Khaite — Bringing Sexy Back

Photography:
Hanna Tveite
Styling:
Heathermary Jackson
Words:
Chris Black

Every so often, a brand can capture the zeitgeist and genuinely resonate with women. Khaite, designed by Catherine Holstein in New York City, is that brand right now. Her collections offer a unique balance of quiet elegance, playful details, and rich textures – a new uniform for and about the women she knows.

Ren trench, Layla jeans & Palermo pumps all by Khaite

Chris Black: Are you in New York?
Cate Holstein: I am in New York.
CB: How does it feel to be holding it down?
CH: I feel very attached to it. Even on weekends away this summer – when I was invited out to the beach or upstate – I kind of really wanted to come back. And when I got back, I wanted to stay put. I’ve never felt so attached to New York before, which is interesting as a lot of people are leaving.
CB: I left immediately in March, went back to New York for a couple of days, went to Atlanta and then came to LA. But I do feel like I missed out on something that I’ll never see again.
CH: I think this is something we’re going to look back on and really be proud of. We were in the epicentre of the pandemic and also the social justice movement. And, you know, you never get a chance to see these things in this way. I guess I understand your side, but I’m much more somebody that really arrives on, I guess, the drama, so –
CB: I think you’re totally right about that, which I didn’t realise until I was already gone. You’re from New York, right?
CH: No. I was born here, but lived in Connecticut – and then I moved to California at age six, then lived in London from ages 9-17. All over the place.
CB: London’s my favourite city in the world, I think.
CH: Oh really? Mine too.
CB: I just find their culture – especially the music and the fashion – to be so rich. Every subculture is so interesting and cool. Its given me so much that I can’t imagine being in it during my formative years.
CH: It was so fun. I mean, it was so ridiculous. The British mentality is very much like “who gives a fuck about anything.” I can understand why people here find British people to be extremely brash.
CB: I do think the humour takes some time to get used to, but I appreciate the brashness. What were you into in high school What was going on over there? Like the Sienna Miller, boho, Libertines era?
CH: Oh no. I was already in college by then. In high school I was a raver. The fashion was very club kid – like pink sparkly clothes, super high platform sneakers, a NASA sweatshirt. My friends and I started going out at age 13 to nightclubs. 
CB: Did you find yourself romanticising America at all?
CH: I thought I was getting screwed. It was during the 10 Things I Hate About You and She’s All That teen movie surge. We felt deprived of this American high school fantasy experience. But then my parents split up. I moved to San Diego and finally found myself at a big high school, and immediately I was like, ‘oh my God, this is terrible’.
CB: You got that out of your system quickly.
CH: I switched all my plans and decided to go to Parsons. And – I’m such a psycho – I forced all my girlfriends from London to apply to New York schools so we could all be together. I was like, ‘You can’t go anywhere else, it’s going to have to be New York.’ We’re still best friends now. But when we got there, it was at the very beginning of the Bungalow 8 period.
CB: The greatest of all time.
CH: That definitely defined my arrival in New York. The second night I was here, I went to Bungalow 8, and then I was there every night for a year. I feel like it was the last of the Studio 54 era.
CB: Did you go to Parsons with the plan to design clothes, or did you just go to Parsons because you wanted to be in New York?
CH: My plan was pretty loose. From a young age, designing clothes was all I cared about; but because it flowed out of me, it actually went unnoticed as a career path. I thought I’d be a fine artist potentially, or maybe a graphic designer – but never fashion design.
CB: I really like your clothes. As a man who works in this business, I start to recognise what all the chic women are actually wearing. It’s really wearable in a way that I feel traces the lineage of you working for places like the Gap and J.Crew. I like that you can see the history of your path from there to the clothes you’re making now. And I don’t think that’s conscious.
CH: No, it’s not. I never wanted to start Khaite, to tell you the truth. I was at that point in my career where I went into these companies as a consultant to make their collections more commercial, more sellable. And the numbers would always go up once I went in there. But on the side, I could never find clothes I actually wanted. I would always say it’s so strange how people say fashion is so competitive – because if it’s so competitive, then why does it take me so much goddamn time to find what I want to buy? And also, why do I have to go to 10 different stores to buy the things that I want to buy?
CB: Yeah, of course.
CH: At the same time, Net-a-Porter was a fascinating thing for me. I was an early Net-a-Porter shopper, like in 2003. I remember when it came out, everyone thought there was no way that luxury could sell online. But I was always thinking about how no one was merging the European luxury houses, and how their .coms looked like garbage and were hard to use. Wouldn’t it be the dream to merge retail with the actual brand? The margins would be so much higher. And Net-a-Porter was that one-stop-shop that wound up making two billion in revenue in a year without any store locations. It was my friend Charlie (who still is my partner and board member to this day) who asked, ‘why don’t you just do this?’ And I was like, ‘because I would never start a brand again, that’s insane.’ And he was just like, ‘I don’t know, I really think you could do this.’ This conversation was over dinner at Blue Ribbon Sushi six years ago when I was at the lowest point in my life – I didn’t know where my career was going, I had just broken up with my ex and I moved into a windowless bedroom in Bushwick.
CB: You don’t really strike me as a Bushwick type, so this feels extra dark to me.
CH:
I mean, I’ve had many lifetimes in New York. But at that point I was just a shell of a person. I went home that night thinking, ‘if I do this, then I’m going to really have to do it. I’m going to have to quit all my consultancies, and everything I do has to go into this.’ Charlie and I joke around about that night all the time now. I’m still dumbfounded over how big it’s gotten so fast. I did really put all my energy into it, and I still put all my energy into it, and I’m so happy I made that choice. Like it was an actual choice. At 10pm on that Tuesday night I was like, ‘okay, I’m going to do this.’

