The Crack-Up—and Future—of Downtown’s Kookiest Fashion Collective

Kai in his studio with Powder.Photo: Joseph Maida

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.

The three remaining members of As Four (Ange, Gabi and Adi) in their studio.Photo: Joseph Maida

A native of Bremerhaven, Germany, Kai studied economics in Hamburg, with the idea that he would take over the family oil business. “After my first statistics class, I decided, ‘No way. I will take my flight-attendant boyfriend and go to the Caribbean,’ ” he says. Eventually his parents “cut off the allowance,” and he came to New York.

All four swear they felt a sort of insta-synergy. Gabi was getting separated from his wife, and he and Ange fell in love. He was working on the look book for his first solo collection and enlisted the others’ help. The results, he says, were phenomenal, and his last name started to seem like a good omen.

He moved in with the girls. Then came the next lucky break: Kai’s apartment burned down. “It was a sign from heaven,” says Ange. “Fate.”

“It was a blessing,” adds Gabi. They were to become one Borg-like entity. Housemates, partners, friends. “We were this family,” Adi says, a family that decided to sleep together on a giant communal mattress. “I never had the guts to ask them what went on in that bed,” says one friend of the group. “I didn’t want to know.”

They insist nothing went on. “It was like we were children,” Kai says. “After a long day, we all collapsed into our big bed.”

Still, having two other bedmates did put a crimp in Gabi and Ange’s romantic life. “It’s very hard trying to be intimate,” notes Ange. (Though she and Gabi would wed in 2003, theirs is an open marriage, and Ange now has a boyfriend.)

“Basically, it was a cult,” says Gabi. “We had our own fun, from making clothes to drinking.” The quartet say they never thought of what they were doing as a business venture; it was their own mini-kibbutz, or what they called “the Future Planet of Style.”

They moved into a loft on Forsyth Street, and when they weren’t going out to lots of parties, looking like a glittery street gang, they did a lot of entertaining at home. “They always had people over, stylists and photographers, musicians and D.J.’s,” says Joseph Quartana, owner of the boutique Seven New York, which carries As Four. “I think they fancied it a new Warhol’s Factory. They even painted it all silver.”

“We call it the silver cage,” Ange says. “Gabi says it’s the Hotel California.”

“I don’t think they even went to the grocery,” says Quartana. “Whenever people would come over, they’d ask them to bring something. ‘Do you mind picking up strawberries, celery, and a dozen eggs?’ ”

As a lifestyle, it was contrived but not unproductive. They were always “working,” everyone doing a little of everything, even if it was work as play. “The first time we really participated in the fashion circus,” Ange says, “was when Paper was doing a show and we dressed up mechanical dolls in As Four outfits. They sang, ‘I’m a Barbie girl in a Barbie world.’ We had 44 of them. It was a nightmare, the sound they made was like a war almost. That was our first show.”

But it was the “circle bag”—a space-age flying saucer of a purse, which also “started out as a joke”—that would bring them downtown fame. “We made a circle and cut a hole and were like, ‘Ha ha, it’s a bag!’ ” says Ange. The bag would go on to be knocked off by such designers as Helmut Lang.

“We realized [designing] wasn’t just a hobby,” says Ange. Paper touted them as mavericks, and Björk became their most visible champion. (Mariah Carey is their latest pop-star acolyte, wearing a gold As Four gown on her new album cover.) In 2002, they received a $20,000 award from Ecco Domani for new designers. But they also had their detractors.

“There were very mixed feelings about them,” says Kelly Cutrone, owner of the PR company People’s Revolution. “Half of the people I love and respect thought they were brilliant. Another half thought that they were a joke and went out too much.” Cutrone decided to rep them for free in 2003, with some caveats. “I said, ‘Listen, if I’m going to do your show, then we’re going to do it in the tents, not in a subway station.’ It was their big breakthrough season.”

But the buildup to the show was exasperating. “When you have four people that are, quote, equal, the communication process is agonizing,” says Cutrone. “ ‘What time is the show?’ ‘We want to start it at 4:44.’ ‘You can’t.’ ‘Why?’ Just what you have to go through to make an invitation, you have no idea.”

