NEW YORK, United States — Second comings are rare, especially in an oversaturated industry like fashion. For Catherine Holstein, the first take was her successful namesake womenswear label, which was discontinued in 2009. Her second, Khaite — the Greek word for long, flowing hair — has quickly proved to be an even bigger winner. Within 18 months, the New York-based womenswear brand has attracted 50 influential global stockists including The Line, Matchesfashion and Lane Crawford.
"Doing this before and doing this now is a completely different ball game," says Holstein, who was raised in California and London, before returning to the city to study fashion and fine arts at Parsons. For her junior thesis, she based her fashion history project on Jean Patou. The collection got picked up by fashion industry veteran Julie Gilhart, who back then was the fashion director of Barneys New York, resulting in Holstein dropping out of university to pursue her own fashion label.
"I had about 40 doors, including Barneys, Selfridges, Isetan and more. I had to teach everything [to] myself," says Holstein. Once the 2008 recession hit the US, without any debt or any major fault in the business, the designer decided to shut down her line on the advice of a business advisor.
"I decided to go back to 'school,'" says Holstein, who took on the role of senior designer of knitwear and the director of the fast-track programme at Gap. "I chose Gap because I saw it as the Harvard of mass consumerism on a global scale. I had just come out of this boutique-based business and I really wanted to understand what that scale looked like on the complete opposite side of the spectrum," she adds.
Two years into the job, Holstein was approached by Vera Wang, and appointed design director at the luxury house. She subsequently worked with a wide range of brands, including The Elder Statesman, J.Crew and Maiyet. "At Gap and Vera Wang, I got to understand that people buy the same categories and are attracted to familiarity and comfort. It's about finding a common place for everyone."
It was an introduction to Vanessa Traina, founder of luxury lifestyle store The Line, who encouraged Holstein to start a new brand of her own. Shortly after, in 2016, Khaite was founded, with backing from Adam Pritzker and Vanessa Traina's holding company, Assembled Brands (owner of The Line, Protagonist and Tenfold). Holstein is a co-owner of Khaite, as well as an employee of Assembled Brands.
"I was always talking about this need in the US market for feminine clothing that wasn't pretty or precious, that came from a strong and robust point of view. Europe did that so well. In America there was really a hole in the market for that," says Holstein, whose debut Autumn/Winter 2016 and Resort 2017 collections were exclusively available at The Line.
"[Khaite] brings a fresh, filtered perspective of what is familiar, but uses techniques, fabrics and detailing that make it feel fresh and new," says Holstein, whose tightly-edited collection includes Japanese cotton jeans for $320, stretch twill dresses for $1,015 and hand-knitted cashmere sweaters for $2,100.
The collection transcends seasonal trends and finds confidence in contrast: of masculine and feminine, strength and softness, structure and fluidity, and classic and modern with each piece proposing a fresh balance of opposing elements.
It’s a balance that has proved successful, and resulted in quick global expansion. For Spring/Summer 2017, Khaite was picked up by 40 doors globally. Holstein declined to share revenue figures but says for Autumn/Winter 2017 season there are another 10 stockists, including Net-a-Porter.
"This year we're doing four times our original projection," Holstein says. Khaite currently has eight to 10 full-time employees, depending on the season, ranging across production, development, sales and merchandising and consultancy.
"The doors are more open now," says Holstein about her brand's rapid growth. "You always want to control the point of view from the public, so whatever article is written, it's never exactly what you envisioned. [In the past] even going into department stores it's always the buyer's point of view from your vision. Now, with Instagram you have complete control of your vision to the outside world — that's key for Khaite," she adds.
For this month's Spotlight, Holstein has created a custom BoF logo that reflects the way she approaches her collections. "I wanted to do it like a croquis, as I always start my collections with a hand drawing. My dream really is to paint portrait, I hope to pick it up again in my next life," she explains.
Later this month, Khaite will launch e-commerce, as well as a denim shop-in-shop at the Line later this year. "People seem to want direct-to-consumer, so we're going to focus on that while growing our wholesale business," says Holstein. “Today it's a lot more competitive and we have big brand ideas and a big brand aesthetic, so we set ourselves up to compete with bigger brands despite being small.”