On a bright and chilly Saturday morning in Paris, the fashion designer Kate Mack hastily crosses the lobby of The Hoxton. The ceiling is high and the lighting is dim. As she navigates her way around the antique furniture, I see that she is dressed in a simple yet stylish manner. Wearing full-black loose clothes, she is sporting a hat as well as an imposing scarf. As we order, she goes for the Antidote pressed juice on the menu, hoping to recover from a cold.
Scroll back to 2001, the year Kate Mack launches her label in Paris. A truly self-made designer, she starts from scratch without a fashion degree. Her store is located in the 11th arrondissement, but she has made her way to Paris and Belgrade Fashion Weeks. She has dressed the Paris-based comedian Claudia Tagbo, the gospel singer Liz Mcomb, and the Oscar-winning director Maïmouna Doucouré for Oscar night in 2017.
She is currently representing France in Washington DC, where her silhouette is exhibited at the National Museum of African American History and Culture. Kate Mack belongs to the generation of designers including Adama Paris, Clarisse Hieraix, and Imane Ayissi, yet she doesn’t define herself as an Afro designer. She says “fashion is fashion. Period.” She refuses to compromise on her vision, and even though her motto “Be yourself, nobody else!” might sound simplistic, it speaks to her struggles as someone who sees herself as an “outsider” and as a conscious slow-fashion designer whose hope is to change mentalities.
Kate Mack, your designs are, for lack of a better word, original. How would you describe your brand, and how did it all start?
As humans we tend to identify with a particular social group. It’s a natural trait, yet I encourage people to be in their own truth, and to work on their individualities. That’s why I also tailor and customize. I use fashion as a platform to convey a message around self-expression and self-affirmation, that’s my goal.
I was born and raised in France, I’m, a pure French product! I made my first silhouette at age 13 to support my sister on her very first collection. I was also a dance competitor and enjoyed making “on stage” silhouettes for my shows. It was a way to express myself, a way to stand-out. I suppose this is where the affirmed tone of my creations comes from. Unfortunately, my parents did not like the idea that my sister and I wanted to continue in this path. So, I went back to school for so-called real studies in order to get a real job. I went for language studies with a focus on English and Ibero-American anthropology at the Sorbonne.
Tell us about your journey in the ruthless world of fashion. How did you manage to break the codes of the industry? We know it’s hard enough to be a black fashion designer, even more so when you didn’t follow the classical academy path. We remember some of the backlash when Virgil Abloh become the creative director for Louis Vuitton’s menswear.
You know I’ve been told “no” so many times in the course of my life, that it’s made me more determined than ever. Now might be the best time to make things happen. Africa is on the verge of becoming the fastest growing continent, brands are shifting strategies and preparing to enter these new markets. They are recognizing existing talents such as Virgil Abloh and Olivier Rousteing at Balmain, to name just two of the best known.
For me it’s been a long journey. Even after spending over a decade in the industry, I still don’t get the recognition I deserve from my peers in France. I have been challenged on so many levels, race has clearly been one of them, it has had an impact on my personal life and on the growth of my business. I’ve been on trial with my landlord. He owns the real estate where my store is, and it’s been going on for over 10 years.
Now how did I break into the industry? I had spent five years working for a ready-to-wear brand. I was 30, and when the business went bankrupt I said to myself, “It’s time”. Because of my experience there, I had a sense of where the industry was going, from sales, store management, to press. I followed my gut and launched my first collection in a designer’s space. The distributors were used to browsing around collections and index the ones they liked.
The following year, I found distribution in Spain, Belgium and Switzerland. And then it spread. I managed to handle my own promotion, and I had to be smart because I had very little money. My previous experience had led me to think creatives were a gateway to magazine editorials. Stylists and photographers can be very useful! That saved me from pricy showrooms and press offices expenses. Another decision I made was to take care of my own production, all by myself.
Did you choose slow fashion or did slow fashion choose you?
