Naked Ambition

London fashion's poster boy, Christopher Kane, on why designing is a science

Fashion Feature
Naked Ambition 1

Taken from the December 2013 issue of Dazed & Confused:

There were flowers all over the SS14 catwalks, but none quite like Christopher Kane’s. Remember how your high-school science textbooks demonstrated biological reproduction? For Kane, that was the starting point for a fascinating treatise on female sexuality, from petal-shaped cut-outs rimmed in silver to dresses made out of lace and organza appliqués explaining the wonders of photosynthesis. “I started to think, ‘Oh my God, what we do and how we’re alive and how we breathe in oxygen, it’s all to do with plants, trees,’” he explains, sitting on an east London rooftop on a warm autumn’s day a few weeks after the show. “So it’s pretty phenomenal and yet we take that for granted.” The sensual undercurrent, he adds, comes from nature itself. “The anatomy of a flower reminded me of female internal organs. It’s something you forget after school, but those images are so beautiful.”

You’d expect nothing less than something special from the breakout British designer of his generation, of course. The show, his second since luxury conglomerate Kering announced that it had bought a majority stake in his company, was jampacked with new ideas. With his boyish good looks and soft Scottish burr, and dressed today in a wire-frame shirt from his men’s collection, Kane doesn’t much resemble a mad professor, yet SS14 continues an interest in the scientific that was first visible in the Frankenstein-inspired collage for SS13. It was then showcased in Resort 14, for which he mutated lace to resemble early 3D computer graphics, and his triumphantly epic AW13 showing, which featured electroshocked embroideries and filament-fringed dresses that took inspiration from an MRI scan showing the curves and coils of the human brain. “I love science,” he says. “I respect the processes involved and it’s so insightful. Even designing a collection is a bit like a science – there’s so much trial and error and problem-solving. Making a dress, you have to trial, trial, trial. It can take maybe ten times before you get it right, experimenting all the time.”

Visitors to his Dalston studio might be surprised to find no moodboards present. “I’m not a fan of printing stuff out and sticking them to the wall because when you pin something up, you feel like it’s confirmed.” Instead, he works from instinct. When playing with fabrics and textures, new ideas start to fuse, often triggered by something from back home. Childhood memories are the key to the transcendent power of his designs — his shows are heady, evocative ruminations, inextricably linked with figures from his past as well as the present. “It could be something I’ve done as a kid or something I saw this year. You’ve got a huge unconscious library in your brain, the things you pick up and then just come to you.” Indeed, trying to tease seasonal inspirations from him backstage over the years is a little like listening to a stream of consciousness from a particularly hyperactive mind: dinosaurs, Delaroche’s painting “The Execution of Lady Jane Grey”, cult films Cruising and Natural Born Killers, Joseph Szabo photographs. Yet by the time Kane is done twisting these disparate sources into his own vision they are pure sartorial gold.

"I really don’t understand how neon could be bad taste. We’re around it every day of our lives. How can leopard print be bad taste? It’s from the most beautiful creature on the planet"

Kane grew up in the unprepossessing steel-industrial town of Newarthill, just outside of Glasgow, the youngest of five siblings. The Kanes remain a close-knit unit — sister Tammy is deputy creative director and eldest sister Sandra is head of HR, while his mum is always proudly beaming from the front row of his shows. “As a child, I would always rather hang out with my mum and aunties because they were amazing, proper characters. I grew up really fast. I was so lucky to have a colourful childhood, surrounded by a really supportive family.”

The young Kane was obsessed with Tammy’s wardrobe, eventually saving up his pocket money to buy her a Versace mini-dress to wear to the school dance. When they became the first family on their street to get VHS, Kane got hooked on taping his favourite moments from the FashionTV channel. “I was really obsessed — I used to get up and record them all on VHS and label them: ‘One min, ten seconds, Helmut Lang.’ Recently I found out that Mum taped over them all!” Later in art class at Taylor High School, he was taken under the wing of an adored teacher, Jane Broughan, to whom he confided his dream of one day working for Versace. She encouraged him to try out for Central Saint Martins, the school he heard so much about on FashionTV.

Naked Ambition
All clothes and shoes by Christopher Kane Resort 2014 Photography by Oliver Hadlee Pearch, styling by Elizabeth Fraser-Bell

A few years later, his 2005 MA collection, based on child beauty pageants, sent reverberations through the industry and alerted all to a major new talent. “I’ve still got the Polaroid on my wall of his first dress,” says Central Saint Martins MA course director Louise Wilson of a garment made from stockings and cheap lace from Ridley Road market that Kane brought into her office late one night. “It was a ‘wow’ moment. It was a time when short and bodycon wasn’t in. It had such a skill level — it was intricate and felt right. As usual, I said, ‘More, more, more!’ And he and Tammy were totally up for it!” 

Vogue’s Sarah Mower was another early champion, awarding him the Lancôme Colour Award that year. “There were early versions of his dresses made out of Fogal tights and hardware shop curtain rings,” she says now. “I had never seen anything like it. It was tight and colourful and young and completely against the status quo of fashion, which was dead boring and timid between the shock of 9/11 and 2005.” Mower was instrumental in introducing Kane to one of his idols, Donatella Versace, who would later recruit him and Tammy to design for her label Versus. Kane vividly recalls his first meeting with an icon who had loomed so large in his life: “I was literally a quivering wreck! It was so strange going from watching Donatella on TV to being backstage and meeting her. It was surreal. I was starstruck. She just has this presence — she’s a star.” 

"Tammy’s got such a strong point of view and is fearless and brutally honest. There’s something about being Scottish – you always want to speak the truth."

