“Painting was almost like being an animal, it was really carnal,” says Christopher Kane, the Scottish-born designer who, in the first lockdown, turned to art. Kane has been one of London’s most feted designers since he graduated from the Central Saint Martins Fashion MA programme in 2006, and is known for playful, sexy dressing that finds sweet perversity in themes such as the Women’s Institute or flower anatomy.
In 2019, he won the Designer’s Designer title at the British Fashion Awards, as voted for by his peers. Then the pandemic struck. “Previously, you never had time to stop,” he says on a Zoom call from his studio in Dalston, east London, with examples of his paintings behind him. “And then suddenly it was like, ‘What am I? What do I actually do?’”
Kane, who grew up on the outskirts of Glasgow, had painted obsessively as a teenager, but had not done so since college. Then, last March, he was stuck at home, facing relentlessly bleak news from both the television and his stockists, who had shut up shop. As a release, he ordered art supplies online — paints, canvases, glitter, glue.
“Covid was tough on everyone’s mental health,” he says. “It felt really like, ‘Let me just paint, let me just see where it goes.’” And so he turned off the TV and picked up his brush. “With painting I had a purpose to get up and do something.”
It soon became a somewhat cathartic daily ritual. “It was full-on,” he says. “I didn’t want [to do] anything work-related, I just wanted to paint.” His images began as gestural and instinctive, before becoming more figurative as he found his artistic form. Today, his canvases are filled with graphic silhouettes of women, their faces collaged on papers using deadstock floral fabrics and lace. “There was a lot of experimentation,” he said. “It’s so visceral. You learn to draw before you read and write. It comes so naturally to us all, it’s just we don’t let it come out, this really primitive thing that’s there in every one of us.”
He began working expressively, particularly with glitter. “I always remember drawing with glitter as a teenager,” he says. “I painted a nude of my mum in the garden that was very frowned upon by my dad, but my mum was my first subject. She sat in her pants and bra. The only thing I had around me was glitter and glue. Every time I paint now I think of that moment.” He still connects with the energy of the experience. “It was a moment where [painting] felt nice. I feel comfortable painting, I enjoy it,” he says. “And if it looks a mess, even better, because mess is good too.”
Kane’s urge to paint was a reaction to the unhealthiness of fashion’s relentless creative cycle. “This constant pressure to churn it out . . . do we really need all this stuff?” Painting became an escape — a release from producing up to six collections a year, part of the industry’s mammoth output that, when the world shut down, was transformed into mountains of excess seasonal stock. “We were all acting really bizarrely,” he says of the fashion industry’s frenetic calendar. “It made me really realise what I want in life, and what I don’t want in life.”
Soon, however, he discovered that the painting could be a way to push his fashion forward. His artworks became prints for a small spring/summer 2021 collection, unveiled at his shop in Mayfair during London Fashion Week. “Why do we feel that if we want to collaborate with an artist, we just have to appropriate their work?” he asks, questioning the industry’s usual approach, from Louis Vuitton’s bags with Jeff Koons to Dior Homme’s collections with artists such as Amoako Boafo. Kane, who has never collaborated with an artist, has turned this on its head. “I could just paint it myself,” he says. “It was a collaboration with me.”
The resulting collection of one-of-a-kind pieces is a clear translation of art into garment. A long-sleeve duchess satin dress is digitally printed with a kaleidoscopically coloured and smeared painting, hand-painted on top with drips and scribbles of multicolour glitter; a cotton shirt and leather skirt were both hand-painted by Kane with a brushstroke effect; a smeared canvas of black-and-white vertical lines became a sleeveless dress, its black frame replicated as a squared-off leather border running below the neck.
These one-off garments are supported by an edit of commercial pieces. Abstract paintings became prints that have been turned into full-skirted dresses and structured coats — they were presented in store, where models clad in these wearable artworks walked alongside the easels. “It was trial and error, making fabric tests and print tests, trying to capture the intensity of the layers without losing it,” Kane says. “I’m not a fine artist, I’m just playing around, but I’m really proud of the stuff.”
This more insular way of creating was also a chance for Kane to reduce his seasonal output. His last catwalk show, held in February 2020, had featured 60 looks. His SS21 collection has 16. “I think [now] it’s time for everyone to reassess what’s right for them and what they want to do, not just tick a box,” he says, talking about designers’ need to create more commercial pieces to satisfy retailers, and the industry’s structured schedule of seasonal shows. “I think there’s too much ticking boxes just for the sake of it.”
Kane is part of a generation of London designers who have previously been encouraged to stage glossy shows to encourage international buyers and press to attend London Fashion Week. This has coincided with the era of globalisation and social media, with British brands expected to compete with the established labels of Milan and Paris. The stakes got higher. In 2013, Kane sold 51 per cent of his company to Kering. “Everyone expects you to want a big house, with all these shops,” he said. “With more responsibility comes more pressure. Of course I want to be successful, but at what cost?”
In 2018, however, Kering sold the stake back to Kane as it honed its focus on its key moneymaker brands, including Gucci and Balenciaga. That same year, Kane produced a collection that featured graphics from the 1972 manual The Joy of Sex, which has led to its own spin-off label, More Joy. Its seemingly hopeful motto took off on Instagram during the pandemic, splashed across face masks and the beach towels that people used while sunbathing in their own gardens. When we spoke over Zoom, Kane was wearing a T-shirt from the range with the slogan “Be open to the joy you deserve”. Kane sees the range as a positive affirmation. “More Joy is like a daily mantra for me,” he says.
The More Joy range is commercially successful, offering lower price points than Kane’s main line: £85 for a T-shirt, £35 for a pair of briefs. Its sales are easing some of the financial pressure on Kane’s catwalk label while he works out how best to return the brand to a post-lockdown world. There has been no digital presentation of an AW21 collection during Fashion Week. “I’m not doing that calendar any more,” he says. “We could have done a show, but it doesn’t feel right yet, for me.” The brand will release more drops of the art-based collection throughout the year.
Kane does, however, continue to paint, setting aside time each week. “I’ve moved on so much,” he says of his artistic style, which has become more figurative, recognisably the naked human form. “It’s just a little bit gross,” he says. “I’ve always liked the form and figure. I’ve always loved vaginas, penises, bums, breasts. I’ve always loved biology. Human nature, sex, has always been part of my inspiration.” Indeed, one of his most celebrated looks is the “Lover’s Lace” dress worn by FKA Twigs at the Met Gala in 2015, a lace collage of entwining naked bodies taken from Kane’s drawings. He also incorporates lace into some of his artworks, painting on top of it.
For Kane, and other independent fashion brands, there are uncharted waters ahead. In the interim, he has his painting. He posts his progress regularly on a dedicated Instagram account, He has also been taking inspiration from an audiobook about artist Francis Bacon. “I love that he really didn’t give a fuck,” says Kane of the artist’s unconventional approach. “It’s admirable, I like that courage. That bravery is really quite unusual. And you should be like that, because it makes you happy.”