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Christopher Kane: Making the Ordinary Extraordinary

Jo-Ann Furniss visits the studio of Christopher Kane to reveal the exquisitely banal narratives behind the house's A/W16 offering

TextJo-Ann FurnissPhotographyPolly BrownPhotographic EditorHolly Hay

“I have always been obsessed with recluses and hoarders,” says Christopher Kane. “Who was the Greek one? Dio… The philosopher…” “Diogenes,” I proffer. “He was meant to live in a barrel.” Although in many ways Diogenes was the opposite of a hoarder – he could be seen as the ultimate ‘minimalist.’ Nevertheless, his name has been appropriated and given to a syndrome that entails hoarding. “I know he’s going to kill me for saying this,” says Tammy Kane, motioning to her brother. “It does seem quite Lady in a Van.” “IT IS NOT LADY IN A VAN!” says Christopher Kane angrily through gritted teeth. Although there is a little bit of mock anger in there too, he is still genuinely annoyed at his sister and working partner. “Don’t say that! It is still that outsider, hoarding things like charms – dead flowers, bin bags, rubbish.”

Christopher Kane’s process is like a literary stream of consciousness or an interior monologue – although that might be qualified as a dialogue, as Tammy Kane is intrinsic to the shaping of the collections; the two have a symbiotic relationship, more like twins rather than elder sister and younger brother – Tammy is five years senior – they bounce and develop ideas off each other. Once, when Tammy was questioned as to why her name was not part of the label, she replied, “It is. My name is Kane.” Christopher retells this anecdote with some pride. She is the most important influence in his life.

“It does seem quite Lady in a Van” – Tammy Kane

We are sat in the office that the siblings share within the Kane studio in Dalston, East London. Dead flowers are scattered all over the floor, impossible to ignore when we first walked in – it looks like they have been hitting each other with them. This is a distinct possibility. The dead flowers are part of the detritus of the design process for the Autumn/Winter 2016 collection that will be shown in three days time. And it is a collection that is itself about the detritus of glamour; the transformative, talismanic power of stuff made fashion by Christopher and Tammy Kane.

In many ways, this is what their collections are always about. They specialise in transforming the ordinary into the extraordinary each season, but this season it is writ large and underlined. The Kanes’ collections are always autobiographical in some way, and they do at times describe themselves, while laughing, as “weirdos.” The outsider, hoarder, believing totally in a world of glamour of their own making could equally be applied to them, and they know it. The Kanes never use fashion to hide from who they are or where they are from. And that is the beauty of what they do. “There is an idea of beauty expired this season,” says Christopher Kane. “But how that dead and thrown away beauty often looks better than when it was alive. The notion of lost and found had come to us some time ago and we had started to collect and collage these things together – ideas and memories of people, places and objects at different times.”

Milan Versus Motherwell
As teenagers in the nineties, Christopher and Tammy Kane would escape to the shops in Glasgow – the big city with the best stores nearest their hometown of Motherwell in Scotland. Motherwell is an unprepossessing former steel town; Christopher and Tammy Kane grew up on its outskirts. They both wanted a different life from the one mapped out for them in that place. For working class girls and gay boys, fashion is often the equivalent of boxing or football – although, of course, those things can be partaken in too – it is the classic ‘way out’ and just as tough to excel in. And both Tammy and Christopher Kane discovered this at a very early age. “We didn’t think we were better than everybody else, but we knew, we just knew our lives would not lead down the same paths as everybody else’s,” says Tammy Kane. “Versace stood out for us when we were growing up – it really got us hooked. Now I’m pals with Donatella – it’s weird.” In the nineties, Glasgow was one of the Versace capitals of the world, with one of the biggest stand-alone stores. And it is this dream world of Versace that created a seismic shift for the pair and still holds sway. In 2009 Christopher Kane fulfilled many of their childhood ambitions when he became the designer of the re-launched Versus Versace line for seven show seasons. Yet there is as much Motherwell as Milan in what the duo do, and this is the key to the Kanes’ own unique dream world that they have created through their own clothing line.

“Versace stood out for us when we were growing up – it really got us hooked. Now I’m pals with Donatella – it’s weird” – Christopher Kane

When once discussing the importance of the Kanes’ output, the late Professor Louise Wilson, the legendary head of Central Saint Martin’s MA course, Christopher’s former tutor and an important friend and mentor to both Christopher and Tammy, explained: “What they produce is just not ‘referenced’ in the way so much is these days; it is not like so many other designers' work, it can’t be classed easily in that way. It comes from themselves.” She added, “At college Christopher was always ahead in many ways. And one reason for this is that he always had the female body to work directly on. And that was Tammy.”

