"I love this!" exclaims Christopher Kane. "Come and watch it." We are in Kane's design studio in Dalston, East London. All is quiet. It's the second Saturday in March, just after the Paris shows and the day after Christopher Kane's sales have ended in that city. None of his staff are around; it's just me, him, and YouTube at this point. He has finally found the crucial scene in The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie he was looking for. As played by Maggie Smith, Jean Brodie's distinct Edinburgh accent is ringing out, and Kane is mouthing the words alongside her.
Jean Brodie: [After the domineering headmistress, Miss Mackay, has told her she must leave her post] I am a teacher! I am a teacher, first, last, always! Do you imagine that for one instant I will let that be taken from me without a fight?
"Good day, Miss Mackay," Kane and Maggie Smith eventually say in unison as the scene draws to a close. "She's just great.… But, ugh, that Miss Mackay!" says Kane, smiling broadly, yet gritting his teeth at the mention of Jean Brodie's nemesis. Miss Mackay is what Kane might usually refer to as "a wee bitch"—an oft-used phrase of his. After briefly discussing whether Jean Brodie is actually so great, what with her being an ardent admirer of Fascism and that influence resulting in the death of one of her garls in the Spanish Civil War, the pupil having gone to fight on the side of General Franco and all, we both decide that no, she isn't so great. But why, equally, Maggie Smith as Jean Brodie is so great for Kane is her never-say-die attitude: her refusal to give up, no matter what cards she has been dealt, her single-minded determination, her appetite for knowledge and beauty in the world beyond, and, above all, her extreme, unconquerable willfulness.
These qualities are things that Kane has in abundance—although it should be pointed out that the designer is a damn sight nicer than Jean Brodie. He's the hero of this piece, rather than its antihero, with no leanings toward Fascism whatsoever. He's the ordinary yet extraordinary young Scottish designer who has been swiftly changing the way the fashion system works over the past decade. At 30, he is exceptionally talented, genuinely modest, frequently hilarious, and very thoughtful. He is an extreme mixture of qualities that almost appear at odds at times. He also understands and appreciates willfulness in the women he likes and admires—the women who have shaped his aesthetic and worldview as a fashion designer, and the women he is designing for. He is devoted to them, and they are to him.
He's on his feet now, skittishly trying to find the DVD that Maggie Smith signed for him—a present from his friend Laura Carmichael, who plays Lady Edith in Downton Abbey. He stops rummaging through the bookshelves for a moment and says, "Ahhh, how nice of her was that?"—this might have been followed by a "God love her," another oft-used phrase of Kane's, but not on this occasion. "I'll have to ask Leanne," he says, referring to Leanne Girven, his studio manager, who has been with Kane since she was an intern, soon after the start of his label in 2006. Leanne knows everything. They have a close and touching relationship. Sometimes she thinks Kane is quite mad—in a good way—especially after he once decided to take all the people who work for him to see the stage version of Andrew Lloyd Webber's Jesus Christ Superstar, one of his favorite musicals. This excursion came out of his own pocket, not the company's. Of Lloyd Webber, Kane will often declare, "I don't care what you say. That man is a genius." He's used to defending his own tastes, being unswayed by others, and really not giving a damn about looking "cool."
A picture of a Cabbage Patch Kid that belongs to his sister and work partner Tammy Kane is pinned to a bulletin board by his desk. As a designer, Kane has always come across as mature beyond his years, but at the same time he refuses to put away childish things, and that is his strength: Where he's from and the things he dwelt on as a child come strongly into play in his work. The picture sits among handwritten letters of congratulation from Anna Wintour, Donatella Versace, Sarah Burton, and others, all praising his new partnership with PPR. This wholesale support of a young designer's own house by one of the two largest luxury groups in the world is one of the biggest events to hit the fashion industry over the last ten years, with potentially far-reaching consequences for the future. It has broken all the rules of a decade-long formula of placing young designers as the heads of houses of the largely deceased.
"The Cabbage Patch doll is actually in the office through there," Kane says of his sister's childhood toy, indicating the room right next to his where she works. It appears that Tammy is the most important influence in Christopher's life. Christopher's process is like a literary stream of consciousness or an interior monologue—although that maybe should be qualified as a dialogue, since Tammy is intrinsic to the shaping of these collections. She is five years older, but the two have a symbiotic relationship, more like twins, bouncing ideas off each other and developing them. There's a story that Christopher tells about his sister: Once, when Tammy was asked why her name isn't part of the label, she replied, "It is. My name is Kane."
