Interview: Christopher Kane on how his manner, drive and inspiration were fashioned in Lanarkshire
CHRISTOPHER Kane is describing how he holds himself together when he meets famous people.
This is a man who has been courted by US Vogue editor Anna Wintour and employed by Donatella Versace. He has dressed everyone from the Duchess of Cambridge – or the Countess of Strathearn as she is known in Scotland – to Samantha Cameron. In short, he’s no stranger to famous faces, but he still gets starstruck. Sometimes.
“The leg shakes,” he says with a laugh. “It’s uncontrollable but you just have to brave it. But that’s just normal, isn’t it?” I wonder how many people get wobbly knees when they meet him. He’d quickly dismiss the very idea, I’m sure, but the quiet, 30-year-old Scot is the most celebrated man in British fashion right now.
We meet in a small room in Harvey Nichols in Edinburgh, which he’s visiting as part of the store’s tenth birthday celebrations. He is dressed, like so many male fashion designers, with subtle good taste; a dark jacket, a dark T-shirt with a faint check and two short, fine gold chains. His hair is floppy and boyish, his Lanarkshire accent soft and lilting.
He’s been talking all morning, however, and he’s a little hoarse, apologising repeatedly for his raspy cough. On the other side of the door, members of his team, his mother and sister Sandra chatter away loudly. “That’s my sister laughing like a hyena,” he says with a laugh. By contrast, Kane himself is quiet, measured, gentle.
In a recent interview, Wintour described him as “fabulous – and lovely too”. Alexa Chung has called him “so normal and nice”. They’re simple but entirely accurate summaries.
He expresses himself more confidently through his work than in interviews, perhaps, but his quiet enthusiasm and flawless manners are sweet and endearing. “I’ve been brought up to be polite and have manners,” he says with a shrug. “It’s the easiest thing...”
It’s something he’s a stickler for, something he reiterates more than once: “I just treat people the way they treat me. That’s a saying that’s been going since day dot. And a smile doesn’t cost anything.”
He’s here today, all smiles and politeness, to meet a handful of his most loyal customers and talk them through his current collection – at once ultra-modern and darkly Gothic – described by some critics as his best to date. A purple leather leopard-print trench stands out, as does a shimmering red dress with fat leather piping. As always, his influences are as diverse as they are bizarre; the 1980 serial-killer thriller Cruising, “the inside of a coffin”.
It’s a collection that looks as good on SamCam and Alexa Chung as it does on Kane’s mum, Christine, who today is wearing one of his classic grey leopard-print jumpers. As for the customers, who are cooing over pieces including a blood-red puffa jacket and an appliquéd leather dress, he still gets a kick out of seeing people buying and wearing his designs.
He famously said, when he first arrived on the scene, that if Victoria Beckham wanted to wear his clothes, she could buy them, like everyone else. The sentiment clearly still stands: “It’s a pleasure to meet people who actually spend their hard-earned cash. It’s a privilege and it’s nice that people actually appreciate the time and effort you put into making a dress or a jacket.”
“The whole idea of celebrity endorsement... I’ve not been opposed to it but at the same time I’d rather see people buying it. What was so good about the Duchess of Cambridge was that she wore something that was so not typically me. It was so bespoke but it was so derivative of the collection. And you can’t deny that she got my name known worldwide because of the person she is. At the end of the day it’s my property, so it’s good to be selective and … not just give it to everyone. But people can buy it. Catherine was an exception. She’s such a lovely person.”
The youngest of five children, since graduating from Central Saint Martins in 2006 his shows have been the hottest ticket at London Fashion Week. He shook up the fashion world with his graduate collection six years ago showing pale body-con dresses trimmed with neon lace, taking his bow in a gold necklace spelling VOGUE which his mum had made for him at the Barras market.
When he first showed a piece from the collection to Louise Wilson, the famously-hard-to-please director of the MA fashion design course at CSM she took a long look at it and simply said “That. Is. F***ing amazing.” Since that collection his work has realigned and redefined British fashion.
Though he insists that a thread runs through his collections, some would say that the Christopher Kane signature is that there is no signature; every season he conjours up a vision that feels entirely new, fresh and different. From neon lace to baroque velvet, eighties denim to embroidered leather, each collection seems to come from a different mind, yet could only be Kane.
“Every season’s different. I think that’s the brand. What’s so unique about Christopher Kane? That’s it. We like to do something different every season.” For fashion insiders, finding out where his imagination will take him next is one of the highlights of the shows.
“I actually get anxious at this show between each look,” Vogue’s fashion editor Fran Burns said of Kane’s collections after his AW12 show. “I feel sick with excitement as it’s something so different and he teaches you new ways to see things – this time it was a bit of Goth, a bit of punk, but it’s always beautifully, elegantly refined.”
