I received an email from one of the GODS that sit atop Mt. Olympus/Papierdoll politely asking me and a fellow staffer if one of us could attend a local fashion designer’s (Dieter Kirkwood) showcase at a boutique in Chicago (Habit) on Thursday, Jan. 19. Now normally, I leave my Thursday nights to my guilty pleasure, reality TV’s “Dancing With the Stars.” Yes, I too am addicted. However, I felt up to chilling out with the oh-so-fashionable crowd, so without hesitation I told Sam (our business director) that I could do it. OK, fast forward to the actual event. I get there early enough (4:45 p.m. to be exact) because the actual opening was from 5 to 9 p.m. and I didn’t want to play “find the designer” amongst a crowd of people vying for his attention. I walk into the quaint boutique and was quite impressed with the cornucopia of independent collections. My impressed state quickly rose when I saw the red dress on the mannequin. The first thing I thought was “someone has been channeling Charles James for inspiration.” Dieter’s designs are so polished and finished, while playing on architectural details and innovative designs within his pieces. One would think of Dieter as more of a sculptor or an arbiter of architecture, and one would be right in that line of thinking.
Here’s your chance to be that fly on the wall…
TA: Where are you from? I know from reading your background you came to Chicago four years ago to go to Columbia College.
DK: Actually, I came from Florida. Orlando, Florida. Back in early 2000, late ’90s. There is not a great amount of art schools in Florida, especially having anything to do with fashion design. There is one or two and they are almost more class oriented than industry geared. So I was looking to get out after my stint at business school. You know, I went to business school for a year and didn’t take to it. I went right after high school. I was like, “alright I got to take something.” So I just took business classes cause I figured those would be good for anything. So, then I went to art school in Florida and I started out in sculpture. I was working with clay.
TA: I can see a lot of that influence in your collection.
DK: Yeah, a lot of that is influenced by sculpture and architecture. So, I kind of carried that over from my earlier studies in classic art. A friend of mine had always made her own dresses and pieces and such, and had ask me to design something cause she had liked my sculpture pieces. So I worked with her and she was kind of the first person that taught me sewing technique and how patterns work. And so I worked with her and from there it just blossomed.
TA: What made you choose Chicago of all places? Because looking at your pieces, they’re real avant-guard, (and maybe this is me just expecting the standard) I would just have automatically thought that you studied in New York City or overseas somewhere.
DK: To be honest, I’d traveled all over the country. I was a former musician, so we had done a lot of travel. I had been to a lot of cities and I had been to New York, New York is a great city. I do business there and stuff, but just for living, Chicago always felt more comfortable to me. It always felt more like a home than New York, and maybe that is because I came back from like more of a rural background in Florida. I always felt a little more comfortable and have also been out-doorsy, so it’s kind of nice to get out and bike along the lake and stuff and not have to worry about getting hit by cabs.
TA: I’m like five minutes from the lake and I love it.
DK: Right. Right. So it’s kind of a good mix between that and the fact that the scene here is still somewhat small. I like that idea as well. Like getting in there and kind of really working at it. You know, maybe it’s a little more difficult to get your breaks here and there. But I kind of like the idea of really putting in the time and effort and building something up.
TA: In the Marshall Field’s Chicago Designer Shop’s bio, it says that your women’s line, which was started in 2004, was under the philosophy of innovative cuts, pure design and architectural details. When I look at your collection it reminds me a little bit of Charles James’ work, the famous 1950s couture designer who built his career in Chicago. So, I look at your pieces and I think “is this the Charles James of the 21st century?” What’s going on here? Was he a big influence?
TA: Do you have any other influences?
DK: Yeah! Um, actually he [Charles James] above all, especially when I was starting out, was the biggest influence. I mean he was just a madman, but he was amazing and how meticulous he was, and that is something I carry through my career. It could take me a year sometimes to get something done, but it will be done exactly right. I just love the idea that it just wasn’t finished until he said it was finished and he didn’t really adhere to deadlines, and he saw pieces through their final vision.
TA: And his pieces never looked unfinished. You know how you see some designer collections and you’re like, “ok, I kind of get what you are going for”, but it still looks unfinished.
DK: Yeah, exactly. Its almost like he sketched it out and then its exactly the same. You could see his exact vision of what he was going for in his pieces.
TA: I was just amazed at the little similarities in design between you and Charles James.
DK: Which is odd because a lot of people don’t know Charles James, and Balenciaga recognized him as a contemporary, and Balenciaga was amazing as well.
TA: Now is Balenciaga another designer you get a lot of inspiration from?
DK: Yeah, I do. Balenciaga is big and actually, more recently, you will see with more of my ready-to-wear pieces, I’m getting more and more minimalist in look. I’m more about the philosophy, more about the seaming, the cut and the fabrication of pieces. A lot of my current collection has just really small details of pleats in odd places and most of my pieces don’t have any side seams. I like to play a lot with shape and how to effect the silhouette by getting rid of side seams and changing the whole format of how patterns are made. As I went to school, I was big into the Belgium scene. I love the idea and philosophy behind that.
TA: A lot of what I’ve read about you has been compared to that of Narciso Rodriguez and Jil Sander. Do you think that is a positive for you or a negative for you? It could be positive in the sense that they are extraordinary designers and a negative because you are always expected to design just as well or better.
DK: Well, there is always that pressure. You know, I feel, but sometimes it is that pressure that drives you. Also, it helps to be really well grounded. I’m lucky enough to have a really close circle of friends, so they kind of keep me well grounded. To be honest, I’m not even really big into the fashion arena. I don’t know much. I’ll read a fashion magazine here and there, and I have a subscription to W, I try…not to disassociate myself, but I don’t want to get to close to that. I kind of like being on the “fringe” a little bit, so that it doesn’t influence me too much. So that the whole industry doesn’t influence the way that I want to create; I can still kind of be true to myself, which I think is really important. As long as you stay true to yourself, even if you fall short along the way, you’ll be able to redeem because you’ll have a clear vision of where you’re going.
TA: You showcased your collection during Chicago Fashion Week at Marshall Field’s Chicago Designer Shops, and now you are showcasing here at Habit. What is next from Dieter Kirkwood?
DK: The spring collection will be debuting in a month and a half. It’s along the same lines as my last collection, but I’m starting to play around with more prints and some silk screening techniques. So that should be interesting. I also really want to grow organically, which is why I love being at Habit. It’s not really a corporate kind of thing, no corporate pressures. You can try out ideas real easily here.
TA: Where else can those of us who love Dieter Kirkwood, besides Habit, purchase your pieces?
DK: Well, right now it is exclusively at Habit. In the future, I’ll be branching out to the northern ‘burbs, like Wilmette. But I’m trying to be very selective about where I go.
Leaving the interview, I felt a sense of pride. Not so much that Dieter is such an amazing talent and in such an early part of his career, but that just talking to him and seeing his collection only confirmed my constant argument that Chicago has true and genuine talent in the fashion industry. Dieter, I tip my ‘Jackie O’ sunglasses to you and only hope that this article will inspire other great talent to finally come out from under the pressure of that “second city” rock.