Brie jumper, Charles trousers, Maude crossbody bag all by Khaite

Ascher top, Gabbie jeans, Georgia heels all by Khaite

Amelia cardigan, Mary dress all by Khaite

CB: After you started the brand, was there a piece of clothing that really took off, making you feel like you were on the right path?
CH: I remember getting a lot of reaction to the first poster campaign we did. And then there was a collaboration with Manolo Blahnik that did very well. But it was the denim that took off really fast, followed by the cashmere. And the Katie Holmes thing was just like another level. I kind of hate to talk about that, to tell you the truth, but the fact that it’s even still circulating and talked about… British Vogue, for instance, just did an article last week on how so many designers are doing knit twin sets based on the Katie Holmes look. That image was a turning point for sure.
CB: I mean, absolutely. And that’s something that I think that every designer, you know, secretly hopes for in some way. The cashmere twin set – basically wearing a bra with a sweater, for lack of a better phrasing – is equal parts sexy and understated. And to me that’s what defines the clothes you’re making. I think it was the right piece to get that reaction because there was nothing else like it, and it represents the brand.
CH: Before it took off, my merchandising team was trying to get me to discontinue the cashmere bra because it wasn’t selling. And I would always say, ‘no, I actually really believe in that thing, we’re keeping it.’ I used to really shy away from the word sexy, like I was too good for it. There’s an idea that high fashion puts out there that, in order to be a strong, smart woman, you have to dress like a man. Everything has to be baggy and oversized and heavy, like that is strength. And as a female designer, I felt almost brainwashed into thinking that sexy was unsophisticated, leaving it to the more extravagant male designers. But you know what? Fuck that. I want to dress really, really provocatively. So I have been embracing what I wanted as completely plain, but overtly sexy.
CB: And also there’s a comfort, I imagine, that women must feel when buying clothes designed by other women. There’s a deeper understanding of what it means to wear the clothes from your perspective versus that of a man.
CH: I have formulas that stem from my lifelong obsession around finding the perfect pair of pants. Things that a man might not realise, like if you curve an inseam, it makes for a very flattering cut, or how fabrics feel on our bodies. I think my customers are just really in this exploration with me. I’ll always be chasing the horizon, I’ll never be satisfied. I’ll never have it because fashion is ever-evolving.
CB: That’s probably a good thing in the long run, to keep you motivated and searching for the next thing. I also want to touch on the accessories. I think accessories for a lot of designers feel like an afterthought; and while they may not seem like something you start with, you keep them top of mind.
CH: No matter what size you are, you’re a shoe customer. And you physically stand in them all day, so if it’s a great luxury shoe, you really feel it. Manolo Blahnik in particular creates such an elegant shoe, you can just feel the quality when you’re standing on it, and his stroke of genius is that you feel more like a lady when you wear it. But I didn’t necessarily want to feel like a lady. I want everybody to feel very strong. That is what we say when we talk about Khaite, that it’s very strong, maybe a little edgy. We want to go for it. You can take a lot of subtle risks with shoes that are really fun. I love designing shoes.

