Fashion designer Christopher Kane

In 2013, Scottish fashion designer Christopher Kane sold a majority share of his company to luxury powerhouse Kering and the transition to global brand began. As he opens his first standalone shop, the “disruptive genius” talks to Jo Ellison

Christopher Kane at The Connaught, London
Christopher Kane at The Connaught, London | Image: Richard Grassie

Christopher Kane, the 32-year-old Scottish fashion designer, is eating lunch in the rooftop restaurant at Shoreditch House, east London. It’s a freezing day and he arrived wearing a heavy woollen overcoat that made him look vaguely naval. A diminutive figure, Kane is currently worrying about winter weight gain and waging a war against food. “I’m in fasting mode,” he says, picking sorrowfully at a chicken salad. “This will be my first food of the day. And my last,” he adds in his determined Glaswegian way. “I really need to watch it, because last year I was so fat.”

Viscose-mix and tulle jacket, £1,495, and matching trousers, £450, from Dover Street Market
Viscose-mix and tulle jacket, £1,495, and matching trousers, £450, from Dover Street Market

With fashion, as with food, Kane is a man of discipline. Having alighted on an idea, he gets on with it. He’s succinct, to the point – and funny. When we meet, news of Alessandro Michele’s appointment as the new creative director at Gucci has just ended weeks of speculation about who would get the job. Kane was rumoured to be in the running. Did he want it? “Gucci’s an incredible business, one of the biggest fashion brands in the world,” he says. “But I’m happy being me right now.”

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Now nine years old, the Christopher Kane brand is among the most promising luxury labels in Britain – and the most ambitious. “Christopher Kane is one of the most significant designers of our time – he has risen from making waves as a promising emerging talent on the London scene to having a formidable and revered business recognised the world over for its evolving creativity and breathtaking designs,” says Caroline Rush, chief executive of the British Fashion Council. “The label’s growth and success is not just rooted in talent, hard work and ambition, but also in an understanding of how the business of fashion works.”

Pleated and embroidered polyamide‑mix dress, £1,560
Pleated and embroidered polyamide‑mix dress, £1,560

At the start of 2013, Kane sold a majority share of the company to the Kering group, which includes Gucci, Balenciaga and Saint Laurent, assuring him a status within the luxury market that few other British designers are afforded. Seemingly overnight, his catwalk shows transformed, with international buyers and editors flying in to take their place on the front row.

Viscose-mix cardigan, £1,995, matching tank top, price on request, and matching skirt, £950
Viscose-mix cardigan, £1,995, matching tank top, price on request, and matching skirt, £950

“Christopher represents everything that is great about British fashion,” says Natalie Massenet, founder and executive chairman of The Net-a-Porter Group and chairman of the British Fashion Council. “He champions creativity in every show and every piece of clothing – and with Kering behind him, the sky is the limit. His business is that perfect mix of extraordinary creativity and great commercial potential. No wonder Kering snapped him up.” Ruth Chapman, co-founder and joint CEO of Matchesfashion.com, adds: “He changes the agenda with his shows. When he introduced brown, traditionally out of bounds commercially, he nailed it with milk chocolates mixed with soft grey – and it’s a look that’s still influencing other designers. Kering was smart enough to see this. He has longevity too; I truly believe his disruptive genius will keep setting the pace for the future.”

Embroidered guipure-lace dress, £7,000
Embroidered guipure-lace dress, £7,000

Kane’s first collection under Kering, in February 2013, was a bravura display of 60 looks – beautifully cut cashmere overcoats; cropped jackets with his signature buckle detail and fur trims; dresses and trousers in rich burgundy silks and velvets; jumpers appliquéd with feather flowers; and colourful beaded frocks – that demonstrated both creative chutzpah and a canny grasp of commercial potential. Subsequent collections have been equally assured. His designs are worn by red-carpet starlets – Emma Watson, Keira Knightley and Alexa Chung – and by more senior figures such as Samantha Cameron. In 2011, Kane designed the blue skirt-suit worn by Vogue editor Alexandra Shulman for the royal wedding.

Viscose‑mix and tulle godet dress, £1,495, from Harrods
Viscose‑mix and tulle godet dress, £1,495, from Harrods

“Christopher is a truly great talent and has built a very distinctive, exciting and globally recognised brand in just a few years,” says François-Henri Pinault, chairman and CEO of Kering. “His work has always been about questioning – fashion, silhouette and materials – and he has created a personal, contemporary and progressive style. We saw impressive growth potential in the striking and radical collections Christopher had shown since the launch of his brand.”