La Famiglia
Another of the things that is as much Motherwell as Milan for the Kanes is the importance of La Famiglia. In many ways, Christopher Kane is the closest equivalent that Britain has to an Italian fashion house and how it operates. The house is built for the long term, with the future in mind. Yet its roots are essentially in the past, with all of the close family relationships that entails. In many ways, the beginning of the house was made possible through sacrifices made for the support of Christopher Kane’s education by his family. For one, Tammy Kane saw Christopher through college both financially and emotionally, working as a receptionist at a car showroom in London amongst other things. “I was just waiting for Christopher to finish his MA so we could really begin,” she says – she already had her own degree in fashion and textiles from Galashiels, Heriot-Watt. “We had our dream of our own house by that point, we knew that was our future.” The company was founded directly after Christopher’s graduation in 2006 and there has been no looking back since. “We did college together,” says Christopher Kane. “She has my BA and my MA from Saint Martins, they’re hers as well. Tammy is my best friend. It’s total trust when you have your blood there. I can tell Tammy my deepest, darkest secrets. She has always been there for me and she always will be.”

“Tammy is my best friend. It’s total trust when you have your blood there. I can tell Tammy my deepest, darkest secrets” – Christopher Kane

“I suppose this all started when Christopher was still at primary school,” says Sandra Kane. Sandra is the other Kane sister – there are five siblings altogether – and is the head of HR for the company. “He was always so content drawing. Tammy was the fashion conscious one and Christopher was always encouraging her. She always dressed so well, always looked incredible and still does. They were like two peas in a pod. By the time Christopher was thirteen he was forecasting things in his own drawings that would be on the catwalk a year later. I have no doubt Christopher would have taken the same path without Tammy and would have still been very successful – but that would have happened ten years later. The two of them had to do it together.”

Of course, with any family relationships, and particularly with siblings working closely together, there are ups as well as downs. “I am sure the people working for us think we’re mad,” says Tammy. “The highs are high and the lows are low with us. We can be vicious, evil, bastards… but only to each other!” She adds, “I get labelled crazy, psycho bitch…” before Christopher interjects, “What about me? I’m called spoilt, Princess Diana!” They both laugh and say in unison: “Doing this we have the best crack ever.”

Remembrance of Things Past... To Make The Future
While there is always an autobiographical remembrance of things past in what the Kanes do, these are collections that are focused very much on an appearance in the present. “It is always about a desire to wear clothes that mean something new now,” says Tammy Kane. “I still believe in fashion being new. That’s why we love Miuccia Prada, Raf Simons and Karl Lagerfeld at Chanel – their desire to make something new. We believe in it too – our clothes are not meant to look like everything else you already have. But there is always a thread running through them, it is always still us.”

“Auntie Mary doesn’t believe in hummingbirds or seahorses. She doesn’t believe they exist” – Christopher Kane

The Autumn/Winter 2016 collection is no exception – if anything it has gone radically further and ‘newer’ than ever before for the duo. And yet all the signs of their past lives in Motherwell are still there… Only it is Lesage and Stephen Jones that have been enlisted to transform the humdrum into the luxurious and exotic this season. There are Auntie Mary’s rain-mate bonnets: “Auntie Mary doesn’t believe in hummingbirds or seahorses. She doesn’t believe they exist,” says Christopher Kane. “And our mum always used to wear these terrible headscarves to pick us up at school. We’d go mad at her for wearing them!” says Tammy Kane. Christopher and Tammy’s mother, Christine Kane, is always an abiding influence on the clothing. And it was the shock of her untimely death last year that has made a bigger impact on recent collections – pushing her children to go further and follow their hearts even more. There is always an element of Taylor High – the RC secondary school both siblings attended – here found in the school pinafore with a collage of found buttons. Another relative’s dog blankets and carpets – often full of newborn puppies – find new form in loop stitched woollen coats and knitted suiting. Yet there is still a sense of exquisite luxury and taste in the collection – that dress might be made of strips of pleather, but it is interspersed with the finest Swiss lace, while a haute-bourgeois fox fur coat is transformed by a reflective fabric lining and Chantilly is felted and faded to become a new form of sumptuous fabric, just one that has never been seen before.

While the Kanes might still be the true outsiders and weirdos of British fashion – and all the better for it – they also understand, subvert and make anew standards of traditional luxury. While establishment figures, such as Sam Cam might be sat at the show, so is their Auntie Sandra – she has a partiality to rain-mates too and still wears Christopher Kane. And it is this inclusive combination, so unique and idiosyncratic, that makes the house of Christopher Kane so alive and full of experiences. It also makes Christopher and Tammy Kane truly able to define what the future of high fashion is.