The stereotype of everyone who works in fashion as self-obsessed, unfriendly and - what's the other one? oh yes, thin - is fairly accurate, I have always found. With a few exceptions. The designer Kinder Aggugini, for instance. Yes, he is thin, but besides that no one has a bad word to say about him. In fact, at the mention of his name even the toughest cookies in the industry (fashion editors) go all gooey. It's a Kinder magic.
Being nice does not entirely explain the slavish devotion of his line up of stellar fans, who include Gwyneth Paltrow, Madonna and Nicole Kidman. Nor why his second solo show was the hottest ticket at London Fashion Week in September. It was, after all, only last February that the designer stepped from behind the scenes and ended a career of label-hopping - he had formerly headed design teams at Versace, Calvin Klein, Vivienne Westwood and Paul Smith - with his debut collection. This was sold exclusively at the trendy Dover Street Market following a personal visit from owner/founder, Rei Kawakubo, the visionary designer behind the fashion-forward Japanese label, Commes des garçons.
I set off to meet the fortysomething designer the morning before his show at his "pop-up" boutique in a lower ground floor (fashionspeak for "basement") in London's elegant Mayfair. If ever a designer had an excuse not to be himself, it was the morning before a make-or-break show. So it was with trepidation I found myself climbing down rickety stairs into a whitewashed shop with Persian rugs on the floor and elegant mirrors and funky photographs of Sid Vicious on the walls.
"Wow, this is lovely," I muttered under my breath, examining a table, draped with a Union Jack flag and housing a selection of Victorian beads bound together with blood-red silk. I was not expecting this. "Did you expect it to be horrible, then?" said a sinister, gravelly voice that belonged to a slight man with a big quiff, his face fixed in a grimace and his arms folded in the manner of a headmaster about to administer punishment. After what seemed like minutes he nudged and then hugged me, dissolving into peals of laughter.
"Hi, I'm Kinder," said the designer, holding out a hand with a swagger. I wasn't expecting this either. A sense of humour at 9am? Far too relaxed. What a tease. "This is just a pile of old stuff I've collected over the years," he said dismissing an eclectic display of knick-knacks in his luxury punk version of Dickens's Old Curiosity Shop. Not exactly how I'd describe a photo of Debbie Harry as a teenager ("doesn't she look great with black hair?") and vintage Chanel jewellery.
"I wanted it to be more than just fashion." The shop also housed two rails of one-off pieces from his occasional below-radar salon shows, along with samples that never made it to production. The thing is, Kinder's clothes are never "just fashion", and although several decades designing clothes has made him blasé about his day job, it soon becomes clear that "just fashion" is in fact his raison d'être.
Brought up in Milan, Aggugini was taught to sew by his mother at the age of eight, hemming his friends' jeans in exchange for a place in the local football team. He earned his nickname (his real name is Paolo) on the London club scene in the 1970s and early 1980s. "I used a Kinder-brand metal case to hold my cigarettes, someone called me Kinder and the name stuck," he said. He got into the fashion scene after meeting the performance artists Leigh Bowery and Trojan and becoming their flatmate.
After graduating from Central St Martins in London, his first job was with the British tailor Huntsman in Savile Row. He then worked for Vivienne Westwood and was hired by Versace weeks after the death of Gianni in 1997. "I was picked up by a bullet-proof car at the airport. The driver told me that I should lie down in my seat going into the Versace Palazzo because of all the paparazzi. I just thought, 'I wanna go home!'" He stayed for six years.
Talking me through his trademark devices such as polka dot linings, originally done with typewriter correction fluid so the circles are not quite perfect, and fabrics that would not look out of place in a textile museum, you can see why he might appeal to such a wide range of women. A sense of teasing, dark humour (of which I have already been on the receiving end) is the lifeblood of his work, which he describes as "Coco Chanel marries Sid Vicious".
With a wink, he explains: "You see Coco was more hard-core than Sid in a refined sense. This would have prevailed over rock 'n' roll but their union would have maintained a certain edge." I can't work out if he is joking or being serious. "One day she'd have grabbed his leather jacket to dash out and get a packet of cigs," he adds. "Thinking in opposites is always my starting point. For this shop, I imagined London's Kensington Market [a grungy basement that sold a lot of gothic black as well as hippie gear in the early 1980s] in the Avenue Montaigne. I like mashing everything together."
Kinder is responsible for signaling an end to "matchy matchy" designer fashion. His featherweight tweeds (made by Linterns, who also manufacture for Chanel) and romantic dresses which are a maelstrom of ideas incorporating different eras, silhouettes and fabrics, have earned him a legion of fans worldwide. The Madonnas of this world have no issue with wearing avant-garde. But it's professional women of a certain age who love the idea of clothes inspired by punk but steeped in luxury.
"I tend to work in a way different to most designers," he tells me getting suddenly serious. "It's selfish and complex. The end product is a result of a lot of thought process and complicated tailoring. I originally started out as a tailor. I love fabric and I want to create something that moves me. I have visual dyslexia. For instance the way your jacket creases carrying your handbag over your shoulder, I see those creases as a seam. It's the sort of thing I would incorporate into a top. I am constantly looking at the way fabric moves rather than thinking about what's the new hemline or shoulder."
He describes his clothes as three-dimensional. "I might do a dress where the front is inspired by a 1920s flapper dress and the back is inspired by the front of a 1960s dress. By mixing I create a new order that is entirely unique." He tells me the "tale" of a dip-dye printed prom-style dress that hangs on one rail in his flash boutique. "This is about a pragmatic man who falls in love with a dancer. Look, the colour around the flower print on the hem has faded because she has been dancing in a fountain and the colour has run. I wanted the ruching to give the feel that she was hitching her skirt up."
The next morning his show, entitled Loss of Innocence, is a dark and macabre spectacle that brings his fairytale clothes to life. Doll-like models with red lips and ringleted hair ("my brief was Nelly Olsen on crack") teetered on high clogs by Georgina Goodman for Kinder (which were biked immediately post-show to his boutique to satisfy a waiting list founded almost entirely on hearsay.) The models' dresses were a mixture of aproned pastoral milk-maid (a recurring theme in London) and Marie Antoinette, with bustled skirts and panniers.
Silvery, gossamer-light pink tweed jackets and top-stitched (another signature) swallowtail styles based on a military jacket from the Crimean War were standout pieces, along with "Mad Hatter" hats created by Stephen Jones. A breathtaking finale of python-printed evening gowns in laser-cut nylon, hand-painted in neon shades earned him a fitting standing ovation to the tunes of Siouxie and the Banshees overlaid with a tinkling music box.
"It's all about the moment when the little girl in the woods realises there is a big, bad wolf," Kinder had told me. "I took childrenswear apart at the seams as a tailor would do then added cloth (black lace and silk printed with polka dots) to allow for breasts and sensual curves. "I am inspired by a mood rather than a look. In this case, when a girl becomes a woman. The process of creating is what I derive most pleasure from. Ultimately clothes are bought because they are delicately tailored and women like them. The end product has to justify the means."