First, let it be said that when it comes to runaway imagination and originality, not enough credit has been given to Kean Etro, the mad menswear genius at Etro, the label founded by his father in 1968.
While his other European counterparts have exploited the fashion platform as visual spectacle (Karl Lagerfeld with his catwalk protestors for Chanel) and performance art (cue Alexander McQueen and his hologram finale of Kate Moss), Kean is the rare Italian to do so wholly.
Chanel's purpose-built fashion supermarket last year? Well, Kean staged the same concept more than 10 years ago in his Autumn/Winter 2001 season, complete with Etro-branded pushcarts.
McQueen's 2005 collection in which models appear atop a giant chessboard? Kean did that too, the season before in Autumn 2004, with a giant ancient Medicean boardgame as runway, fashioned after the well-known “Great Game of the Goose”, complete with its models dressed as bearded mystics.
So why is Etro rarely mentioned in the same breath as other mavens?
Granted, his runway presentations are all good cheeky fun, but it is the opinion of some that Kean — who designed his first menswear collection for the family business in 1990 but only staged his debut show in 1997 — could possibly have allowed his love for high concepts to overpower wearability and hence, commercial success.
Perhaps now realising that his ideas need to survive beyond spectacle to translate into desirable clothes, he surprised the industry last year with his Autumn/Winter 2014 show.
The collection opened with a video clip: A boy stripped of his puerile T-shirt, then systematically dressed, thread by thread, pattern panel by panel and soon fitted into a grown-up tailored suit — an analogy perhaps of Kean acknowledging his own burgeoning maturity. Moreover, the entire line showed off a more tailored approach not palpable before in his work.
But Kean, a boring old mature designer? Careful now, for we may have judged too soon.
In the world of menswear, between sobriety and playfulness, Kean, as a designer, is hard to place. Tim Blanks of Style.com had to scratch his head before putting him down as “something of a philosopher”. The New York Times was more affectionate, calling him “every inch a clown”.
Kean himself says he is “an imp, a fantasy creature that discovers and rediscovers brand new ideas” on his own Etro website. Not an unfair self-assessment, given that he once sent his male models down a giant slide before making them run amok — no final bow, please — in laps round a spiral runway for Spring 2005.
That same year, models had to make their way down an Autumn runway transformed into a jolly car wash, complete with a giant roller-brush. In 2007, his models were modern-day pirates, who emerged from a sail ship berthed at some fashion Never Neverland — Lost Boys who, perhaps, like Kean himself, have refused to grow up.
And for Spring/Summer 2015, his latest proffering is another zany one. You will find yourself admiring the rosettes of paisley flowers on the new fabric designs until you realise, oh wait...but those are Italian pasta dishes! All complete with a plethora of mussels, figs, funghis, zucchinis and oodles of gorgonzola cheeses — all beautifully plated, on porcelain ware and paisley-print tablecloths, no less.
“In the end, we are what we eat,” he chirps, grinning, to the American press in his Milan showroom after the show last year.
The world thinks you're this madcap designer who goes crazy with his designs, colours and catwalk shows. But then again, the Autumn/Winter 2014 collection showed off a carefully tailored line. Are you much misunderstood?
People probably don't know that I am a very strong mathematician. I'm an engineer; I engineer and structure the collection. I'm the boring one in the company because I'm so picky about doing things in steps. Everything has to be designed like a house: First, we start with the plumbing (the tailoring) before we start creating. Only then do we start going crazy if we want. If I don't have 80 percent of the structure, I won't do it. But then again, I'm very lucky because I always do what I feel.
Are you saying that the tailoring's always been there? only that in the past, it's always been a little bit overshadowed by the colours, the prints?
Si, the tailoring; it's there, always. Now with the new Spring/Summer collection, for the first time, I'm extremely happy because everything has grown: From the designs [and] the tailoring to my team, who is more experienced now. And 25 percent of this collection is completely new. What does that mean? I do research, like I'm in a chemistry lab. I'll say to my team: ‘Please, check out if this idea has been done before.' So they check [through the past] 20 years of newspapers and magazines. And instead of finding piles of references, there were just two sheets. So it has not been done before.
Is there a reason why you cannot design without colour?
I don't do black, because as a colour, it is the absence of light. You don't know how many pushes I get from the commercial side — “Why don't you do black?” they ask. I don't because the customer might not recognise Etro in a non-Etro style. The Americans, whom, as you know, are the picky ones and they say to me: “Kean, it's cool. We like it because this is typical Etro.” But then again, the Etro philosophy is that we break all the rules, including the ones we set for ourselves. A black suit or a black jacket would be non-Etro. So I may do black, since the premise is: Black is not Etro. And so it is Etro.
