Forget About All the Noise

An interview with Polimoda mentor, Keanan Duffty


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Earlier this year, fashion designer, musician and published author Keanan Duffty was announced as the new mentor for the master’s course in Fashion Styling. With decades of experience in the industry Mr Duffty is currently guiding these students through their academic careers and beyond. He sat down to speak with Polimoda about anti-fashion, his work with David Bowie, and the most important thing for fashion students to know.

How do you see the relationship between street culture and fashion, over the years and today?

When I was wanting to go to college and study fashion, it really was coming from an interest not in fashion – not in what was regarded as fashion at that time, which were bigger brands for example Chanel and Saint Laurent that were globally known. But from my perspective, I was interested in was what myself, my friends and people that I looked at in music and in popular culture were wearing. So today we call that ‘street fashion’.

It’s interesting because today street fashion and premium luxury fashion are really colliding. Street fashion I think has been accepted, in a way, by the establishment of fashion. There was a long period of time when Vogue wouldn’t feature Vivienne Westwood. They didn’t consider her to be ‘a designer’ as such. How times changed! Fashion has become more accessible, various lifestyles are now incorporated into the whole pantheon of fashion. Athletic clothing is as much a fashion statement as couture, as ready-to-wear, and again, I think that comes from street fashion. The prevalence of street fashion has made that happen. There’s a cool factor of street fashion that I think luxury brands have adopted as well, so now you can find sneakers in Loro Piana. That’s a real dichotomy that wouldn’t have happened even 10 years ago I don’t think.

This relates to this idea of ‘anti-fashion’ and ‘anti-style’, which by default will forever reference the exact thing that it’s denouncing. How do you see this inside-outside relationship when the ‘anti’ becomes the ‘non-anti’?

It’s timing. When Chanel created the first tailored piece for women she put pockets on a tailored jacket, which was outrageous at the time and very rebellious. Over time that has become the establishment, but Chanel, you could look at her as being one of the original streetwear designers. She was doing something that was empowering, it was utilitarian, it was functional, and it was made for wearing on the street.

Some of these brands have become anti-establishment again, like the Supreme and Louis Vuitton collaboration. They did the same with Stephen Sprouse in the early 2000s putting graffiti all over the iconic monogram. I think fashion and brands move in and out of being fashion and anti-fashion. Maybe becoming anti- is a reaction against the perception of what they are iconically known for. Louis Vuitton is known for the monogram, they will always sell the monogram day-in and day-out, but occasionally it needs to reposition itself by reacting against itself.

You reference street culture, and youth culture has come back into fashion in a really strong way recently. Why do you think this has gained so much traction?

The nature of how you communicate with the world through style and the way that you dress has totally changed. It’s been decentralised. And I think it’s really good. That’s a result of the digital information exchange experience. It’s great for students that have graduated and are coming into the fashion system today because it’s being totally reinvented, and that makes it a flat playing field for them, almost. So their freshness, their lack of experience in what was the fashion system almost doesn’t matter anymore because they’re coming into it with a totally fresh and new approach. I think it’s a great time for them to be reinventing things.

Keanan Duffty - Polimoda Mentor

Speaking of reinvention, when did you meet Mr Bowie?

In 2006, so 11 years ago.

But you were designing clothing way before that.

Yeah. A guy that works for Bowie’s organisation is a stylist named Jimmy King, and Jimmy had pulled some of my clothes that David had worn before from my showroom in New York. But I didn’t actually physically meet Bowie until 2006 when we initially talked about a collaboration for Target, which was launched in 2007 as a kind of one-shot, limited edition – well it was limited edition but it was in 12,000 stores!

What was it like creating that collection?

It was actually very easy. I’ve always really appreciated what I understand as his creative process, where basically he’ll say to the band, ‘here are the chords, play them the way you want to play them.’ So there’s a lot of creative freedom and I think he approached his creative process in that way; work with people you have a creative affinity with and you admire their creativity, but then let them do it – don’t micromanage them. And I think most successful creatives follow that path. People deliver their best work by having freedom to do it and not be micromanaged.

In working with Bowie in the creative process for a designing a collection, it was the same approach. He would be the arbiter and would have final say on the actual designs, but he didn’t want to be the designer and allowed for total creative freedom. He would be the influence and the inspiration, but he would allow for me to express myself, which is kind of easy because I’m such a Bowie fan.

And then you worked on the tribute at the CFDA. What was that like?

It was actually really uplifting. The CFDA decided to award the Board of Directors tribute posthumously to Bowie last year, and Steven Kolb who’s the head of the CFDA called me up and asked me if I would be interested to style it, curate it, put it together, and work with KCD. And of course I totally wanted to do it. I wanted it to be really authentic, and to use actual stage costumes that were really iconic to Bowie, which is why I was pushing to go to Kansai Yamamoto and use some of those costumes from Kansai which we were able to do.

I think we executed something that was a good tribute to Bowie that he would have been looking down on and enjoying. And Tilda Swinton gave an amazing speech honouring Bowie. She gave the award and accepted it on his behalf. Obviously she’s worked with him a lot so that was again very authentic, and I think just being true to what he was about.

Keanan Duffty - Polimoda Mentor

On another tone of collaborations, I hear you collaborated with Reebok way before ‘sneaker collabs’ were a big deal.

There had been other sneaker collaborations, especially in Japan – the Japanese were really onto the whole collaboration thing in the 90s, but it was early days, and it worked really well for both sides. We collaborated with Reebok in a runway show as part of a group of designers that were picked by the CFDA and Paper Magazine and then out of that the collaboration just naturally grew. I think we managed to make some really cool shoes and Reebok were an amazing partner. And I’ve done a lot of collaborations, but that was probably the most successful because it lasted for three years. And they were happy and we were happy!

And are you still designing?

Yes, I’ve work as a consultant for a number of companies throughout my career, so I still consult. I’ve worked with companies in Norway for several years, and companies in the US and around the world.

And now working in this context or academia; well, you’ve been involved with a number of other universities for a while now also.

Yes, since the book actually. My book was published in 2009 and I did a book tour of colleges and universities primarily in the US, and that’s how I got involved in academia. Personally for me it’s very fulfilling. You garner a lot of information, a lot of knowledge and a lot of experience – good and bad – and the good stuff hopefully remains relevant and you can relate that to emerging talent, and the bad stuff; hopefully you can help them to avoid the pitfalls. I’ve had very real world experience and much of that is still quite relevant even though the market of fashion has changed globally. But it’s good to relate that and pass that knowledge on.

Is there a message you would really like students to take away from your lessons and experience?

The number one thing is: follow your heart. You can do the research, you can look at the analytics, you can thoroughly know the marketplace, but the little voice inside you will tell you when it’s the right thing and the wrong thing to do, if you can really stay tuned into it. We’re lucky because we work in an industry where for most of our time, we’re doing something where potentially we can be really fulfilled, and creative and have a sense of freedom. I think people in fashion tend to be quite sensitive, even if they’re approaching it from a business aspect, they sort of have a sensitivity because it’s a totally illogical business to be in! There’s really no reason why a silhouette or a colour or a texture should change from one season to the next, other than from the influence of weather. It’s totally subjective. So I think when you’re following it from an instinctive point of view, you are fulfilled. And that’s the message I try to relay to any emerging talent or student; forget about all the noise, follow your heart and the voice that’s guiding you because you instinctively know when it’s right.