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The Women in Christopher Kane’s Inner Circle

Colin McDowell talks to Christopher Kane about going global and the women who helped him get there.
From left: Sarah Crook and Christopher Kane; Christopher and Tammy Kane | Source: Getty
  • Colin McDowell

LONDON, United Kingdom — Every step Christopher Kane has taken in his decade-long career has been chaperoned by a woman: his mother; his sisters; his professor, the late Louise Wilson; Sarah Mower, the journalist who became his champion; Donatella Versace; Anna Wintour and his newly-installed chief executive officer, Sarah Crook.

Of all of them, the one who I suspect matters to him most, since the death of his mother earlier this year, is his sister Tammy. Six years his senior, she is a crucial player in the business that they have worked so hard to make from scratch, beginning with only each other (and a hugely supportive family back-up) to do the planning, designing and day-to-day running of their fledgling company. “I could never be without Tammy. It will always be me and Tammy, no matter what happens, even though it is my name above the door,” he says.

Tammy acted like a trailblazer for his ambitions. Having studied Fashion and Textiles at Heriot-Watt University in the Scottish Borders, she guided her brother towards Central Saint Martins. Her advice and considerable knowledge of the fashion industry helped him go to college much better mentally prepared than most young students. After completing the foundation, BA and MA courses and an internship with Giles Deacon, it seemed the logical thing for him and Tammy to set up a business straight away.

Tammy had been manning the front desk of the Aston Martin showroom in Mayfair, where she learnt how to deal with very rich clients, but she gave it up to start the label from a tiny flat with one bedroom — which they shared — in Dalston, East London.

“I think that's the way we all start, at the very bottom!” Kane laughs. “Despite our lack of knowledge, we discovered that making mistakes is the best way to learn, especially in a family business, as ours was, still is and always will be.”

“It was even us who had to put the bins out most nights,” he recalls. “I found it very frustrating because I felt I was neglecting my job, which was to be the creative, and it was always so last minute, end-of-the-day when I finally had time to do the actual designing.”

In nine brief years, Christopher Kane has become the poster boy for young London fashion, the designer who ticks all the boxes, and has done, right from the very beginning. Born and brought up in Newarthill, Lanarkshire — “a grey little place,” he says — he knew early on that he needed the colour, extravagance and beauty of the fashion world. When he wasn't even eleven years old, he used to watch Fashion TV on Sky (his favourite was Versace) and be transported, and he wasn't very much older when he managed to persuade his mother, a dinner lady, to start picking up the latest Vogue when she was out shopping.

Lowland Scotland in the early ‘90s was an area where the coal mining and ship building industries had finished, leaving men unemployed and families poor. It is true to say that Kane, the youngest in a very close-knit family of five siblings, seems to have had the support of his father — variously described as an engineer, a pub owner and a draughtsman — his mother and his two elder sisters, Tammy and Sandra. (Sandra trained as a nurse and now runs Kane’s HR department, flying from Glasgow to London for two days every week). Little is disclosed concerning his two older brothers, Robert and Jimmy.

With his curly cavalier hair and shiny white smile, he soon made waves at Central Saint Martins. He became the protégé of his MA tutor, Louise Wilson, who passed away last year. His MA collection won him the Harrods Design Award and was displayed in one of the department store's windows. By 2006, the year that Kane's company was established, he had won Young Designer of the Year at the Scottish Fashion Awards, was asked to create a jewellery collection with Atelier Swarovski, and dressed Beth Ditto and Kylie Minogue. In 2007, he scooped the BFC Designer of the Year Award, followed by, in 2013, the Womenswear Designer of the Year trophy.

Despite our lack of knowledge, we discovered that making mistakes is the best way to learn.

Despite being praised in the most extravagant terms by British Fashion journalists — so often the coup de grâce to young London talent — Christopher and Tammy managed to keep their heads when, from my show seat, it seemed that far too many others were losing theirs. They stood their ground. Many, however, began to wonder what that ground actually was, as every season exploded like a bottle of vintage champagne with disparate ideas and changes of direction that gave the impression of lingering immaturity, and had some commentators, including me, thinking, “Will the real Christopher Kane please stand up — or at least stand still long enough for us to catch up?” But this was nothing more than the tyro designer finding his feet and learning what his design story was likely to be.