Viscose-mix and tulle godet dress, £950
Viscose-mix and tulle godet dress, £950

Kane has always been single-minded: “I always knew where I wanted to go and what I wanted to do. I knew I was different.” As the youngest of five children growing up in a working-class family in Newarthill, near Glasgow, it was this certainty that possessed him to start drawing – first nudes and then bodies with clothes on them – when all his friends were playing football. The same instinct told him he was gay before he was even really cognisant of what the word meant. And the same dogged ambition got him through school, despite his impatience with it, and a place at Central Saint Martins in London to study under the late professor of fashion design, Louise Wilson. “I was a teacher’s pet, and I loved being her pet,” he says proudly of his outspoken former tutor and mentor. “I was forever getting called that because I like to do the best I can.”

Lace top, £1,895, and silk‑jacquard miniskirt, £595
Lace top, £1,895, and silk‑jacquard miniskirt, £595

In 2006, newly graduated, he launched his eponymous womenswear line, a 32-look collection in vivid neon that he conceived with his sister Tammy (a graduate of Heriot-Watt University’s School of Textiles & Design and five years his senior). The duo have built on the brand’s singular aesthetic ever since. “Christopher drives the creativity and Tammy plays an indispensable part in driving the brand’s long-term economic growth,” says the British Fashion Council’s Rush. But the Kering investment was crucial. “We couldn’t have gone any further without that,” Kane says of his decision. “We would probably have gone bankrupt if we had expanded by ourselves.”

Tulle and lace jacket, £650, matching skirt, £650, and lace bralet (worn underneath), £350
Tulle and lace jacket, £650, matching skirt, £650, and lace bralet (worn underneath), £350

Although Kering’s investment in and nurturing of Stella McCartney and Alexander McQueen showed the group’s commitment to promising British brands, Kane’s decision was instinctive, as he immediately had a good rapport with Pinault. “I remember François-Henri getting a Coke and drinking out of the can,” he says of Pinault on the day he signed the contract. “Sometimes people can be so pompous, but he was the complete opposite. He was laid-back, had a great smile and always made eye contact.”

From left: leather shoulder bag, £550, from Matchesfashion.com, and leather safety-buckle satchel, £1,400, from Harvey Nichols
From left: leather shoulder bag, £550, from Matchesfashion.com, and leather safety-buckle satchel, £1,400, from Harvey Nichols

Christopher Kane’s absorption into the Kering group has inevitably accelerated its expansion. “Our long-term ambition is to support its gradual transition into a global luxury brand,” says Pinault. Last year, the marque appointed a new CEO, Sarah Crook, who had spent nine years at Stella McCartney, a label she helped steer to international recognition, first as director of merchandise and business development, then as vice president. “Her strong merchandising and commercial skills and extensive expertise in business development will benefit the Christopher Kane brand in its strategic expansion,” said Marco Bizzarri (former CEO of Kering’s Luxury – Couture & Leather Goods division, now CEO at Gucci) at the time of her appointment.

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The investment has precipitated two other developments: the 2014 launch of the brand’s first handbag collection – including a satchel with safety-buckle detail (£1,400) – and the opening last month of its first flagship store, on London’s Mount Street. Designed with the minimalist architect John Pawson and standing alongside UK-based contemporary labels such as Roksanda and Nicholas Kirkwood, as well as international stars like Céline and Oscar de la Renta, the store is a long-held ambition for Kane – the first opportunity to engage directly with his customers. “The shop is exciting because it will be the world office for the label,” he says. “And because we’ll have the things we truly believe in – and not just what the store buyer believes in.” “It’s a huge thing for us,” echoes Tammy. “We’ll get to know our client. We hear about so many variables from our wholesale accounts, and sometimes this can be conflicting because our collections change so rapidly – it will be good for us to understand that better.”

Indeed, it is hard to categorise the Kane customer. “The Christopher Kane woman remains feminine, even though she is often edgy and dark – cool in a sexy way,” says Matchesfashion.com’s Chapman. “From my late-teen daughters who crave a sweatshirt or miniskirt to women in their fifties, sixties and onwards who want the new coat shape, there’s a very broad customer demographic.” While there are always eminently wearable items among the collections – the advantage of having your sister as an in-house model and reality check – Kane’s designs often focus on a technical motif or theme that requires a certain bravery to pull off. His neon-centric 2006 debut collection introduced the safety-buckle detail that has continued to characterise his work (including his leather goods); neons were then revisited in lace for spring/summer 2011 – a collection of box‑pleated skirts, argyle knits and faux-leather pieces inspired by Princess Margaret; autumn/winter 2011 was a nostalgic paean to crochet and 1980s pencil cases – with pockets and clutch bags fashioned out of clear plastic pouches and filled with coloured ink; while his spring/summer 2015 collection, dedicated to Professor Wilson, returns to a woven rope and cord detail he’d initially worked on – and shelved – under her mentorship at Central Saint Martins.

