Kilgour’s creative director talks death, Japanese girls and why menswear has a duty to itself to think more
Interview by Ryan Thompson
Carlo Brandelli, the freelance creative director at Kilgour of 5 Savile Row, who also works as an artist, is in remarkably good nick for a 45-year-old. Without sounding sycophantic, or indeed bitter, he looks more like 35 - and were it not for the rough scrub of dark facial hair, I suspect you could easily knock off a few more years. He has a boyish complement of fine features, with lively bespectacled eyes that correctly guess my height (before I stand up), and an ever-so-impish smile that bears out a teasing and playful manner.
He has delicate hands for a sculptor and martial artist, and his hair is a smart and uncomplicated wave of dark brow - short enough to never warrant a supportive sweep of hand or combing of fingers. His stubble, which gently whorls at the apex of the jawline where it meets the neck - and is slightly outgrown by anyone’s standards - has no right to look smart, and yet that is exactly the effect it achieves. Today, like most days, he is dressed from head to toe in inky black, in a suit - his own Kilgour design - and open-collar shirt. Ties are very rarely on Brandelli’s sartorial menu. The collar got lucky today.
Born in London in 1969 (the year America was ‘having a nervous breakdown’ wrote the Pulitzer Prize-winning art critic Holland Cotter) to Italian parents, Brandelli grew up in north London. His mother was a dressmaker and his father worked in the colourful hospitality scene of the Seventies, most notably at A l’Ecu de France in Jermyn Street. One of the most esteemed French restaurants in the capital at the time, its head chef Herbodeau was the last of the great London chefs to have worked with the legendary Escoffier. The Fleet Street sleuth Chapman Pincher used to take his intelligence sources there for lunch, uncorking top-secret information over bottles of claret. It was only when l’Ecu finally closed its doors and the deep-plush banquettes were dismantled that an earful of both MI5 and KGB bugs was unearthed, the transcripts of which are still classified.
This particular interview was recorded (not bugged) over a long lunch at chef Simon Rogan’s Fera at Claridge’s, Brandelli’s favourite place to dine in London. In fact, we have only ever met at Fera – a habit I don’t mind perpetuating so long as Brandelli continues to pick up the tab. The staff there refer to him as Carlo and he, likewise, greets them by their first names. He speaks in a measured and eloquent stream, although his stories often run away in tangents, stretching the original thread to memory’s limits.
Often, waiters-turned-satellites find themselves hovering at the table, vibrating in that awkward space between eavesdropping and interruption as they politely and silently attempt to proffer plates through a wall of conversation. For the son of two Italians, he is not big on hand gestures or overly expressive intonations, instead preferring pauses to light upon the correct word or to consider questions he doesn’t always have the answer to.
On the occasion of this particular interview, Brandelli is five minutes late, having spent time putting together a gift he presents to me in a grey Kilgour envelope as he appears, apologetically, at the table. Inside is a thick grey card onto which is embossed an illustration of the floating cutting table and deconstructed suit panels that make up the minimal interior of the flagship store at No. 5 Savile Row. There is also a 60-to-70-year-old tissue-lined envelope - a relic from his family’s personal stationery - and a guide to the Dia Art Foundation’s New York museum, Dia:Beacon, a former Nabisco box-printing factory turned contemporary-art gallery. To talk about Brandelli’s work as a menswear designer is also to talk about his approach and response to the art that informs his aesthetic. During his recent four-year hiatus from the fashion world, he spent much of his time pursuing his other great passion, sculpture.
CB: So I was at Dia:Beacon recently. It’s the museum for the fantastic Dia Art Foundation. Beuys, Warhol, Flavin, Carl Andre… it’s like a who’s who of really cool artwork. The space itself is incredible. I think it was designed by the artist Robert Irwin, but you’ll have to check that [Irwin, who put together the master plan and landscaping, worked alongside OpenOffice arts and architecture collaborative open-office.net]. It’s probably the best art-foundation museum in the world. I was completely blown away.
CS: I imagine you live in something like Dia:Beacon - a big white box, no clutter, selected artworks, minimalist sculptures. Am I close? That’s what I take from your aesthetic at Kilgour.
