The fashion designer Kai Kühne shows up more than an hour late, perhaps because it took him that long to put together his outfit. He’s wearing neon-pink-and-green nylon jogging shorts that barely make it past his buttocks, a silver iridescent tunic with an enormous embroidered butterfly, and zebra-striped high-top Nikes. His arms are covered in copper and pink plastic bracelets, his neck in a Mr. T amount of gold chains. A Jil Sander trench coat goes on top of everything else.
The customers at the outdoor Antique Café in midtown hold their mugs in midair as Kai approaches with his white pit bull, Powder, and platinum-blonde fiancée, Melissa Burns. “I’m sorry,” he says in a hoarse German voice. “But it’s not my fault. Nobody told me what time it was.”
Kai’s here to talk about his new solo career—which came about after his acrimonious split from As Four, the Lower East Side fashion collective known as much for sleeping together in one big modular bed—like the grandparents in Charlie and the Chocolate Factory—as for clothing Björk in mermaid dresses. And after dumping a handful of ice into his wineglass and downing it, he’s ready.
It’s been seven months since As Four locked him out of their atelier. The remaining three members, who kept the name As Four, have a new line launching in September. And while Kai says he’s over the group, that may not be entirely the case. His new line—to be presented September 15—is called Myself. For seven years he helped make As Four famous, or at least downtown-famous. In fact, in his eyes, he did everything.
“I controlled the bitches,” Kai says. “I financed the whole thing, worked out the concepts, let them finish the pieces.”
The others maintain that Kai was a major, but not the sole, source of funding, and not the Svengali. “The main reason Kai left,” As Four’s Gabi (the collective uses first names only) says later, “is that he couldn’t cope with the idea that we had four different opinions and that is what As Four’s beauty was.”
The breakup “had all of the nasty things involved in a divorce,” says another member, Ange. “It became torture.”
“There were creative differences,” Kai says, “and physical assaults.”
Whether intentionally or not, all designers cultivate a certain mystique, from the semi-reclusive (Yves Saint Laurent) to the excessive (the old Donatella). Sometimes it works just right, bolstering their brand. Other times it goes perilously off course. As young designers, As Four worked harder than most on their “story,” yet controlling such stories can be quite difficult. Formed in 1998, the quartet—Kai, Gabi, Adi, and Ange—hailed from Germany, Lebanon, Israel, and Tajikistan, respectively. Theirs was a tale of globalist goodwill, an experiment in communal creativity—until the plot shifted.
But it was also a quintessentially local story about the perils of becoming downtown fashion luminaries; basically, you can’t be one unless some of downtown is forever poised to call your hipness into question. And in the case of As Four, the very thing that helped bring them notoriety—their goofy collective cult of personality—was what made it hard for some to take them, or their clothes, seriously.
The As Four story really began in 1991, when Ange and Adi met as fashion students in Munich, where, as Ange notes, “we always looked a little different.” After graduation, they moved to New York, but the year they arrived, 1995, downtown was in a style funk. The debauched club-kid scene of the Limelight had collapsed, and the once-carnivalesque sidewalks of the East Village were now populated by post-ravers, indie hip-hop types, and NYU students—all in matching hooded sweatshirts.
“We had this big vision of the city,” Ange says, “almost like a movie. It didn’t live up to reality. We were told New York was dying out.” In response, they set out to become beacons. “Ange would very often wear yarn braided into her hair,” says fashion arbiter Mickey Boardman of Paper magazine. “Adi always had painted-on metallic eyebrows. They had a very Eastern European look,” and a unique ability to make it seem as if they were wearing their clothes upside down. “People thought we were freaks,” Ange says. “They thought we were lesbian nightclub dancers. They used to call us ‘the Upside-Down Girls.’ They called us a lot of things.” But it wasn’t long before the girls—who manned the door at clubs like Flamingo East—started having a surprising degree of influence over downtown fashion.
“They were the very first to wear a skirt over pants,” says one fashion director. “I thought it was insane-looking, but sure enough, I was doing it months later.” They began styling for Paper and working in the now-defunct store Dressing Room. That’s where they met Gabi Asfour (his real name), a designer for Kate Spade. Mutual friends introduced the threesome to Kai, whose male-modeling career wasn’t going quite as planned.