There’s something undeniably likeable about Christian Kimber. For someone who has just won the 2019 National Designer Award presented during Virgin Australia Melbourne Fashion Festival (VAMFF)—past winners of this prestigious award include Toni Maticevski, Strateas Carlucci and Dion Lee—he is refreshingly grounded.
The trophy sits proudly on the back shelf of his handsome Fitzroy store, its golden curved silhouette complementing Kimber’s offering of Italian-made shoes and folded long-sleeve polos neatly stacked alongside, but he doesn’t refer to it during my visit. Not even once. Rather, as I nosy through his latest menswear offering, mentally checking items into my shopping cart—a drawstring field jacket, that broken-in cotton chore jacket, a garment-dyed denim shirt with a floral under-print—he is busy fixing me a drink and effusively apologising for the state of the store.
“Sorry for the mess,” Kimber complains. “We just had our fall/winter presentation this morning, as you know, and we’re still trying to get the store back in order.” I have no idea what he is talking about; the store is immaculate but for a box in the corner. “Thanks for coming by the way,” he continues. “Did you enjoy the presentation? It’s small, but that’s all we can afford to do now.” It was lovely, I assure him. “Sorry I didn’t get a chance to really chat to you earlier,” Kimber adds. There he goes again, another deferential apology. “But I’m glad we can sit down now and have a chat.” He’s honest and endearing. Charming, but almost anxiously so.
Born and raised in the UK before moving down under in 2011, Kimber’s route to becoming Australia’s 2019 designer of the year was unconventional. He studied business in school and wanted to drop out to pursue fashion, but kept on after his father promised to support him with night classes in design if he agreed to finish his course. As such, Kimber went on to complete short courses at London College of Fashion—learning fundamentals such as shoe design, pattern making, illustration and technical drawing—before doing a string of internships.
“I interned everywhere,” Kimber shares. “I think I did about 12 internships. From the buying office at Browns to a bunch of fashion PR companies, before working with Savile Row tailor, Norton & Sons. So my background's a bit sketchy, but the people I love in fashion, like Ralph Lauren, didn't study fashion. I’m not saying I’m the next Ralph Lauren, but knowing that my icons didn’t have a traditional pathway into the industry gives me more confidence.”
And it’s this burgeoning confidence, built first by the success of his men’s shoe line before launching his menswear collection under the same name, which has led him to develop an identifiable signature aesthetic. Take even a quick glance at his men’s line and you’ll discover a layered casual elegance—a unique marriage of his British sartorial roots with the relaxed Australian lifestyle—that has won him a community of loyal customers. This editor included. Over a freshly brewed cup of tea, I chat to Kimber about his journey into fashion, his dream retailers and, of course, that National Designer Award.
ESQ: First of all, congratulations on winning the 2019 National Designer Award. What was that like?
CHRISTIAN KIMBER: It was extraordinary. To be noticed when we are still so new is amazing. I think they saw the longevity in what we're doing; we're small now but I think they see our potential. My concept is about redefining Australian men's contemporary style.
ESQ: How are you redefining Australian men’s style? What does the Christian Kimber brand stand for?
CHRISTIAN KIMBER: I want it to be a certain look. If you see our fits there's no branding, you just understand the style. I'd describe it like a Friday dress. It's not a suit, but it's not T-shirt and jeans, so it's like slightly refined casualwear. It's that in-between grey area; it’s about creating clothing that fits the Australian lifestyle.
ESQ: And personally, it's also how your looks are layered.
CHRISTIAN KIMBER: Yeah, because with the climate in Australia, you're never that cold. And if you're cold, you just layer on lightweight garments. I do a lot of unlined pieces that are washed and garment-dyed so they will feel drapey, soft and lived-in. Softness is a key. When people walk into my store here in Fitzroy and feel the fabrics, they get it.
ESQ: How long have you done your ready-to-wear line? This is only your second menswear collection?
CHRISTIAN KIMBER: A year and a half.
ESQ: Even in that time, you’ve already been able to develop a clear brand signature. There's a sophisticated casual aesthetic that is identifiably Christian Kimber.
CHRISTIAN KIMBER: Thanks. Clothes are emotions. I don't think it’s just a product; it’s about how it makes you feel. If we can convey the beautiful Australian lifestyle that we have into our clothing, then I think people who really enjoy that slow lifestyle will resonate with it.
ESQ: You've just launched in Lane Crawford.
CHRISTIAN KIMBER: Yes, we're now available at Lane Crawford in Hong Kong and online as well. Hopefully this will raise our profile internationally and provide an avenue for other men to discover the brand. I would like to work with department stores in America eventually as well. I've a dream list of five retailers.
ESQ: Who’s on that list?
CHRISTIAN KIMBER: Selfridges, Harrods, United Arrows, Barneys and Bergdorf.