CB: Well, in the past, yes, I had that white-roomed contemporary space within a Georgian façade with Eames furniture and all the reference books… but now I prefer an eclectic, non-referenceable mix. My studio and house in Italy is a Seventies box with the entire back wall in glass. Chairs come from churches and contemporary lamps from Missaglia. The old church is an association I can’t quite shed – religion, death… it reminds me of when I first saw a dead body as a child.
CS: I’ve never seen a dead body, not even lying in state. I don’t know if that makes me lucky or bereft of an important experience.
CB: A lot of religions and cultures celebrate death as much as they celebrate life. I have a friend, Heron Beecham, an old martial-arts teacher of mine who moved to Taiwan. He married a Chinese girl and one of his first experiences with her was attending a funeral ceremony of one of her relatives where they disintegrated the bones and threw the resultant ashes into the air and all the family members were covered in them. Heron was very open-minded so he was OK about it, but can you imagine how most Westerners would react to being showered in the fine combusted dust of their girlfriend’s uncle?
CS: You mention martial arts. Do you still practise any?
CB: Yes. These days I practise qigong and some other energy-driven disciplines. I’ve been learning martial arts since I was 15 or 16, starting with all the physical ones like karate, kung fu and tae kwon do. Heron was one of the guys who later taught me t’ai chi, and we became great friends.
CS: You don’t come across as the fighting type.
CB: The whole self-defence aspect of it wasn’t what piqued my interest. I was very into football and physical sports, but then at some point I got turned onto the energy of martial arts. I can’t put my finger on when or why. I think it was something about the purity of the movement and instruction. I was completely absorbed in it, to the point that during my time in Japan, when I was 23 or 24, I went on a macrobiotic diet for several months. I actually got really ill - I’d just wanted to purify my body, but I ended up being nutritionally deficient. It was extreme, but then I’m extreme in most things I do.
CS: How did you come to be in Japan at that time?
CB: I was a fashion consultant for a company called Mitsui that owned licences to Burberry and Valentino and a lot of others. I had just started Squire, my first brand, but I needed the money so I freelanced as a consultant. We had organised a ‘tour of Britishness’, where we gave a series of talks on British trends, culture and lifestyle to a number of department stores and such like. I put together a presentation of cultural ideas from the UK and took with me outfits from British designers such as Vivienne Westwood, Katherine Hamnett and John Richmond. We just spoke about fashion and street culture and how the UK was being influenced by Eastern styles, because at that time, Yohji Yamamoto, Issey Miyake and Comme des Garçons were all coming through.
CS: Working in Japan must have been quite an experience for a 23-year-old.
CB: Japanese culture is super-interesting. I’ve always found it to be just on the right side of risqué. I was staying in Shinjuku at the time and one evening had been invited to a bar for supper. To get to it, I had to walk through a tiny little street lined with yakitori bars that was nicknamed ‘Piss Alley’ [it has subsequently been renamed Omoide Yokocho or ‘Memory Lane’] because all the businessmen would fall into the street drunk and urinate everywhere. Anyway, I get to the address and, of course, it’s not on the ground floor, because so little of Tokyo is. I locate the elevator to go up - to the 19th or 20th floor, I think it was. And as the doors open, I’m greeted by an exquisite Japanese lady wearing something… well, let’s just say it was something restricting her body - it wasn’t an ordinary dress, put it that way. She was all in black and the lift was black and mirrored. We spend the next few minutes on this weird, vertiginous journey encased in black mirrors. Finally, the lift opens and I step out into this vast arena with a stage at one end. It was full of businessmen and Japanese girls, but that’s quite typical. I was the only gaijin in the place. We do karaoke, predictably, but I had this urge to play with the live band, who were all dressed in white tuxedos, American-style. So I go backstage with the band and ask if we could do a Stones number because they would probably know it. We start playing Gimme Shelter and all these Japanese businessmen dressed in navy pinstripe Burberry suits get up and start singing and dancing along with all the girls in tight black silks. The crowd was about 200-strong. It was insane.
CS: And salacious?
CB: No, there was nothing untoward going on. That’s not to say there aren’t those types of places, but this was a very controlled, slightly voyeuristic environment where men could go to a certain place and not go any further.
CS: The juxtaposition in Japanese culture between social protocol and, say, the ability to buy soiled knickers from vending machines is fascinating, if not confusing.