Nothing could have prepared him for the reaction to his debut show on September 20, 2006. A procession of neon- bright lace-and-elastic micro-dresses provided a sorely needed visceral punch to the season and almost singlehandedly revived interest in London as a fashion capital. “When I did that neon it just felt so good, it made people really sit up. I really don’t understand how neon could be bad taste. We’re around it every day of our lives. How can leopard print be bad taste? It’s from the most beautiful creature on the planet.” Kane’s embrace of unconventional beauty has seen him experiment with everything from heat-sealing plastic flowers on translucent fabrics to filling clutches with gel. This fascination with opposing forces plays out in his designs, which balance sweetness with darkness and a persistent lingering melancholy. Now his shows are to London Fashion Week what Marc Jacobs’ are to New York and Miuccia Prada’s to Milan — they constantly upend expectations and change the fashion conversation.

But no matter how much Kane pushes forward with ideas and hyper-modern fabrics, the woman in his clothes remains powerful, sexy and totemic. And while he’s gathered an enviable cast of cool girls and mentors around him, no one else encapsulates the Christopher Kane woman in her complex glory as much as his sister Tammy. “What sets them apart is that they are a close duo,” says Wilson. “You can’t discount that whole family thing.” When I get in touch with Tammy later, she finds it hard to define what wearing the Kane name on her back gives her: “It makes me feel good and proud but each collection has so many different themes, it makes you feel different things.” 

Five years his senior, Tammy was first his model and now his closest collaborator, helping develop fabrics and ideas for his collections. Not since Gianni and Donatella has a brother-and-sister duo so captivated the fashion world. Their working relationship sees them operate almost as a single organism, often reaching decisions as if by telepathy. “I listen and support his ideas but if I don’t like something then I voice it too,” Tammy says. “I think we know each other so well that we can read each other’s faces and sometimes minds.” 

Naked Ambition
All clothes and shoes by Christopher Kane Resort 2014 Photography by Oliver Hadlee Pearch, styling by Elizabeth Fraser-Bell

Kane puts their equal partnership down to their grounded upbringing: “Sometimes we say too much to each other, that’s the thing! Tammy’s got such a strong point of view and is fearless and brutally honest. There’s something about being Scottish – you always want to speak the truth. I’m lucky to have someone as close and talented as Tammy. Not only are we brother and sister but we also think alike. I couldn’t do it without Tammy, bottom line. No Tammy, no Christopher Kane.” 

With a 19-month old daughter, Bonnie, Tammy says that “the hardest thing for me has been juggling motherhood with running the business. I am a really hands-on mum and obviously dedicated to the business, so striking a balance has been difficult.” Kane himself shudders at the memories of some of the hairier moments over the last few years. “I became a total insomniac — you just worry all the time because you’ve got a lot of pressure. But we always got it done. There have been moments when we’ve got no money in the bank and are thinking, ‘How are we going to pay the staff?’ And you know, my mum has to bail us out, but you learn from those crazy moments.” 

"There have been moments when we’ve got no money in the bank and are thinking, ‘How are we going to pay the staff?’ And you know, my mum has to bail us out."

Those hard times seem a distant memory now, following the announcement earlier this year that Christopher Kane would be joining Kering, the stable of Balenciaga, Alexander McQueen and Stella McCartney. “Well, it was just the next step,” states Kane. “It was the only way forward. François (Pinault) really appreciates that being creative is the sole way to success. That’s what he’s got with his brands.” The label now has a chance to compete in the big leagues, with accessories, handbags and a flagship store projected for London’s Mount Street next year. It’s a lot of pressure for such a young brand but the duo seem ready for it, Tammy noting matter-of-factly: “What most people forget is that it’s not a magic wand — with the investment comes more responsibilities and more work. But it definitely helps.” Mower waxes excitedly: “Christopher is not the only one of his British generation to attract international funding – but he is the first! He’s the poster boy for all that young designers are in London now: original, creative and business-savvy. I can’t wait to see how they bring their Newarthill teen life to Mount Street. I know Christopher must have ideas for bags stacked away - he’s bound to do them, but I’m sure there will also be game-changing accessories as well.” 

For his part, Kane envisages something “really clean” for the flagship: “It has to be something you can throw everything from snakeskin to patent at.” As for that anxiously awaited leather range, Kane will only let on that the pressure to design that knockout bag has seen him and Tammy apply their constantly investigative approach with intriguing results. “We’re doing well. It'll be very Christopher Kane but people will be surprised by how it looks.” 

That’s for the future, though. Right now, there’s more work to be done. Terrifyingly, the Paris shows have only just ended and the duo are already working on the next collection. “It’s so hard because you’re just exhausted," he confides. "You always forget, ‘How did I start that last selection?’, and you just can’t remember because you have a mental block. We were playing with fabrics ten minutes ago like that: ‘Is this right, is this nice?’” In the meantime, he’s catching up on his favourite pastime – watching rubbish telly – and planning a research trip later in the year to Tokyo. In the topsy-turvy, endlessly inventive, all-synapses-firing mind of Christopher Kane, who knows where that might lead?

CREDITS

Photography & Film Oliver Hadlee Pearch

Styling Elizabeth Fraser-Bell

Hair Naoki Komiya at Julian Watson Agency 

Make-up Thomas de Kluyver at D+V Management using Chanel Le Weekend & Christmas 2013

Model Marine Deleeuw at Premier

Photographic assistants Tegan Williams, Ana Barriera, Lulu Wentworth

Styling assistant Rachel Chapman

Hair assistant Victoria Hutchinson 

Make-up assistant Oonah Anderson

Camera operator Matthew J Smith

Hand-printing Michael McKenzie 

Casting Noah Shelley for AM Casting 

Special thanks Angus at Studio Private, Panavision & Charlie di Placido at Tomboy Films

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