Christopher Kane is just two years out of fashion college and already he has turned down a job at Versace, been round to American Vogue editor Anna Wintour’s for tea, refused to dress Victoria Beckham, created a Topshop line that sold out in 24 hours and made fashion critic Hilary Alexander cry with joy.
In between, he has produced just three seasons’ worth of clothes, or three London Fashion Week shows. There was the bright, tight debut that made him famous overnight, the boldly contrary follow-up of darkly adult pieces rendered in velvet and leather, and, just last month, his Spring/Summer 2008 collection, which was billed as the “make-or-break” point in the young designer’s career.
For this most recent fashion week show, Kane produced an even more extreme diversion from previous aesthetics: a grungy, mock-tattered mess of stonewashed stretch denim, billowing silhouettes and trashy torn snakeskin, artfully incorporating the models’ flesh into the negative spaces so that skin revealed between tears and slits became another material. The antithesis of his body-conscious portfolio, the collection was simultaneously the opposite of what his audience assumed he would produce and exactly what they were hoping for.
But, as an architect of the recent body-conscious revival – which recalls the figure-hugging silhouettes, skin-baring designs and unforgiving, stretchy fabrics of the late 1980s – and a designer who has made his name by making women look sexy, has Kane abandoned what he is good at in order to be contrary?
When I first speak to him (he is unable to make a face-to-face interview as he is in the thick of pre-fashion week chaos and Wintour is flying in the next day for a sneak preview of his third collection), Kane is fully aware of the pressure to exceed expectations. But he seems cockily sure of himself when asked about his next move, perhaps because he knows he will outsmart his audience once again, like a rabbit zigzagging away from a pack of dogs.
“I’m not allowed to say,” he whispers when asked about the new collection. But he can’t help himself. “Ok, there are some Stephen King influences… and it’s a strong character. And it’s totally different again.” And then, as if to justify his precocious pigeonhole-dodging, “I’m 25!”
It’s easy to forget how young he is in light of his swollen CV, but Kane is refreshingly unrehearsed. His clothes have been in the press a lot; he has not. “Some people think my life’s like a fairytale, but on the whole it’s mostly stress and heart attacks. Just last week, the couriers lost a $30,000 order going to LA and yesterday, our fashion week venue got cancelled and we need to get a new one. I’ve had no time to adjust, I’ve just got on with things.”
Kane is out to do business. He is wasting no time in his bid to become a household name (and already has his second, watered-down Topshop collection in production to get his name into more houses). But he is, like many hot young designers making very expensive clothes, still broke.
“We recently got a studio, but I did my first two shows in my bedroom – a small bedroom, in Dalston. It was 20 bodies in one room, day in and day out. Journalists forget that young British designers don’t have the money, the staff, the factory: we’re not Louis Vuitton. We work 24-7 and we’re all like that, in small studios, struggling to pay the rent and doing everything ourselves.”
Kane’s debut collection featured 50 bandage-tight, neon-trimmed mini-dresses, stretched taut by brass rings. It may have been assembled in his bedroom but it received such an immediate and unanimously positive response that the 20-minute spectacle has been credited by some as the main reason international fashion buyers and press are, after a decade’s hiatus, rushing back to London. The collection was a jump from his graduate show, revealing an eye for sensitive, if unorthodox, colour-combinations and celebrating the bodies of the young, fearless women he wanted to dress.
The collection also got him lumped in with the other hotchpotch proponents of the so-called “nu-rave” trend – a tag other break-out designers might have seen as a welcome by-product of being in the right place at the right time, but one that Kane, with the longevity of his career placed shrewdly at the forefront of his mind, was determined to shake off.
“I was like, what? Nu-rave? I’ve never been raving in my life and nor do I want to! When I was doing neon dresses, I didn’t think they were referencing clubbing. I never go out! Even the music I played for the show was gospel.”
Waiting lists for the tiny dresses were dotted with celebrity names, among them Victoria Beckham. Kane rebuffed her request for free items, shrewdly distancing himself from the C-list red carpet trap that has snared other young designers (Julien McDonald for example). Beckham went out and bought the dress anyway.
“Why should she get freebies?” says Kane. “I don’t think there’s anything wrong with that! I never said anything bad about her. I actually said she looked really good in that dress.
But she’s not the sort of personality I imagine wearing my clothes. I imagine Carine Roitfeld [editor of French Vogue], or Beth Ditto [plus-size singer in The Gossip, who Kane chose to model in his Swarovski Rocks show]. I find them more inspirational: they’re intelligent women, they know what they want, they’re really sexy.”
Kane’s second collection, the hottest (and hardest to get hold of) ticket at fashion week, was a bold departure from the eye-popping, Azzedine Alaïa-meets-Hervé Léger fizz of his debut. It again featured very short, very tight dresses; but instead of candy colours and neon fuss, the collection offered a more grown-up display, encasing models in sculptural black leather, skin-tight crushed velvet and metallic detailing, complemented by colossal Swarovski-jewelled cuffs. “Like Scarlett O’Hara meets Rambo!” declares Kane. The hype was justified: Kane’s mastery of more challenging fabrics and a confident aesthetic about-turn consolidated his position at the forefront of international fashion. Hilary Alexander admitted to being moved to tears by the craftsmanship and beauty of the pieces – and again Kane’s collection channelled the next season’s emerging trend, the pseudo-Goth look dubbed “nu-grave” by i-D magazine.
It is fitting that the saviour of British fashion is a longhaired 25 year-old from a small town near Glasgow. British fashion has always championed the underdog (it’s had to, as the underfed, unmanicured foil to the smugly well-heeled fashion capitals of Milan, Paris and New York). London Fashion Week is renowned as an incubator for fresh talent, but the talent doesn’t stick around for encores. From Alexander McQueen to Stella McCartney, designers have made their name in London, then made their
But Christopher Kane could change all that. International buyers and press are sniffing around the city’s shows again – and, while he is flanked by worthy designers like Marios Schwab, Roksanda Ilincic and Giles Deacon, Kane is the main attraction. Not since McQueen’s jaw-dropping London Fashion Week shows a decade ago has British fashion enjoyed this amount of global attention.
“I think I’ll stay in London. It’s really great and all the buyers and press are coming back. American Vogue’s coming tomorrow to do a preview and I can’t wait. I like to show Anna [Wintour] because if she gives me the thumbs up, it’s like, thank God!” But Kane’s modesty seems tacked-on: he is fully confident that his collection is nothing short of the audacious spectacle he knows it has to be. “People say everything’s been done, but it hasn’t!”
portrait Annie Collinge