When LVMH announced its’ recent semi-final prize nominee line up in late March, three brands helmed by Americans Christopher John Rogers, Connor Ives and Colm Dillane were named. As the US has never produced a top winner, that alone was unprecedented. For Dillane, an industry outsider slash disruptor among those names was even more out of the norm. Last week LVMH announced the finalists all three had made the cut and a chance to take home either the top prize of 300,000 euros or the second prize, the Karl Lagerfeld Special Jury Prize of 150,000 Euros. For the first time, the finalists’ winner will be chosen via a vote by the public (a special board selects the semi-finalists), thus allowing Dillane’s cult-like following of KidSuper to support him in the race to the finish. Let the games begin.
From Left Field
To understand Dillane’s fringe placement in the scheme of fashion is to understand the ignorance-is bliss-approach the multi-disciplinary creative has taken since a Rube Goldberg project in mechanics class project launched a T-shirt of the project design with Che Guevara imposed over it. He and his friends would sell to classmates and on the streets of Soho. Like a Rube Goldberg, this started a series of chain reaction events that would lead Dillane to his standing as a hugely popular streetwear brand today.
Dillane’s path was unlikely as his high school and university years were spent on a mathematics track. “Math is just problem solving, and creativity is just problem solving,” said Dillane when we spoke days in advance of the finalist announcement, adding, “We have the same tools to figure it out; it’s a matter of who is the smartest to figure that out. A good design is the same.”
Growing up living in various US cities with a Spanish mother and Irish dad who initially met in New York City, Dillane’s free-spirited, easy-going nature he says can be attributed to this nomadic lifestyle. He also credits his creative side to his mother’s artistic leanings.
This original T-shirt enterprise taught the young entrepreneur a vital lesson when attempting to selling some to the streetwear store Blades in New York. Despite liking the designs, store management was stooped when Dillane couldn’t produce a brand name. “I thought if it’s cool, why does it matter? It made me realize that even though they liked the T-shirts, the brand was more important.”
The group of friends who started the original venture had been disbanded by college. However, Dillane was still interested in making a streetwear brand doing so by building a story and community. He entered NYU as a mathematics major after playing soccer on a youth club team in Brazil for a year but knew he wanted to launch KidSuper. The name would determine its greatness he wagered. In his spare time, he had set up his dorm as a makeshift store selling styles as he made them, eschewing the traditional trajectory of a wholesale collection with seasonal deliveries of which he had little knowledge. The administration was not pleased, and the young businessman found himself pleading his case in front of NYU’s Dean of Housing. “I dressed up in a suit, presented a PDF of my business plan, and told them if this were Harvard Business School, you would be supporting me,” Dillane said of the meeting.
The friction in the dorm led to Dillane seeking the space he still inhabits in South Williamsburg, where he can “kiss the JMZ train” outside his window. He aimed to build a community which he says set him apart then. “Because I come from such a different world – soccer and math – that what is important to me; branding, community, collaboration, and culture wasn’t as important to someone with a traditional design background. If I didn’t build and design this KidSuper world, no one was going to look at me because I wasn’t in those circles.”
In 2012 hi ditched the dorms and headed to the Brooklyn live-work space that became a sort of 2010’s version of Andy Warhol’s Factory. Dillane used the area to create wearable art and paintings and other art forms such as music. “I turned the store into my utopia,” he referring to the like-minded creativity he attracted to the location. His support of emerging singer-songwriter Russ, who would record an album with 11 platinum singles in the store’s basement studio, serendipitously sent home the power of collaboration as well.
He did this all without the tool du jour for brand launches today, social media. The designer was never a fan of the medium. He also didn’t see the need for traditional PR, which he calls ‘cheating.’
He made noise staging art shows at galleries as his oeuvre expanded to album art, music videos and Claymation. Converse plucked him to source cool kids for campaigns only to be cast as one himself. “Cream rises to the top if you are killing it,” he asserts. A stylist hooked him up with Soho House, who promised Dillane a free location during New York Fashion Week in 2017. The show comprised seven Womens’ looks for a laugh as the brand typically did menswear at the time.
Afterward, there was a party with Joey Badass and his Pro Era crew performing. “Not a single person wrote about me or the event. I didn’t even know this was something someone would write about. I was just doing artistic stuff,” he recalls of the event.
Though Dillane was relentless in his pursuit – he vowed he would work ten times harder than other designers and not stop until it was successful – it was another machination in his ‘Rube Goldberg’ that led him to Paris. The same stylist had chatted him up as someone interested in showing in Paris to her publicist boss, which Dillane mentioned on a lark. A miscommunication of his interest level resulted in a phone call where his now official publicist Florent Belda understood a commitment to take the show on the road.
