Australian fashion designer Kit Willow first showed at New York Fashion Week (NYFW) in 2005. Since then, she’s been captivating the Australian and New York fashion scene and expanding her clothing label, Willow, to 35 employees, with global distribution and three boutiques across Sydney and Melbourne. Willow’s a very busy girl, especially considering she’s now the proud mum of two young children. Billabout catches up with Kit for a lunch date and to talk NYFW past and present.
“I just want to mess up her hair,” Kit Willow, 35, replies with a cheeky grin, when asked what she would do if she met the poised and perfected queen of fashion, Anna Wintour — Vogue America’s Editor-in-Chief. Willow may be hailed as one of Australia’s best fashion designers with hoards of Hollywood divas wearing her clothes, but she has a refreshingly no-nonsense attitude.
When we meet at the Meat Packing haunt Pastis, a customary stop on Willow’s New York visits, there’s a feeling of anticipation in the air as she waits for a review of her new collection, Urban Rider. While her last season was all about the “wild cat”, Willow’s focus this time round is on “the urban modern rider and how humans traditionally dressed when riding the horse.”
Despite giving birth to her second child just three months ago, Willow unveiled her Fall/Winter 2011 collection via a photo shoot during NYFW, which was a different experience than a full runway show, but a gallant effort for a mum of a newborn.
“A runway show is much stronger because you’ve got models walking down the runway where you see how the clothes move, the side and the cut,” Willow explains, picking at my French fries. “It’s much more of a study of the look and the finish.”
While fashion shows are seemingly glamorous events filled with fancy clothing, supermodels and celebrities, it’s not such a party for those under the microscope. Willow compares previous NYFW to the HSC – the dreaded High School Certificate (final exams and all) that plagues Australian teenagers everywhere.
“There’s this intense build up; then all of a sudden, it’s over,” she says. “It’s crazy, it’s not fun. There’s a buzz, but it almost kills you — literally. We’ve had people go to hospital afterwards and people puking.”
Growing up in Melbourne, Willow’s road to fashion stardom stemmed from a fascination of how people expressed themselves with clothes. In 2003, she debuted at Australian Fashion Week with bejeweled lingerie, and quickly built an esteemed reputation. One of her favorite memories from those early days is her first NYFW, in 2005.
“It was just me and my best friend who styled it — and we stayed out that night to see the sun come up,” she says with a laugh.
The highs of success were only possible through Willow’s relentless passion and determination, although it was a steep learning curve that she mastered by herself.
“When I started, I didn’t have a lot of confidence in myself. If I didn’t show up, it didn’t matter — but I really wanted to show up,” says Willow. “I had to learn everything myself at first. There’s such a great support system in America, with the CFDA Awards [Council of Fashion Designers of America] and people like Anna Wintour who help and support young designers. There just isn’t the same support in Australia. We need to step up in that regard.”
Willow may be enamored with the support system America offers in fashion, but she’s less impressed with the clothing styles she spotted that morning shopping the designer stores in the West Village. “There was very little interested me,” says Willow, disappointed. “A few pieces here and there, but there’s just too much stuff in the stores; not enough focus in the designs.”
As for Willow’s take on New York, she’s inspired by its rawness, creative energy and architecture, but the lack of space is a deal-breaker for the lifestyle the Sydney-based designer craves. “New York isn’t my favorite city,” she says matter-of-factly. “I love the art and graffiti, but there isn’t much else here for me.”
As we finish lunch, Kit receives a text message that the review is online at style.com. Her nerves return to the table and she asks me to search for it on my “iPad thingy.” Fortunately, an iPhone will suffice and she seems pleased with the review. With mentions of “sexy” and “attitude” in its summary, it’s quite the apt description for Miss Willow herself.
Kit: Butternut squash soup
Billabout: Steak sandwich and fries
Story and Photographs by Pete Maiden