Saturday night, Newark, N.J. Five days before the start of New York fashion week. Alistair Overeem had Frank Mir in a tight hold and he was beating his skull, beating it until a lump the size of a tennis ball erupted on Mir's forehead. The crowd was going wild. And Reed Krakoff—yes, that Reed Krakoff—was bolt upright next to me, riveted by the match. "This is pretty bad," Krakoff told me, sucking air through his teeth. "But he still has a chance."
You don't expect your first encounter with a fashion designer bent on creating the next American luxury label to take place at an Ultimate Fighting Championship tournament. But Krakoff, it turns out, has a hard-core thing for Ultimate Fighting: The designer, 50, has been fascinated with boxing and mixed martial arts since childhood, and, for the past several years, this brutal sport has served as his release from the fashion scene. Which can be brutal in its own way, of course.
"I love the simplicity of it," Krakoff said when I asked what appealed to him about Ultimate Fighting. "Two people train. They eat, sleep, and drink fighting. One wins, the other loses. They shake hands, and it's over."
You might say that, in the weeks leading up to his Fall 2014 show, Krakoff was prepping for his own ultimate fight. This was poised to be a pivotal season, his first outing since departing Coach and putting together a group of investors to buy his four-year-old label from the brand for a cool $50 million. Krakoff's show would cap this moment of transition: Like a UFC gladiator, he was stepping into the ring, taking on his critics, and showing the world that, with or without Coach, he is a contender.
And there have been critics. Never mind that, over the course of his sixteen-year tenure at Coach, Krakoff transformed the house from a lackluster $500 million accessories label to a slick $4 billion lifestyle brand. As far as some people were concerned, Krakoff jumped the queue by launching his own line at the top of the luxury market and making moves such as hiring Valérie Hermann away from Yves Saint Laurent to run it. (Hermann has since decamped to Ralph Lauren.) Others thought Krakoff presumptuous for opening a lavish Madison Avenue boutique mere months after sending his debut collection down the runway. A few just didn't like the clothes. "I always try to listen to criticism. I think it's important," Krakoff told me. "But that kind of thing just fuels the fire."
Between fights in Newark, Krakoff and I headed back to the holding area so he could take some pictures. The designer travels widely for tournaments—not only to spectate but to photograph the fighters as well (a pursuit he picked up after Ingrid Sischy asked him to shoot a portfolio for Interview a few years back). "They're just amazing to shoot," Krakoff said of his subjects. "They have so much intensity."
A makeshift studio was set up in the concrete hub backstage. With a Polaroid camera, Krakoff shot various bruised and bloodied fighters, speaking fluent UFC-ese as he pointed and clicked. Gyms, trainers, techniques, stats. "Do you ever talk to these guys about fashion?" I asked Krakoff. "To be honest," he replied, "I don't really talk to anyone about fashion."
Ultimate Fighting isn't Krakoff's only pastime. He's something of a Renaissance man, into furniture design, art collecting, and, of course, photography. (Krakoff has published two books of his photos, and he shoots his own campaigns, which have starred the likes of Julianne Moore and Laetitia Casta.) He's got an eye, too. Twenty years ago, Krakoff began his now world-class art collection by picking up a George Condo painting for about $200.
Krakoff's line reflects his high-end sensibility. In a fundamental way, Reed Krakoff is about luxury. And luxury, according to Krakoff, is about desire. "It's about the woman who can and will buy anything," he said over lunch at his studio. "But for her to want what you have, she has to fall in love with it." From the beginning, Krakoff's clothes have catered to an uptown customer, one not unlike his wife, Delphine, a soigné French interior designer and mother of their three children. Still, his designs were sometimes overworked. This season, though, Krakoff slipped into a new groove: The clothes were polished but relaxed. Krakoff calls this mode "confident luxury." "I wanted to focus on the offhandedness of luxury," he said. "Like having a sweater that's slouchy and oversize but with fur patches on it."
