Interview: Christian Kimber
By Randy Lai
When Christian Kimber took home Australia’s National Designer Award in 2019, it was the culmination of a life spent more or less in genuflection to the fashion industry – spanning across London, Florence, Hong Kong and, perhaps most crucially, Melbourne. For more than a decade, the award-winning Briton has called Australia’s most livable city home, adding to its reputation for menswear labels that are independently owned and operated, and ‘if you know, you know’ in their aesthetic.
After winning early acclaim from fashion writers and opinion leaders in the men’s footwear blogosphere in the late 2010s, Kimber debuted his first collection of ready-to-wear clothing in 2018. His slubby linen layers and worn-in knitwear designs were at the forefront of what many style-conscious men now simply regard as the ‘Australian aesthetic’: an expression of fashion rooted in dishevelment, albeit the kind that’s good-natured and rugged, in the image of the larrikin. Set amid South Melbourne’s leafy auburn expanses, we dropped by for a look at Kimber’s latest store, where he was kind enough to share his thoughts on ‘Aussie style’, why he opened a new store mid-pandemic, and what goes into a successful fashion show.
ACM: Our readers in the UK might be pleasantly surprised to hear that you originally grew up on the south coast of England. In 2011 you made the – as it now turns out – pivotal choice to immigrate to Australia. What prompted that?
CK: I guess the short answer is that I fell in love with an Australian girl. At the time we were living in London together, and some changes in government policy meant that, even though she’d been there for years, she was required to return home.
I was working for a pretty small men’s footwear company at the time, realising that I’d kind of hit my limit there. By that stage, I’d had recurring dreams about doing my own thing, and so decided to take a punt and move with my partner (now my wife) halfway across the world.
It’s interesting how you use the phrase, ‘take a punt.’ When you first arrived in Melbourne, did you already know definitively about the sort of business you wanted to pursue?
Definitely. Men’s clothing is and has only ever been my one true calling. I’d always dreamed of having my own store. Before we relocated, I’d been taking night classes at London College of Fashion. The plan was always to strike out on my own. Moving to Australia helped push me over the edge.
What sort of disciplines did you cover at night school?
Everything from pattern drafting to shoemaking: it’s a 12-week course in theory, but I continued to build on what I’d learned after moving to Australia. You’re exposed to different skills and work on a wide variety of pieces, without necessarily graduating as a full-fledged patternmaker. What you do leave with is an understanding of where that and other disciplines sit within the broader context of fashion.
Was there a particular area of coursework that stood out to you?
Looking back, I think what I was trying to do was ‘find myself’ in the study of all those courses, because I didn’t know where I fit in. The whole duration I lived in London I was working in the industry: I did buying; PR; interned as a stylist; was at Hardy Amies in the archive, going through all of the brand’s old drawings. And through all of that, to be honest, I was struggling to figure out my place within the industry.
I took night classes because I was just trying to hone the skills that brands look for when they hire young designers. I had such a passion for the work, and was already drawing a lot at the time, but I also hadn’t gone through the ‘normal’ process most people undertake when they train to become designers.
In this situation, what exactly does the ‘normal’ process entail?
The most widely accepted route would be to enrol in a fashion institute right after high school. Then you do a graduate show, secure a spot on a team at a bigger house, then gradually go out on your own.
For me, though, a lot of what I ended up learning through work was in operations: accounting, cash flow, how to manage a shop. To this day, I don’t think the fashion industry gives young designers enough support on how to balance the creative with commercial concerns.
Did your experience in the business of fashion influence your decision to launch Christian Kimber as a footwear brand? Were there advantages in starting there as opposed to going straight to a full ready-to-wear collection?
Everything we’ve done has been organic. By that, what I mean is the development of our business has had a natural progression, always led by our customers – we’ve been so lucky in that regard. Before we opened our first flagship store, back when we only offered footwear, I’d meet clients out on the street and in cafes. They’d often ask about what I was wearing, and so the impetus to design a few pieces and gradually work up to clothing started with them.
Seven years and two stores later – with a third on the way – it’s been a really interesting journey. In the early days, the issues we were facing were the same as those for any startup, really. How do we get the word out? How do we ensure the product is continuously getting better?