Christopher Kane always knew he was going to be a fashion designer. "I don't know when I decided," he says. "I just knew that is what I would do, for as long as I can remember." Later, when he was at school, he saw a TV program featuring London's Central Saint Martins. "That's when I decided 'I'm going there!'" he says, adding, "Where would I be without television? I wouldn't have known anything about the outside world without it." Kane was a working-class kid from Motherwell—the unprepossessing former steel town midway between Glasgow and Edinburgh that has fallen on hard times and call centers since the closure of the Ravenscraig steelworks in 1992. Considering Kane's background, both of those decisions were quite unusual, and the odds were against his achieving his aims. Yet those odds did not take into account his talent, willful determination, and devotion to fashion. He always knew where he was going.
Fashion design is an instinctive process for Kane. He doesn't reel off a list of reference points like many designers; rather, he's guided by an abstract sense of how he wants a collection to feel and starts sketching. The world around him feeds into his work, from the mundane and the silly to the sinister. There always seems to be a darkness present in Kane's collections. For Fall 2012, the soundtrack was music and dialogue from Cruising, William Friedkin's film, starring Al Pacino, which features a serial killer who preys on gay men. Friedkin also directed The Exorcist, and a sense of the supernatural is something that often comes into play with Kane. He saw a lot of horror films when he was growing up, with his Auntie Sandra. Frankenstein's monster as portrayed by Boris Karloff became the big star of his Spring '13 collection. He often compares situations and people to "the Gremlins," and he himself, and what he does, could be seen as a combination of the adorable Gizmo and the devilish Stripe. "Although Stripe is really the best one," he points out. Leanne later adds, "He's definitely more Stripe."
At Kane's Fall show in February, his mother, Christine, was present, as were many members of his family, including his eldest sister, Sandra, who is head of HR at his label. (Christopher is the youngest of five children.) An even greater sense of expectation than usual had built up around his show, as the PPR partnership had been announced at the end of January. With a high-powered front row, including Donatella Versace, François-Henri Pinault, and Salma Hayek, all eyes were on the young designer. What he unveiled proved to be one of the shows of the season, and something of a greatest-hits-so-far in his seven-year career. "Everybody had made out it was because of PPR we did 60 looks. It wasn't!" states Kane emphatically. "We were working to the same budget as we had for the show before—the investment hadn't come through yet. We're just very resourceful people! This time we just didn't hold ourselves back. There were things and ideas we had kept back from shows before that we decided to do now. We just went for it."
The instruction for the models before the show was to "walk like a boy," and each carefully cast girl held her own in clothes that were an essential part of the Kane signature: quietly extravagant, again both ordinary and extraordinary, romantic and real. Ranging from the school uniform–like passage at the beginning to amazing lace midway through and ending on a tour-de-force display of electric-shocked embroidery, the show came across as confident, not cocky. Kane took the hurly-burly around him in his stride. Backstage it was a long way from Motherwell, with Donatella Versace kissing Tammy's baby daughter, Bonnie, laughing and joking, "You like me better than Salma, don't you?"
When Kane was in art class at Taylor High School, his Catholic high school in Motherwell, he envisaged himself working for Versace. Of course this vision later came true and Donatella Versace became one of his mentors and somebody he loves. One of his art projects when he was 13 featured clothes he designed for the house; Janey Broughan, his art teacher at the time, was a party to this. "There's a wee inner steel in Christopher," she says. "It's not visible, but if he has an idea in his head, nobody will make him change his mind." She is another of the key influences in Kane's life; somebody he plainly holds in the highest regard. She still teaches at Taylor High, and it seemed natural to go back there for the shoot that accompanies this story. After all, the school colors are the ones that feature most prominently in Kane's latest collection.
"As a teacher, it's brilliant to have Christopher in your career," says Broughan. "It is a great legacy he has built at this school." Taylor High now has many budding fashion designers, and the school generally encourages its students in the arts. "They now see it as a way out of here," says Kane. Broughan continues: "You don't always get a Christopher or a Tammy. This area is not the most visual place; there isn't an aesthetic to rely on as such. It's the imagination and creativity that have to be relied upon. And this place doesn't make people afraid of hard work, either."
Watching the shoot progress outside the entrance to the squat school building, with some of the sixth-formers drafted in as male models for the day, a telling scene unfolds. One of Kane's favorite models from his show, Marta Dyks, is at the heart of it. That's Tammy Kane, isn't it? "Yes, that's Tammy," says Christopher, of the girl holding her own in this group shot full of boys. Earlier he had said, "I was always all right at school. I didn't get picked on, because everybody knew I was Tammy Kane's brother." He says this with some pride, and you sense that this is still how he thinks of himself.