Perhaps one thread that does run through much of his work is, well, sex. Whether seedy, sinful, vampy or va-va-voom, he knows, perhaps from watching all those Versace shows on television as a boy, that there’s an inextricable link between fashion and sex. “It’s just natural,” he says with a coy smile. “There’s an undercurrent of sex in every industry. Wearing a dress, it’s to attract attention, to look your best, to get another person’s attention. It’s just a part of human nature and I think in collections it’s nice to have a nod to that, whether it’s something literal or not so literal. It’s always good to surprise people, to take their breath away.”
The word “genius” is perhaps bandied about too readily in the fashion world, but if it applies to anyone in the industry, it applies to Kane. There is no fabricated persona however, no exaggerated ego, no designed-to-shock soundbites. Just polite smiles and a modest wave at the end of each show.
Pushed by fashion reporters to discuss his work and his inspirations, he doesn’t often say much. He showed his SS13 collection at London Fashion Week in September and backstage writers were unable to extract any detailed explanations from him.
Asked where his inspirations come from, they got; “I don’t know, I honestly don’t know.” Asked about the white plastic bolts which featured on shoes he conceded “Well, yeah, Frankenstein was a bit of a thing,” His response to questions about the bows which peppered his work was, “Well I just really wanted bows. I loved the idea of sweet, sickly sweet.” His work certainly speaks more loudly than he does, but it sings and hollers in such a way that an explanation from its creator isn’t really required.
One influence which returns time and again is his childhood, growing up in Newarthill near Motherwell. These memories are sometimes reflected fairly literally, as in the squishy clutch bags he created for AW11, inspired by the gel-filled pencil cases he took to school, or the crisp, icy SS12 collection, inspired by the girls we all hated in high school.
However, those childhood influences are often less tangible; they come from observing the care his neighbours took with their appearance when he was growing up, the pride with which Glaswegians often put themselves together, the way the girls on his street would dress for a night on the town.
“I went to India recently and in the poorest Indian slums the people looked so immaculate and so beautiful. I find that everywhere I go; people who are the poorest, they have the most [style].”
“I’m always looking at pictures of Glasgow from the Fifties, Sixties, Seventies, of Jamaica in the Sixties, of African townships. Brooklyn in the Fifties or Chicago dance halls. They just look so good. They didn’t have much but when they wanted to look good and feel sexy they revved it up. Complete genius. I’m always looking for that.”
Then there are the women in his family, the ones laughing loudly on the other side of the door, who brought him up and help him to run his business. His mother travels down to London for his shows (“she thinks it’s a great holiday, party time”), while elder sister Sandra, a former nurse, deals with the human resources side of the business. And, of course, there’s his other big sister Tammy, a new mum, who has been his muse since childhood and his business partner throughout his career.
“I was really lucky that I grew up in an eccentric environment,” he says. “I was always surrounded by my mum and her sisters; really humorous, lively and eccentric women. And I was never discouraged. I remember being a sponge, taking it all in. I was always drawing and sketching, always had a pencil in my hand and was surrounded by really energetic people who instilled that work ethic. Growing up in Scotland you’re instilled with that sense of being grounded and being normal.”
With such an ingrained work ethic, does he ever switch off? “I’d love to say it’s easy to switch off, but I’m always thinking of work. Even on a day off, I’m never far from my BlackBerry. But I just love what I do. I’m really lucky. It’s a tough game but every other industry’s the same. It’s cut-throat but I love it and I didn’t get here through chance; I worked my arse off and I’m not scared to say it.”
It’s that attitude which meant that a working-class boy from Lanarkshire told his art teacher, aged 14, that he wanted to work for Versace one day and was offered a job by Donatella Versace ten years later. He turned her down, preferring to focus on his own label, but in 2009 took a position as the creative director of Versus, Versace’s youthful diffusion line.
He parted ways with the label last month, prompting suggestions that he would succeed Nicolas Ghesquière as the creative director of Balenciaga. He denied the rumours, and Alexander Wang was appointed to the role late last month, but it’s testament to his calibre as a designer that his name was linked to the legendary French house; in filling Ghesquière’s shiny shoes Wang will be taking on one of the top jobs in fashion.
What’s next for him is, according to the statement he released after leaving Versus, focusing all his energies on his own label. Right now, however, it’s time for a quick catch-up with his mum before he flies back to London, and it’s time for me to go.
He leaps up and shakes my hand, all wide smiles and niceties. I remark once again on his polished manners, but he’s keen to remind me that they don’t make him a pushover. “Don’t let anyone treat you like crap; I’ve been brought up like that. And if they do, you just have to be like ‘hold on a minute, who’re you talking to?’ But that’s a Scottish thing as well. We can bite...” I do find it hard to picture, but if so, this particularly sweet Scot’s bite is definitely worse than his bark.
• Christopher Kane is stocked in Harvey Nichols, Edinburgh, www.harvey nichols.com
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