Sitting by the canal in North London, a stone’s throw from Central Saint Martins, Christopher Kane reflects on his time at the great art and design college. “I was there for six years, from my foundation year when I was 17, through to my BA and MA,” he says. “I recently looked at my MA collection again and it was nice to do that – lots of great memories came flooding back.”
Kane is an elfin-faced man with bright-blue button eyes, a sweep of sandy hair. He speaks in a silky Scottish burr and has an easy, impish laugh. He’s in a great position to take a trip down memory lane, even though he’s only 32. He’s the high priest of London fashion, a role he’s ascended to with ease since that award-winning set of fiercely confident neon-lace dresses he debuted for his MA in 2006 brought him instant industry attention. He was properly ordained last year when Kering, the fashion conglomerate that owns Gucci and Saint Laurent, bought a major stake in his label. Kane became the first London ready-to-wear designer to attract foreign investment for 13 years; the last time that happened was to Stella McCartney in 2001.
With great power, of course, comes great responsibility. Developing the Kane brand in a way that will make it a global success is a delicate venture. In his autumn/winter 2014 collection – the first since the Kering investment – he launched accessories, a symbolic step towards becoming a household name. A name that will have advertising hoardings over Broadway, signature perfumes, and stores from London to Kuala Lumpur, if Kering have any say. (The first store, on Mount Street in Mayfair, is due to open later this year.)
In a bumper show that had nearly 60 looks, half of the models carried bags: holdalls, clutches, shoulder bags, box bags, the works. The models whizzed past the audience and, in the blink of an eye, the bags with their signature safety-belt fittings became objects of desire. That is the Kane effect.
“We wanted something iconically Christopher Kane,” he says, “and the safety-belt made sense, it had been there from the start [he first used the device in his MA show]. There’s that pressure to do an it-bag, but it wasn’t the agony we were expecting.” Maybe that was because he hired a “trusted friend” as a consultant, and “went at our speed, developing and experimenting until it felt right.” Part of that experimentation meant dispensing with the usual kerfuffle around designer handbags (the new range is just for women, men’s bags launch in spring 2015). His haven’t been christened with girls’ names, as has become the convention; Kane makes a face at the idea. “It’s a nice bag, but it’s just a bag,” he says, no nonsense. The hardwear – all those bits that hang off a bag, adding kilos to its weight – were streamlined too, because “girls carry around iPads and all sorts these days”.
He’s road-testing one of his totes today, wearing it with a charcoal cashmere sweater, black jeans, and brogues with gold filigree details – a barely audible whisper of luxury. Like a lottery winner new to his fortune, Kane is taking baby steps towards finding out how to display his enormous success – although the same can’t be said of his work, which is advancing with sure strides. His collections are never pedestrian (they’ve been inspired by everything from Frankenstein to CAD scans), but there’s always been a push and pull between fantasy and reality in his designs.
His studio location helps; he still works in Dalston, and, though the area is becoming gentrified, it is still not the uptown world of luxury fashion. Kane bemoans the lack of a Pret A Manger, but recognises that living and working in E8 widens his view, even if it’s difficult to locate a crayfish and avocado salad. “I have been working in Dalston since 2001, when I started from my bedroom. There are trendy kids but also eccentrics. It’s changed so much, but remains one of my favourite places in London.”
Kane is a modern designer: his clothes are different enough each season to keep short attention spans focused, but they’re fundamentally wearable, often with an off-kilter familiarity. His special skill is taking something mundane, unremarkable or even ugly, adding a twist, and making it into something that women want now, now, now. He’s done that time and again: stadium rock denim for spring/summer 2008, granny crochet blankets for autumn/winter 2011, pool slides for spring/summer 2012, or botanical diagrams for spring/summer 2014. He describes his modus operandi as “challenging your own and others’ perceptions. I have never understood what people mean by bad taste. It’s just society saying it doesn’t understand something.”