When Christopher and Tammy were younger, they would sometimes stand in front of the mirror and say to each other, "Do we look poor?" And yet what they produce today has no pseudo-aspirational glitz and glamour, nor overt statements of wealth. The Kanes learned the power of clothing at an early age, and it's the poetry of their upbringing that defines their output today. They look back at the chic way their mother dressed for a night out at Glasgow's Barrowland when it was a dance hall in the sixties—"clean" is how Christopher defines it—or how Tammy used to dress as a teenager in the nineties. She had the chutzpah to start shopping at Glasgow's designer stores at age 12; both siblings would save their allowance to buy her things. There's also the shadowy figure of Jan Devine, a woman they are fascinated with from their hometown. "It's always Jan Devine," says Tammy Kane. "God love her," adds Christopher.
"We were lucky as well, that we were surrounded by good teachers, like Janey," adds Christopher. "I was in awe of her; she just dressed so well." His sister adds, laughing, "People were terrified of her at school. I was terrified of her, but just as much I was intrigued by her." "She had a life; she went to places and did things. She knew artists. She's Jean Brodie!" says Christopher, before adding, "Our mother, she's always part of that, too."
"It's always those things we grew up with," says Tammy. "Everything reminds you of something else, a character or a uniform, but our brief has always been to do something fresh. We hate 'referencing.' With us, it's a memory or a feeling we had from something. I was always really grateful for my school uniform being those colors. We didn't realize we were doing it back then, but we were building our taste levels. It's like Disney. Disney obsessed us. We didn't think any other cartoons were good enough alongside Disney, and that's what my daughter, Bonnie, watches now. We didn't think we were better than everybody else," she adds, "but we just knew our lives would not lead down the same paths as everybody else's."
"For a collection, we always start poor, and then it progresses to the opposite at the end. But it's the same girl throughout. She travels a long way," says Christopher. "It annoys me when people say that it's bad taste turned good. It isn't. I've always found these things beautiful. It's normal life. My M.A. collection at Saint Martins was based on child beauty pageants, but I thought those clothes were extraordinary. I thought those kids looked like Fabergé eggs! I was terrified to show my tutor, Louise Wilson, that first dress. It was so different to what everyone else there was doing. When she did see it, she said, 'I fucking love it.'" "He rang me straight away," says Tammy. "It was like somebody lit a match. Louise Wilson was another Janey for us. We knew this was it."
"We would have survived without the investment, but would we have survived as people?"
In swift succession, another series of Janeys/benevolent Jean Brodies appeared, including the journalist Sarah Mower, Anna Wintour, and Donatella Versace. "Versace stood out for us when we were growing up. It really got us hooked. Now I'm pals with Donatella—it's weird," says Tammy. "What really became clear to us was that it was a dream, but we had our own dream as well. We had the dream of our own label," says Christopher. That's what the PPR investment entails above all: It allows the Kanes the ability to further build their own history. "We've worked really damned hard," says Christopher. "We would have survived, but would we have survived as people without the investment?" asks Tammy. "I don't have a life! That inhibits creativity. It is such a big step forward." Christopher breathes a sigh of relief and says, "I haven't had a sleepless night since signing the deal—and I am sensitive to those sorts of things. We now have this big support network where McQueen, Stella, and Balenciaga are alongside. That's pretty extraordinary, and something to be proud of. We want to grow, we want to have the shops.…" At this, Tammy wistfully interjects, "Can you imagine? We're going to have our own shops… We're going to define what is in our own shops." And the teenage girl who would escape to the stores in Glasgow comes to the fore again.
"I suppose the people who work for us think we're nuts," says Tammy. "The highs are high and the lows are low with us. He's like the Pied Piper," she says, motioning to Christopher, who agrees. "When I'm on a high with work, I may as well be on a pair of roller skates high-fiving people in a row," he says. His sister adds, "And when we're on a low, we can be vicious, evil bastards…but only to each other!"
Credits for this story: MODELS: MARTA DYKS AND ELLINORE ERICHSEN AT NEXT MODELS; DYLAN BAXENDALE, PAUL JOSEPH CROSSAN, LEIGHTON NEILL, PAUL COGAN. HAIR: ANTHONY TURNER AT ART PARTNER. MAKEUP: LUCIA PICA AT ART PARTNER. Special thanks to Taylor High School, Motherwell, and Barrowland Ballroom, Glasgow, Scotland. Production: Ragi Dholakia Productions.
CORRECTION: STYLE.COM/PRINT MISIDENTIFIED ONE OF THE MODELS FROM THE CHRISTOPHER KANE SHOOT IN THE PRINT EDITION. HE IS PAUL JOSEPH CROSSAN, NOT PAUL JOSEPH GROSSAN. STYLE.COM REGRETS THE ERROR.