Speaking with you, one gets the sense that those challenges aren’t ever really ‘solved’ – you just become adept at working through them.
I think that’s because, as we’ve immersed ourselves in the business, we’ve discovered our priorities and we’ve grown. It took me a long time to build up the confidence to understand that even though we had lots of early success in footwear, we could do more. Now when we develop new styles or items, we start from a place of really trying to understand who our customer is and how his taste dovetails with the wider conversation around ‘Australian style’.
Let’s delve a little more into this topic. So many designers who live and work in the southern hemisphere have to grapple with what the essential hallmarks of ‘Aussie style’ are. What’s your take?
So, when I first moved to Australia, the idea of a cohesive fashion identity was still somewhat under-defined. In contrast to American or European style, often associated with a certain look or group of designers, much of what makes Australian style special is tactile. There’s the functional aspect – making something that’s built for our climate and lifestyle.
Can you think of any examples specific to, say, Melbourne?
Anything in a lightweight fabric – ideally waterproof – that you can layer up or down quickly. But coming back to the other aspect, I’d say the best Australian style usually feels very rugged. Socially, most men here aren’t comfortable dressing in a way that feels elitist. Instead of wearing a double-breasted suit, they want something that’s a little more understated. So, for our brand, that means starting with fabrics that exude a lightness in aesthetic and function, made into things that are a little bit more relaxed – a little less fussy. Chore jackets, bombers: these are all garments you can wear to work, but also beyond.
So, in every situation, there’s an equal balance to be struck between comfort and practicality.
Definitely. But I mean, durability is a big priority for men here too.
I think, at its core, the idea of a quintessential Australian style has less to do with any one type of clothing – it’s more of a feeling. It’s not about this denim versus that blazer. It’s hard to articulate, but you know great Aussie style when you see and wear it.
Let’s move on to something a little less elusive, then. When you’re developing a new product, do you find it helpful to subjectify the design process? Today, how much of the brand is inspired by clothes you want to own yourself?
It’s probably about 50/50. When we first started doing menswear, I had an abundance of ideas based on items I could imagine myself wearing. But as we’ve gone forward, it’s become much more centred on what the client enjoys. I think a lot of designers romanticise the idea of making things ‘for yourself’, but if I design a bunch of product that our customers don’t relate to, what purpose does it really serve?
Hence the balance. Are your customers generally happy when you design a piece inspired by them –- maybe it starts as a one-off – that then makes its way into the collection? Is there any sort of possessiveness around the original idea?
I think everybody’s felt flattered so far. It’s not as if we take a pre-existing blazer block, slap on a different fabric and say, “This was made just for you.” When we custom-make something, we usually work on it in conjunction with the client – there’s a bit of back and forth. And because, during the whole process, they become aware of the work that’s gone into this bit of clothing, inspired by them, the reaction is mostly positive. Mind you, if a client wants to keep a design exclusively for themselves, we’re happy to do that too.
I think what makes us different from the bigger Australian designers is that a lot of what we create is from scratch. For instance, when we’re developing something like a vest, we technically draw every part of it before prototyping. And then when the samples come back, we repeat that process over. We also work with fabric mills and garment dyers who avoid the cookie-cutter – only those interested in making something that can’t be replicated.
Earlier this year at the Melbourne Fashion Festival, you chose to simultaneously unveil pieces from your summer and winter collections. Additionally, several of the brand’s longtime customers made cameos during the show. In your experience, what goes into making a really impactful fashion presentation?
So far we’ve done about five shows – not including the small client-facing stuff over dinner – and the best tend to be those where we’re able to give people an experience that goes beyond just the clothes. We always want to do our best to give back to the people who support us, so that means throwing a good full luncheon where people can also see the new pieces – like we did with GQ earlier this March.
When people become familiar with our in-store experience, they begin to understand why it’s bold for a business of our scale – small, with two stores – to even do shows at all. I remember back in 2018 when we did our first presentation, we must have had close to 100 people crowded into the Bang & Olufsen flagship.
Oh, the space at Cavendish House? I think that’s where Gimlet is now.
Yeah. I did that show with 25 models, all crowded into this little wardrobe at the back of the store, and remembered thinking to myself “so long as people have a good time” [laughs]. Do you know what I mean? Because a good show is seldom only about clothes.
