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July 31 2014

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Christopher Kane on the Agony and the Thrill of Being a Designer and How It’s Changed His Life

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Chris KaneChristopher Kane was drinking green juice at the Carlyle last Tuesday. The designer was Natalie Massenet’s date at the Met Gala the night before and at the Top of the Standard and Up & Down after-parties that followed it. In the eight years since his award-winning graduate Central Saint Martins collection (newsflash, ladies: Those neon-hued bandage dresses might be making a comeback), Kane has become London fashion’s most successful export. Net-a-Porter shipped his clothes to eighty-six countries last year. Eighty-six! 2013 was a big year for him all around: In January, Kering (then PPR) took a majority stake in his business. Remarkably, as this interview shows, he remains one of the most candid, down-to-earth, and downright funny designers around. Before he headed back across the pond to prepare his Resort collection for a presentation next month, he sat down with Style.com to discuss everything from his impressions of Charles James’ gowns (“very sexual”) and his favorite TV show (“Game of Thrones“) to what’s on the docket for the rest of 2014. Look out, Mount Street! Kane’s first store is scheduled to open on the Mayfair thoroughfare in November.

How has the Kering investment changed things for you and your brand?
I’d say we’re now solely doing what we want to do. Before, we were run ragged—we were doing everything from admin to silly things, it was just relentless. It feels [like] I can enjoy myself again. Sometimes it can really take it out of you and you can think, What am I doing? All of a sudden this happened and it’s a huge sigh of relief.

At Net-a-Porter’s dinner for you last week, the site’s president, Alison Loehnis, said they shipped your clothes to eighty-six countries last year. That’s a lot. What are your goals for 2014 in terms of sales, and otherwise?
We’re looking for a new CFO. Our store opening is projected for November in Mount Street [in London]. Mount Street is having a bit of a renaissance. Céline’s just opened. It’s a really nice community of designers and labels, I’m really honored to be on that street. We’ve also launched the handbags, and we have an in-house accessory designer now. Men’s is doing really well, and we’re building more categories within the men’s.

In his recent reviews, Tim Blanks has remarked about the astounding number of ideas that are in your shows. Do you see Kering’s investment and this creative surge going hand in hand?
I’ve always had a huge library of ideas, but it’s so good to have the facilities to do more product categories now, like tailoring and leather goods. If you don’t do it [an idea], someone else might, so I just have to get it out there. I hate an idea to go stagnant, to go a bit smelly. The season I joined Kering, everyone was like, “It’s such a big show, you must’ve gotten so much money.” Actually, that show was produced with the same [amount of] money as the season before. It was just a celebration, it was not about spending a lot of money.

Among the things that resonated on your Fall runway were the nylon and fur pieces. Where did those ideas come from?
I’ve always loved fur, and I suppose with the nylon, it was that outdoor feeling. It feels good, it’s also quite sensual, it’s very like skin. I liked the contrast. There’s also that rich, pure quality. The show was centered around mink and nylon, everything came from there. It started quite clean, and then it becomes who knows? The nylon became ruched, it looked almost like a trash bag, but I liked that. The end dresses were based on books, pages, and things falling. So, a lot going on in that collection.

Christopher Kane

Were you a big reader when you were a kid?
No. I still don’t read now. I wish I was that kind of person, but I’m just not. I’m really impatient. I like the impact of the visual. Growing up, I liked TV.

What were your favorite shows?
The Clothes Show with Jeff Banks—it was a big deal in London. Jeanne Beker on Fashion TV. Even Elsa Klensch. She always made everything really intellectual. I was addicted from there on.

That’s where you discovered Versace?
I used to love watching Versace, and then it became Versace and Helmut Lang. They were my two favorites at different periods in my life. I used to sit and record with a VHS tape and stop and start and write Atelier Versace 1:20 till two minutes…It was like a log. I was nuts.

I think of Versace and Helmut Lang as quite different. Do you see similarities?
I think they were both pushing boundaries, and that’s what they were so good at. I think they’re really similar in that sense. They loved their jobs and you could really see that. They put their hearts and souls in it. Gianni and Donatella, they really stood out because the landscape was quite bleak, whereas they were like, Bam! In your face. Women really wanted to look like that. That power. Helmut had that same vision of these powerful women—to stand out.

Helmut is still so influential.
That’s one thing that I’m always very aware of. If I’m doing anything that looks like something [someone else did], I’m like, “No, out, get it out.” Tammy [Kane's sister and business partner] is always going nuts with me, saying, “No, it doesn’t look like that.” And I’m like, “No, it does,” and I have to scrap it or I can’t move forward. I’m very defensive about it, but you need to be because it’s your work. I’d never want to bastardize someone’s work and take it as my own—it’s destructive.

Other than Versace and Helmut, are there other designers who you admire?
I’m always very focused on what Tammy [and I] are doing. But you can’t help respecting what other designers have done. Rei Kawakubo, Miuccia Prada…and Raf is doing a great job at Dior. Working for Donatella was a highlight. I’ve got respect for everyone. It’s really hard being a designer.

