What the designer will look for at Frieze, from John Chamberlain to Outsider artists
A regular visitor to the Frieze fairs, Christopher Kane spoke to Frieze Week about the role art plays in his life and work
Matthew McLean: I hear you draw: when did that begin?
Christopher Kane: As a child. I was pretty observant. I’d draw whatever was around – I drew my mum a lot. Now, when I’m in work mode, it can be such a bubble; drawing helps me break out of that. So I try to do it whenever I can. I go to life classes!
MM: How important is drawing to your designing – do you do a lot of drawing in the studio?
CK: I do a lot of technical drawing, but you’d never guess they’d come from the same hand as my life drawings. Sometimes I think I really can’t be bothered, but in the end, I draw everything – it’s the best way to get a design in my head.
MM: Do you keep your life drawings, or ever display them?
CK: I used some of them in the ‘Lover’s Lace’ collection (A/W 2015). People didn’t get that these were just my life drawings – they assumed I had taken motifs from Matisse or something. I don’t think they look like Matisse.
MM: They looked like William Copley to me.
CK: Maybe Copley’s more like it. Florals for me are very sexual: when I did the ‘Biology’ collection (S/S 2014), it was on my mind that in Scotland, ‘tulip’ was what you’d say for penis, your ‘flower’ was your vagina. I still prefer those terms.
MM: It sounds almost coy.
CK: The clothes weren’t coy. I have to ramp it up. When people saw the nudes on the ‘Lover’s Lace’ dresses they asked: Why are you showing a penis on this garment? And I said: because it’s a fucking human being!
MM: Artist Eddie Peake wears a jumper of yours often. Do you know his work?
CK: Oh yeah – the other day I saw that performance: the football game where all the players are naked [Touch, 2012, performed as part of the Fiorucci Art Trust’s ‘Volcano Extravaganza 2017’]. So good. So simple. I suppose from the start life drawing classes are about that feeling of what’s going on here? I am just staring at a stranger’s body…
MM: So as an observant child, what else caught your eye?
CK: I’d notice street people, these lost souls you’d see walking down the road in Motherwell. They just didn’t seem to care about what people thought. People who were probably mentally ill would often be the ones with the most sophisticated, amazing looks. There was one woman, Jan, whose hair was amazing. I think she cut it herself, randomly, but you’d think it was done by some visionary stylist. She wore oversized jumpers, or super-short jackets, or both. Everyone else thought she looked ridiculous, but to me she was spectacular. She looked like a rock star. I’ve been drawn to outsiders since then.
MM: Were these the only people whose style you admired then?
CK: Everyone in my family worked, and everyone was pristinely dressed, always. Working class people really care how they look. At school, it was the same – teachers, dinner ladies, cleaners. You all worked really hard and looked really smart.
MM: I heard Mark Leckey once say that middle-class taste is always a bit nostalgic, whereas working class taste is hyper-modern, hyper-sleek…
CK: I love idea of the ‘working class’ – that work defines you. One reason I wanted to do the Crocs (S/S 2017) was because they’re working shoes, for nurses, doctors, dentists, scientists… Of course, I added minerals, or lined them with mink, to play with that.
MM: You do like a luxury material. There’s a Gainsborough Silk in the A/W 2017 collection, isn’t there?
CK: Yeah – they’re the most beautiful fabrics, those. But again, part of why I’m drawn to them is this idea of work – because of the effort and the craft of them. They’re just made by ordinary people. But they end up on the queen’s bed, or at Chatsworth.
MM: Have you seen the costume show there this summer, ‘House Style’?
CK: It’s a great show. [The exhibiton displays clothes associated with the Cavendish family at their ancestral seat, including several pieces by Kane.] I think aristocrats are amazing, because they’re almost the opposite extreme of the working class. They’re a bit like crazy people in Motherwell that way. I think the working class and the upper classes have a lot more in common than people think.
MM: You shot the Pre-Fall 2017 collection at Gugging, the psychiatric institution in Austria with its famous art therapy programme and gallery. How did that come about?
CK: My sister Tammy used to do art therapy. It amazed me that you could give people needle and thread, or a pencil and paper, and their inner talent could come out. There’s a spontaneity to art brut or Outsider Art – that feeling of a skill or expression that just seems to come from nowhere. For me it’s raw emotion – a lot of the stuff I like has this primal look to it, like Aboriginal rock painting. When last year I heard about Gugging, I just reached out them, and they invited me to see the gallery and their school. It’s a beautiful place.
There's a spontaneity to Outsider Art, a skill or expression that just seems to come from nowhere.
MM: Who are the Outsider Artists who particularly speak to you?