ESQ: What about purely digital platforms like Mr Porter?
CHRISTIAN KIMBER: Mr Porter would be amazing for us. I'd love to be able to capture their attention. I think they will really like us because our guy is their guy. Our guy is a 40-year-old architect or someone working in a creative industry, but is not too brand conscious. He wants things that make him feel good as opposed to using fashion as a way to tell other people that he’s wearing the right thing.
ESQ: I think you're the best ambassador for your brand because what you design is what you know and it is what you wear; it’s also so quintessentially Melbourne with all the layering for this city’s eccentric weather. But it’s a brand that you've built from the ground up—quite literally—because you started with shoes.
CHRISTIAN KIMBER: Yes that’s right. I started doing tassel loafers, chukka boots and other sneakers. I started in my bedroom, bought 100 pairs, designed some shoes, bought more pairs and just kept going. That's five years ago and shoes are still a massive part of our business. Our classic designs are made in Tuscany while our sneakers are made in Florence. And I've just released a Portuguese sneaker that’s more accessible. A lot of people who buy my shoes are like, "Oh I keep them in a box and wear them on special occasions". But I want them to smash them.
ESQ: As a young brand, how important is it for you to invest in marketing? Do you engage digital influencers, opinion leaders or seed celebrities? What is your take on that marketing strategy?
CHRISTIAN KIMBER: We're so small, people keep thinking that we're bigger than we are, so we can't afford to do marketing in the traditional sense. We will host a brunch event as part of VAMFF, but it’s on a small scale for industry members. We're trying to use Instagram a lot as a way to promote what we're doing and bring people into our world. I'm not really interested in social influencers. I'm interested in authentic people who we think are cool, and I think those two things are very different. So, for example, I would love for you to wear something from Christian Kimber because of the way you travel and put things together. I think the thing about Instagram influencers now is that some of them don't have a passion for menswear; they either just like free things or they're making money out of it. The authenticity falls away a bit.
ESQ: You have just shown your latest menswear collection at VAMFF. What is the ROI on being part of such a festival? Have you noticed a pick-up in sales?
CHRISTIAN KIMBER: It's been incredible for us. We couldn't have done that runway show at the stunning Royal Exhibition Building without help from the organisers and sponsors. They helped us with the models. They helped us with everything.
ESQ: And the fee you pay to be part of VAMFF is quite nominal, compared to some fashion weeks or festivals that require designers to fork out $50,000…
CHRISTIAN KIMBER: Or €100,000. No, we didn't pay anything because they just wanted us to be involved, which is amazing. The great thing about VAMFF is that it's a non-profit organisation with the mandate to support and promote local designers.
ESQ: And you’ve noticed a flow-on effect with your brand?
CHRISTIAN KIMBER: They have done so much for me this year. They've highlighted my brand and put me on a pedestal by giving me the National Designer Award.
ESQ: I feel this is going to be a massive break for you. I think you're going to be so busy as a result of this. Obviously the clothes are great, but having this recognition will be a catalyst to future growth. Let's talk about your autumn/winter collection. What are your three key pieces?
CHRISTIAN KIMBER: There is a grey coat made from garment-dyed wool alpaca and mohair. Garment-dyed wool is really special because the colour is washed into the garment after it's made, which gives it a soft and worn-in texture. Our long-sleeved polos are one of our bestsellers. It's a basic garment, but our collars are made like a shirt, so it sits well under a blazer but, at the same time, looks good with shorts as well. We also have our chore jackets—pared back, made from beautiful materials and super functional.
ESQ: And the great thing is that everything goes together so well. It’s fuss-free and effortless.
CHRISTIAN KIMBER: That’s the idea. I like guys to just come in and be able to buy anything in the shop, and it will go together. I want to help normal guys learn how to dress with a casual elegance. You know when you go to a tailor and he tells you that this tie goes with this shirt? I want to do that for casual wear.
ESQ: You really are building a community of men who love well-made garments that grows with them over time. And you can fully dress from head to toe because you have shoes and you also do some headgear?
CHRISTIAN KIMBER: Yeah we do some headgear. We also do some made-to-order items. So if we don't have your size in an item, or if you want to change a fabrication, we can get something made for you.
ESQ: What does success look like for you?
CHRISTIAN KIMBER: It's happiness. If I can wake up everyday and be excited to come to work, then I feel successful. I'm not driven by money and I'm not driven by world domination or anything. I would like to be able to afford my life now, which is quite basic, and just be happy.
ESQ: What about in terms of your brand?
CHRISTIAN KIMBER: I'd like to maybe open a few more stores, including one in Sydney. We sell so much to America online, so I'd like to have an LA store too—their lifestyle is quite similar to the Australian way of life. And to also have a store in Tokyo. The Japanese really like what we do too.
The Christian Kimber store is located at 264 Johnston Street, Fitzroy, Melbourne.