Interview: Scottish fashion design star Christopher Kane on what gets him going

Christopher Kane’s clothes are worn by international celebrities but it’s Scotland that provides the inspiration for his stylish pieces, writes Janet Christie

Christopher Kane visits Braemar to talk about his Scottish inspirations
Christopher Kane visits Braemar to talk about his Scottish inspirations

He’s the country’s most celebrated fashion designer and his work is intrinsically Scottish. Yet Christopher Kane doesn’t make a big thing of it, wrapping himself or anyone else head to toe in tartans, tweeds and saltires. The designer who founded his own label with sister Tammy more than a decade ago is better known for his sheer neon lace and cut-out cage dresses, sharp tuxedos, crystals, fringes and feathers and this year’s affordable T-shirts for the Heart of Scotland appeal for Heart Research UK.

Adored by A-listers of every occupation – musician Kendrick Lamar rocks his Creature hoodie and sweatpants on stage and Rihanna reclines in red siren sexy floor-length tulle, film stars Cate Blanchett and Lupita Nyong’o roll him out for premieres and politicos like Michelle Obama choose Kane for calling at Downing Street. And among all the red carpet royalty is actual royalty, with Kate the Duchess of Cambridge/Countess of Strathearn serene in a sky blue coat dress or giggling at his Lovers’ Lace nudes dress at the opening of Dundee’s V&A.

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So deeply ingrained are Kane’s Lanarkshire roots and Scottish family connections – he’s the youngest of five from a working class family in Newarthill, Lanarkshire, his dad a draughtsman/engineer, his mother working in a school kitchen – that when it comes to talking about how his homeland inspires him, he takes a wee minute to mull it over.

Christopher Kane's Ecosexual Spring/Summer 2020 collection at London Fashion Week in September Picture: NIKLAS HALLE'N/AFP/Getty Images)

Listening to him down the line from London is invigorating, inspiring and fun because Kane does great chat, from last night’s telly to how a uniquely skilled Scottish workforce is what puts the heritage, tradition and quality into our fashion, to his latest meat-free eating regime, the negative impact of Brexit on his business, women being shamed for being sexually confident and why people find sexual gratification in balloons, the so-called Looners who feature in his latest “Ecosexual” collection.

Which is what will make his appearance in Braemar next Saturday when he is in conversation with Justine Picardie (exiting editor in chief of Harper’s Bazaar and Chanel biographer) and Oriole Cullen (Curator of Fashion and Textiles, London V&A) such a highlight of the Fife Arms Fashion Weekend, which celebrates the village and country’s connections to fashion. Wartime Harper’s editor Frances Farquharson married the owner of Braemar Castle, attracting her fashion friends, including Elsa Schiaparelli, the Italian designer famous for her irreverent fusion of fashion and art (check out her shoe hat and lobster dress) and collaborator of surrealists Man Ray, Marcel Duchamp and Salvador Dali. Fellow fashion icons Coco Chanel and Christian Dior shared her fascination with Scotland. The Fife Arms’ art deco cocktail bar is named Elsa after Schiaparelli, which is where Kane comes in, because besides being Scotland’s most dazzling designer and perfectly placed to discuss contemporary design and the influence of the high street as well as Highlands on his work, he’s also a friend of fellow Central Saint Martins graduate Russell Sage, who masterminded the interior transformation of the 19th-century coaching inn before its reopening.

“It’s phenomenal that Scotland has such a connection with all these worldwide, fashion establishment figures, and that’s important,” says Kane. “And Justine is such an advocate for Scotland and everything Scottish, that we’ve a lot in common. Plus, I’ve heard good things about the hotel and want to see Russell’s interiors.”

His Italian partner of five years, Maximiliano, is also keen to head north for the event – which also features textile designer Araminta Campbell and Mhairi Maxwell, Assistant Curator, the V&A Dundee – and wants to see more of Scotland.

Catherine, Countess of Strathearn in a Christopher Kane coat dress. Picture: Arthur Edwards - WPA Pool /Getty Images)

“I’m like, I don’t even know these parts of Scotland, how bad is that? All that history is amazing – but I grew up in Newarthill, and all these amazing castles and hotels were so far removed. We’re a working class family and that’s what I’m proud of, but I’m excited to be part of this because it is showcasing the fact that Scotland – the landscape, people, culture, art, textiles – is forever an inspiration for talent around the world.”