CB: I think a lot of it has to do with their attitude towards religion. It’s so different, at least compared to my upbringing, which was Roman Catholic. I remember going to confession as a boy. I was probably 13 years old when it first started to occur to me that there were girls in the congregation, so I’d stop listening to the priest because I’d be looking at the girls. My upbringing was telling me ‘you’re going to hell, you must repent’, but my hormones were telling me something completely different. I was talking to Roland Mouret, who was also brought up Catholic, about this once. He was coming to terms with his own sexuality under Catholicism. It’s terrible for someone to impose that guilt on you, but I guess feeling this guilt is another way of being able to challenge the natural equilibrium of your energy. I can’t tell you what natural is - I don’t know about your behaviour behind closed doors, Ryan, and you don’t know what mine is, but our internal behaviour can be completely different to our external behaviour. So we often have to live this façade. And Catholics have become experts at it.
CS: Japanese culture is certainly dichotomous, but they don’t seem to have any hang-ups or at least don’t try to hide modern behaviours from the traditional sensibilities.
CB: They don’t have a lot of the moral issues the West has, perhaps because they’re not encumbered by religious doctrine.
CS:That’s certainly borne out in the crazy myriad youth styles and subcultures in Japanese society - Japanese girls especially. There’s no fear of nonconformity.
CB: The colour of Japanese girls’ skin was something of an epiphany for me.
CS: How do you mean?
CB: That otherworldly, translucent quality of their skin was really what started to make me think about context and the colour of clothing next to skin. It has a pearlescent quality that is very delicate, fragile, even. The European and Mediterranean girls I was used to were often suntanned, which gave their skin a harder, more opaque quality - and it had an entirely different sexuality to Japanese skin. So this idea of fragility, which has always been a concept in my work, is kind of interesting.
CS: When I think about it now, there’s a discernible Japanese minimalist aesthetic to not only the clothing you design at Kilgour but also the flagship space itself.
CB: The Japanese have certainly, at least traditionally, searched for a purity of form, hence the minimalism, and I totally get that, but the Kilgour interior I designed was about an English purity firmly rooted in 2015 contemporary thinking. With martial arts, it’s the simplification of physical movement. With menswear, I’m very interested in the removal of anything extraneous. I suppose I understand my purpose as a sort of search for truth and my favourite mediums are cloth, stone and glass. I sometimes get criticised - actually, I often get criticised - when I do these panels where I’m asked for my opinion on fashion. A lot of people watching them write in the comments section [online, below the resulting article]. I don’t want to be the angry man of fashion, but things sometimes need to be said. Anyway, one of these comments said ‘Carlo’s always searching for meaning - why does there have to be meaning?’ and I thought, in the context of fashion, there doesn’t really have to be meaning, but the particular comment I’d made referred to a theory I knew the designer had tapped into but hadn’t got right. Things can just look beautiful or elegant or cool and that can be the end of it, but it’s a lot more interesting if there’s a ‘why?’ that the designer has tried to answer.
CS: I think brands fall down sometimes because they glibly attach a ‘why?’ onto a collection without actually taking the necessary time and energy to answer the question in full. Would you agree?
CB: Glibly is a good word, but you can’t say that in print, Ryan, or in a lot of places you write. We all have to toe the line, but I like to get as close to that line as possible, not because I’m an anarchist, but because you should be able to say what’s happening. Most of fashion is 10 per cent truth and 90 per cent whatever, but I try to be transparent about what I’m doing or aspiring to do. I mean, how many designers do you know who would talk about the colour of Japanese girls’ skin? They just wouldn’t go there. For whatever reason, that colour made an emotional impression on me. Perhaps I sail too close to the wind?
My personal style was always a pure reaction to an emotional connection. For me, that’s the single most important obligation for a designer or artist. Without the emotional response, there is no design.
CS: It’s fair to say you don’t seek the approval of others. Do you consider them when you’re designing a collection? Is there some figurative Kilgour archetype that you conjure up?