Mariah dress by Khaite

Vienna top by Khaite

CB: Your Venice shoe is so crazy to me, I’ve never seen a silhouette like that. I really like it. I also know you did a collaboration with Adidas. I have always been super anti-Adidas – I’m a Nike die-hard – but I think Adidas work so well on women. Having grown up in London, do you have an affinity for that brand?
CH: For sure. Adidas and Kappa. That was the jam, all the rude boys and rude girls had their full Adidas and Kappa suits. Adidas is very enticing to me because they’re very particular with who they work with. Adidas just doesn’t come out with as many styles as Nike does, so each shoe is much more defining of an era. Gazelles really do look great on women.
CB: Kate Moss and a Gazelle is the most iconic image from that time period. I also love Oasis and the Stone Roses and Blur, and all those guys were die-hard.
CH: I went to the American School in London, off Abbey Road, so we would see those guys all the time because they all lived around Abbey Road Studios. And we would see Keith from Prodigy all the time. I remember when Smack My Bitch Up came out and how scary that music video was. And like, where are the Marilyn Mansons’ of the world today? I remember seeing those first images of Marilyn Manson, literally feeling scared shitless. And I remember watching him perform Beautiful People at the MTV VMA’s and my mother was like, ‘you cannot watch that.’ We were not a sheltered family, but my mum was horrified. Where are they today? Because that’s important, you know.
CB: I think that everything is just more niche. You know what I mean?
CH: But that’s the thing, he was a huge pop star. I don’t feel like that could happen in pop now. And I think that’s a real shame. The 90s were the most prolific for pop music and for pushing forward. And I’m kind of hoping that it comes back as a result of this, actually. In the 90s it was very cool to be sad, and that cultural embrace of darkness might happen again. It was very accepting of our society to make Marilyn Manson a pop star. So I’m hoping for a little acceptance now.
CB: We now all live in these taste bubbles, in our own worlds. It’s very difficult for America at this point, being splintered in so many ways, to come together and agree on something as good, bad, edgy, whatever. I think that’s partly due to the internet and partly just due to where we are as a society. But I do think there are going to be some pretty big shifts. Anyway, what have you been wearing during quarantine? Are you still getting dressed or are you taking it easy?
CH: I’ve been in the office since June, and that renewed sense of routine was incredible for my survival and my sanity. I’m pretty much back to what I would normally wear, but in general it’s always very casual. I’m a jeans and sweater person. Today I’m wearing the new gold cowboy boots, my black tile jeans. I’m actually wearing a Celine men’s flannel and the Khaite Cordelia leather jacket.
CB: Selfishly I have to ask, is there a men’s line on the horizon?
CH: I would love to do men’s, but what I was saying earlier about the body freaks me out. I don’t know what men are looking for, I don’t know what their hang ups about their bodies are.
CB: We’re very particular in our own way. But you’re succeeding with what you’re doing. I think it’s very cool and very of the moment. And it’s always nice to hear how somebody gets there when, you know, what they’re doing is good.
CH: Well, there were a lot of failures up until this point. I fully believe that people need to fail a lot in order to succeed.

Larissa jacket, Isabella jeans, Palermo pumps & Maude crossbody bag all by Khaite

Ascher top, Gabbie jeans, Georgia heels all by Khaite

Photography: Hanna Tveite
Styling: Heathermary Jackson
Sittings Editor: Joel Parada
Model: Dilone at Viva Model Management
Makeup: Rei Tajima at Bridge Artists
Hair: Tsuki at Streeters
Casting: Claire Rhodes at Casting By Us
Words: Chris Black
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