For Kane, what’s key is the quality of the materials and craftmanship of the workforce.

“We have the best cashmere in the world, so obviously luxury design houses gravitate towards us because they want the best. And when you visit the mills, the workforce is amazing. If you take care of the manufacturing, use the best quality, have a code of ethics, the clothes stand the test of time. They’ll still be there, ten years from now, cherished and passed on.”

You can take the boy out of Scotland but you can’t take Scotland out of the boy and ever since the 37-year-old left for London to study, there have been echoes of Alba in his designs. There’s a Stewart tartan mini-kilt in his DNA collection and cable knit Octopus jumpers in this year’s Ecosexual collection.

Royal Stewart Tartan Mini Kilt

“I didn’t do the kilt because I knew it was a Stewart iconic tartan,” explains Kane, “but because someone in our village wore that when we were growing up and me and my sister really admired how she looked. She stood out because she was outspoken and brilliant.

“We were like, wow, who could rock a skinhead and mini-kilt in Newarthill? But she did. And the jumpers? In Scotland we have this beautiful traditional heritage of creating things you just can’t buy on the high street.

“The heritage of Scotland – castles and tartans – is amazing, beautiful, romantic and savage, but to be honest I don’t do that. I grew up around my Aunty Sandra, my mum, Aunty Mary... that’s who I look to. My mum worked in a school canteen and she was a cleaner, and my Aunty Sandra was a cleaner in factories, so they weren’t glamorous, although they liked to dress up at weekends. They still weren’t glamourpusses, though – they actually hated that. It’s such a Scottish thing. ‘Naw, I’m not wearing that, no. It’d be showing off,’ and I’d say, ‘you’re not showing off mum, wear the shoes!’ It’s so endearing, but you’re, ‘nah, come on!’ ”

So gifts from Christopher’s collection to his aunties and mum were treasured, but in a box in the wardrobe. Sister Tammy is different. Six years older, she studied fashion and textiles at Heriot-Watt University, set up the label with him and is co-creative director.

Actor Anne Hathaway Hollywood, 2015, in Kane. Picture: Frederick M Brown/Getty Images

“Tammy wears the clothes every single day, which is great. And working with a woman is really fantastic. Tammy is so strong-minded and outspoken. I was never brought up to take something down the runway that would look ridiculous on a woman and we just put things down that feel right, and instinctive.”

So when Kane, the Celtic king of contemporary fashion, shows something as now as this season’s gel-filled pouch bags and embellishments on dresses and suits, they were in fact inspired by his smalltown childhood in Newarthill and Motherwell.

“They came from those crazy pencil cases that were the thing when you went back to school in August, everyone competing, ‘where’d you get that?’ ‘John Menzies’.

“And science, nature and biology have always been a reference for us. Inspiration just strikes; it could be from a gallery, bad TV or, with Ecosexual, some of that came from a photograph I took in London Fields when I was walking Bruce, my Boston Terrier, just a beautiful moment. There’s an overgrown part that looks like it’s a field somewhere but it’s in the heart of the city. Newarthill was a concrete jungle but it had the Carfin Grotto where I’d take the dogs and it was beautiful to me. We were so lucky with our childhood, to grow up in a really large, tight and loving, but also very encouraging, family,” says Kane.

He and his siblings were always encouraged to embrace otherness or differences with matter-of-fact acceptance and because he and Tammy are fascinated with nature, human and biological, reproduction and seduction, the More Joy! theme of previous collections (from the title of the 1970s Masters and Johnson sex manual) continues to flourish in the collections.

“It started with the concept of fetish about ecosexual people – those who are in love with the earth and nature, science and nature. They love the air, love to make love in air, naturists, don’t need clothes, just want flowers, beauty, nature and wind and magic and spirituality. Ecosexual is a way of being, of loving the planet and caring for one another so there are comments on the clothes like ‘make love with the wind’. It’s the nitty gritty that gets me going, the people, the outsiders, and it’s fun.”