CB: I only really consider myself and men like me, most of whom are associated with the brand either as collaborators or contributors. That’s not from the point of ego, rather it’s simply that I have a better understanding or perspective because it’s what I do. I have more information than clients so I can make suggestions they wouldn’t have thought of. Most houses will say they design for their customer. I can’t because it’s not a pure way of behaving. And then there’s making something ‘popular’ - what does that even mean? Just because the masses accept something doesn’t mean it’s the right thing. Menswear is very restricted so it isn’t as if you can move too far away from the accepted code.
CS: I suppose integrity for an artist or designer, or anyone creative, is the ability to follow through with an idea, irrespective of what the ‘popular’ consensus might be.
CB: Creatives are naturally progressive people and, for them, the creation of the idea is just as important as the creation of the object. I started using the word ‘unstructured’ around 2002 to describe a style of jacket I had created. The Italians have always made more lightweight jackets and, in the mid-Nineties, they were using buggy linings to reduce the weight of the jacket even further, but I wanted to take this concept as far as I possibly could, so I started taking out all of the internal structure, and called it ‘unstructured’. Over the years, this word started to become mainstream in men’s fashion. It seemed like a simple idea at the time - it still is - as it links to Modernism, Minimalism and Suprematism…
CS: I’m not familiar with Suprematism…
CB: Suprematism was an art movement founded by the Russian artist Kazimir Malevich. He thought that art should be made using pure shapes and pure forms such as circles, lines and squares. It probably only lasted 20 years at most. I’ve been called a Constructivist by a director of Tate Modern before and I really identify with that. It’s effectively not allowing an autonomous view to be taken on what you are doing. So I don’t want only the fashion world to judge what I’m doing, I want all creative sectors to judge it. But honestly, I can drop these terms and I know how I will be gauged by fashion: ‘He thinks he’s an artist. Why is he still doing fashion?’ All I know is that the art world has a greater body of work to influence me than the fashion world does. I can reference thousands of years of creative work through art and sculpture, which I can’t do so easily with fashion. Art can use any material, any concept, any medium; it has so many ways to manifest itself. Fashion is just clothes until you develop an ethos - and some do, for example, Hussein Chalayan, Martin Margiela and Alexander McQueen. Actually, McQueen was once quoted as saying, ‘I don’t see myself as an artist - I’m a fashion designer.’ Well, I knew him and he was an artist - no two ways about it. He worked in the medium of fashion design, but he behaved as an artist, he worked like an artist. Half the struggle is whether your ego allows you to believe you are an artist or not. Fashion designers feel that they somehow don’t have the level of authority to be able to say ‘I am an artist’, it’s almost like they feel they will be caught out by the art world. I work in an artistic way that seems to be acceptable to all disciplines.
CS: There are certainly very few menswear designers who would feel comfortable labelling their work as art, at least in public, but the same couldn’t be said for womenswear and couture. It can’t be because of any technical differences in the respective skills…
CB: Out of all the creative industries, the menswear designer is generally considered lower than all the other disciplines, with artists at the top, followed by architects and womenswear designers and so on. I don’t understand why. It can’t just be a question of modesty in this country because it’s the same for menswear designers in France and Italy too. There are a few exceptions - people such as Miuccia Prada, for example. She is considered to have a higher cultural aesthetic than most designers and I think that is completely justified. She started the Fondazione Prada, which is very active, and has a strong association with architecture through her relationship with Rem Koolhaas. She has her convictions and beliefs and has incorporated those into her work, but so many others haven’t. Menswear is still this vast, open, slightly ambiguous arena, which I think is extraordinary. A designer will sit there and go through an idea or a story or a colour palette and establish some kind of ethos that will justify a collection. They go through a process that’s no different to any other creative sector, but it’s just the weight that everyone associates with that process. This is what’s so frustrating about Savile Row. It had real weight 100 years ago; even 50 years ago there was something that could have really gone on and stood for something. It had a proper foundation, but it was just allowed to fritter away and now it’s a real struggle to get bespoke tailoring considered as an art form once again. Fundamentally, the theory or approach to the work was lost; it became more about the handmade aspect only and not the thinking behind the craft - the why and the how.
CS: Speaking of craft, how would you describe your creative process? Do you work to a schedule or is it organic, for want of a better word?
CB: As you asked me that, I was looking at this bright green sauce on my plate and had an idea for something.
CS: Organic, then!
