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Fashion

Cate on KHAITE

The shy designer behind a hot brand opens up to LVR.
WRITTEN BY ROXANNE ROBINSON

Kendall Jenner makes a superb gala date and a pretty good decoy. While certainly not the intent, the famous model probably did Catherine Holstein a favor by deflecting media attention when the designer arrived at the 2022 CFDA awards, at which she won the Womenswear Designer of the Year award for her brand KHAITE. LVR Magazine caught up with the award-winning entrepreneur on the eve of the gala, where she discussed luck, shyness, timing, double standards—and that Katie Holmes viral photo.

KHAITE

“I don’t like attention. I like being behind the scenes, and get very shy in the spotlight,” Holstein said in a Zoom video days ahead of the ceremony, admitting her demeanor is often misconstrued as cold. She was banking on the 80 percent chance she wouldn’t win. “I’m probably going to be a two-time loser,” she joked, adding, “I’m just excited to be nominated. I have imposter syndrome. Last year, I was in the same category as Marc Jacobs, a designer I grew up admiring, and this influenced my decision to pursue fashion. I thought, ‘Are you serious?’ It’s a bit daunting.”

I have imposter syndrome. Last year, I was in the same category as Marc Jacobs, a designer I grew up admiring, and this influenced my decision to pursue fashion. I thought, ‘Are you serious?’ It’s a bit daunting.

Holstein’s underrated view of her success is not reflected in the brand, which has quickly grown into a cool girl’s must-have since its 2016 launch. According to the designer, its path was also unorthodox, contributing to her odd-man-out feelings. “I’m a self-trained Parsons dropout who hasn’t taken the traditional path. We go to the beat of our own drum.”

 

Catching that beat began when Holstein, now 38, launched her namesake short-lived but coveted contemporary dress collection at 20. “I had no idea what I was doing, nor did I care. I was interested in going out. The brand showed no business aptitude applied to any of the decision-making.” Except for the decision to close in the 2008 recession before ‘losing her shirt,’ as she put it. From there, she had design roles at EVISU denim, Gap knitwear, Vera Wang, Elder Statesman, J. Crew and Madewell, which honed her merchandising and corporate skills but eventually burned her out.

Cate Holstein KHAITE designer

I wasn’t even sure fashion was still for me. I never wanted my own line again. To tell you the truth, I was feeling rock-bottom after a bad breakup. I went home that night and thought, ‘I have nothing to lose, so I may as well try.

“I wasn’t even sure fashion was still for me,” Holstein admitted. A good friend who works in investment banking and hedge funds noticed that sales rose at every company for which she worked. He encouraged her to make a business plan and raise the money, which seemed unattainable.
“I never wanted my own line again,” she recalled. “To tell you the truth, I was feeling rock-bottom after a bad breakup. I went home that night and thought, ‘I have nothing to lose, so I may as well try.'”
It was an all-or-nothing approach, with Holstein pouring her savings into samples and dropping her consulting gigs. “I put everything on the line because I felt like if I am gonna do this, I have to make it work.”

KHAITE

She reconnected with a childhood friend, Vanessa Traina, who had partnered with Adam Pritzker of Assembled Brands, under which Traina launched The Line, an early high-concept curated retail experience. Traina brought Holstein into the fold of Assembled Brands and after developing it for a year, the duo showed their first joint KHAITE collection to wholesalers and the press in August 2016. The Line would carry KHAITE denim and knitwear, exposing the new brand to its first buzz.

 

It wasn’t long before her advisors suggested she get on Instagram, which was gaining traction as a marketing tool. Still, the reserved designer was reluctant. “I didn’t use these platforms for myself, but they were taking off as branding and selling tools. I was in the right time and place for that,” she said.

 

There was one place Holstein’s particular eye was displayed to her liking: through her mood boards. “It was suggested to take that and put it on Instagram,” she said, motioning with her hands. Soon retailers like Net-a-Porter, MyTheresa and Matches were DM-ing her for more info, intrigued by her chic, elevated posts.

KHAITE

Things were changing fast, and it was exciting and shocking to see this new way of launching a brand that let you pave your way and bypass other tools, such as the Vogue Fashion Fund and traditional media,” she remembered.

 

Her elevated and demanding approach to quality resulted in recognizable pieces executed well. “I’m very snobby about what I want or how it should feel. I knew the best yarns—which are extremely expensive—made me feel the best version of myself and I believed, from a merch perspective, that you keep them forever.”

 I’m a true believer that all you need is a great product. The rest is fluff.

She wasn’t the only one. When Katie Holmes donned a cashmere bralette and cardigan in 2019 to do some back-to-school shopping, the photo went viral and catapulted the brand. “Katie saw it styled as a set on the website and purchased it for roughly $2,500. The sweater and bra sold out within an hour of the image.” It was named one of New York magazine’s top 10 images of 2019, according to Holstein. Other celebs, like Hailey Bieber and Kendall Jenner, promoted denim and handbags, respectively, propelling the brand.

Still, Holstein says she stands firm behind delivering the goods. “I’m a true believer that all you need is a great product. The rest is fluff,” she declared.

KHAITE

It’s also about balancing nostalgia. ”Hedi Slimane’s success is as the best merchandiser in the world. He is not looking to blow your mind, but to deliver things people remember, and people are attracted to that,” she opined. “It can be a mistake for young designers to do something new. Do something common and reinvent it in your special way if you want a successful brand.”

This determination to stick to her guns is also a job hazard for a female CEO. “You will never not be reminded that you are female,” she said, alluding to the question itself and noting, “asserting oneself gives you a bad rap—but men get away with it.”

You will never not be reminded that you are female. Let’s be honest: you’re labeled quote-unquote ‘bitch.’ People have said, ‘Oh, I heard she can be difficult.’ I’m not. I just know what I want.

KHAITE

This also guides her future. Personally, as the designer is currently six months pregnant with her first child, that will include more home-focused time with her expanding family. From a business point of view, she hints at a KHAITE retail world, primarily focused on the APAC region. “We had a 50 percent sell-through in two weeks at full price in our Dover Street Market Singapore shop-in-shop. The reaction is strong when we tell our story, and there is an opportunity to turn that into a lifestyle.”

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