"We're not for everybody," says Ken Kaufman, half of the force behind KaufmanFranco. "We're for the woman who doesn't want to wear what everyone else has on. We're trying to create something special." Which is exactly what Kaufman and Isaac Franco have done in their smart and modern debut women's collection.
Quick thumbnail: The two men have worked as a design team for so long that fashion insiders refer to them simply as Kenandisaac. Together they have designed for Valentino, Emanuel Ungaro, and most recently Anne Klein. But the pair finally decided to go solo. And this time around there's no established label involved, so no safety net—only a blank sketchbook and their own naked ideas.
"We realized we've always been these two things that collided—the raw and the refined," Kaufman says. "Our thinking was 'We want to be traditional and conservative but also outrageously sexy.' And 'Aren't we really articulated and cut?' but at the same time, 'Aren't we really about handcraftsmanship?' 'But we're also high-tech.' Then we realized: Opposites attract."
It's just such tension that's behind the collection's sophisticated urban glamour—a micro-sheared mink jacket with the silhouette of an everyday blazer; a vintage-inspired black bouclé V-neck shift trimmed with romantic raw silk georgette at every edge. Articulated seams add a graphic feel to both a white double-face cashmere jacket and a black stretch-cotton canvas trenchcoat. "We are very enticed by the body and the female form," says Kaufman, reaching for a well-thumbed copy of Gray's Anatomy. "The anatomic seaming, the musculature, has a beautiful, sexy sense to us. Inside, the trench actually has three pieces and it really molds to and forms the body."
The line's boardroom tailoring-meets-ballroom elegance recalls Donna Karan at her eighties best, with a body-consciousness reminiscent of Azzedine Alaïa. Take the evening gown corseted with strips of crinkled black chiffon hyper-defining the body. Or a chalk-striped business suit that's formfitting and 100 percent cashmere. "Seductive, but never overt" is how Joan Kaner, fashion director at Neiman Marcus, describes the label's look. "It's for a woman who doesn't want to look like a kid."
Luxury is everywhere. Skirts are finished with French lace, jackets with hand-patterned silk linings. "It's about making the woman feel sexy from within," says Franco. In the pair's 12th-floor atelier on Manhattan's West Fifty-seventh Street, one begins to understand this unlikely union. Where Kaufman is verbose, Franco is pensive. Kaufman is city slick—tousled gray hair, black blazer, and black shirt; Franco is hiply retro—exaggerated sideburns, a blue-and-white-striped shirt overlaid with floral embroidery, and a hint of a pompadour. Kaufman is out-there, tossing wild ideas into the hemisphere; Franco is staunchly earthbound, with a tight, focused vision.
Franco finds inspiration in the cultural: movies, music, the club scene. For Kaufman it comes from snapshots: an Hermès box, photos of old Venice, wrought-iron fences. On the wall behind their desks is a patchwork of images that influenced the current collection—the anatomic drawings of Leonardo da Vinci, an impression of tire tracks, a swatch of antique lace from London (the latter two became jacket linings).
The duo met working at Pringle of Scotland in 1987 and soon headed up the design department. When Kaufman left to do a stint at Bob Mackie, Franco followed as his codesigner. Then came Valentino. "They only wanted to see one of us, but when we both showed up they hired us on the spot," explains Kaufman. The partners have been known, when one replaces the other in a meeting, to unwittingly make the exact same suggestion, never having discussed the topic. "Nobody really understands how we work. 'You do design and you do, like, the accounting?' they ask. No, we really do everything together. With two people, the quantity and quality of creativity is exponentially higher." Indeed.
Jackets from $1,500; eveningwear from $3,975. At Neiman Marcus (800-937-9146) and Jeffrey New York (212-206-3928).