“I always wanted to win; I couldn’t lose”
Interview // Kilian Kerner
Kilian Kerner, 41, is modest – considering the fact that this season marks his twentieth appearance at MBFW. He premiered his eponymous label in 2008 and, with 16 shows in a row, was a fixture at the fashion event. He also showed his collections in fashion hubs like New York and London. He opened eight shop-in-shop stores within the space of a year in England alone, and the Queen herself banned a very specific collection.
In 2011, the designer brought investors on board. Five years later he stepped down from his label, only to return under a new name with KXXK. We spoke with the designer in anticipation of his show and looked back together on his long career.
You are now presenting for the twentieth time at MBFW Berlin. Which of those shows do you look back on most fondly?
I like to think back on my very first show at Fashion Week. Toni Garrn opened it – she was 16 at the time. The milestone tenth show in a row was also something very special. We were the first label to do it in Berlin, so we went big. The collection was called Tell Me Your Name – A Story About Sculptures and Human Beings and the guys from the Berlin band Tunes of Dawn played live. There were wearable designs made in earthy colors, like ochre and sandy brown, but also very bold and lavish creations. One dress took six people twelve days to make.
What can you tell us about your latest collection?
The designs are very fluid, delicate – simply beautiful. I have called the collection Dream World.
The collection before that was about “a walk through a fairytale land.” Is your fashion about escapism?
Last year it was climate change, right-wing extremism and Donald Trump. This time I owe my escape into a dream world, through a collection, to the coronavirus. The year had started very well for me. I had a lot of collaborations – and within ten days everything was canceled. All I could do was lie on the sofa and I couldn’t turn on the TV without watching a corona special. I needed a place to escape to. That’s what this collection had to be.
Since you brought up the subject, your past collaborations have included brands like Nike, Kiehl’s, Smart & Star Trek, BMW Mini, Swarovski and Samsonite. Why do you continue to seek out creative exchanges?
First and foremost, I have fun doing collaborations. I can develop as a designer and work for a few months in another city, like Milan. But yes, these kinds of design collaborations also attract attention and you earn good money.
You went to acting school before you became a fashion designer. Why did you decide to quit acting?
Honestly? I moved into a shared flat that wasn’t exactly sparkling clean and I cleaned it with bleach. I accidentally spilled it all over my clothes in the process. I tried to salvage them by painting on them with more bleach. I then wore an outfit I made myself to an opening night of mine, and a short time later I wore it again to a Nena concert. She saw the T-shirt and wanted it immediately.
So Nena discovered you, so to speak.
You could say that. A few months later, she pulled me on stage again and asked me if I wouldn’t like to design a few things for her. I just said “yes” – even though I didn’t know anything about designing.
Would you be a fashion designer today if it hadn’t been for this experience with Nena?
No, it was a great twist of fate. Without that experience, I probably would never have discovered my true love of fashion. There was suddenly nothing else that interested me – I just wanted to work, to make fashion from morning to night. I locked myself in the studio with a dressmaker for months, watching her and learning from her.
You once said that for a long time you weren’t taken seriously as a designer.
People made fun of me for many years: “He can’t do anything,” they said, “it’s all because of Nena.” Looking back, I can even understand them.
I founded my label in 2004 – at a time when many other brands were also starting up. The designers had all studied fashion design at renowned schools, had internships at big fashion houses – and I was there because I had dumped bleach over my shirts and Nena thought it was good.
When did all those negative opinions die down?
They will never really die down, but they got quieter after my first show at Berlin Fashion Week. The journalists didn’t know my background and were unbiased. I was suddenly no longer “Nena’s guy.”
Then you were “the shooting star.”
I always had some title stuck to me.
Suzy Menkes once described you as “imaginative,” so that’s a nice title.
Yes, that’s among the highlights of my life as a fashion designer. Suzy Menkes attended Berlin Fashion Week and selected four designers with whom she later held an exhibition at The Corner. I was lucky enough to be among her “favorites.”
You have become more and more famous over the years: German Vogue made a three-part documentary about you; Kylie Minogue has worn your designs – even the Queen of England has heard of you. She had your collection removed from stores in London.
That was funny. I designed a collection called Dear Kate. There was a T-shirt that said: “Harry, you wanna marry me?” – with Kate proposing to Harry. The demand was huge, and we were taken into the big department stores. But it didn’t go down well at all at Buckingham Palace. After three days, the T-shirts had to be taken off the shelves everywhere.
Then we had them distributed at One Direction concerts and told them that the T-shirt was dedicated to Harry Styles from the band. Then it went around the world and we were even on the front page of The Telegraph with the shirt. A few months later I showed a red carpet collection at London Fashion Week called God Save The Queen.
In 2011 you brought investors into your label – Kilian Kerner became a joint stock company. Why did you decide to take this step?
I wanted to build my label into a lifestyle group and the investors opened up a lot of opportunities. We started by selling the second line, Kilian Senses, in ten stores. Within 18 months, it was 14 countries. We had stores in London, Berlin…our shows became bigger, more elaborate, more expensive…
In return, you no longer had the freedom to make decisions. With investors, you had to make compromises.
Not everything that happened with the label was good. I signed things too quickly, things I should have thought about more carefully.
In 2016 you left the label and lost the rights to your name. Do you feel that you failed?
I never had that feeling. We suffered two serious misfortunes in the family that year. I went home on weekends – and during the week I was in the studio or at trade shows. After a month, the board accused me of taking too much time off to take care of my family. Everyone who knows me knows that I was burning day and night for the label, seven days a week.
So you were relieved when it was over?
Would you do it again?
Founding my own label? Yes, that will happen someday…but completely different to what it was back then.
In 2016 you left your own label and launched your first tennis collection, Bidi Badu designed by Kilian Kerner, in just two weeks. It would seem that you are a workaholic. More than that. But because I’ve been playing tennis since I was a kid, it didn’t feel like work. Other designers want to go to Gucci or Prada – for me the tennis collection was a dream come true. Tennis and sportswear: That’s also something I want to do again in the future.
You played a lot of tennis as a child and took part in tournaments. Did your athletic ambition benefit you later as a fashion designer?
I always wanted to win; I couldn’t lose. So I smashed the odd racket from time to time. I was ambitious, but not enough to use my talent to go pro. Fashion made me ambitious – especially the first few years, when I wasn’t taken completely seriously.
What would be your personal Wimbledon victory moment in fashion?
An American Vogue cover, with Kate Moss wearing a dress of mine.
You started KXXK two years ago – not as a label, but as a collaboration with yourself, as you put it. Do you feel that you have found yourself?
I have learned an insane amount. I’m a different person now.
What do you mean?
I’m calmer, more balanced. I can handle myself better today, without the pressure of when I was a stock price and it was all about numbers. Living with me has become easier – for myself and for others.
Kilian Kerner is presenting for the twentieth time at MBFW Berlin on Wednesday January 20th at 4pm. It is his fourth time under the name KXXK.
text by Alexandra Kutek
translation by Melissa Frost
photos via Kilian Kerner