So Ecosexual, as well as celebrating Scottish Paisley pattern and Charles Rennie Mackintosh and the Glasgow Style that inspired Art Nouveau, also trashes taboos with cupcake skirts, Latex strap shoes, and T-shirts celebrating Rubberists, Sploshers and Looners, those who fetishise rubber, food and balloons.

“It’s just a way of life for people and it’s their sexual fantasies. As long as it’s consensual and not hurting anyone, then go for it. When you dive into the research, it goes way back, these fetishes are not a new thing. And there’s a fetish for everything you can think of. I forget what it’s called, but there are people who get sexual gratification from throwing themselves downstairs. It’s just the weird and the wonderful, and me and Tammy are so attracted to it because we were never discouraged or told something was abnormal, it was just different and that’s OK too. Different is OK.” What about Space Hoppers then, is that a thing? This is what happens in conversation with Kane, his sparky brain sends you off on a tangent.

“I don’t know. I remember those, but I was too scared, ‘cos I saw someone that went too jumpy and bounced off and cracked their head. I was always quite a timid child, never did anything oversudden,” he says.

“We want to create things you’ve never seen before. I don’t want to tap into the normal. I want people to react, in a good or a bad way.

“I’m forever inspired by human behaviour and intrigued by people who have been shunned by society because they’re outsiders. That still goes on, people saying weird things about women who are seen as sexually progressive. I can’t believe people still think that’s an issue. A woman can be what she wants to be and if she wants to be sexually confident, then good for her. And she can wear what she wants – and if other people don’t like it, then they don’t need to wear it.

“What Tammy and I do is re-own sex, do it differently, not predictable or stereotypical. We research human behaviour and what people really get a kick out of.

“How do you define sexy? It’s a really personal thing. I don’t label women ‘sexy’. It’s up to them to make their own minds up if they are.”

Clad in a More Joy! T-shirt, joggers and Nike sneakers, Kane will be taking Bruce for one of his four daily walks after our call. “Up to 40 minutes each time,” he says, consciously pursuing a healthier lifestyle that coincides with his support of the Heart of Scotland campaign to combat heart disease, Scotland’s biggest killer. He’s recently cut out meat altogether after losing four and a half stone on a high protein diet.

The photograph of wildflowers and weeds, the outsiders of the flower world, inspired the designs that bloom on his Ecosexual collection of suits and dresses.

“Those little plants deemed as weeds, I love them. They’re the most strong-willed plants and survive everything,” he says.

Kane is concerned about the environment in a wider sense too, considering how he can make a difference in his business. Since he and Tammy separated from Kering (the luxury group behind YSL and Gucci, and one of those that signed this year’s G7 Summit’s Fashion Pact to keep the fashion industry conscious of its environmental impact and work to reduce it) and became independent again this year, he’s been working to instil his ethics into the brand.

“I learned a lot from being part of Kering, because their code of ethics was really good, and they’re one of the best in the industry.

“You have to look at the supply chain, the code of ethics you need, how the people working on these clothes are treated as well as how the earth’s treated. It’s hard, but I’m enjoying the process and every little step makes a difference.”

One such small step is the use of local manufacturing, something Kane is trying hard to champion.

“And we keep our supply chain really close so we’ve not got the huge carbon footprint of other people. Our stockists are the best in the industry and we work with the best suppliers who invest in employees’ environment, for instance our crystals are lead-free, which is a huge deal, and the plastic is not PVC, it’s biodegradable.

“So it’s great to be part of this event, to highlight these issues and promote Scotland in a positive light as a hub of creativity.

“And it’s always been like that; for so long, amazing people coming here, and coming from here, inspirational people. It could be someone in your local village, in their kilt with their skinhead.”

Or it could be Christopher Kane in conversation in Braemar.

Highlands and Haute Couture: How Fashion and Scotland Inspire – Christopher Kane, Justine Picardie and Oriole Cullen in conversation, followed by audience Q&A, 9 Nov.

For full information on The Fife Arms Fashion Weekend (Friday 8 - Sunday 10 November) and tickets, visit Tickets for the talks are £6 per event.

The Fife Arms, Mar Road, Braemar, Aberdeenshire, tel: 01339 720200, email: [email protected],