A riot of colour: Meet the duo behind London’s coolest label, Meadham Kirchhoff
The designers behind London's most uproarious label, Meadham Kirchhoff, tell Susannah Frankel why they'd rather dress Courtney Love than Samantha Cameron.
The London collections are many things to many people – but one thing they have rarely been known for is an overriding sense of decorum. For the past few seasons, however, much has been made of designers' increased maturity and interest in the 'commercial' (whatever that strangely misleading word might mean).
Anna Wintour, we all know, now regularly graces the British capital's shows with her presence: they're more likely to be held in the dazzling penthouse of a west London office block or in the Royal Courts of Justice than in a snooker hall in the outer reaches of Hackney or an underground car park with concrete ramps where – in more well-mannered circles – a runway might be. The British Fashion Council ambassadors, meanwhile, from ladies who lunch to First Ladies, are glacial and groomed, dressed in London-born designs. In the past they would simply have been grumpy and perhaps in possession of a statement hat.
And then there's Meadham Kirchhoff, consisting of the designers Edward Meadham and Benjamin Kirchhoff, whose clothes are as desirable as they are marginally deranged, whose hair and make-up is reminiscent of Leigh Bowery's in his heyday and whose mise-en-scène has been known to transport the audience everywhere from a hyper-real flower garden (the colours were brighter, somehow, than nature ever intended) to a satanic St Trinian's (think plaited white wigs, crimson lips and the soundtrack to Psycho). Their show titles are no less evocative: 'He Gave Me Blue Roses. LIFE! (Vicariously)', 'A Wolf in Lamb's Clothing', 'I Am a Lie That Tells the Truth'.
They are, then, the brilliantly anarchic exception that proves the rule. Oh, and they claim to be "somewhat allergic" to Samantha Cameron, who is unlikely to be spotted in anything carrying their label any time soon.
"We're a bit reluctant to do interviews," Edward Meadham says from their studio in Dalston, east London, where the two designers live and work with their lovely, preternaturally glossy cats. He's dressed in red mohair jumper and shorts and shiny pink stockings.
"People always write about how moody we are and how dirty our house is which upsets Ben because he's quite a clean freak." In fact, there is nothing even remotely grubby about the space in question. Meadham's room is painted an orange so bright it's positively throbbing. Benjamin Kirchhoff's office is more subdued and populated by well-cared-for plants. The latter's clothes are chic, black and understated. Are Meadham and Kirchhoff bad-tempered?
Not today, certainly. In fact, the odd flash of vitriol, directed primarily at themselves, is, as it turns out, as entertaining as the clothes.
Here's Meadham talking about the autumn collection, for example. "It was about all the things I'm not," he says, "about all the things I've always hated myself for not being..." And that is? "Fun. The shows are entirely my way of being nice, you know; they're my way of being really nice. Because I'm not nice. I want everybody to sit there and feel completely joyful and not hate themselves for five seconds."
True to his word, in the past year alone, the label has offered up a troupe of Courtney Love lookalike can-can dancers (Meadham is among the singer's most obsessive fans), a group of fledgling prima ballerinas, and a parade of glam-rock poster girls complete with rainbow-coloured teeth and ears, all of which was indeed enough to bring a smile to the most po-faced commentator's lips. The collections themselves have been witty, pretty, beautiful and brave.
Ostrich feather chubbies, crystal-fringed silk bloomers, ankle-length ruffled chiffon dresses and jackets made out of what looks like the grandest vintage furnishing fabrics imaginable, all executed to a level not often found outside the Paris ateliers, have earnt Meadham Kirchhoff a following that extends way beyond the fashion establishment. They have a predominantly teenage fan base, they say – everywhere from America to Lithuania – and they are more than happy to communicate with these young aficionados directly.
"Very often we see kids making their own version of our things," says Kirchhoff. "I saw a girl the other day who'd covered a pair of jeans in the heart pinafore we made for summer. Someone else has made the cardigan. We love that."
For his part, Meadham has recently received an elaborately crafted fanzine, inspired by their work and sent to him by another young, like-minded soul. "The fact that this girl took the time to do that," he says – it clearly took a lot of time – "it makes me happy... Happy and sort of touched and proud."
When Meadham Kirchhoff collaborate with Topshop, any merchandise sells out almost before it makes the rails. No less than 25,000 sets of Meadham Kirchhoff nail stickers sold through the high-street chain.
Ask Meadham how old he is and he comes back with: "too fucking old". Kirchhoff who is, on the surface at least, the gentler soul, says they are "ageless and constant". Meadham started life in Somerset ("it was kind of idyllic, I used to play in the countryside") and then West Sussex ("I think I was always the weird gay one at school").
Of southern French extraction, Kirchhoff was born in Chad and moved to Guinea until, aged 15, his parents sent him to school in France. "I had no social skills, no knowledge of coolness, or music, or movies or anything. I wasn't made to feel very welcome. I think Ed and I both grew up being socially awkward and not necessarily having a tonne of people around us and only very few who we felt comfortable with," he says.
Both of them were also, in their own very different ways, above averagely interested in fashion. Meadham made clothes for his toys and later bought Buffalo platforms and Huggy Bear records. Kirchhoff used to source fabric and then give his drawings to street tailors in Africa and have suits made. "I probably looked like a right tit," he says now. "But I didn't care."
They met at Central Saint Martins where Meadham studied womenswear and Kirchhoff menswear and launched Benjamin Kirchhoff, purveyor of the latter, after graduating in 2002. Four years after that, Meadham Kirchhoff was born.
"It's not just about the clothes," Kirchhoff says of their label today. "It extends to the presentation, to the hair and make-up – we always direct the way it's choreographed, everything about it." Their attention to detail is such that Meadham Kirchhoff's shows even smell of a particular perfume: a different one is given to them by Penhaligon each season. "We try to create a world," Kirchhoff says.
It's a world populated and influenced by the things Meadham in particular identifies with. "It's a whole visual language and an attitude that goes with it," he says. "Courtney and Hole, that just never goes away, the Riot Grrrl situation. Siouxsie Sioux. I saw David Lean's Great Expectations when I was about four and thought it was just the most amazing thing. I love Tennessee Williams's The Glass Menagerie and A Streetcar Named Desire..." He stops to think: "In fact, I think my whole personality is actually Blanche [DuBois] and Stanley [Kowalski]. They're having a bit of an argument in my head."
"It's about an individual and a person and that has to come through more than the clothes you're going to sell somehow," adds Kirchhoff. "I read a lot when I was young. I loved [Emile] Zola, the way that every single aspect of a story is described to you, like the sound a glass makes, a chip on crockery, a rip on a dress... All those things had a really big impact on the way I see things."
Perhaps unsurprisingly, Vivienne Westwood is the single living designer Meadham claims to be indebted to. "She was incredibly important to me when I was younger. She's the only one I can think of who has done, as far as I can tell, exactly what she wanted, forever, and seems to still be very much in control of what she does."
Westwood, it almost goes without saying, has also made a career out of an uncompromisingly original and often confrontational stance and that – in the current climate, at least – appears to be increasingly rare.
And with that in mind, Benjamin Kirchhoff states: "We do things how we want to do them and not how someone else expects us to do them. It's not that we don't play the game... but we play it on our own terms."
Model: Lucia at IMG
Make-up: Alexandra Byrne at Terrie Tanaka using Chanel S 2012
Hair: Cher Savery at MY-Management using Kiehl's
Photographer's assistant: Jed Skrzypczak
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