CB: Completely random. I have enough experience and have accumulated enough information over the years so that if a client asks me for an idea, I can present him with one fairly instantly. But right now, for example, these green flecks in this sauce made me think of something interesting I could explore.
CS: Let’s talk about the new collection. The ideas you expressed felt genuinely new - particularly the ‘K’ lapel and the idea of layering without layers. But what really struck me was how the asymmetric design on the invitation, the fibre-optic installation in the store and the lapel constructions all led from one to the other. It was like following Ariadne’s thread through Carlo Brandelli’s brain. Then of course I read the press release, which said: ‘This season, the aesthetic focus for the collection has begun with the idea of “thread”.’
CB: That was exactly my intention, so I’m glad that resonated with you. It’s important for me that the collection, indeed any collection, has a narrative that can be traced throughout. With the idea of the thread, which is a key component to all design, I was exploring ways to manifest the idea using different mediums - in this case card, fibre-optic thread and, of course, cloth. So the development of a Kilgour ‘K’ lapel and asymmetric tailoring was visible in the design on the invitation and the fibre-optic installation, but you wouldn’t have made the connection until you had actually seen the collection. It’s completely new, minimalist territory but there is a commercial viability too. There are three new collar propositions: the overlay notch, the contemporary peak and the modern shawl. The pockets are also completely new propositions and I’ve introduced silk overlay edges too. What impact is it going to have in 10 to 15 years? Will it be understood now? I don’t know. How do I gauge it? Well, I suppose if it sells or not, but right now, the flagship is doing really well, as is bespoke, so people are embracing it. Actually, what’s really good to see is that a lot of people are requesting the new ideas and details in bespoke, so I take that to mean my concepts are making sense to people. I’ve recently shot a campaign and film with Nick Knight. It loosely references Carl Andre and, again, I ask questions about narcissism and representation. There are several concepts in the new semiotics involving new propositions for construction and appearance.
CS: After four years away, for the most part sculpting, how has it been, returning to bespoke?
CB: I think bespoke fulfils my sculptural needs because I can work with cloth and do some really interesting things with it. I built up some momentum with the art over the past four years, but now I’ve gone back to fashion, I’m adapting sculptural theory to fashion. I quickly realised I’d missed working with cloth. I was guilty of being dismissive or taking it for granted - if you do something for a period of time and achieve some success, you can feel like it’s easy to do, but when you leave that discipline and come back to it, you’re so much more able to redefine the possibilities you wouldn’t otherwise have seen. It’s a new proposition, like starting over again.
CS: I find that when I go back to pieces I wrote years ago - in many cases, I can’t recognise my voice in them. Have you always had a very particular aesthetic? Can you remember the first pieces you ever designed?
CB: D’you know what, I must have done hundreds of interviews in my time and no one has ever asked me that. What was the first thing I ever designed? Christ… it was a flat-fronted trouser and a single-breasted jacket with one button. Yes, that was it - a skinny mod suit and a covert coat in moleskin, and then I started doing shirts. I never customised anything. When I was buying things for myself in my early teens, I would go to vintage stores or girls’ shops because they had all the best clothes and tight fits. This sounds silly now, but you couldn’t go into a guys’ shop and buy a simple, tight-fitting black T-shirt, but you could pick one up in a girls’ shop. You could get sleeveless ones that were part of that Americana disco look - but a simple black shirt? I remember going to an Echo and the Bunnymen concert and we just wanted a black shirt with black Sta-Prest trousers and black plimsolls, probably because we saw Ian McCulloch dressed like that on The Old Grey Whistle Test. I was going into really obscure places and saying, ‘Have you got any black shirts?’ That seems like an innocuous enough question now, but back then you really stood out. We just wanted really pared-down, nondescript looks in either black or charcoal grey or white, which said we were independent. We didn’t want anything embellished or elaborate - that wasn’t my generation. We were into Echo, The Smiths and Joy Division - that’s what I understood. But then I went out with a girl whose father was a jazz pianist, so I started to become absorbed in that jazz world, but I never liked the music as much. Soon after that, the Beastie Boys came out, and of course we were into reggae, because we were going out in west London, then I revisited The Clash… The progression was weird, but my personal style was always a pure reaction to an emotional connection. For me, that’s the single most important obligation for a designer or artist. Without the emotional response, there is no design.