That's the wonder of woollies...

Martin Kidman may not like being dubbed the 'king of knitwear', the trouble is he deserves it, says Hester Lacey
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Indy Lifestyle Online
Walking into Martin Kidman's showroom, high above Brompton Road in west London, is like walking into someone's bedroom. The walls are pale blue, there is a rose-patterned floral carpet on the stripped floor, and shoes, hats, toys, pictures and magazines are artfully arranged all around. His spring collection is hanging on a rail that runs round the room. There are T-shirts and trousers and jackets, but what stands out are the knits - soft cardigans and dresses and tops, all in delicious and delicate sugared-almond shades of lilac, pink, green, yellow and blue. "Blue is a very English colour," says Kidman. "It suits English skin tones." And he himself is in blue from head to foot; blue jeans, blue shirt, blue jacket.

"I like the English tradition," he says. "People who are successful tend to give an interpretation of their culture - Dolce e Gabbana, for example, or Ralph Lauren. I think it's wrong to try to do Italian peasant women if you haven't got that kind of background." Certainly, it's hard to imagine sturdy, earthy, Italian peasant women in his spring collection, the one currently on display. The soft, little, short-sleeved jumpers, beautifully hand-decorated with embroidered flowers, the pastel, scoop-necked, cotton sweaters, the pretty floral-print dresses, are all quintessentially British.

Although Kidman designs a full range for men and women, he is currently best known for his knitwear; something he claims to be slightly aggrieved about. "I don't want to become the knitwear king," he says. "I don't ever wear knitwear. I like the technique of it - creating a garment completely from scratch, starting with the yarn. But I have been fighting slightly against the knitwear title."

It seems, however, that knitwear might be his destiny. "I do respect people who do something incredibly well, and when you're as small as I am, you can't offer a collection on the scale of Calvin Klein," he admits. "So, in fact, there will be more in the next collection - I am going to make knitwear nobody else can do. I actually like very strong tailoring. Up to now my designs have been much more masculine, but this is a spring collection and I felt it should be very sweet and pretty. It scared me when I got it up on the rail - it needs to be juxtaposed with something harder, like a denim jacket, that's how I would see it being worn."

Quite apart from not wanting to be the knitwear king, originally he never wanted to work in fashion at all. "When I went to Brighton I wanted to do graphics - I wanted to be a bookbinder. I still do love books. But I decided to change to fashion when I saw a friend using a knitting machine - I couldn't believe it, the possibilities of this mechanical thing that could turn out a length of knitting." So, for his BA, he ended up specialising in knitwear; then he went on to St Martins to study for his MA. After his degree show in 1985, he was snapped up by Joseph. "It was like a dream - I couldn't believe it," says Kidman, now 38. He spent the next nine years working there, as design director for Joseph Tricot, the designer's knitwear and jersey division.

And then he decided, just like that, that it was time to move on. "You get to a certain age and realise that if you carry on, you will be pulled in for the rest of your life. I didn't stop to start my own collection. I stopped to maybe move somewhere more rural, maybe become an antiques dealer. I feel that I have started again from the bottom."

But not quite rock bottom. The invitation to do a few styles for a Japanese company got him started on his own collections. "It becomes very exciting on a new level, not seeing things through someone else's eyes. It was like telling people things about my own life, things I remember. Some of my inspirations are the Calvin Klein jeans ads from the Eighties - they were so fresh. And the first time I saw Badlands with Sissy Spacek." Sure enough, there is a photograph of Sissy up on the wall. "I always try to have someone in mind when I am designing - Sissy Spacek, Audrey Hepburn, Margot Fonteyn - women with that inner integrity. For fittings, I always try to find someone who has a very natural, English look."

He tries to keep prices relatively low - a plain cotton sweater retails from about pounds 70, going up to around pounds 400 for a hand-made, hand-embroidered jumper. "I don't want to be that expensive - not up at designer level. And I want my clothes to look slightly artisan. What I like about English production is that it's not quite right. Clothes made in Hong Kong can be the exact size and shape, but can look very flat. I want mine to look as if they have been handmade - which they have. I basically want them to look charming, not as if they have been made by a computer."

And although his life is not completely rural, he managed the move out of London that he dreamed of when he left Joseph. His permanent showroom may be in London, but he is based in Brighton. "I love Brighton," he says enthusiastically, floppy blond hair falling over his glasses. "I've just bought a cocker spaniel called Susan, and we are very happy walking up and down the seafront together."

Martin Kidman stockists: Browns, 25-27 South Molton Street, London W1; Liberty, Regent Street, London W1; Koh Samui, 65 Monmouth Street, London WC2; Tokio, 309 Brompton Road, London SW3.

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