In fashion, new designers fade in and out of favour: One season editors say a collection is “full of promise,” “a revelation,” “a breath of fresh air,” the next the same designer would do well to “focus on construction and finishing,” “think beyond cheap runway thrills” or “pick a theme and stick with it.” But there are a few who transcend the cycle. After deft introductory collections, there is a faith that each return will yield new and more interesting fashion. Suddenly, the designer is no longer “young,” but “transformative,” “boundary pushing.” Alexander McQueen was one of these— each show a spectacle not to be missed—and prelapsarian John Galliano, at Dior and his own label, was another. Since his beginnings in 2006, Christopher Kane, their fellow Central Saint Martins alum, was clearly the latest. But as Kane’s collections were met with awed pleasure, behind the scenes he was treading water.
“It’s always been me and my sister Tammy, [and] we got to the point where we couldn’t be creative because we had to do all the other hard stuff,” says Kane, on the phone from his East London studio, his Scottish accent thick. “It came to days where we would hate our jobs. To come out with amazing collections every season is quite hard when you’re always looking for money.”
But then, in January 2013, it was announced that Kering (formerly PPR) was investing in Christopher Kane and assuming control of 51 percent of the company; a release from financial hardship, but also, perhaps, the start of a different kind of stress.
François-Henri Pinault, the CEO of the luxury powerhouse—whose other holdings include Gucci, Stella McCartney, Balenciaga, Saint Laurent and Alexander McQueen— is known for taking a personal interest in his house’s creative directors. When Nicolas Ghesquière mysteri- ously departed from Balenciaga last year, rumours swirled that it was because Pinault disagreed with the beloved French futurist’s direction. Everyone, even one of the most admired, is replaceable in the world of high fashion.
But Kane doesn’t see that as a negative: “François-Henri believes in pushing the creative vision. Looking at the portfolio of brands they already have, I think that’s where you see the point of difference: To stand out you need to come up with the new and interesting.”
Kane is adamant that fashion and his company, is a business first. In fact, he seems exasperated when I suggest that, for him, it might be more art than commerce. “Surely [commerce] is the whole point,” he says. “Why would you put on clothes that you’ve already seen? From [commerce] you get a following and respect. That’s all I’ve got. It’s not like [I’m not] making money and nothing is selling—it is.”
“With financial backing we can concentrate on the creative work,” he says, sounding exultant. “I can fully be the designer again. It feels good.”
Perhaps he doesn’t fear the pressure because he’s always had Pinault size expectations for himself. He’s a well of fashion imagination, and the conglomerate is merely his enabler. When I ask him about his fall collection—a tour de force of 60 looks that featured a fully realized Kanian vision of brocade mixed with fur mixed with webby lace, which will be arriving in stores as this issue goes to press—he laughs and says vaguely: “Fall was obviously a big collection, I suppose …” And then, “I need to go online and remember what I did.”
I am looking at that very collection on my computer as we talk, and it’s an odd parallel to think of Kane, the man who designed the fantastical garments I’m staring at, doing the same thing. If it’s a testament to the breakneck speed of the fashion cycle, it’s also indicative of his mindset. Ever searching for the unforeseen (and finding it in unexpected places: storybook monsters, children’s stickers, coffin linings) leaves no time for rehashing the past.
“I’ve just done resort and menswear, so woop, woop,” he says. Earlier that day, images of his resort collection went live. It’s an extension of the fall show, for which MRI imagery was Kane’s original inspiration. “I always look at science for references,” says Kane. “I was looking at MRI scans, thinking about how ideas come about, [and] at feathers and lace as being mechanical. Your brain is such a powerful tool, you take it for granted, don’t you?” Powerful, yes, and a whirling dervish of associations in Kane’s case. For resort, the final looks are fantastic frocks of grid-like polyester-silk-blend lace stretched on wire frames, calling attention to the wearer’s anatomy.
They’re dresses you might imagine only a 14-year-old Japanese street-styler could pull off, but they will be bought by everyone from gallerinas to socialites. At Toronto’s Butterfly Ball this year, which raises money for Boost, a service for abused children, Vonna Bitove, who runs her family’s charitable Bitove Foundation, was wearing a ruffled PVC dress from Kane’s recent spring collection. “It’s a little harder to wear to everything,” she admits. “But he seems to have the knack of fitting [clothes] very well, which makes me go back again and again. They always make me smile.”