While the front row wait to Instagram the latest example of Kane cool as it comes down the catwalk, he always shows items that everyone would want to buy. Kering didn’t sign on the dotted line out of the goodness of its heart, Kane’s stuff sells. The team at Matchesfashion.com call the label a consistently strong seller, and they already have a waiting list for the bags. A spokesperson for Net-a-Porter says there are sell-out pieces every season, with dresses and sweatshirts always performing well. His signature ideas include biker jackets, cardigans, pastels and – most of all – neon.
“I have an encyclopaedic knowledge of neon,” he says (something you can’t imagine Giorgio Armani declaring). “We come back to it because, after a few seasons without it, you need something with a bit of a kick.” This season, his knitwear came in bleached-out yellow and green, but the bags had their neon pink and green elastic details. “I did neon when everyone thought it was tacky and cheap,” he sighs. “Now it’s the new black.”
That Kane is so pragmatic about his work is probably due to Tammy Kane, his older sister and deputy creative director. It’s probably no exaggeration to say that without Tammy there would be no Kane label. The siblings are very close, provoking comparisons to that other fashion brother and sister, Gianni and Donatella Versace. Tammy began as a muse and fit model, and now works beside Christopher on the design, juggling their growing business baby with her real two-year-old daughter, Bonnie.
They grew up in Newarthill, a rural village near Glasgow, part of a family with five children, and their childhood doesn’t sound like fashion central. Yet, despite the five-year gap between them, they bonded over TV programmes such as The Clothes Show; labels popular at the time in Glasgow, including Patrick Cox and Benetton, as well as collections by Christian Lacroix, Jean Colonna and Versace. “I remember watching those shows and the hairs standing up on the back of my neck, and I was just a kid,” he says. “We saved our pocket money and spent it on clothes in the Versace store in Glasgow.” Kane devotees all know the sweet story of how the 12-year-old Christopher saved up to buy Tammy, then 17, a hot pink dress for her school leaving dance.
They weren’t just playing dress-up. There was always a plan. Only six years after that movie-worthy pretty in pink moment, Christopher was on the foundation course at St Martins, then on Charing Cross Road in central London, following his future Kering stablemates, Alexander McQueen and Stella McCartney. Tammy moved to London with him. “It was such an honour to walk through those doors,” he says. “It was a chapel, because anyone who was anyone went there. I worked my arse off but I had lots of fun along the way.”
The tutor on the college’s famous MA course was Louise Wilson, who encouraged unique thought and a strong work ethic. She was a huge influence on Kane and he remained close to her after he graduated. She died in May this year, and her death has put him in a reflective mood. “Louise’s passing was a huge shock to me, she was mine and Tammy’s biggest supporter,” he says. “She was the glue of that college and meeting her set us on our path. She had this great phrase: ‘There’s always someone better than you, so you need to work 10 times harder’.” The lesson was drummed into him and got results: soon after graduating, Kane became a boy wonder – consulting for Versace, having tea with Anna Wintour and creating sell-out collections for Topshop. His label, now eight years old, is ready for its next phase, turning all that potential and talent into a fully-formed brand.
Kane is a much-liked figure in fashion. He’s personable, fun and doesn’t use the clichés of fashionspeak. Though there are signs that now his business is shifting, he’s raising the drawbridge a little. Personal details, such as where he’s off to on holiday, are kept private, and he’s now become tight-lipped on even such dating-profile basics as his favourite films. While he’s excited about the prospect of doing future advertising campaigns, he won’t tell me which photographer he would shoot with, for fear of being copied. “You need to protect your work,” he says, a steely tone entering the honey of his voice, “it’s my intellectual property, as it would be in any other creative industry.”
When we meet in July, he’s gearing up for September’s show – which, as always, will be the most anticipated at London Fashion Week. He’s keeping up the momentum, despite the exhaustion of creating six collections a year. “I don’t think people realise how hard it is,” he says. “You’re doing these shows and it’s very personal. You’re often an emotional wreck afterwards.” All to make the hair stand up on the back of the audience’s necks, as those Versace shows did to him years ago. “You have to push it, be on your hands and knees, because that’s how you get a good collection,” he says, “I want people to say ‘I’ve never seen anything like that’.” While the content of spring/summer 2015 is anyone’s guess, it’s safe to say it will be unique and you’ll want to wear it immediately. That, right there, is the Kane effect.