To understand Christopher Kane, you have to cast your mind back to the February of 2006, when the 23-year-old Scottish upstart debuted the MA graduate collection that would make his name. Coincidentally, it followed months of seismic change across Britain’s political landscape: the beginning of Tony Blair’s rapid demise following the Iraq War, the legalisation of same-sex marriage, the announcement that London would host the Olympics. Perhaps the buzz around Kane’s graduate collection – a delightfully kinky mix of lace mini dresses and oversized jackets bedazzled with golden rings – was a signal of a renewed energy within London’s fashion industry too, opening the door as it did for a new generation of British designers to follow in his wake.
Twelve years later and the Christopher Kane brand is a powerhouse. Despite recently parting ways with luxury conglomerate Kering, their five-year partnership saw Kane open a Mayfair flagship, expand their wholesale business to become truly global, and stage runway shows in London’s grandest venues. Yet somehow, it’s still easy to think of Kane as a young designer: not due to any lack of refinement, but simply because along the way he’s lost none of his many contradictions, continuing to produce pieces that challenge as much as they seduce.
Just like the complexities of his rapid ascent to success, untangling the web of references Christopher Kane has built up over his career is no mean feat: he’s just as likely to celebrate the clean beauty of the working class Scottish girls of his youth in a pleated gingham dress as he is a matriarchal dominatrix in a slick patent leather coat. You only have to look to his most recent SS19 collection – drawing as it did on an unlikely mash-up of David Attenborough documentaries, Marilyn Monroe and the sexual predation of female praying mantises – to see that his weird and wonderful universe of beauty, horror and the erotic has lost none of its subversive punch.
Liam Hess: Before we started speaking, I was thinking about some of the Christopher Kane ‘codes’ – florals, lace, transparency – and how much mileage you manage to get out of them. Season after season, there’s always a really inventive twist. After twelve years in the business, how do you manage to keep these staples fresh?
Christopher Kane: Twelve years! Oh god, I don’t feel that fresh now [laughs]. Obviously I work very closely with Tammy, my sister, and we’re forever trying new things. We were the ones who set the codes and DNA for the brand, so we’re never lazy – because our worst fear is to be derivative. Sometimes it can be agony. I think a lot of designers find it hard to be creative every day, and coming up with new ideas all the time is also a huge pressure. But for me that’s where I get the most joy and pleasure, because I know it’s solely mine, I own it. That’s the good part, but twelve years is a long time. With every season, it’s become a diary for my personal life as much as my business life. Some were tainted with darkness, some were influenced by happier things: you go through a lot while you’re working on a collection. It can be a real emotional rollercoaster.
Liam: With your past few collections, it feels like you’ve started to move into a new chapter of your career: it feels darker, moodier, more mature. Is this a response to anything in the political sphere, or your personal life?
Christopher: I think what happened was we moved away for a few years from being overly sexual, and now we’re really back with that, so for some people it’s like a slap in the face. But we don’t want to be doing sex like anybody else is doing it, or in an obvious way. We want people to either love it or really hate it, my worst nightmare is having people look at it and say, “Ah, that’s nice.” We don’t want it to be nice. Nice is not a good word, it’s not a word I ever want someone to use describing my clothes. I don’t read reviews, I don’t read what people write and I don’t really care because it’s so personal to me and Tammy. What we like is always right for us personally. Everyone is different. I don’t like any sense of doubt because for me, it’s not a positive way of going forward. But then it’s been twelve years, so I’m probably just exhausted [laughs]. I’m not really exhausted, every day is like a breath of fresh air, to be honest. You either go home ripping your hair out, or skipping.
Liam: Going back to what you were saying about the collections as a kind of diary, what were some of the moments in your life you were documenting with your past few collections that have revolved around sex?
Christopher: The show before last, the Joy of Sex collection, really did ruffle some feathers. It wasn’t our intention – I went to art school, I’ve always done life drawing and admired the human body. Even when I did the Lovers Lace collection [FW15] people found that quite provocative. I was just like… really? I don’t know what you’re watching or reading, but I’m sorry, there are worse things on Instagram! We did the More Joy [FW18] collection and people were asking how that came across with the whole #MeToo thing, when I’d been working on that collection for the past six months, and it had nothing to do with #MeToo which had happened like the week before. I can’t help what crops up in the news. For me, it’s the complete opposite, because my clothes are always there to empower women and these beautiful drawings are to show how men and women enjoy themselves, how to be liberated through sex. I thought that was quite natural, quite normal. We do have to procreate, so we may as well have fun while we’re doing it. The most recent collection on sex in nature was more about how animals procreate and how alike we are, with a nod to Marilyn Monroe as well – she’s seen as being this overtly sexual person, but it was also a burden. She’s quite animalistic in a sense. I’ve always been interested in the scientific basis for human behaviour. There was the Sex-ed collection [SS14] where I used images of flower genitalia as they’re quite similar to the female reproductive system.
