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Kambriel – Twenty years of dark fashion

Kambriel – Twenty years of dark fashion

Kambriel is a well-known name and household fashion brand in the American Goth scene – although she has yet to truly capture the European or UK market – I think largely owing to the extortionate import duties. It is however, a name worth knowing. Designer not only for the likes of Faith and the Muse, Mephisto Walz and The Dresden Dolls but also more mainstream talent such as Neil Gaiman and Margaret Cho, she has become a source many media outlets turn to when covering scene fashion. And in this she proves a wonderful ambassador for Alternatives with a pedigree stemming from the punk era and an ethos of old world craftsmanship as she researches and makes each piece painstakingly by hand. She weaves poetry in fabric: painting in threads with secrets marked out in the detail.

April 2014 saw the 20th Goth Convergence festival in the States (read my Chicago C20 review in the Alchemy Blog), this time returning to Chicago – where it was first held. It also marked the 20th anniversary of Kambriel’s first catalogue (then trading under the name Atrocities), which was printed on heavyweight paper in full black reverse bleed, with half tone images and matte silver ink for the title on the cover. Hand tied with strands of vintage black Chantilly lace, sealed in black linen envelopes and personally signed “With wishes to darken the days and prolong the nights”… this lady never did do things by half measures.

As she reminisces about an outfit she made (which included a long black veil) for an attendee of the very first Convergence all those years ago – I thought it the perfect time to interject and put some questions to her about how it all began and her thoughts on fashion and the scene in general.

It’s your 20th anniversary since releasing your first catalogue. Can you tell me how this all came about?

I’ve always been one to make things and find creating things by hand a means of self-expression, a talisman against conformity. The premiere Atrocities collection released in 1994 never held the intention of appealing to the masses or catering to popular styles ~ it was about a sharing part of my spirit, and putting it out there in a way that perhaps would eventually find its way into the hands of similar souls ~ a connection between fellow outcasts/eccentrics strengthened through these creations. This was when catalogues were only available in print form and had to be ordered through the mail, before clothing websites existed, which strongly added to the feeling of personal connection, of finding one’s tribe. I poured so much into hand-cutting the long lengths of black satin ribbon that tied the pages together, the intricate, willowy silver writing on the black linen envelopes, and people returned this energy, by sending their requests/orders along with letters carefully burnt around the edges and sealed in blood red wax. It was the furthest thing from mainstream, and I treasure these roots that began it all. Some of those earliest customers have ultimately became a family of friends.

You started under the name Atrocities but later changed it to Kambriel. What was it that drew your to this name?

The original Atrocities name came about from a desire to show how beauty can arise from the darkest of places. Ultimately though, it simply didn’t fit the ethereal/mystical elegance of the designs. It was something I’d been pondering for a while, and on September 11, 2001 ~ when the tragedies that happened were being described throughout the media as “atrocities”, I realized the time had come, and it felt right to make the change to my own name.

What do you think has made your clothing line stand the test of time?

Part of it is simply due to an unceasing drive to create. Stylistically, perhaps the longevity is due to the fact that I’ve held true to an organic evolution of style rather than wiping the slate clean and starting anew on a seasonal basis. I don’t bother with trends. I have an old soul & strong personal aesthetic from which I’ve always naturally drawn. My designs reflect someone who carries the roots of their past within them, and how these roots cast a shadow of influence, whilst continuing to draw from present inspirations and future dreams.

There are many people who are now drawn to the alternative scenes for purely stylistic reasons and not borne from the music or culture. What is your stance on the style vs substance argument?

For me, there’s no argument between style versus substance, as I believe on a deeper level that style comes from substance. At its best, style reflects something further within. If someone chooses to indulge in a particular style, hopefully it’s because it speaks to them on a personal level. As for the connection between the aesthetic and the music, I don’t necessarily see them as disconnected or connected as it depends on what inspires an individual’s spirit. Just like “Gothic” itself ~ for some, this will bring to mind shredded lace, teased hair, crowded nightclubs and underground music, others might have visions of cascading silk velvet, flowing hair, lonely abbey ruins, and a fog-shrouded landscape. Gothic music can encapsulate disparate extremes ranging from Bauhaus to Shostakovich, sombre Blues to haunting hymns. Ultimately, it’s more about what these stir within you and less about feeling confined to pre-conceived parameters.

Being around near the start of goth with its punky roots and still being an active and ardent member of the scene. What is your answer to people saying “you’ll grow out of it” and explain why you feel it’s still a valid subculture for people to be active in well into their 30s and 40s and even beyond?

For some, perhaps it is a phase ~ something they tried on for size and it simply didn’t feel right to them. For myself and many others it’s a natural facet of our personalities, what we’re drawn to, and who we are. It’s no different really than someone who grew up playing violin and always held an appreciation for classical music, or a child of a painter who developed a lifelong fondness for artistic expression. I think listening to a song for the first time, being captivated by someone’s unique look, or reading a book that speaks to you on a level that goes straight to your heart ~ these appreciations grow alongside you, they shade the colours of our world, and the lens through which we experience life.

You’ve designed for some wonderful celebrities both in the scene and more mainstream ones. What has been your highlight?

It’s hard to say, since they’re each such individual people, designs, and memories, but I was really touched when Neil Gaiman decided he liked the coat I designed for him to wear to the Oscars (when “Coraline” was nominated for an Academy Award) so much, that he ~kept~ wearing it everywhere & anywhere after that too. There was a photo of him wearing it later on with some Tasmanian devils in Australia, then he wore it for his wedding, and ultimately asked for multiples to be made since he planned to use them as his go-to jackets and wear them ’til they were threadbare. To date, he’s commissioned around a half dozen of that particular design, and has worn a few over the years to the point where he’s sent them to me for revamping because he simply doesn’t want to retire them no matter how much they’re worn… if a metal light switch at the Sydney Opera House caught his elbow and tore a sleeve, or the front was covered in permanent silver ink from signing countless autographs, etc…. It’s utterly charming really.