No wonder the press couldn't figure out whether you are a philosopher or a clown — you are playing a little joke on the fashion consumers out there.
Well, the thing is — here's an interesting idea — I wanted to create the non-thing. Once upon a time, I wanted to invent Etro as the non-Armani, the non-Prada…
Very much. I'm a joker; I play it as a joke, as a clown, because playing the trickster is the only way to get through life nowadays. One way to stay alive in a certain way is to play a lot in life.
From what I understand, as of 2013, Etro's revenue is structured as follows: Womenswear (47 percent), Menswear (30), Leather Goods (16), Home and Fragrances (7). Will the rising consumer power in Asia change all that?
China's different, but what worries me about China is that it is so big. I don't grasp it. It is different from markets in Japan, Singapore, Hong Kong and Taiwan. With China, the impression given is that you need to be an extremely big group, such as Zegna (also family-owned) that has like 300 shops in China. I don't know if we can do that at Etro because we do not have that size.
So that is why in our company, there have been talks of whether we want to enter the Chinese market in a realistic way. The big question then is: Do we have the right financial support? We are trying to put that together.
You find that mind-boggling?
Si. We're not really built for scale as a company. We're doing very well all over and at the same time, we have to consolidate, especially the US market, which generally makes up nine percent of sales for any retail brand worldwide. The Americans still retain the crown.
Everyone, of course, is looking at the Asian market, but for a company like us, it is also important to establish a stronger presence in the American market — which we feel is more solid for a long-term investment. The Chinese market for us at this point is more risky because of the scale. I'm being very honest here. Our policy will be more conservative.
The Etro business is a family-controlled one. But as Jacopo Etro mentioned in a previous interview, it is, at one point, considering to replace key positions (held by family members) with outsiders, as they may be better at managing it.
That is just good business sense and I agree with him. I would love for the company to be de-personalised in a way, to get people in from the outside (but not too many) who can bring in a wider vision, and with the family maintaining, say 20 percent control. This should also help us to prepare the company for the stock exchange, in order to compete in the fashion market.
Otherwise, we might as well stay small and be small with a specific identity.
As of now, the business will still be kept within the family?
Si. There have been many voices of selling and buying and all that. But in the end, the question is how and this stems from the Chinese question. Everything happened because of China.
Do you see any advantage of remaining a wholly controlled family business?
Well, my brother Ippolito left the company recently because he got sick. One day he just burst out saying: “I want to live my life! I cannot leave the company at 11, 12 at night, lock up and follow through again in the morning with everything!” And also of course, he had clashes with the president. (laughs) [He means with Gimmo, the founder and also Kean, Ippolito, Jacopo and Veronica's father].
Basically, he couldn't stand it anymore. It's like working for a multinational, where he was constantly under a lot of stress. Unfortunately, this sometimes sends you to the hospital or the psychiatrist, which I did go to 15 years ago. Which was why for four years after that, I managed the business from a distance.
I learnt from that incident to be very strongly involved, but from above. Otherwise, you arrive home and you don't have time for the people you love. And that's very important for creativity — whether to write well, draw well, or to invent well.
Unfortunately, this is the reality of some family businesses.
Yes! But then again, non-family-owned businesses have their own issues too, such as a turnover of designers every two years; it happens. But for us, this is our family business. How can we leave every two years when the going gets tough? One sign of a strong family is that we're all different. Because in a tree, all the leaves are different. Jacopo [my eldest brother] is different from me. And Veronica [my younger sister] went to a German school so she's always very organised, with all her appointments and everything. She's always happy and positive, always with a big smile, which is fantastic.
What has been the greatest strength of the Etro brand?
That we [the Etro siblings], as individuals, are very frank (laughs). We're all very direct — we don't beat around the bush and we are very genuine. We cannot lie. We do things with our heart.
Who are your closest friends in the industry? I heard you and Neil Barrett used to be kopi-buddies when he was still at Prada.
‘Scusa, what is kopi?
Si, when he was still at Prada [designing menswear], his office was next to Etro's. Now he is doing his own line, he's not next door any more. When Paul Smith is in Milan or in London, I would see him. He's a great joker. Antonio Marras is another nice guy from Sardinia I see once in a while. The Zegna family also. Giorgio Armani and I are full of nonsense when we're around each other. He'll come in and go: “You look so beautiful” just to provoke me. There's also Dolce and Gabbana, Dean and Dan Caten [from DSquared2], who've just opened a fantastic place in Milano — very cool — and are very photogenic. I was in Turkey with them one time and all the women went crazy!
I love it when the Italians get together.
Yes, we all know how to enjoy life!