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article imageInside the Colourful Mind of Fashion Designer Kean Etro

By Julia Suppa     Aug 28, 2006 in Lifestyle
He’s the Peter Pan of the fashion world: a kid trapped in a style genius’ body. In our world exclusive with Kean Etro, the renowned designer explains why he loves to pull pranks, how his family company designed its signature paisley motif, and why he’s making a fashion line for the disabled.
Digital Journal — Sitting and talking with Kean Etro, it’s hard to imagine anything but a hyperactive kid running through Italy’s cobblestone walkways dressed in fuschia-coloured shorts. He is the driving force behind Etro — the designer brand known for its creative use of vibrant colours, wacky paisleys and ornate patterns. Sitting in a lounge at the Holt Renfew offices in Toronto during his first visit to Canada, Kean personifies the designs and philosophy of his father’s company.
In a word, Kean Etro is electric. Wearing faded jeans, a grey pinstripe blazer and a white shirt encrusted with black sequins, Kean projects charming confidence. His long, black hair is haphazardly secured with a purple elastic and his dark grey eyes glimmer as he gazes around the room. He’s a combination of Zorro — dark, mysterious and powerful — and Topo Gigio, the fun-loving Italian cartoon mouse. His collections mirror the work of Pablo Picasso’s art: bizarre, yet full of life and character.
“It’s very important if you can relate to what you wear,” Kean explains. “To me, creativity is not just making a collection. You have to invent something every time.”
He’s a bohemian at heart. Kean says he finds inspiration by simply looking around — through his world travels, the people he meets and natural scenery he encounters. He is also very well-read: Kean boasts an impressive collection of 8,000 books, and recites poetry at dinner parties. Upon landing in Canada’s largest city he was eager to find authentic Canadian culture, visiting galleries to find Inuit art and books.
To spark new designs, “you need to go local,” he says.
Kean’s expeditions also introduce him to new shades and tones. Every destination chalks up another possibility in his endless colour wheel. “Each place has its own colour,” Kean explains. “Toronto is blue indigo. It’s like feeling at home.”
Based on his repertoire, it wouldn’t come as a surprise if Kean’s closet looked like a kaleidoscope, but even this world-class designer has a favourite colour. Right now, it’s purple. Before that, orange. In fact, Kean admits to watching the selection process of the new Pope just for the colours. Remembering the recent conclave, where cardinals from around the world were draped in bright crimson-oranges, his eyes still light up with enthusiasm.
Etro’s ambivalence towards convention matches his namesake, Edmund Kean. A 19th-century Shakespearean actor, Edmund Kean was notably eccentric and was once called the “child vagabond.” While Kean Etro’s youthful idealism is reminiscent of this avant-garde soliloquist, his constant desire to play practical jokes makes every move an unexpected one.
A close friend of British designer Paul Smith, Kean once fooled journalists at a press event by telling them he left his post at Etro to work for Smith, leaving the media dumbfounded. “When they saw me instead of Paul Smith, they were stunned,” he remembers. “They didn’t know what to say.”
All jokes aside, this Milanese designer’s success didn’t come out of nowhere — many would vouch it’s been long overdue. When his father Gimmo founded the company in 1968, it began as a small textile division specializing in silks, satins and haute couture. But by the early 1980s, millions of people were brandishing the company’s signature paisley motif.
“The paisley design stems from the palm tree,” Kean says of his father’s trademark pattern. “You find it all over the place…the fashion has always been there.”
By the time Kean joined the team in 1990 after graduating university, the company was distributing home products and fragrances all over the world. Today, Kean, his two brothers and his sister run their father’s dynasty. They are a powerhouse famiglia, having transformed a small business into one of the hottest international design empires. Kean says last year’s European sales have increased by 43 per cent, signalling a huge leap in Etro’s success.
“The company brought my family together,” he says. “And we each have our own responsibilities. My father did a good job of placing us in the company.”
Jacobo, the eldest, runs the textile division, including leather goods and bags. Ippolito manages the finances, and Veronica designs the ladies’ collection. As company director and designer of the men’s collection, Kean is known as the creative soul of the company. One of his latest innovations is a line of clothing for the physically disabled. After meeting two men in wheelchairs in an Italian boutique, Kean says he was compelled by their story. They were professionals who were unable to find comfortable clothes that looked good.
“We are working on prototypes right now,” says Kean. “But to do it well is to use material and fabric that is natural.”
Back in Toronto, Kean can’t keep still. Moving his legs back and forth in the chair, Kean fidgets and shifts anxiously while his eyes dance around the room. Even in a brief conversation with Kean, it’s obvious he’s eager, strange, curiously friendly and brilliant all mixed together. He’s the first to admit that he wants his name distinguished from other designers. With the sophistication of a style veteran and the energy of a child, Kean stands out like a lime-green tux at a black-tie affair.

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