When Englishman Christian Kimber was growing up, his parents inadvertently shaped the course of his career. His businessman father, a clotheshorse who favoured suits and cashmere coats, "opened me up to the world of classical menswear though the way he dressed."
His mother ran a bed and breakfast out of the family home and "would go above and beyond to make sure they had a wonderful stay."
Combining these influences, Kimber's path was set: when he left London for Melbourne, he would open up an eponymous menswear store in Fitzroy that paid homage to classic men's design, and he had also learned a key lesson in customer service – how to make his patrons feel like kings.
But it wasn't always so clear that he'd make his name this way.
"Even though I had been obsessed with fashion and clothing since I was a little boy, I went to a British boarding school and I didn't study fashion afterwards – I did business economics in London and hated it. Yet I come from a family of entrepreneurs, and I've grown up around people who take risks. Being brave didn't come into it; I just had such a strong feeling about my point of view."
Focusing on the future
Nudging him gently was his girlfriend, Renuka, who took note of the fact that Kimber had embarked on a series of night courses – pattern making and design among them – but would spend his free time sketching.
"She said, 'Why aren't you doing design? Why don't you do it yourself?'" Since she is Australian, the pair decided to move to Melbourne for a short stint. "We planned to come for a year, but then we fell in love with it."
Kimber realised that, at that time, Melbourne wasn't exactly a hotspot for men's fashion. "There wasn't a culture for dressing, and Australia didn't have a canvas for what the style was. It felt like the perfect place to launch my concept." Talk about starting small: Kimber's initial launch consisted of a hundred pairs of shoes, sold to family and friends.
And his design inspirations circled around a viewpoint that men yearned for a high-end fashion product at a price that wasn't bank-breaking.
"I didn't have much money, so it was about creating the best version of something at a more reasonable price."
A winding path
Although success came quickly – within two years, Kimber was stocking his wares in Barneys and Bloomingdale's in New York and even collaborated on a diffusion line with Eidos – "I felt like I had lost a bit of brand control. I had jumped into it, but I didn't know who I was in fashion." This marked the turning point of Kimber's real risk-taking. "We decided to change the business completely and focus on what I loved. The online store had taken over. I wanted to stand for something, and couldn't do it by being in so many stores." When he returned, his vision included his flagship store. "My concept of retail is different to most. For me, it's about the experience."
And thus, the Christian Kimber shopping experience is an elevated one where the customer is received as a much-welcomed guest. Walls are painted a calming green, whilst orange and cedar oil scents fill the air. Sofas and books abound, together with offerings of cups of coffee.
"I feel like I'm inviting people into my living room. I've learned that men don't want to shop, not because they don't want new things, but because they hate where they are at the time. When I travel, I'll often go to stores that feel very cold, even though they're beautiful, and I feel nothing when I leave. Our legacy is about creating a store experience, and treating customers in a certain way so that they don't feel like they're being sold to; they feel like they're part of the room."
A room to call their own, it seems. "A lot of men in Australia love fashion, and there's not a place where they can talk about it. They just like to come in and talk about fashion and be themselves. It's like a clubhouse. One I problem I have is that people don't leave, but it makes me feel so good that they want to be there and have coffee and talk. I have people who come in, then stay for an hour."
Each creation is a personal one
Looking at his career trajectory so far, Kimber thinks that the biggest leap of faith he took was an emotional one.
"You put so much of yourself into it. You're assuming that people will like what you're doing and buy into it. Fashion might seem to be about creating products that suit people's lives, but it comes from emotion. With any design, I am saying, this is my point of view, and I'm giving you the option to like or reject it. All businesses have a risk in finance, but for me, it's about creating something beautiful and putting myself on the line."
He inserts himself into his designs in more ways than one: "I make a lot of textile work. My sketches are often about taking the best things I've seen when I travel and putting them in."
One example is his Clifford shoe, named after Clifford Street, where Kimber would see actor Bill Nighy breakfast at the local café, dressed in a classic suit and pair of Oxford shoes ("I created them as a memory). Next on the cards is an apparel line, to be sold from his Christian Kimber store.
His upcoming collection is inspired by a visit he paid to the Picasso Museum in Paris: "I felt a bit blue one day, and I immersed myself in that beautiful building. What struck me is the way Picasso dressed – so stylish, but in such a casual way that also seems so innately Australian. That gave me a lot of inspiration about what Australian menswear should be – casual elegance, that's tough around the edges, but well made."
This article was brought to you by Stella Artois.