Another early backer of note was Sarah Mower, now a contributing editor to US Vogue, who also works for the British Fashion Council. Through her, Kane was ushered in the direction of Anna Wintour. "I went to see her in her suite in The Connaught and I took two models," he recalls. "I was a complete nervous wreck but it was an amazingly productive experience. Anna was really interested and I was impressed at how probing questions her questions were. At the end of the meeting, she said, 'You should meet Donatella.'"

With the editor-in-chief of American Vogue, it is always very much a case of 'no sooner the word than the deed.' So he was off to Milan to meet his heroine backstage at the show. “It was amazing. She was like a rock star. No matter what happens in my life, I will never forget talking to her. Then Anna came in with Mario Testino. I couldn't believe the glamour. And me just sitting there, trying not to be noticed.”

The upshot, as the entire fashion world knows, was that the miracle actually happened. Kane was offered a job consulting on Versace couture, soon to be installed as designer of the Versus line. What this meant in real terms was two-fold. His name became known across the globe and he began to have more money for his own collection than most young London designers could ever hope for at the onset of their careers.

Christopher and Donatella 'got' each other instantly. “I learned all that she had been through,” he recalls. “The story of Gianni and so much about her. And that was great because, in good old Scotland, watching his shows on Sky TV kept my imagination alive and stimulated my determination to be a designer. I knew all the time, but I know now even more, that what I got from being with Donatella was something you just can't buy. You just can't. That's why I'll never forget that time. It took me to a different level.”

Certainly, the endorsement of such a powerful figure did his profile no harm. In London, his label was among a select group chosen by the British Fashion Council to be groomed for stardom. Alongside with such names as Erdem Moralıoğlu, a close friend of Kane's, Roksanda Ilincic and Mary Katrantzou.

Under the boyish charm, Kane is a very mature designer. Since the Kering deal in January 2013, he has presented much more measured and assured seasonal fashion statements that fully deserve the worldwide plaudits they increasingly receive. He and Tammy had been courted by many buyers wanting to get in on the stardust, but they fended off all overtures until François-Henri Pinault, chief executive officer of PPR (now Kering), came along with a shopping list that required a third British design label to join Alexander McQueen and Stella McCartney as part of the conglomerate. Eyebrows were raised over the fact that the final deal gave Kering 51 percent of shares and therefore control of the company. But Christopher and Tammy are relaxed about it: "We were ready to move to a different level," he explains. "It was not so much about what we wanted to get out of the deal, but what we wanted to put in. We needed staff, the soldiers [the company now has a team of 55], and we needed expertise. Our two years with Kering has taken a lot of pressure off me and Tammy. Before, we worked like dogs."

The Kering connection has, in fact, been the making of the Christopher Kane label, as one would expect from the company's mission statement, which commits to “empowering imagination” in order to allow fashion designers “to reach their potential in the most sustainable manner.” And it is the last four words that show exactly how the investment in Christopher and Tammy will help them build their firm, not least by inheriting a very experienced chief executive officer, Sarah Crook. She celebrates her first anniversary in the role this month.

As Kane says: “We are expanding now that we have the financial backing and, even more important, Sarah as our CEO, as she lets Tammy and me get on with what we both love the best. For example, I love shoes and bags. In fact, I did all of the leather goods and accessories while I was at Versace. But I don’t actually know how to make shoes and bags. I need someone with the right skills to be able to take my idea drawing and make it into a bag. And for that sort of thing, Sarah’s experience with Stella McCartney — a more mature brand with a much wider product offering — and the British Fashion Council is just perfect. She knows the business end and, with her help, we have learned to pace ourselves so we don’t get that feeling of being squeezed like an orange by the time the show comes. She and, of course, Kering have given us back time.”

Ten years on, Christopher Kane feels he is running a real business and one he intends to grow into a major global label. At this point in his career there seems to be no reason why he shouldn’t. After all, his first years have so far been as stellar as those of any designer and he is already beginning to amass the trappings of international power. Earlier this year, under the guidance of chief executive Sarah Crook and the unquestioning support of his main collaborator and sister Tammy, he opened his first own-brand shop, an elegant white minimalist creation by John Pawson in Mount Street, Mayfair. Clearly, there are grand plans afoot. But to my question, “What’s next?” he grins impishly and says, “Right now, I’m happy just being.”

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