Liam: It’s a sideways look at sex that has felt nicely topical – do you think the nuances of how sex relates to the way we dress are under-explored in fashion?
Christopher: I’ve never been a snob, or someone who stereotypes women – or men – but it still happens in this day and age, where a woman is perceived as something because she’s wearing a short skirt. Why are we still doing that? I don’t get it. If I was a woman, I would feel free to wear anything, whether it’s a man’s suit or a bodycon dress, but people are still judging – and you end up perceiving someone as something they’re not, just because someone’s just trying to show off their beautiful cleavage. I’ve noticed other people do that to each other, when all I can think is, “She looks great! Why is that a bad thing?” And I think clothing is obviously there to help you embrace your body, whatever size, but it’s also something to be enjoyed: it’s like buying a chair for your house. Nobody would ever question the function or practicality of a beautiful chair, but when you buy a beautiful pair of shoes from Prada, people ask, “Why would you spend that?” When the answer is so obvious: because I’m putting them on my body! Why is that seen as not right, why do we question ourselves about that? When it should be, “I’ll have them forever and they’ll never depreciate because they’re classic.” There is still snobbery in the industry, and the world at large, and I hate seeing that because I grew up in a very liberal household. I remember the clothes my mum used to wear, I used to love watching my parents getting dressed up. It’s weird.
Liam: You say that the clothes you make are for women who want to feel powerful – does this extend to the realm of sex also?
Christopher: When I’m talking about empowerment, it doesn’t mean showing off. I mean more in the sense of, I can wear what the fuck I want when I want, a see-through lace dress or a men’s suit jacket. I always find it bizarre reading what people thought of the show. It’s just a fucking jacket. They’re always looking for a reason: why was it double-breasted? I don’t know, it just looked good! I think that’s weird, but then again we’re in a time where everything has a moving commentary now. I love clothing, and I’ve always loved making clothes just because it’s an extension of me – not that I tend to wear women’s clothes – but I just love women.
Liam: Do you think about the erotic potential of your clothes as you’re making them?
Christopher: I think lots of things come into play, but it is an interest in the female form and sexuality. I just find it difficult being asked those more theoretical questions. Why has it been cut in that way? Well, because it shows the shoulders off, and the shoulders look really good. Maybe next season I won’t be showing shoulders because I think the ankles look better. Do you know what I mean? You can’t not think of those details, because that’s the whole point really. You don’t put them in a potato sack. Although then again, sacks can be good too! How is it being cut? Is it showing off the arms? Is there a peephole for the cleavage? Then it can become a really amazing sack because it’s really quite thought through. It’s more than a sack.
“Even when I did the Lovers Lace collection [FW15] people found that quite provocative. I was just like… really? I don’t know what you’re watching or reading, but I’m sorry, there are worse things on Instagram!”
Liam: You’ve mentioned your love of life drawing: do you think that’s helped you create clothes that are sexy without feeling tacky? It’s easier said than done, and I imagine an intimate knowledge of the human body helps.
Christopher: I think so. I think it also helps working with my sister, she understands those stereotypes like I do, and we want to push ourselves at every level to do things that feel new, even if people consider them to be bad taste. The idea of taste on a fundamental level is just a load of bullshit in my eyes. I was never brought up to think that something was in good or bad taste, I just thought, that’s a bit different, and that’s OK. I think that’s where a lot of things go wrong in the fashion industry. Tammy and I work very closely, but we like to go to the depths of hell and back, because that’s where you come up with the most exciting stuff. I never want to reproduce other people’s stuff and act like it’s mine. If I did that, I wouldn’t be able to sleep at night. I’ve got to keep my integrity intact.
Liam: But it’s also a challenge to balance that sense of sexiness while keeping it within the limits of good taste, no?
Christopher: But even that word tasteful, how do we know what’s tasteful or not?
Liam: I suppose it’s arbitrary.
Christopher: It’s very subjective, and personal. Right now I’m finding brown really beautiful, but other people would say that they never wear brown. Which is fair enough. The word tasteful, or notions of good taste or bad taste, I just don’t subscribe to that. For me, when I grew up in Scotland I always thought the people that had less money looked better – the people with loads of money looked the worst, whereas the people who were shit poor could look phenomenal.
Liam: Because you have to make do. You have to use your initiative.
Christopher: The hair’s scraped back clean, really gorgeous, no make-up, beautiful skin. Really nice knitwear, very simple. It’s perfect. Whereas the people who were well-off were covered in dodgy labels and bronzer and bling. Which is good too, but whenever I saw that very stark contrast, I always gravitated towards something more modest.