Dillane had a theme cooking, “Bull in a China Shop,” a nod to his Spanish heritage and his unlikely appearance at Paris Fashion Week. He was smitten when Belda showed him Cirque d’Hiver, the indoor old school circus located between the Bastille and Place de la Republic. Dillane was in and committed upwards of $30,000 to participate in the City of Lights prestigious PFW for Spring Summer 2020.
His ‘go-big-or-go-home’ approach to the show with a production experience that could only be described as a reality tv show (a crew of 20 friends at an Airbnb in a chateau outside of Paris, Mom and Dad cast as models just off the airplane, the Spanish guitarist who flaked leaving model slash singer Dominic Fike to sit in and play the custom created song by Russ). That collection rifted on the Bull motif from a famous Spanish liquor. Amy Verner of Vogue touted KidSuper as ‘the breakout brand of the season.’
Yet the momentum didn’t sustain, and his ‘Rube Goldberg’ didn’t hit the ‘global streetwear brand trajectory stage.’ “I got no money, and the press didn’t amount to anything. It changed my life zero,” he admits. He followed up with two live shows again in Paris and then in New York to moderate reaction from mainstream press and buyers.
In between, he did put on a successful show-slash-art-happening thanks to a program giving artists free warehouse space in Brooklyn that yielded over 3,000 guests and participants in the month-long event that wrapped with a fashion show. He set up a creative space in a warehouse and with donated sewing machines from Singer and piles of second-hand clothes, he staged an innovative, sustainable fashion happening that yielded, among other things, a 40-foot-long trench coat.
The Coronavirus Effect
When the pandemic hit fashion’s reset button, Dillane had a leg up on the competition regarding digital presentations. He had experience making music videos, and his multimedia disciplines came in handy. “This changed the playing field because you have to have a good idea and be creatively nimble,” says Dillane, adding, “Virtual has allowed me to be and do everything that I wanted to do as a designer and creative. Plus, live fashion shows are a black hole for money.”
His virtual Barbie stop-motion fashion show for Spring 2021 “Everything Is Fake Until It’s Real” depicted real-world characters such as Pablo Picasso, Freddie Mercury, Salvador Dali, Michael Jordan, Meryl Streep, and JLo, among others, as Barbie dolls modeling the shrunken-to-size collection. This was the disruptor move for the young streetwear brand that propelled them closer to the LVMH nomination.
It was followed in September 2020 with a Puma collaboration that released polar fleece camouflage separates with face parts replacing the traditional khaki and olive print and colorful sneaker with KidSuper Studios emblazoned on it among other items.
Next up was a charming film for Fall 2021 portraying himself as a latter-day Artful Dodger with a collection of lively custom-print sportswear assembled in an eccentric magpie manner along with funky streetwear worn by an equally unique cast of characters in a film shot in New York Lower East Side. “I didn’t sleep for two months; I did every aspect. No one does everything,” he says of the production. “The show film; I wrote it, produced it, edited it and styled it and made the clothes which I almost completely forgot.”
Soon industry heavyweights like Julie Gilhart of Tomorrow Ltd. And Sarah Andelman of Colette and Just An Idea were reaching out “Julie was the first to reach out and tell me she was a fan and Sarah told me to apply for the LVMH Prize.” (Separately Andelman told me she “liked his energy.”) Even in the application process, Dillane defied convention. “They asked to see my mood board. I don’t make mood boards – I think they are the reason everything looks the same; So, they said send what inspires you, and I sent my paintings.”
While the competition has narrowed, he is now competing against eight, not nineteen people; he is curious to begin the final phase of the competition, which will wrap in Paris Fashion Week this September. “When was the last time you competed for something? I live for this; this is like a soccer tournament!”
The brand has evolved and elevated as Dillane’s artistic leanings and brand-building skills develop too. He recently was approached by Alice & Olivia to collaborate, and he suggested prom dresses that would launch with an adult prom. “It’s unexpected; I have no limits on my creativity.”
KidSuper has the authenticity element that big brands pretend they are not trying to be, insists Dillane. “The question is not me being luxury but them being street,” he opines. “Fashion per se does not get me excited; it’s meeting people to collaborate with, it’s culture and the creativity in the air, that energy! At a lot of these KidSuper events, you can feel this in the air.”
But it’s hard-earned as Dillane’s non-stop ambition is testament. “This is the moment where everyone says, ‘and then he made it,’ but it’s been years in the making. I hate when people don’t understand it’s not an overnight success.”