Sunday Herald, 30 March, 2008
SITTING IN the rooftop café of an expensive Edinburgh department store, a fashionable young couple are having a friendly row. "You know, you blow my mind on a daily basis," she says. "Seriously, all cringing aside, you're really brilliant." "I'm lucky," he grunts, "I love what I do." "You're not lucky. You're talented." "He gives her a look: "Give it a rest", it says.
Whatever is the opposite of sibling rivalry, fashion design duo Christopher and Tammy Kane have found it. Strangers are immediately struck by the sense of ease which surrounds them. They finish each other's sentences with no hint of rudeness or aggression; they throw insults and compliments at one another without fear of causing offence. The Kanes are brother and sister, young and beautiful, best of friends. They are also among a handful of the most successful and sought-after designers in the world.
This is an improbable story of rags to riches in the rag trade. After surviving the best part of 20 years in Newarthill, a village of numbing drabness near Motherwell, the Kanes suddenly find themselves taking dinner with Hollywood celebrities - "Patrick Dempsey and his wife" says Tammy, still in awe - and having camera lenses poked at them by Mario Testino.
In Tammy, the transformation seems more absurd. Four years ago she had a job offering art therapy to little old ladies in Lanarkshire; this month, at 30, she has arrived: her fashion tips are featured in the pages of Vogue. Until that moment, for the last three years of their success, Christopher, small and shy, has been sent out alone to gather up all the glory. "I don't think I'll ever get used to it," he says. "I feel like a complete impostor."
The storm of success has been blowing around them since Kylie Minogue bought dresses from Christopher while he was still studying at Central St Martin's College in London. In summer 2006, just three hours after his MA show closed, he was summoned into the presence of Anna "Nuclear" Wintour, editor of Vogue and the hatchet woman of the world's fashion press, who is thought to have inspired the main character in The Devil Wears Prada.
"I was in her hotel room, having a cup of tea and a wee chat," he recalls. "Anna Wintour's in front of me. I was like that ", his jaw hits the floor. "You hear about her, but you'd never think of meeting her. She was lovely."
Wintour told Christopher that he reminded her of the late Gianni Versace and that she would like him to meet Gianni's sister. Phone calls were made and three days later he was backstage at a Versace show in Milan, chewing the fat with Donatella, the grande dame of fashion. "There were models running about, dresses didn't fit, it was just insane, really far-fetched," he says, still shaking his head.
If you're used to the rarefied air of fashion, you'll recognise the synergy between the Versaces and the Kanes. Gianni was the brilliant designer who founded the Italian fashion empire, Donatella his muse and critic. After her brother's death in 1997, she took hold of the business and carried it forward with astonishing single-mindedness. So nine years later, when a gawky Scottish boy dropped a sheaf of his fashion shots at Donatella's feet and out poured photos of his sister modelling his clothes, a bond was forged. Two years on, Tammy and Christopher name-check Donatella as if they are regular house guests - and they are.
In the meantime, team Kane has become an international phenomenon. He is the driving force in design at their Dalston studio. Tammy runs the business, keeping factories organised and suppliers on the move. Then in the evening, as she has done since he was a student, she will try on the clothes which her brother has made during the day. "Models are extortionate," he notes.
The results are spectacular. Their London Fashion Week show this February was news all around the world. "Kane stands on his own with this collection," trumpeted the New York Times. "London's boy wonder" gave "a subtle elegance to simple clothes" agreed the International Herald Tribune.
Even to the untrained eye there is a certain democracy in the Kane style. All sizes and shapes are catered for. Last October, Christopher caused a stir at the Swarovski Fashion Rocks Show by dressing Beth Ditto, singer with The Gossip and a robust size 16.
"We made her two dresses, one for the red carpet and another one for onstage, all covered in crystals. When you're on the runway - the red carpet - the paparazzi are flashing and basically it would lighten up. Then when she was on stage it was like a huge spotlight," says Christopher.
"It was one of the best, definitely one of the best," says Tammy, still revelling in the moment.
The women they admire most are often from an older generation - Christopher's muse, he says, is Carine Roitfeld the 50-something editor of French Vogue - and sister and brother are exultant that Cher has just bought one of his jackets. "You can't go, Who?' when you hear her name. That really cheered us up," says Tammy. These are the kinds of endorsement they have dreamt about for years.
Tammy and Christopher are the youngest of five children, whose mother Christine was a cleaner and whose father was a draughtsman - "the posh side of the family". Though there are five years between them, brother and sister shared a talent for art from an early age, and it was Tammy who first recognised her brother's prodigious skills.
"We'd hibernate, in the living room," she recalls. "We'd paint and draw and when I was interested in something, I would share it with him and vice versa.
"I'll always remember his primary school teacher. No matter what he was given to draw, he drew a woman with a dress. The teacher said to my mum, I'm really concerned, this is all he ever draws.' We're just like, So? What's the problem? At least he's drawing something.'"
