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“When architects design a building, they consider the context, the site and how people will use it,” says Dutch fashion entrepreneur May Kaan, who is dressed in blue-wool crêpe trousers and a matching blouse from her own collection. “I wanted to approach fashion that way as well.” Kaan is sitting in her studio in central Rotterdam – part of a converted 1950s building that’s all wooden floors and white walls, and that once housed the De Nederlandsche Bank (and, rumour has it, most of the country’s gold reserves). The space – busy with racks, paper patterns and scraps of fabric – adjoins her husband Kees Kaan’s architectural practice, Kaan Architecten, where more than 80 staff are busy working on banks of computers and delicate models of buildings.
As May contemplated launching her own label, she was inspired by the way in which Kees and his teams work. “When architects take on a project, they choose a narrative as a starting point,” she says. “We thought it would be interesting to take this way of thinking and approach the development of fashion collections [like that].”
This year, May and Kees collaborated on a fashion label: Francon. It is named after Dominique Francon, a character in the Russian-American author Ayn Rand’s controversial 1943 novel The Fountainhead. Beautiful, elegant and morally ambiguous, Francon is the partner of the book’s chilly protagonist, architect Howard Roark. “Architects love this book; Kees is a bit obsessed with it,” says May. “But it’s not really about the book. Dominique is such a strong character. She understands that you have to stand up strongly for your ideas.”
Francon’s collections won’t be dependent on seasons or fast-moving trends. Instead, May is turning to a series of evocative locations to come up with small and sustainable “editions”, made in Europe. “It will be more about the setting than the season,” she says. The Rotterdam native, who studied fashion in her hometown before moving onto marketing and event management, feels that the fast metabolism of fashion collections doesn’t make sense. “After all, I can still wear these trousers next year,” says May, plucking at her crêpe outfit.
Instead, there are architectural archetypes that inspire Francon’s looks, including the tower, the palazzo, the cabin and the chalet. Each of them is a combination of the building types but also places with which May is already familiar, such as a chalet that the family regularly visits in Switzerland and her brother’s house in Friesland. In each location, May has been moved to dress in a certain way, mainly because of the context. “I dress differently, say, in a recreational environment versus, for example, a work environment. So it is interesting to take the place and the occasion into account when you wear or design something.”
The inspiration for Francon’s very first edition – the lake house, available from November 2021 – lies about 100km away. The place May was thinking of as she and her design team developed items such as the satin-jacquard blouse with flowing pants and matching kimono, or a sleek dress that fastens to one side with 41 delicate buttons, is her own family’s rural, waterside retreat.
As we drive along a Dutch highway just before dusk, May tells us that the family’s lake house is on the island of Noord-Beveland in the middle of the Veerse Meer, a coastal lagoon. “We’ve been working on the house for about four years now,” says May, as we approach the lagoon. “I joined Kees in the design process, which was interesting for me. While thinking about the materials there and choosing, for example, a certain kind of wood or natural stone for the house, I also started thinking about textiles – not just curtains or rugs but also the sort of fabric you want to wear on your skin there. The whole idea for Francon actually developed while designing our lake house.”
Crossing the futuristic, 5km-long Zeeland Bridge, the smell of sea air heralds a change in setting, both emotional and physical. Yachts, almost level with the bridge, race alongside the car as you drive past them and giant, power-generating windmills churn up clouds in the distance. Flocks of birds weave otherworldly avian patterns above the waves.
By the time we reach the lake house, the sun is just setting. The façade of the Kaan’s property is a well-polished white wall, facing a small lane where German tourists ride bikes next to small holiday homes tucked behind high hedges. But, once you are through a minimal wooden gate, it is a whole other breathtaking story. The other side of the building consists of three-metre-high floor-to-ceiling glass doors. Beyond them lies the Veerse Meer, a semi-brackish lake some 20 km long. (Once a coastal estuary, it is now blocked from the North Sea by a series of highly technical dams, part of the largest flood-protection system in the world.)
Kees’ family has been coming here to camp since the 1970s, which is why, when the rare opportunity to buy a panoramic piece of lagoon-front property came up, the Kaans jumped at it. “It was the view: you can see the other islands and right into the inlet,” says Kees, who arrived earlier in the afternoon to prepare for a boat trip across the lake. He kicks off his shoes and walks on the limestone floor. “It’s like a beach,” he says. Beyond the large terrace that backs on to the house, a grassy knoll rolls down to a small, private jetty, where the family tie up a vintage lifeboat that they have carefully restored. (This vessel now sails complete with a fridge and sound system.) It’s time to brave a windy crossing and motor 10 minutes across the inlet to the historic town of Veere for dinner.