European readers might be surprised to learn that in 2020 – during what many consider the worst part of the infamous Melbourne lockdowns – you managed to open your second store. In a year when many were proclaiming the ‘death of bricks and mortar’ retail, what gave you the confidence to do this?
Melbourne is a city cut in half, so having stores on both the north and south side made things significantly more convenient for our clients during lockdown.
During that time, because you were only permitted to travel within a certain radius, I think more and more people started discovering their own neighbourhoods. In Fitzroy, where our first flagship is, there was an influx of shoppers who came to see us for the first time – but they only lived 10 minutes away. By then we’d already started to grow out of that store and needed the additional space, so it felt right to open a second location much closer to our southside clients – one they could conveniently get to during the gaps between lockdowns.
You weren’t discouraged by all of the data and expert naysaying around the retail sector?
Anybody who says that “bricks and mortar is dead” simply isn’t doing bricks and mortar right. Case in point: over-the-counter transactions account for 50 percent of our business.
I’ve recently come back from London and the experience in a lot of the larger fashion chains reminded me, in 2022, of Pretty Woman. If your whole thing is making people feel uncomfortable or that they don’t belong, then I don’t think there’s any point in opening a bricks-and-mortar store. For us – and I always tell my team this – the atmosphere we’re invested in is one where people feel ‘hugged’. At our first store in Fitzroy, we wrote ‘Welcome Home’ on the floor: we wanted a place where people could come and have a memorable experience, even if all they were buying was a pair of socks.
The business of luxury clothing, and of menswear in particular, is repeat business. If you buy one shirt from us and never come back, we’ve not done our job. Of course, the first question we always ask is whether the product is up to snuff, but often in these situations, the reason a customer doesn’t want to return is because of a negative interaction they’ve had.
Let’s take a quick spin around that new store – located in the suburb of Armadale. Who are some of the other notable local businesses in this part of town – mutual friends and operators whom you support?
Not too far from us, there’s a great spot called Beatty & Rose. I guess you’d call it a deli, but they also have a strong focus on desserts and pastry. Around the corner from that, you’ll find Toorak Cellars: a buzzy wine bar, well-known across Melbourne, that also has an interesting retail selection.
The High Street area of Armadale, which we’re in the vicinity of, is generally renowned for its womenswear. But equally, there are some very solid food and coffee options. There’s a new butcher, originally from Sydney, called Victor Churchill, where you can buy a range of dry-aged beef and have it cooked to order.
I think the shopping and dining options around here speak to the type of clients we have in Armadale. Our northside clients tend to be cool lawyers and cool young dads [laughs] whereas here, it’s usually an older gentleman – often retired.
As for the store, it’s slightly off the beaten track and we like it that way: because we prefer to take our time with clients and that can be a touch difficult when you’re on [the] High Street. The space itself is warm and informal: we wanted to curate a domestic feel, cutting down a lot of the barriers people experience in a traditional retail environment.
To finish, a question about product. You’ve just released the second part of the Fall 2022 lookbook, ‘Winter in Armadale’: would you mind taking us through some of the pieces? Are there any you’re really excited to spend autumn in?
One of my absolute favourite pieces this season is a kind of suede chore-style jacket we’ve done in goat suede, with a ribbed collar and woollen Loro Piana lining – it’s great for cold weather but light enough that it can be worn as a transitional layer with a T-shirt and chinos.
Then, as will become apparent when you’re looking through the collection, knitwear was a big focus for us this season. We did this chevron knit in Merino wool which I thought was quite special, in addition to our take on the classic shawl collar cardigan, but in a textured cotton that means our version can be worn year-round.
And which of these pieces, if I were to push you, would you say is most representative of the Christian Kimber brand?
The one style I think other brands don’t necessarily do as well as us is garment-dyed clothing. It’s a really beautiful way to produce an Oxford shirt or a pair of trousers, because as you’re softening the garment and changing its colour you’re also creating a more relaxed character. That sensation of something that’s worn in and rustic – that feels very relaxed – is definitive for our brand.
Our thanks to Christian and his team for showing us around the neighbourhood in Armadale.
Photography by Alex Jovanovic.