Soon they were in Vogue and selling at Barneys New York, their clothes weird and beautiful (“gorgeous silk dresses cut to fall like the long petals of a gracefully wilting iris,” wrote one reviewer) and sometimes laughable (gold metallic bodysuits)—but also, perhaps, a little misunderstood. “It might look a bit out-there,” says Vogue’s fashion-news editor, Sally Singer, who helped judge the Ecco Domani competition. “I just wish people knew how to integrate a piece here or there, because they are actually really well-made clothes, more akin to something Madame Grès would have designed than something we might think of as kooky downtown hipsters. They’re more classical. Everyone knows who the As Fours are because of the way they arrive in a sea of sparkles and fabulosity. The tricky thing is converting that into something wearable that sustains the business.”

As Four's most recent show, February 2005.Photo: Courtesy of Caroline Totem-Craig

And it was made trickier by As Four’s relentless self-presentation. “It’s always good for designers to have some kind of stage presence,” says Singer. “Fashion is part of the entertainment business. It’s become more essential that designers be signposts for their work.”

But Kai, who at one point wore a beard on exactly one half of his face, wasn’t always the most reliable signpost. Most people in the downtown scene have a Kai story, from the silly to the violent. “At [the club] Happy Ending,” Quartana recalls, “Kai bitch-slapped me for no reason. A second later, some rock-and-roll guy that he was giving trouble to started beating the shit out of him. I wound up pulling the guy off Kai because I felt sorry for him.”

“It started out as just arguing, and it became worse. Four people can’t live and work together and share a bed.”

Nor was Kai the only As Four member with pugilistic tendencies. One night, Ange had an altercation with Chan Marshall, the rock-folk singer known as Cat Power. Ange says it was because Marshall’s boyfriend was “trying to chat me up and she pulled me to the floor.” Marshall says Ange was throwing drinks on her because “she thought I looked like trash.”

“The southern lady I am,” Marshall continues, “asked the Lord for guidance, and when she approached a third time, the Lord said, ‘Fuck it!’ and I grabbed her by the back of her skull, bent her backward down to the ground, and told her she just doesn’t do that to people. I still feel guilty, but anybody else would have destroyed her face and called Immigration.”

Soon enough, As Four’s combativeness was being directed inward. “It started out as just arguing,” Quartana says. “And it became worse. Four people can’t live and work together and shre a bed.” So, Adi and Kai started sleeping in a tent on the floor. Then came the first all-group fistfight, one of many. They won’t really talk about it (it’s part of the old As Four story). “Sometimes you need to fight it out,” says Ange.

Kai thinks that the trouble began once external relationships started affecting the core of As Four. “Adi fell in love for the first time,” he says. “The balance was off because me and Adi were very close. The magic of As Four was in that balance.”

Adi moved out, followed by Kai, but the group kept preparing for last February’s fall 2005 show, albeit with difficulty. Kai says he wanted to make the garments less like sculpture. “They don’t have to scream avant-garde,” he says. “His vision of commercial is much different from ours,” counters Gabi.

Things finally came to a head at a 2004 Christmas party for the fashion label Heatherette at Darklight. “The mood of the place was really outrageous,” an attendee says. “Björk was dancing on the table. And [Ange] accidentally set her own hair on fire.” Then Kai—wearing “a big shawl thing”—allegedly started swinging a ceiling light like a tetherball. It broke, cutting someone’s leg. The bouncer kicked Kai out. As Four retired to the Chelsea bar Passerby, where what happened next is something they still refuse to discuss. Reportedly, Kai dumped a champagne bucket of ice water over his head, drenching Björk, and the others decided they’d had enough. Adi and Ange dragged him out and beat him up. “We are not proud of everything” is Ange’s only comment.

Kai left the country. “He was in Brazil and Israel,” Cutrone recalls, “and the others started to feel very Cinderella about it. ‘We’re doing all of the work. Where’s Kai?’ ” He urged them not to have their February show. They did anyway. Kai, who showed up for it, “was shocked,” says Gabi. “He realized that we actually operated without him.”

“The revolution started,” Kai says, “and the king had to leave. The kaiser.”

“It was the seven-year itch,” says Adi. “We made it and Kai didn’t.”

