Redefining Heritage at Kent & Curwen

Daniel Kearns has designed menswear at Louis Vuitton, Saint Laurent, John Galliano and Alexander McQueen. Now he’s creative director of Kent & Curwen, the British heritage brand that includes David Beckham among its investors. Micheál Costello hears more.

When Daniel Kearns started studying fashion at the National College of Art and Design in Dublin, the young Irishman had no intention of designing menswear. Fast forward 20 years and Kearns has built quite a resume, including positions at Louis Vuitton, Saint Laurent, and Alexander McQueen. Since 2016, he’s been creative director of Kent & Curwen, the London heritage menswear label founded in 1926, with football icon David Beckham as a high-profile partner in the business. Kearns’ challenge is to reinvigorate an old-school label in the age of street style and fast fashion.

When we meet, he’s wearing a pair of loose-fitting trousers paired with a beige over-shirt. Kearns’ own approach to fashion combines practical and classic style. Looking back at his post-graduate studies at the Royal College of Art, he reflects how he always wanted to be taken seriously. At a time when it was all about “the weirder the better”, he did not want his designs to be seen as art projects.

While most aspiring designers use their time at university to explore their creativity by designing with their heart rather than their head, Daniel preferred to hone his ability to design in response to the market. “I never wanted to pigeon hole myself,” he says. “I think my job as a designer is to answer a brief and to make clothes that sell.” With this in mind, he set to work to design suits that would look and feel bespoke but could be bought off the peg.

Photo: Kent & Curwen

Kearns’ design mentality, so focused on the market and the consumer, quickly worked in his favour. Directly after graduating in 2000, he was named menswear designer at Ungaro. And within two years he had moved to John Galliano as Head of Menswear from 2002 until 2005. Kearns describes his design ethos thus: “I strive to make clothing that relates to the brand and that the customer can also relate to. If you don’t do this then it’s pointless, it’s more of a self-indulgent project. I like making things for others to understand and enjoy.”

It’s an approach that has served him well. Kearns has always stayed busy, moving from Galliano to menswear positions at Alexander McQueen (2005-2010), Louis Vuitton (2010-2011) and Saint Laurent (2011-2014).

In 2016 he was hired by Kent & Curwen, then a struggling British menswear heritage brand, as creative director. Daniel was unfazed by the challenge at a time when streetwear was leading menswear. Reinventing what heritage means is his goal: “Even with the streetwear boom, there’ll always be a customer base that appreciates classicism and authenticity. For our SS20 campaign, much of the inspiration comes from 70s and 80s sportswear. Heritage doesn’t need to be confined to the early decades of the 1900s.”

Kent & Curwen is one of a number of heritage companies that wants to be more about lifestyle: “We really want to become known as a lifestyle brand rather than a fashion brand.” There needs to be something for everyone in the Kent & Curwen store, even women. A garment that sums up what Kearns is trying to achieve is the Kent & Curwen cricket sweater, favoured by men for its timelessness, but also admired by women for its classic comfort.

Photo: Kent & Curwen

Kearns is also drawing on pop culture to redefine heritage. The arrival of David Beckham as a brand partner and investor makes the point effectively, helping to put a contemporary spin on Kent & Curwen’s reinvigoration. This must be used with precision, Kearns adds – in a carefully considered manner and “only when it feels relevant”.

The brand collaborated with legendary band The Stone Roses for a capsule collection for Spring 2019. For Kearns, this connection made complete sense. “Their music was created in the UK and that’s important in terms of style because it influenced what we wore. Also, their first album was released 30 years ago this year, on David’s birthday, so there was a nice synergy that tied together everything about the collaboration.”

Kearns and Beckham also orchestrated a collaboration with cult BBC TV period drama Peaky Blinders, set in the 1920s. Working with Peaky Blinders seamlessly merged the brand’s past with the present. Eric Kent, founder of Kent & Curwen, fought in World War I, alongside the Blinders’ semi-fictional Shelby brothers, and Kent came back to London at the same time the Shelby brothers returned to Birmingham. “Both me and David are massive fans of the series,” adds Kearns.

Photo: Kent & Curwen

More collaborations will be introduced with care, he says. “It is of course beneficial for the brand to work on these collaborations as it gets our name to places where it may not have reached before. However, consumers are now a lot more aware – they see through gimmicks.”

Kearns is determined to ensure that Kent & Curwen doesn’t simply gather dust in London’s Burlington Arcade or Jermyn Street. Instead he is working hard to bring the 93-year-old brand to an international audience. To date, that includes some 120 outlets in Asia alone. It’s a statement of intent from both Kearns and Beckham as they take Kent & Curwen into a new era.

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