Well, it chose me! I had no choice actually. As I said, beginnings were tough. Those were the baby steps of a young, broke black designer. I had no money, and I had no time to invest in a manufacturer. I tried but small productions were a clear disadvantage. I take great pride in painstaking labour and being judged on the quality of my work, especially as a black designer. Relying on myself and respecting deadlines has helped in a climate where clients need to trust you. Self-manufacturing makes everything more meaningful, it’s like spreading distilled love around us. When a piece of garment was tailor-made for you it vibrates differently. There’s a magic that comes with that type of artistry and craftsmanship, and people know that the most beautiful things take time.
So I would say that slow fashion came knocking for me, but I ended up choosing to go down that road, because it’s a way to keep textile streams afloat. I choose my suppliers for their materials, which have to be the finest, and also for their work ethic. I like the fact that they contribute to this virtuous circle.
Your creations are flattering to women’s curves. There is asymmetry. You like flares and flowy materials. On the Belgrade catwalk, models looked like they were floating in the air, dancing. Do you consciously consider movement in your creative process?
I do. I work essentially on mouldings for that reason. It’s important for me to grasp how the textile moves and breathes on the body or how the sleeves will fall from the shoulders. I think of it as a choreography. Once I’m satisfied with the result, I can report the design on a flat pattern. Then, I pay attention to the execution of pliés, because the fabric brings a gorgeous aesthetic, a clear identity. The piece floats in the air, freezes along stitches, and floats back.
That’s the reason the selection of textile fibres is essential. Customers appreciate the wide variety in my collections. The first contact with the garment is the touch, it must be pleasant to touch, which makes it easier to wear. I work mostly in monochrome, and my shop is an explosion of solid black, purple, turquoise blue, and off-white shades.
Speaking about identity, comfort, and structure, do you favor any specific material for your creations?
Textiles are versatile, they behave genuinely, and designers need to have a better understanding of how they work. This is not something you learn at school, that’s a knowledge you get through the exploration and experimentation.
I use knitted Milano in various densities, for their smooth touch and casual look. Boiled wool is warm and comfortable like a stylish duvet. Textile associations like linen and jersey work beautifully together, and the mix of fibres softens the initial harsh touch that linen can have into this silky feel. And I like the weaving pattern that stays apparent like a natural print.
Your style seems to cross limitless borders. Is it done purposely?
It’s intentional, it’s an extension of who I am. My family embraces an amazing cultural mix. We’ve got Indochinese blood, Indian blood, Indian blood from the Caribbean, African blood, even European blood, including from places like French Britany. Our family reunions were the aggregation of all kinds of skin-tones, eye-colour-shades and golden curls! It was like diving into a glimpse of what the whole world actually looks like.
This echoes in my inspirations, my designs and my brand image. Disrupting codes and social injunctions makes people closer. The message is simple: you and I are more than a border, a culture, a race. Beauty is everywhere. Ignorance generates fear and intolerance. Fashion enables this pacification bridge between people and cultures. A costumer once said, “Your brand’s awesome because an African and a Balkan can both identify!”
What’s next for Kate Mack? How do you picture the industry in 10 years?
I’d like to expand. I want to reach out to my customer base internationally. My market is located in Russia, Brazil, Saudi Arabia, as well as Balkan and Scandinavian countries. My business was run out of pocket, and for the first time I’m teaming up with investors. People I’ve chosen, because I determined that they are socially responsible philanthropists, who aren’t only interested in making money.
In fact, I’d like to implement the Louis Vuitton business model, which is about developing local manufacturing circuits throughout Brazil, Serbia, and other places. I’m aiming at a few countries in Africa too, as I believe artisans there ought to be recognized. I envision small ateliers with committed workers involved throughout the production process. We’ll teach them how it all works. The goal is to help them build on their talent, opening up access to sectors that would initially be considered out of reach.
In 10 years, I have great hope that the world will include more of us conscious designers trying to make smarter use of our resources. As for my business, I’ll always adopt an eco-friendly and fair approach. Lately I’ve thrown myself into art curation, based on the theme of 1968 US Olympic Games. I’m building an exhibition around the raised fist Black Panther salute. It’s a way to raise consciousness around the individual impact anyone can have if they want to make a significant change in this world.