Liam: How do you take that Scottish working-class culture and translate it into something that can go down a runway at London Fashion Week, without it feeling tasteless or exploitative?
Christopher: We’ve always referenced that cultural landscape of our childhood, and those people that I mentioned, certain characters that have stuck in my head, they always crop up when we’re doing fittings or styling the show. They’re always there in the back of my mind, or like spirits from the past hanging around in the corner of the room. We’ve always loved that woman from our childhood. Very pure, very simple, but also sexual and confident. Quite often in the show it will start holding back a bit, then by the end she’s a completely open book. She doesn’t give a fuck, and she’ll eat you for lunch.
Liam: That’s something I noticed when looking through your past collections. The rhythm of the show really builds, there’s always a crescendo into some flight of fancy at the end. More broadly, over the past few collections, it’s felt like a conversation around sex or biology that’s evolving.
Christopher: It’s been a good few years and I’m enjoying it. I feel like I’m going back to that moment where I was in my bedroom at Central Saint Martins, while I was working with Louise Wilson, and just doing whatever the fuck I wanted. I was never thinking about anyone, I was just thinking about me. I don’t know if people will want to wear it, I don’t know if you can even wear it, but I just want to do it for me. I think that happens for a lot of people – the business thing comes into play and really changes things. Even if you have to think about things from a business perspective and remain practical, at the end of the day the whole point is to sell something really desirable, really new, really fantastic, not to think about those tiny details.
“Nobody would ever question the function or practicality of a beautiful chair, but when you buy a beautiful pair of shoes from Prada, people ask, “Why would you spend that?” When the answer is so obvious: because I’m putting them on my body!”
Liam: Does the fact you’re feeling good about the direction of the brand have anything to do with parting ways from Kering?
Christopher: In terms of my relationship with Kering, I really wouldn’t be here without them, so I’m forever grateful. Even that moment when we signed the deal with Kering, we really needed to do that. Then we made up our minds that it wasn’t where we wanted to go, and that was OK. They really understood. They will forever support us, and we will vice versa be so happy for that support, but I think we just felt it was time to go in another direction, and that was fine.
Liam: It was a conscious uncoupling.
Christopher: [laughs] It wasn’t a crazy divorce, it was very amicable. I think everyone loves to hear these stories of fall-outs, but it wasn’t that at all. It just felt right.
Liam: There’s often a sense of horror in your designs, from your famous Frankenstein prints to the BDSM undertones of the most recent collection. What’s the magic ingredient that transforms something dark into something beautiful?
Christopher: How do we do that? Oh god, I don’t know. There are those moments where it all just makes sense – the hairs on the back of your neck stand up because you just think, oh, that’s so good. It’s so ugly, it’s so brilliant, I’ve never seen it before. Those moments are the ones you live for – it’s a total high.
Liam: When I was looking at that SS19 collection, it reminded me of that quote from A Streetcar Named Desire where Blanche DuBois talks about death being the opposite of desire, which I’ve taken to mean as the opposite of death is sex. It seems like you have a thing for combining horror with the erotic, like that combination of funereal lace and Japanese pudenda covers.
Christopher: Absolutely. I love lace so much, I’ve used it from the very beginning of my career because there are so many historical contexts you can put it into: it could be a medieval queen or a hooker walking the streets of Manchester. When you think about it, there’s no other fabric that you can get that range of characters or emotions from – it can be Grace Kelly lace or drag queen lace. You can do that with velvet and leather too, but I think lace is so open to discovery, because it can go so wrong. That’s why I love it. We love the Grace Kelly lace but I’d rather have some of that prostitute lace, it’s got more stories to tell, it’s more fun.
Liam: I loved that phrase ‘sexual cannibalism’ on the t-shirts: what did that mean?
Christopher: Sexual cannibalism was really all about the animal world. There was the praying mantis graphic on it too and when praying mantises mate, the female kills the male. People need to remember that in the animal kingdom the females tend to be more in control, whereas for some reason among humans it’s always been the opposite. It’s kind of amazing. And that whole sexual cannibalism is just saying, “Yeah I can eat you. I’ll eat my own kind. I need nourishment and you’re here, quite handy. I’ve just had great sex so now I’m hungry” [laughs]. It just rolled off the tongue and I felt it was perfect.
Liam: Is it about self-pleasure, or something more sinister?
Christopher: Oh my god, absolutely. It’s a mix of both. Even as humans, when you’re kissing someone it has a subtle erotic connotation of eating them.
Liam: Will you be wrapping up your exploration of sex next season? Or is it a conversation that never really ends for you?