The As Four three are in the silvery loft where they still make their clothes. To gain entrance, you must catch a key thrown out the top-floor window in a leather pouch. They have been busy preparing for the September 9 presentation of the Best of As Four—a reworking of their greatest hits (skirts, pants, even the circle bag) in … denim, and at a much lower price point (starting at $111 rather than $1,111.11). They’ll have a “pirate” storefront downtown during Fashion Week to sell the line, also known as As FourDenim. Why denim? “We always wanted to do it,” says Adi, “and we got a big order from Japan.”

A line of clothes they made for Kate Spade—including capelets—is doing well, and they’ve just finished a unisex perfume in collaboration with Parisian boutique Colette: ThreeasFour, which has a nice, gingery smell. The working environment is “not the same, because Kai’s energy is not here,” admits Adi. “But now the most important thing is the product. It’s more and more like a label, and that’s what we want. It’s not the conceptual As Four. We did that already.”

Kai and his fiancée, Melissa Burns (carrying the famous circle bag), at an Air Tahiti party.Photo: Patrick McMullan

As it turns out, Kai has also created a fragrance. Its working title: Balloon. “The inspiration is making love with me in a field,” he explains, “and feeling safe. My favorite thing is when I meet certain women and smell their cheeks and there is a scent of a balloon.” He says it reminds him of his childhood. Balloon kicks like a mule, the scent both rubbery and synthetic. “It smells like a used condom,” observes Ange.

If As Four seem determined to mellow the drama, Kai is caught between courting it and squashing his more outré instincts. He showed up for the photo shoot for this story in a relatively restrained outfit (docksiders, even). Yet he can’t help becoming tabloid fodder. “Kai has joined that hallowed pantheon of self-destructive celebs,” says Chris Wilson of “Page Six,” “like Andy Dick and Tracy Morgan, where every time they go out, something crazy happens. When Kai goes clubbing, you know you’re gonna get a phone call or three the next day.” The most recent item was Kai’s alleged attempt to set Gabi on fire at a store opening. “Like all of these stories,” Kai says, “there is a piece of truth and a piece of misinformation.”

And then—in what may be another odd bid for attention—there is his engagement to Melissa Burns, an ex-model best known as the Beyoncé of the disbanded electroclash girl band W.I.T. (which stood for Whatever It Takes). It’s the Lower East Side version of The Surreal Life. “He asked me to marry him and I couldn’t think of a reason to say no,” says Burns. But isn’t he gay? “Umm, yeah.” And aren’t you already married? “Yeah, but I’m getting divorced.”

The nuptials are scheduled for next spring, but Kai already has children on his mind. A couple years ago, while in the mirrored tent As Four made for a Downtown for Democracy show, he had a vision that it was his mission to have them. He’s already donated sperm to a friend in Israel. “She liked my genes. I give sperm for babies and sperm for, like, whoever. Sperm for everybody.” And now “I’ve been chosen!” exclaims Burns. We’re all in a chauffeured Explorer heading downtown, and she’s showing some of her drawings, which are mostly of women performing oral sex. Kai considered incorporating them into his new line, Myself, but they were deemed a bit too “out-there.”

With Myself, Kai says he’s “aiming for everybody. To satisfy the spoiled couture bitch, the crazy pop star.” But he also claims to be toning things down. “After doing something very conceptual in As Four,” he says, “I’m focusing on classical clothing that I believe are basics—and on the commercial.” Myself, Kai e-mails later, will be a women’s line but “with a unisex touch,” incorporating “equestrian influences, graceful time travel, colonial Africa, beachy Sahara, horses in the ocean … light silks, taffetas, cottons, and subtle curves in classic shapes.” There’s also a T-shirt line, priced under $100. Stylistically, the whole venture is about “returning to where I come from,” Kai says. “My family are cool but bourgeois.”

Kelly Cutrone no longer represents As Four, though she and the three members express genuine affection for each other. But she recently signed on to rep Kai, and she’s hoping for his success for all sorts of reasons. Not least of which is that he—like his ex-comrades, still sewing away in their lovely silver cage—is an awfully good urban character. Fistfights aside, he walks that fine line, one that still gets trod every so often in fashion, between maddening and entertaining, destructive and creative.

“If Kai left New York,” Cutrone said before becoming his PR agent, “I would really miss him. There are very few people in the city now like Kai. Even in industries that seem really liberal, people try to stay socially acceptable.”

The Crack-Up—and Future—of Downtown’s Kookiest Fa […]