It doesn’t show with you.
That’s funny. I’ve got pictures of myself from five years ago and pictures of myself now, and it’s just like, “Really?” Everything’s changed. Is it because I’m always hunched over my desk? Yeah, I think it’s starting to show. I’ve got a huge plan when I get back to London. Yoga, I’m really loving that again. Being a designer can be agony, but I suppose it’s like being in love. There’s pain, but you love it.

You’ve always struck me as a designer who knows how to balance work with having a good time.
Yeah, that’s why I’m drinking green juice.

How do you explain other big names copying? I think it might be because some designers are removed from the work. They’ve got such big teams.
I just don’t think there’s any excuse. It’s not right. If it not’s OK for a small designer like me, the big brands should be even more conscious of it.

Christopher KaneWhat about the other way around? Do you see trickle-down Christopher Kane ideas?

Everywhere. One collection in particular has always been referenced by a lot of people, and that’s the Spring 2008 collection, the one with the snakeskin, the ruffles, and the denim. That was a time when people were like, “Oh, my God, snakeskin is so cheap.” And I was like, “Really? Really? So that’s why it’s everywhere?” Or neon. When I did neon, everyone was like, “It’s so cheap and nasty.” So that’s why everyone’s doing neon this and neon that. Neon’s the new black. Listen, it’s a fabric, it’s a color, but those collections have been referenced a lot. And my lace and ring dresses from Central Saint Martins, there’s one designer who really rubbed me the wrong way, but I won’t even go near that. They’re my babies—that’s what set me off.

Those dresses made such a mark. What a debut.
I remember doing those dresses and being so terrified to show [my professor] Louise Wilson. I thought she was going to hate them. At college, there are the Comme des Garçons people, the Helmut people, they’re all trying to be that designer, and I’m like, “Why don’t you just be yourself?” That first knit dress was made from stockings and tights that I got in the market because that was all I could afford. I took it in, the model had a robe on. Louise said, “Where the fuck have you been?” That’s how Louise would talk. She said, “What have you got to show me?” The model took off her robe, and—that’s when Louise used to smoke—she took a puff and said, “That’s fucking great. Do another six and come back to me.” She was so tired of seeing the same old rehash of other things. It probably cost about 10 pounds to make. They’re now in cold storage. It’s great to bring them back out. It’s hard sometimes, but I look at them, and I say, “Well, if I could do that then, I can do it now.”

Were those dresses produced? I can’t remember.
Some of them were, yeah. Some of them we did in very small quantities. I think they might be coming back, you never know.

Things move so fast in fashion. Is that difficult for you?
I was really lucky. This whole idea of Resort and Pre-Fall, when we started that was still unknown. We really grew into them. There came a time to do them because we were at the right level, whereas you do feel sorry for some young designers. They run before they can walk because they’re expected to. It’s not fair. It’s hard doing one collection, never mind six. Back then you could have a life. Now it’s like deadline: fabrics. You’re picking fabrics two seasons ahead. You know when you pick something, that color will come up somewhere else and you won’t want to use it, but you’ve got all this fabric. You’re in the hands of the suppliers, basically.

Now that you’re in the position you’re in, what things, if any, do you wish were different about the fashion business?
There’s so many. No, really, we’re really blessed, but being creative is really tough. To be creative every day is brain damaging, you can’t do it. It does really suck it out of you. But the pace is so fast that you have to force yourself. That’s when it’s hard.

What do you like to do on your downtime? TV?
All the time. That’s the only thing I get to do. And that’s why exercise is going to play a big role when I get back. [laughs]. I’m in love with Game of Thrones. I didn’t get to watch Sunday’s episode, though. I was doing Natalie [Massenet]‘s fitting [for the Met Gala], and I kept telling her, “Natalie, we need to hurry up.”

You’re part of a fashion resurgence in London. Do you see people coming up behind you that interest you?
First, I don’t think it’s ever been bad, London. Hussein Chalayan, his shows were groundbreaking. The McQueen and Galliano period. It was always great. Look, there’s lots of good talent everywhere, but London has the best art schools in the world. When I was in Scotland, art was never seen as a career option. London is a very creative city.

Many of your peers in New York have taken over big European design houses. Are there any brands you’d like to put your imprimatur on?
Of course, it’s a dream to have the facilities, but I’m fine [where I am now], I’m still young. I’m quite focused on my brand, and my brand is just as good. I love it. I’ve got enough on my plate right now, that’s an honest answer. But I’m not going to lie, of course. Where would I go? It’s nice to see fashion changing. What Raf’s done at Dior is really brilliant. I think it really needed that, and now it really stands alone. You want to wear it. I love what Alex is doing at Balenciaga, good for him. Hedi Slimane. There’s always a negativity around what he’s doing at Saint Laurent, but I like it. I think he’s really clever and he’s one of the most important designers ever. And Nicolas at Vuitton—it’s Nicolas Ghesquière, how can you not like it?

Last question: What did you think of the Charles James exhibition?
It was very sexual, a lot of the draping and the structures. I don’t think I was the only one who noticed. But the dresses were perfection, you can’t deny it. Dior called him a master, Balenciaga really loved him. In his day, he was the real thing.

Photos: BFAnyc.com; Alessandro Garofalo / Indigitalimages.com

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