Christopher: I think it will always be there. It’s so weird because people are now trying to do it – I think, anyway – but they just can’t do it the same way that Tammy and I do it. We keep it scientific, broader. We want to make you think of other things.
Liam: I’m guessing this is fairly self- explanatory, but it never gets awkward having these explicit conversations with your sister?
Christopher: No, I think everyone in the studio’s just completely open – you hear everything in here. We’re on top of each other every day. We were talking today about the female cup, which I think is one of the most amazing things I’ve ever heard of. I didn’t know it existed until recently, to be honest. I grew up in a house that was very similar to how we run the studio: we talk about everything. I think that’s the way it should be. Otherwise it becomes so bourgeois, that element of censorship, especially nowadays when you’re never alone, there’s cameras, Instagram, watching your every word. What does it say in the Bible? He who is without sin can cast the first stone? I think that’s true. I think that’s where we all go wrong, because we have such high opinions of ourselves.
Liam: I guess you have to try and switch off from that critical noise as much as you can.
Christopher: People make mistakes, they say silly things, but it’s heat of the moment and shit happens. I put that on a t-shirt also. It’s fine, we’re human beings, we can rise above it. These are complicated times because everything can get blown up, like what I was saying earlier with the More Joy collection being read as a response to #MeToo, and getting a backlash from that when I feel like I have the utmost respect for women, and I would never want that woman in that dress to suffer in any way. I want her to be completely in control.
Liam: I don’t think people interpreted it in that way though. It was obvious that it was more nuanced than that.
Christopher: Some did. I know some people thought it was disrespectful. But if I wanted their opinion, I’d ask.
Liam: Well it’s the antithesis of what the movement is about. The response to that shouldn’t be for women to then conceal their sexuality.
Christopher: We need sex to make the world go round. It’s so funny, because as I said, I grew up in a household that was very outspoken and I was always very sarcastic and into black comedy. Then I went to Central Saint Martins and I met Louise Wilson, and she was a thousand times more than that. It was so refreshing, because she just said it how it was. You need that, you need to have a laugh. Putting a naked woman on a dress is hardly new either, people have done it before, I just did it differently. A see-through dress isn’t putting a woman to shame, it’s showing off how beautiful she looks. In my eyes, anyway.
Liam: Looking back to your early collections, it feels like the Christopher Kane woman has graduated from party dresses to something more hard-edged and grown-up: do you feel like your client has developed alongside you?
Christopher: I’ve got so many clients who are still here and have been very loyal, and that’s brilliant. It’s good to grab new people on the train, which has been interesting to watch, but meeting the clients and seeing what they’re wearing is fascinating. I’ve always been very inclusive, I don’t care how you wear it, I don’t care if you’re a porn star or a princess. I think that’s more exciting than designing for one woman. One rich bitch.
Liam: I guess it helps that it’s you and Tammy, so you have a perspective and point of reference from both genders.
Christopher: Absolutely. Even when I worked with Donatella it was amazing, because she’s just so outspoken and it was so inspirational to hear what she was saying, how she saw women, how she wore the clothes that she designed. Also how hard it was for her because of how she was perceived, that she’s powerful and glamorous and you wear these clothes and you’re seen as something completely different. I find that shocking.
Liam: I wanted to ask you one last thing – about the future of Christopher Kane. I was going to say now that you’re twelve years in, where do you see it in twelve years time, but that’s probably terrifyingly far into the future.
Christopher: Oh god, I don’t know. I know it sounds boring, but just going the way it’s going, really. I think nothing’s really ever changed that dramatically: we have a lot more people working for us and more responsibilities, but we’re still in Dalston. For me and Tammy to enjoy what we’re doing, we just have to keep putting stuff out there and not caring what people think. I think that’s when things begin to falter. So that’s our motto really: just do it. Well, that’s actually Nike’s motto [laughs]. But you know what I mean.
Liam: So you don’t feel that pressure to be constantly expanding? It seems like every brand these days is obsessed with scaling up.
Christopher: Well, yeah I read that all the time and to be honest it makes me laugh. Someone will write about Prada losing money, but at the end of the day Prada are still making half a billion dollars. There’s only so many people in the world that can afford it. There’s always that degree of uncertainty with every brand, even if you’re Chanel. I just want to say, come on! I’m very happy right now just doing what we’re doing. Like you say, all this scalability, you just think: how far can you go? Do you really want to go that far?
Liam: There’s no end to it.
Christopher: Oh my god, the shares have dropped two percent. The world isn’t going to end. I do think it’s crazy, the expectations that are put on fashion and designers. But for some reason, I’ve managed to avoid that. I count myself lucky.
Feature originally published in HEROINE 10.