That unfussiness is idiomatically American. And Krakoff is keenly aware that American-ness is a key part of his brand's DNA. "There's a strong sense of American design in what I do," he said. "I grew up with all these great American brands, and I worked for a lot of them, like Ralph Lauren. But," he added, "my goal has never been to mimic what they did. It was to absorb it, live through it, and try and come up with the next idea of what is American luxury."
Figuring that out is taking Krakoff some time. But then, no one said it would be easy conjuring an American version of Hermès. It's certainly harder than what Krakoff could be doing, which is resting on his laurels, tooling around one of his various homes (he just sold his Manhattan town house for a reported $51 million but still owns places in Paris, Palm Beach, and Southampton), adding to his art collection, and making his UFC thing even more of a regular habit. No one would look askance at him for enjoying a little of the dolce vita. But like his beloved fighters, Krakoff wants—nay, needs—to stay in the ring. And like the best of them, he understands, too, that when a move isn't working, you've got to change tack. The eased-up vibe of the Fall collection is evidence of that. Also adding to the sense of change is the fact that, after working for two years with Marie-Amélie Sauvé, the influential stylist best known for her ongoing collaboration with Nicolas Ghesquière, Krakoff has tapped Alex White. "I think it's good to keep evolving," he said of the switch. "Alex has a deep, deep understanding of how to tell a story—and, for me, that's what it's about. Telling a story."
Krakoff's instincts in this regard seem to be paying off with consumers. His label is currently sold by 150 retailers worldwide, and the company is set to open additional stores in the U.S. and Europe next year, as well as expand its digital platform. It doesn't hurt that Krakoff counts boldfaced names such as Michelle Obama among his fans.
And there is certainly no mistaking Krakoff's commitment to his brand. At his fittings, there was no look he didn't fiddle with—trying an alligator lapel here, switching a fur pump for a snakeskin boot there, remixing the handbags and jewelry. Krakoff insisted that one skirt be remade or altered no fewer than four times during my first visit—and that piece didn't even make it into the show. His handwriting is literally all over Fall's black-and-white looks, the prints of which are derived from the Sharpie drawings Krakoff habitually scrawls on his sketches. He's fanatical about every little thing and then, taking a broader view, just as scrupulous about his edit. The run-of-show was shorter every time I saw it. One wrong choice, he told me, could make the difference between showgoers leaving apathetic or walking out obsessed.
Showtime. The main event. Krakoff arrived at Spring Studios forty minutes before the doors opened—later than he'd hoped, thanks to a traffic jam, conference calls, and a meeting about shoes. "It's good to stay busy," he commented, betraying no nervousness as he surveyed his stark gray-and-white set. The runway was anchored by a glowing cubic frame, designed by Krakoff, through which each model would step. "I'm excited," he said, watching the run-through. "I had a lot of fun working on this season. There weren't really any constraints."
I stood by Krakoff as he observed the show from backstage, just as I had in Newark on fight night. His energy was different—he was stone-faced, eyes glued to the monitor, his hand fixed over his heart—but the quality of his attention, its intensity, was the same. As the models strutted out for their final lap down the runway, he broke into a grin. The crowd appeared to leave happy, too. When the reviews came in later, they weren't universally favorable—like his former boss Ralph Lauren, another successful empire builder, Krakoff will have to win over critics one season at a time—but Suzy Menkes, the outgoing reviewer for The International New York Times, gave the project a crucial endorsement. "Reed Krakoff," she wrote, "has finally found his comfort zone for modern style."
Krakoff's undisguised glee at the end of his show reminded me of an exchange he'd had with the UFC flyweight champ Chris Cariaso. "You don't need to smile," Krakoff told Cariaso, who posed—battered and shirtless—against the pristine white paper backdrop. "I can't help it," Cariaso replied, smiling like mad. "I just won." Sometimes, Krakoff might have added, you win just by sticking out the fight.