑down outfit from her brother. “It was black cords and car suspenders from OshKosh B’gosh and a white Lacoste polo shirt,” she says. “I couldn’t believe that there was something I could put on my body that would make me feel so different. That was the high I was chasing for a while,” she laughs. “It still is.”
These days, as the founder and designer of cult New York label Khaite, Holstein gets to dish out the sartorial highs to others. And it’s proving addictive. In the past six months, Holstein’s has become one of fashion’s most talked-about brands – by editors and buyers, who gushed over her most recent show, and also by those who saw, last August, the photograph of Katie Holmes hailing a taxi in Manhattan wearing a brown cashmere Khaite cardigan and matching bra. The unusual combination of the girl-next-door actress and sexy “bra-digan” – as it was dubbed – was one of the fashion moments of 2019, casting both Holmes and the cardigan in a new light.
“It was mania,” Holstein tells me from her office in SoHo. “It changed our business.” The cardigan had been picked out by Holmes herself and Holstein wasn’t aware that a photograph had even been taken until it appeared in tabloids. “We dress a lot of celebrities, but there was something about that picture and the way she looked… you can’t create that. It was one of those moments that you would pay a lot of money for.” The £1,154 cardigan sold out three times and is still in demand.
Holstein, 36, is an entertaining conversationalist, talking fast and in vivid detail about her life and career. Born in New York, to a father who worked in banking and a mother who had once worked at Cartier (surely the perfect genetic provision for a luxury fashion designer), her family of four siblings upped sticks so often – moving from New York to Connecticut to San Diego – that Holstein says, “I don’t know where I come from.”
A fusion of American polish and European cool shows all the way through Khaite (pronounced Cate, like Holstein’s abbreviated first name, and which translates to “long, flowing hair” from Greek). When the brand first appeared four years ago, its stripy cashmere knits and refined Japanese denim jeans answered a need for a modern take on the classic American sportswear that Holstein felt was missing from her wardrobe. “I couldn’t find the things that I wanted to wear every day,” she tells me. “I was a luxury fashion customer – of Celine, Ralph Lauren, Dior – but I found that, especially towards the end of [Phoebe Philo’s time at] Celine, I was treating clothes in a way that was too precious. It was more like art – can I touch it? – when what I wanted was something to put on in the morning and wear three times in a week.”
Holstein already had form as a fashion designer. At 21, she dropped out of fashion college to set up an eponymous label that was launched at Barneys and sold in more than 40 stores. She closed it around the 2008 financial crisis, not because the brand was in trouble but because the climate felt fearful (“When the blood’s in the water, the sharks are out,” she says), and went on to work at Gap, Vera Wang, J Crew, Maiyet and The Elder Statesman.
It was some time later that Holstein started thinking about her own wardrobe and the pieces she couldn’t live without. “It was my sister’s cashmere sweater from Paris in the 1990s, my mother’s Kelly bag, an old pair of Levi’s… These were the things that if I lost, I would crumble. I thought, how come there isn’t a brand that’s offering me all of these items, making it easy for me?” When she said this to her future business partner, investor Adam Pritzker, he told her to go for it.
Khaite launched in 2016 with backing from Pritzker and stylist and consultant Vanessa Traina’s holding company, Assembled Brands. “I was so lucky. Adam’s very knowledgeable in business and Vanessa is experienced in styling and magazines. I couldn’t have done it without them as partners,” she says.
In its first 18 months, the label gained 50 stockists, helped by a beautifully curated Instagram account that had buyers messaging Holstein before they had even seen the clothes. “Khaite’s success is due to the core of Holstein’s business focusing on creating luxe classics or, as she calls them, ‘cherished items’,” says Elizabeth von der Goltz, global buying director of Net-a-Porter. The retailer was an early stockist, and has since increased its buy by more than 500 per cent. “It’s shirting, tailoring, knitwear and leather craftsmanship, but playing with proportions and fabrics to set it apart from the rest. She’s created a cult following by focusing intrinsically on quality and fit.”
Last season Holstein introduced bags and footwear – which now make up a sizeable 23 per cent of the brand’s sales and consist of preppy suede loafers, cut-away pumps with ankle straps, and low-heeled boots. Don’t expect to see a towering heel. “I never do a shoe over two inches because I can’t walk in them, it’s too painful,” she says.
Last year, at a time when other brands had been stepping away from the runway, Khaite started showing at New York Fashion Week. Another business-changing move. “This talk of runway being over is not true,” she says. “I think, more than ever, people are paying attention to the shows. Now you can have a view that is almost like sitting right on the front row through whichever editor or influencer you follow on social media.”
The success might just as well have come from the development of the Khaite aesthetic and range. “She’s taken us all by surprise with the elevation of her collection from her first two runway shows,” says von der Goltz. Having started her business to fulfil the “daily needs” of a customer, doing a show has required a bigger range and more artistic flourish – no matter how beautifully created, jeans and jumpers are not the most dramatic of statements on a catwalk. The answer was gowns and partywear – something that she felt wasn’t being done to her tastes. “It’s really hard for me to get dressed up in a black-tie gown and still feel like myself,” she says. “I’m not the person a lot of gown designers are serving. I don’t want to look like a cupcake.” And why would you, when you could look like Carolyn Bessette-Kennedy in a minimalist Khaite gown with a sweetheart neckline, named the Beth – now a total sellout whenever it appears in store?
Inspired by Holstein’s grandmother’s house in Woodstock, Vermont, and days spent outside, the Khaite SS20 collection is boyish with flounce, and not a little nostalgia – on the catwalk the models wore hair jewellery that Holstein imagined had been pilfered from her grandmother’s dressing table. Holstein started out by giving women what they need. Now she’s sprinkling in a little of what they dream of, too.