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Kai Kühne

Every article about Kai Kühne these days is called something like "Wild Child Grows Up and Gets Serious!," "Tempestuous Bad Boy Makes Good!," or, as the New York Times titled their profile, "Can Fashion Forgive His Past?"


Every article you read about Kai Kühne these days is called something like “Wild Child Grows Up and Gets Serious!,” “Tempestuous Bad Boy Makes Good!,” or, as the

New York Times

titled their profile on him, “Can Fashion Forgive His Past?”

The answer is duh, yes, and people should drop it already. Besides, as far as we here are concerned, being a “wild child” is “awesome” and you shouldn’t have to be “forgiven” for it in the first place.


Anyway, we’ve always loved Kai and his formerly wild ways as a member of the design collective As Four—when he would do things like literally swing from chandeliers at fancy nightclubs and then try to fight the 400-pound ex-Russian-Mafia bouncer who was dragging him out—but we are grudgingly willing to accept his new maturity, since that’s what Kai wants. The fact that a calmed-down Kai equals even gorgeous-er clothes from him definitely makes the pill go down more smoothly. All the fashion reviews use the same word about his solo stuff, “elegant,” which is a pretty good one-word summary. It’s all angular, formfitting dresses in crisp whites and neutrals and steely colors and the occasional hint of tasteful sparkles. Mega-classy.

I visited Kai in his bright white studio up in the urban tundra of the West 30s and had so much fun. He gave me a whirlwind tour of racks of clothes and fabrics and exotic fur swatches and inspiration boards and sketches. I learned about the Superstudio Italian design movement and then for fun we watched the crazy Catholic-church fashion scene from Fellini’s


on YouTube. I feel like I got a crash course in high fashion, and God knows I needed it.

Vice: I am not a fashion expert.

Kai Kühne:

Yeah, me neither.

Yes, you are. Now please teach me about fashion. Or at least about your fashion.

Well, for me everything is architectural. All my lines are very straight, very graphic, very controlled, very German. What I’m trying to achieve is classical, approachable, and elegant. A body-conscious female form—you know, like a pencil skirt. It’s very proper dressing, but it’s all in the construction. It’s new ways of construction. Like this past summer my collection was inspired by the leek, so all the lines are like the growth pattern of a leek.


A leak?

No, a LEEK. The plant. Plants have their own universal rules about the way they grow, but they’re all out of control. The leek is very German. It’s like

Clap! Clap! Clap!

It grows in controlled patterns.

That IS very German.

Yes. I design a lot on the computer because I like to be very rigid. But through the use of the fabrics, it becomes more organic. Juxtaposing straight lines and the three-dimensionally curved human body. The lines are designed to be straight on the body, so they all have to be slightly curved. So on the pattern it is concave, convex—and it brings it back into straight lines.

It sounds like you’re designing buildings.

Clothing is architecture for the human body. A house around the body. I believe it’s more difficult, as well. You have to defy gravity.

And you use mostly white and light neutral colors, also like houses.

I’m trying to show the structures of my designs. Everything is in the constructions, so if you put a print over it you don’t see it anymore. So to underline my statement I take a very minimal approach with colors. But I like playing around with reflections and textural fabrics, like linen, kangaroo leather—

Kangaroo leather!

Yeah, it’s like paper. It’s fantastic.


You know, they eat the meat, so it’s like rabbit or something.

Let’s change the subject, please. Did you grow up in Germany?

Yes, I lived there till I was 22, in Bremerhaven. I was studying in Hamburg, first economics, then fashion, then I became a model and through modeling I had to fly all the time to Milan, Paris, and then I got scouted by an agency in Milan and my modeling career TOOK OFF!


Why on earth were you studying economics?



] I never really knew what I wanted to do. My family had their own business so I thought it was my destiny to take over, like my father before me.

What kind of business is it?

It’s oil distribution and storage. Highly interesting. But when I had to start figuring out statistics and stuff like that, I had no interest.

Did you always like fashion even when you were little?

Oh yes. When I look back now, I am totally in line with what I was always destined to do. I mean, I was always very artistic. I was just looking at pictures of my childhood room and I saw that I had made creative sculptures out of wire hangers. Like modern-art sculpture, but I had no idea about art, I just did it.

Were you a punk rocker? I picture you as a little shit-starter.

A little bit. At the same time, I was very preppy and proper. The same way I am now. I’m punk, but not like wearing safety pins, just the core identity of punk. Like, not exactly destructive, but just that you shake things up to create again. Within destruction lies the new creation.


I just got nominated for the National Design Award from the Smithsonian. I am very happy.


Thank you. Maria Cornejo and Isabel Toledo have won in past years, and now they’ve both designed for Madame Obama. I guess I will have to dress Madame Obama as well.

She would look great in your stuff, really.


Yes, I think she would.