You have a men’s clothing line too, do you find any challenges in making men’s clothes and why do you think so many alternative designers stick to women’s?

It’s always felt natural to include offerings for both men and women, and many of my designs can transition quite easily to be worn by either. Ironically, one of my first orders in 1994 was from some men in the Navy ~ they wanted long black crushed velvet skirts to wear off-duty for dancing at their local goth clubs.

Perhaps most designers gravitate towards women’s fashion because it’s an obvious path for creating dramatic looks, whereas men’s fashion has lived within narrower confines. Sometimes what passes for “dramatic” men’s fashion equates to nothing more than an unexpected accent fabric/colour on accessories when it can go so much further. There’s great potential for mold-breaking to occur and all that’s needed is for horizons to be expanded beyond the commonly known, and for men to be willing to step out, try something new, and challenge some paradigms.

There are lots of off-the-peg and factory-manufactured alternative clothing labels around these days. What are your thoughts on these? Would you ever decide to go into a more mass-production method to satisfy demand if it grew?

The demand’s existed, but this goes straight to my roots with an emphasis on personal connection, not mass merchandizing. For some, ultimate goals are all about numbers, but I’ve purposefully kept a balance that’s maintained a strong designer/collaborator/client connection amidst countless opportunities to the contrary (i.e. offers for wholesaling, mass-production, “Kambriel” shops opened & operated overseas by 3rd party investors, etc…). Once, only major retailers outsourced, but now even some micro-labels go this route. For me, the joy of seeing something bespoke go on to be part of someone’s most special occasions and memories yet-to-come is too fulfilling a joy to give up. I love creating, and having the freedom to go with personal instincts and spur of the moment inspirations which result in something truly unique. A very particular kind of magic can be imbued in creations while they’re being made, and magic can’t be outsourced.

If you could travel back in time, which period would you choose and where would you live?

There are many moments and places in time I’d have loved to experience first-hand ~ sitting in the temple of Delphi, hearing the Priestess’ wild prophesies, watching Hieronymous Bosch create his masterful, twistedly imaginative, symbolic paintings in the 15th century, the decadent frolics at a Swiss getaway with Lord Byron et al in the Summer of 1816 which resulted in Mary Shelley’s penning of Frankenstein, Paris at the dawn of the Art Nouveau movement & the Exposition Universelle in 1900 with the fantasical architecture from around the world and the sinuous jewels of Rene Lalique… Moments in time where new art was being made & the ghosts of their influence still continue to inspire today.

You are hugely inspired by all forms of art: literature, plays, music, painting and movies. If you could choose one piece of art that you felt best encompassed your label, what would that be and why?

Rather than being a single piece of art made from human hands, my aesthetic could perhaps be more likely expressed by a scene from Nature: Imagine a luminous moon rising from the horizon, appearing so close you could touch it, as the sky casts an ever-deepening hue of violet-rose; the crackling sounds of faded thunder in the distance with raindrops from a recent storm glinting on delicate, silken spiderwebs floating ghost-like between trees ~ bats and birds fluttering every which way overhead, and the nostalgic scent of a distant memory floating upon the air…

Who would you most like to dress (living or dead, real or fictional), why and how would you dress them?

Helena Bonham Carter’s a natural fit for my darkly elegant, yet whimsical designs. We have a similar “delightfully twisted”, free-spirited irreverence towards fashion, and like to mix things up in unexpected ways ~ wearing fantastical hats and headdresses, spritely neo-Victoriana, mixing textures and layers, and altogether just having a madcap time of gilding the lily!

It’s your last supper, who would you invite to dine with you and what would you choose to wear?

If it was my last supper, I’d simply wish to be surrounded with friends. I’d want to make sure they knew how much they meant to me, and to have that one last chance to fill their hearts with my love and appreciation for them as well. I’d also hope to be surrounded with the charm of birds & other animals that fill the heart with a sense of wonderment, universal connection & peace. I think I’d wear my Miss Havisham inspired dress which is covered in layers of antique crochet and cobwebby lace-work created by the hands of my ancestors from generations past, that I in turn wove & joined together as one.

Do you have any exciting projects coming up and are there any plans to expand more into UK and Europe?

Some of my designs, as well as an interview Neil Gaiman conducted with me for “TOME” (Volume 1 – Vampirism) ~ a limited-run art anthology, will be featured in the wide-release upcoming book “LIBRETTO 1”. These books showcase a variety of art forms exploring the themes of vampirism and its wider connotations ranging from the elegant and beautiful to cruel exploitation ~ or the occasional combination of both. For the past two years, I’ve been working alongside DividingMe on a collaborative tarot combining his photographic art with my clothing & accessory designs and we’re nearing its completion. This tarot set will have a mystical, ethereal feel existing in a magical realm somewhere beyond any particular time & place. It’s a labour of love, and we look forward to being able to unveil & share this with others.

I definitely plan to spend more time in Europe, would love to do more fashion shows/events there, and perhaps someday may even end up based there. For now, new designs and one of a kind items are always being added to the Kambriel website ( ) & Etsy shop ( ) ~ from which we’ve always happily shipped orders worldwide.

Photos by DividingMe
Published in Devolution