From an architectural point of view, making clothes suitable for the lake house presents a curious challenge, says Kees over dinner of freshly caught fish, mussels and two bottles of white wine. “It makes sense to get inspiration from how we use things, how we move through the day,” he says. “[This house] has an interesting balance between the public and private, between relaxation and representation. We do a lot of socialising here with friends and family in private – but we are also very visible,” he says, gesturing at the water. “Basically, anybody who goes by in any kind of little boat is pretty much in our living room,” says the architect with a laugh.
May’s collections are influenced by life here: you might be leaping off a boat for dinner one moment and entertaining the next. “The lake house is the perfect place for hosting parties and having friends over. It’s not all about comfort. There can be some extravagance as well but it’s a little different because you don’t necessarily have to go anywhere and you don’t have to travel in the clothes.” Beyond context and how a building will be used, architecture often also examines the history of a place in depth. May did this, too, spending time researching the historical context of clothing worn around the Veerse Meer. This has resulted in fascinating details on Francon’s clothes lifted from traditional Zeeland folk costumes.
Her collection includes a version of the soft, oversized fisherman’s jumpers originally inspired by the need for warmth on those windy evening trips across the inlet for dinner. (May usually borrows Kees’ jumpers but wanted her own.) “In Zeeland, different communities developed their own distinctive weaving patterns,” says May. “And – this sounds a bit macabre – if a fisherman drowned at sea, locals would be able to identify where he came from because of the weaving design on his jumper,” she adds with a grimace.
Another folk-influenced item is the flower that decorates the satin-jacquard and glittering lurex-brocade jacket, inspired by the Astrantia major, a plant that grows in Zeeland. “We used this flower because the shape of some of the local jewellery – the Zeeland buttons, which we also incorporated into the collection – is based on the shape of this plant,” says May. All before showing us Francon’s version of Zeeland buttons, distinctive pieces that slot through holes at the collar to keep a blouse fastened. The Zeeland buttons first came in wood (for everyday use), then silver and then gold. “Men also used larger versions to hold up their trousers,” says Gerard Bal – a Zeelander who belongs to Ons Boeregoed, a local group that wants to preserve the area’s costume heritage – pointing to the large silver discs at his waist. During the 16th and 17th centuries, Zeeland was an important trading centre, with the regional capital, Middelburg, second only in economic power to Amsterdam thanks to the Dutch East India Company’s ocean trading routes. Eventually the increasingly affluent Zeeland communities all evolved their own versions of the buttons, made in delicate filigree gold and attached in pairs with a small chain. “The bigger your buttons, the richer you were,” says Bal, laughing. “Families would wear these on Sundays and show off their wealth at church.”
“And this says that I’m unmarried,” says Suzanja In’t Anker, a younger member of the heritage club, pointing to a delicate rectangular brooch: gold laced with tiny seed pearls, pinned to the waistband of her black skirt. She has come to the lake house with Bal dressed in historic costume that she inherited from her grandmother. Above her intricately folded blue damask scarf, In’t Anker wears six strings of coral beads that are the colour of ripe apricots, clasped with gold: another historic sign of affluence among the Zeelanders. “It’s funny,” says May, joking with her costume-clad visitors. “Today people wear labels to show how wealthy they are.”
After the history buffs leave, it’s time to return to the city. May’s next edition will take inspiration from her urban landscape with an edition themed around “the tower”. She’s just starting out, she admits, but already there’s an enticing mood board on her studio wall back in Rotterdam, which features glittering skyscrapers, scraps of sequined fabric, and slick inner-city apartments.
May and her team, including head of design Fira Rietveld and pattern-maker Sibylle Wisler, are percolating their notions about the glamorous visitors who used to arrive on the Holland America Line steamships, which connected Rotterdam and New York early in the 19th century. “Where the lake house was about Zeeland’s culture, for this location we’re looking at the collection through the lens of transatlantic migration and the lives of Rotterdam’s shipping magnates,” says May, as we admire the mood board. “It’s going to be very glitzy, very elegant and not at all casual. We’re also looking at how Rotterdam was bombed in 1940 and the city was rebuilt. I’m thinking about themes of rising, elevation and reconstruction.”
And, of course, there are portraits of Kaan Architecten-designed buildings on the mood board too. Upstairs, Kees and his colleagues are working on designs for Lumière, a new skyscraper for Rotterdam, as well as the new terminal at Amsterdam’s Schiphol airport. Both projects might even end up as part of the next Francon narrative, says May. For now, May’s goal is to design collections for all five of the architectural archetypes. “I can imagine when we have all five, we will have styles that are popular and we will also add something new every now and then,” she says, before smiling. “At the moment, it’s all still a little experimental.”
Words by Cathrin Schaer
Photography by Julia von der Heide
For Konfekt Magazine