The things which interested them when they were children still inspire them now. The Clothes Show, fodder for wet Sunday afternoons, switched them on to fashion. For thrills they watched Prisoner Cell Block H. Now they pool memories like these in their catwalk shows.
"We were looking at denim last year, like the denim overalls they wore in the Cell Block H launderette " muses Christopher.
" the character, the feral feel of it " says Tammy.
" the feral feel gone wrong," amends her brother, "like something supernatural. It's like Carrie in a Stephen King film."
They draw on family and friends too. "One show was very much early Aunt Essie," remembers Tammy. "I still have some of her suits. It was just her, it was all lace and we were thinking about lace for our collection. We looked at each other, and we both said, Aunt Essie! Granny Kane!' There are just things that remind you of people.
"My mum's overalls " she nods at Christopher " those gingham overalls for cleaning. It's bizarre. But we never go, I want that to look like my mother's overalls', it's not like that. Whatever he makes will turn out like a reminder. They're just characters from the past."
"It's romantic when you get into it, and really quite personal too," says her brother. "Anyone creative might be like that. A poet might write a poem about his mum."
Their business has its roots in 2000, the year Tammy graduated from the Scottish School of Textile Design in Galashiels and Christopher was accepted at Central St Martin's. Already, they knew they would have their own fashion business. That autumn, they bought train tickets to London, Christopher to study, Tammy to earn their keep. At first they lived together in Dulwich in a house known as The Fashion Commune, a memory which still makes them giggle. "A crazy American pal put that sign up. I'm sure the neighbours were terrified of us," says Tammy.
Soon after they arrived in the city, Tammy got work with Russell Sage, but when she helped her baby brother find a work experience placement at the studio, her new colleagues were dismissive. "They said, Oh he's so young, he won't be able to use the sewing machine'. I'm like, That boy could sew youse out the room.' Tammy's voice still drips with north Lanarkshire disdain.
Not surprisingly, she didn't last long in her job. "I was surrounded by people who thought they knew better than me, and I can't handle that. I took a step back, and waited for Christopher and supported him." She worked in shops, then as a receptionist for Aston Martin. After the death of their father, Thomas, she moved back to Newarthill for a year to be with her mother, and do her stint as a therapist. But all the while she kept her room on in their London house.
"People must have thought I was really crazy," she says. "My boyfriend used to get frustrated. He'd go, What are you doing? Why are you doing a shitty receptionist's job? You can't. You need to go and get what you studied for.' No-one would believe me. There was definitely an element of doubt, like, She's crazy'."
Christopher mocks the detractors. "She's not using her degree, she's not doing what she's trained to do '"
"So it was just brilliant when it all happened," says Tammy, breaking out in triumphant laughter. "Everyone who'd been judging us for years - especially me. It was just a big " She leans back and grins over the big double-V sign which she's waving in front of her face.
"F*** you!" says Christopher, for the benefit of the blind. "Sometimes it gives you a lot of pleasure, basically saying that to people who thought it would never happen.
"It's true what he's saying," says Tammy, suddenly serious again. "Even people that we're still close to, it's that self-doubt."
Christopher agrees. "That's something in Scotland. If someone does well, there's always someone quick to put them down again. It's annoying."
Equally aggravating, they agree, are the wind-up merchants who accuse them of selling out and abandoning Scotland. They're like the irritating drone of flies. "People were talking about us doing shows up here," says Tammy.
"I was trying to explain that there's actually no point. If you want to give a show, do it with people from Glasgow Art School, Edinburgh Art School. Give them a platform. Our platform is London - the reason being the international press. We don't need to do a show here to feel good and feel Scottish."
Quite right, says Christopher: "Our mum and dad are Scottish. Our whole family is Scottish. We're Scottish."
Fashion, which can seem so ephemeral, sticks deep with the Kanes. The passions it arouses are intense, and often make it hard for them to part with the things they have made. Christopher admits that he can hardly bear to see some women wearing his clothes.
"Even when you see a dress on the shop floor, hanging there. It's something personal something you worked on in the small world of the studio. And then you see it on a girl, or in the street "
"If it's someone amazing, then you're happy," puts in Tammy.
"Yes, you can't influence who buys it," her brother admits. "But sometimes it's like: Shit.' Because you really care for it. It's our intellectual property in a way. I still find it very weird."
Life, for both siblings, has recently taken a new turn. Last September, they moved out from each other and in with their respective boyfriends. They are happy with this development. "It's good to divide work and home life," says Tammy.
"Yeah, it's good to get away from each other sometimes," rejoins Christopher.
But parting is such sweet sorrow for these poets of the fashion world, and they are already playfully devising new domestic arrangements. They would like to buy a house, announces Christopher, and then in unison they shout: "Next door to each other!"
Christopher giggles. "We could ring a bell in the hallway." Tammy laughs too. "That's sick isn't it?"
And then her brother gets all serious. "I don't see anything wrong with that, I don't. Tammy's my best pal. Best pals live together. Best pals see each other. So that's what it is."
Pictures show Kylie in one of Christopher's dresses, and Chirstopher and Tammy, 2nd left, and 2nd right,with friends