Kat van Duinen has a true fighter spirit. Growing up in communist Poland taught her that if you needed something done, it’s best you do it yourself. This was also how she taught herself fashion. She’s now based in Cape Town.
Her European heritage and love for the richness and vibrancy of African design and fabrics were enmeshed to create a unique brand that now has devotees such as Solange and Diane Keaton.
She started her fashion journey with a name and logo before she even had a single item to sell. It was important to her, from the beginning, that her designs told a story and sparked, as she calls it, a “sense of recognition” in her customer.
The one thing she was certain of when she began her label of the same name, was that she would not compromise on quality and luxury. She decided to use only the best quality fabrics, leathers and finishings she could find. Her favourite materials are luxurious silks and exotic leathers. Equally important to her was that these materials be ethically and legally sourced.
Van Duinen views her clothes and handbags as investment pieces, and her customers are prepared to pay for them too. At the same time, they want to be informed about where and how their pieces were made.
“Consumers are becoming more educated, she says. “The end price is not the only concern of customers anymore.”
For van Duinen, clothes and handbags should hold a memory of the place you bought it, or what you were doing when you were wearing it; much like music. In other words, clothes should not only be status driven. Experience is the new luxury and for van Duinen luxury is also found in the fabrics she uses. One of her signatures is premium, natural fibers.
“I don’t work in synthetic fabrics,” she says. “Synthetic materials don’t sit on your body shape elegantly or move fluidly with your body. They don’t allow your skin to breathe, they don’t last, and, of course they don’t feel refined or luxurious.”
Her clothes have an effortless chicness to them, inspired largely from the everyday lives of busy woman, yet she loves an element of surprise, such as a hit of electric blue or a vibrant shot of African print.
Van Duinen showed at SA Fashion Week for the first time last year and shared her inspirations with us.
“My latest collection is inspired by many aspects. I have a long and ongoing relationship with black and creating a winter collection always brings me back to my roots, and to black.” Van Duinen’s winters, as she knows it, are dark, cold European ones with lots of texture yet completely dehydrated of any color, lending a feeling of melancholy, and a touch of the dramatic and theatrical. The collection is luxurious yet simple, easy to wear, powerful and elegant.
Her European background has certainly influenced her designs, despite having relocated to South Africa. “I always opt for less,” she says. “I strive for minimalism and simplicity in my designs and they are always understated with elegant shapes.”
She’s also of the opinion that African designers can learn from European designers in a mutually beneficial way. “I think we have a lot to learn from each other. Luxury in South Africa is still non-existent and the market is price-driven rather than search-driven – for special hand crafted pieces with particular attention to detail,” expains van Duinen.
Like many designers, she’s also pursuing the Holy Grail of most fashion designers: continuation and stability. “I’m not after some crazy growth, but rather a solid foundation with a great team, making quality, beautiful things. I’m looking forward to expanding into international markets, such as Europe and the US, as I take pride in the fact that our pieces are made in South Africa and can easily compete with European quality,” she says. Challenges exist though, and van Duinen is frustrated by the scarcity of materials in South Africa. “There’s a very small pool of trained, skilled professionals here and we have to start from scratch, learning and improving from month to month.”
Her work with exotic leathers doesn’t appeal to just any customer either, but this is changing slowly. There’s a growing appreciation of local materials and manufacturing. “An average earner will always want to make their first statement with a Louis Vuitton monogram item, before entering into exotic leathers,” explains van Duinen.
Her boutique at the Biscuit Mill in Woodstock is an oasis of minimalism and calm and in this age of online shopping, she’s adamant that a one-on-one experience is still important. Online shopping, although very popular, can be a lonely exercise. “Women come to my boutique for a personal, tangible experience and the individual attention they get is very important. The move away from mass production to highly personalised items contributes to the luxury experience.”