Nicholas Mellamphy, the buying director at The Room at Hudson’s Bay, has supported Kane from the beginning. “He’s going to be the one, in 40 years, who will be very important.” Mellamphy says that Kane customers appreciate his “cutting- edge” use of fabrics—like the aforementioned PVC. “It’s someone who’s adventurous.” Emma Watson and Carey Mulligan are two of his “adventurous” fashion-darling fans.
Room customer and blogger Samantha Beckerman seeks out Christopher Kane pieces like rare fashion treasure (to be shared with twin sister Caillianne). “He has a young-designer mentality,” she says, “where he’s always pushing the limits. But he has an old soul for craftsmanship, and fifit.” Of the “sticker book” dress she owns, she says,“When you put it on, you feel like a million bucks. They’re made impeccably.” It’s completely see through, and yet for these devotees, completely perfect. “You can tell it’s all hand-done.”
Behind Kane’s clothes is an interesting sense of gender: Despite being brocade camo and leather buckled, the dresses in the fall collection, for instance, have classic womanly sex appeal, with full-skirted yet skin- baring silhouettes. “It’s a very feminine look,” says Bitove.
Perhaps this unique bridging of the yin and yang is due to sister Tammy’s presence. The co–creative director, she also serves as behind the-scenes muse. Male-female duos are rare in fashion, siblings rarer still: There are up-and-comers Susanne Ostwald and Ingvar Helgason of Ostwald Helgason, and Michael and Nicole Colovos of Helmut Lang, but both are romantic pairings.
Five years his senior, Tammy was the one to jump-start their fashion dreams when she studied knitwear design in college. Now, she nurtures her brother’s talent, a sounding board and manager rolled into one savvy package. Their bond is deep and long-lasting. “We grew up as friends and protecting each other,” says Tammy. “I was always blown away by how advanced [Christopher] was at drawing and painting—he was a complete natural at it. I was very proud and pressed my teachers to look at his work and validate it so he was encouraged to keep pushing himself.” Legend has it that a 12-year-old Christopher saved his pocket money to buy Tammy a wet-look Versace miniskirt.
“It’s a very natural dynamic,” says Tammy. “We have adjoining offices, so if I need his opinion on a business decision he’s right there and vice versa if he needs me for collection discussion. The biggest thing we do together is talk. We spend a lot of time looking through his sketches and ideas—that’s the fun part. The difficult part is realizing those ideas.”
If there’s a through line from collection to collection (remember, he doesn’t look back), it’s Tammy and Christopher’s shared childhood in Motherwell, the once-industrial town southeast of Glasgow, and their youthful fantasies. “We had a very simple, happy childhood, and art was our hobby,” says the elder sib. Kane adds, “I can remember being obsessed by the fashion scene and just the way people dressed. I remember drawing bodies, naked bodies, and putting clothes on them. I didn’t really know what a fashion designer was, but Central Saint Martins kept popping up on the TV with McQueen and Galliano. I was just like, ‘I have to go.’ I was focused and addicted.”
This early passion, in which Gianni Versace figured largely on the Kanes’ impressionable young minds, appears in the campy edge of Christopher Kane’s collections. In the unafraid aspect of his work—adhering garish black tape to pink lace in his spring 2013 collection, mashing blanket-inspired crochet with iridescent jelly-filled plastic trim as he did for fall 2012—there’s a childlike boldness. But although he’s been seen as an outré, independent-thinking talent, Kering’s investment is the final indication that Christopher Kane is to be taken seriously as a major, commercially viable designer. Pinault and his wife, Salma Hayek, sat front row at Kane’s fall ’13 show; it’s the big leagues now. In the coming year he’ll expand his digital presence, open a flagship in London and join the accessories market fray.
When it comes to his perpetually upward motion, however, Kane’s not surprised. “It is fate. It’s positive energy, because if you think it’s going to happen, it does happen. I really do believe that.” Christopher Kane, you’ve made believers out of all of us—though we suspect nonstop work and talent might have as much to do with it as cosmic radiance.