CK: One patient at Gugging, Heinrich Riesenbauer, is really inspiring. He just repeats, repeats, repeats – something as simple as a flower, or a bottle, done a hundred times. We used Heinrich’s prints for that same collection we photographed there. Judith Scott’s work is just unbelievable. She was totally abandoned and then rescued by her twin sister. She made these exquisite wrapped sculptures. And Scottie Wilson – he left school in Glasgow at eight, and was bought by Picasso and Klee. A lot of these artist are completely critically acclaimed, and just don’t know it, so the work is never infected with fame. It just comes from a really pure place – it has this pure and personal touch.
MM: But not always a happy place.
CK: No. Often when you meet the artists, you realise they’ve been touched some trauma, and so the beautiful things they make are actually symbolic of something truly destructive that’s happened. In a way, all my work is about that: how human tragedy produces such beautiful things. It’s one reason my favourite decade for design is the 1940s: after the war, it was all about changing the world, and it seeming so strange and new.
MM: It’s that what inspired the atomic bomb prints in the Resort 2010 collection?
CK: Yeah, I’m obsessed with them. But also, I just always loved chemistry at school…
I think of Chamberlain’s car pieces like monsters – huge creatures that could swallow you up.
MM: What about John Chamberlain? He was an influence on the S/S 2016 collection – if you’re willing to talk about it.
CK: I first saw his work about three years ago, visiting Dia:Beacon, and I felt like a child again, somehow. But it was only when my mum died that he came back to me: I felt like I was in a car crash through that whole time. I think of Chamberlain’s car pieces like monsters – like these huge creatures that could swallow you up. We channeled him in the S/S 2016 collection: dresses that were falling apart and smashed back together, with spray paint, cable ties. It was young and beautiful and feminine but it was about that destructiveness of personal tragedy. And surviving it, I suppose.
MM: Like how you described Outsider Art: something traumatic producing something beautiful?
CK: Maybe. Sometimes I think: well, maybe he just liked smashing cars! I wouldn’t mind an afternoon doing that. And there’s humour in the works too, a dark humour. I need some of that joy. Francis Bacon is incredible, but I couldn’t be alone with one of those paintings, in my house or a gallery. He had a darkness in his life, and the works hold that. You can’t stay with them too long.
MM: Is that not why you liked Disney – the darkness of some of those cartoons…
CK: There are dark undertones. They’re held back, but you can still tell that the ‘real’ fairy tales behind them have these weird, sexual elements – if you read the Brothers Grimm there’s all this sex and death.
MM: I think Paula Rego once chose Disney’s Snow White as her favourite film. Is that idea of holding things back – of control – important to you?
CK: It’s easy to feel you lack control in fashion, because you’re really in the hands of a lot of other people. Sometimes I really want a fabric and it won’t come in time for a collection. I think: I could go to the moon if I wanted – but I can’t get this fucking lace! But there you go. The job is problem solving. You get a cavalcade of bad news, and then just two things happen that keep you going. But sometimes, it can be like torture.
MM: And what happens then?
CK: Then I go walk my dog.
MM: Is art a retreat, too? Or are you more likely to go to the pub?
CK: The pub! No, I love going to the theatre, Broadway. I hope to see Cat on a Hot Tin Roof with Sienna Miller here in London before it closes in October. Museums are great, but you get self-conscious there – people will see you looking at something and then think ah, that’s what’s going to go into the next collection.
MM: Do you collect art yourself?
CK: I do. Julian Schnabel through to Tom of Finland. But I collect things like Garbage Pail Kids, too. I like what I like!
MM: So you’re not always at Frieze to acquire things then?
CK: Frieze week is really enjoyable time to be in London – so many people come to the city for it: designers, musicians, artists. And there are great dinners and parties. In Frieze London it can be really intense. Even on the first day, you get that sense of anticipation – you want to get in, see what’s there, who’s around, what they’re wearing, even.
MM: What do you wear to an art fair?
CK: I’ll usually wear what I had on for the studio, where I have to be comfortable and be able to get on my hands and knees: so it’s jeans, t-shirt, a cashmere jumper and Chelsea boots. Or Prada sandals, which I’m obsessed with at the moment.
MM: Are there any areas you make a bee-line for?
CK: I’ll check out Frieze Sculpture: I’m into big things and oversized objects that make you feel like being in Alice in Wonderland or The Borrowers. I love going to Frieze Masters most of all, the tranquility of it. You can see something from 200 BC that just stops you dead in your tracks. I look at art sometimes and think anyone could do that: but not this stuff. I really love illusionism, actually – renderings so perfect you think they’re real. I’d do a supermarket sweep of all those realist Old Master still lives if I could. It’s like a forbidden magic, almost, like witchcraft. Maybe those guys are the real rock stars.