How did you become a fashion designer? Tell me how it all started.

When I was modeling, I was realizing that this is not a future for a bright, intelligent boy like me. So I looked for something else, like a transition. I studied art history and photography and some other things, and with photography I started making money by testing models. You know, taking photos of them to make them look like they were working models. At that time, I met Adi and Angela at a club called Flamingo East—they were the door ladies there. So we started working together, they would do the styling and I would take pictures. At the same time, Gabi started his own line, and we all got together and styled it and shot it and transformed it into something else. And it all totally fit our visions at the time. Then my place burned down and I moved in with the girls, and Gabi divorced his wife and moved in, and As Four was born. We started showing as a collection in 2000.

You all lived together and slept in one big bed and were notorious for that.

Exactly. We were very serious about our work, but at the same time it was very much fun. It was a new kind of art form, almost, the intersection between art and fashion. What I’m doing now I consider artistic, but it’s more focused on being part of the fashion system.

You’re more mature.

I believe it’s a natural progression. I want my work to be wearable sculpture, but approachable. Not like what I did before, where it was like, “Wow, that is great art… See you later!” Now it’s more like, “Wow, I want to wear that.”


Sometimes I miss the crazy As Four circle bags.

I don’t. I still have problems with my right shoulder from them!

Do you ever miss those days? Do you think New York is still cool?

No and no. Downtown has changed immensely. The whole scene is dead. Probably forever. Well, maybe it can come back now with all the recession…

You’re still a fixture in terms of socializing, though.

It’s just different than it used to be, but whatever, we get older. That’s part of it. I don’t regret it so much because I’m so busy and happy with what I’m doing, and I have my own scene.

Was it fun being in the tabloids and getting the kind of scandalous attention you got?

I didn’t really enjoy it. Most of the shit was not right, so it was just annoying. People tell me all the time, “Oh that’s so cool, Page Six!” And I’m like, no thank you.

You don’t think it’s sort of cool? Most people are too scared to go wild, so they love to live vicariously through people who do.

Well, my work is so much more important to me than all that other stuff. People blow things out of proportion, they put too much attention on that, and they get scared, they misjudge you, so a lot of opportunities get closed to you.

But then everyone loves a good comeback, right?

Exactly—every season. We love a comeback.

Your studio is very pretty and white. And I love this area. It’s so scary and deserted at night—it’s like Blade Runner up here.

You can go up to the roof, it’s beautiful. I moved here consciously because it’s the garment district and I wanted to show that “Crazy Kai” is actually into business.


Do you still feel like you have to prove stuff like that?

I kind of still do, yeah.

Every review I read about you is glowing. I didn’t see a single bad thing.

Yes, well, I’ve been behaving!

What else do you like to do for fun?

Sometimes these days I ask myself that. I don’t do much else besides work because that’s my fun too. I like to go to Fire Island or Rockaway Beach, to be outside with Powder as much as possible. She’s my lady.

Powder, she’s a legendary downtown celebrity dog.

Yes, she’s my baby. And I still like to go out, at least as much as I can these days. I like the Sunday-night Art Fag party at Bowery Electric. I still sometimes go to Beatrice.

I’ve never been there.

Oh, you would hate it. Actually, I was there last night and I hated it. I’ve never encountered so many wannabe idiots.

I’ll bet! Are there any designers you love right now?

So many. I loved Chanel’s last collection. It’s all white and cream and beautiful. The shoulders are fantastic. Karl did a good job.

OK, shoulders. Explain to me about shoulders.

Shoulders are very important right now. There’s a lot of statement through shoulders and through the silhouette. I want my shoulders to be strong and bold but not too 80s. A little bit regal. I’m also playing with the idea of the no-shoulder now.

What a fun job.

It’s lots of hard work, but it is fun. It’s like painting. Choosing the fabrics is like getting the palette together and then the collection is like one big painting except that it takes many hours and people and a lot of money to put all of it together, and then it moves around.


As somebody who has terrible style, can you please tell me how to get some?



] It’s a secret. We can’t tell you.

Damn it.

Oh, come on, you have style.

No way. Look at my shitty ponytail.

But that’s a style. No-style!

Ah, an anti-style, you’d say?

Yeah, maybe. It depends. If you do it intentionally, if you’re aware of it, then it becomes a style. If people are too aware, then they can become pretentious, but there’s a certain originality and truthfulness to people who can do anything and it just works.

Do you like designers who do outlandish stuff, like Bernhard Willhelm, for example?

He’s a good friend and I love his work. I think it’s great artwork, it’s a statement, but it’s not really “clothes.” In my time with As Four I had a lot of fun playing around and making fun of things, but now I try to strip that away from my collection so it’s not just masturbation of my ideas. In the end, I see my role as a clothing maker for women. And women need clothes, they don’t need a joke.

Kai in his model days.

Kai’s dog