Alongside elegant gowns and dresses, the spring/summer 2015 collection also offers a novel take on the twin set, interwoven in burgundy, black and ivory; ladylike pleated skirts (from £990) and dresses in silvery charcoals that graze the knee; and striking skirt and trouser suits with tulle embellishments in rich burgundy, cream and pale lilac. His cruise collection 2015 is more arresting; standouts include a neon guipure-lace dress (£7,000), a lace-trimmed tulle skirt (£650) and a leopard-print shoulder bag (£550).

Crook’s focus is now on developing and refining the “brand codes”, as she calls them, on which more commercial lines can be drawn. “Christopher has an incredible talent,” she says. “That’s why Kering went to him. They saw an amazing creative brain that they could nurture, not only within his own label, but within the company.” Her job is to harness that creativity. “He pushes the boundaries, particularly in terms of materials on the runway. What’s important is finding ways of translating those ideas and concepts into wearability. That’s a big task for the brand. A great job has been done to date, but it’s something we can do more of.”

Kane isn’t afraid of words like commerce or saleability. His ambitions for the brand are boundless: “I work hard and I want to succeed.” He’s very realistic about what needs to be done, and the way in which he should go about it. And he’s extremely grounded; he says his biggest struggles are with Mars bars and boredom. The designer has a restless creative energy, thinks entirely in images, and sketches obsessively, usually producing around 300 drawings for each collection, from which he whittles around 40 catwalk looks. “I’m always sketching, forever drawing,” he explains. “Things need to be taken out of my hand to stop me from drawing.”

If Kane remains calm, it’s because he has Tammy and an older sister, Sandra, who heads the HR department, on his team. Tammy is an essential creative partner in the business, and the siblings share a rare synergy. She is happy to let her little brother take the spotlight, but works constantly at his side, often with her two-year-old daughter Bonnie in tow, who toddles around the studio playing with fabrics and swatches. “He can draw, he can paint, he’s got hands that have always mesmerised me,” she says of her brother. “It’s a gift. And it’s effortless – he just keeps doing it.” Of their dynamic, she says: “He always has the best ideas, because he’s got a wee genius streak in him, and I don’t. But once he’s got the ideas, I bounce back at him with 10 more and he comes up with 10 more and then it really becomes a collection.”

Theirs is an extraordinary partnership, of an intensity some might find overwhelming, but it’s built on brutal honesty – a rare commodity in fashion. “We’re never embarrassed to share ideas because we’re brother and sister, so we don’t have any of that pretence or that fear that other staff might have with each other,” continues Tammy. “You can say anything and you know that in three years’ time the other person isn’t going to walk out with everything you’ve built together. I think that’s part of our success; we can be really direct all the time, and we get the work done faster.”

The siblings also have the advantage of a shared memory bank from which to draw inspiration. Their father was a draughtsman and their mother, Christine, raised the children (she died shortly after this interview, and it is to her that Kane’s autumn/winter 2015 show was dedicated in February). Kane’s first experiences of fashion were The Clothes Show and the boutiques in Glasgow that sold designer labels. Later he memorised every Versace collection (and years later still Donatella lent Kane fabric for his graduation show, as well as offering him a job designing the Versus collection).

Kane’s clothes can be quite nostalgic, but does he think of his designs as being autobiographical? “Unconsciously,” he says. “We are always referencing our childhood or family characters or films we saw as children. And I’m always looking at my environment. I grew up in Scotland and was surrounded by great, eccentric Scottish people, and I went to Central Saint Martins for six years, so I have been really lucky with those.”

With the increased workload and the need for more and more ideas, Kane is under considerable pressure these days. Does it ever get too much? “Louise [Wilson] was forever saying you have to work your guts out – harder than anyone because there’s always someone better. And it is true,” he says of this attitude – before conceding, “One thing I do miss is knowing lots about art. When I was at art school I used to go to galleries, which I don’t really have time to do any more. Now when I see art, I think, ‘What is that?’ Which annoys me. But I’ve got a good personal and social life, which I make time for as they are important too.” He smiles. “There are always the prison moments. I’m not going to lie. It can be really hard to be creative every day. But then suddenly something happens and you think, ‘Thank the Lord!’”

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