Kean Etro
Photo by Dylan Don

Kean Etro: “We are the outsiders”

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Short Profile

Name: Kean Etro
DOB: 1964
Place of Birth: Milan, Lombardy, Italy
Occupation: Fashion Designer

Mr. Etro, your family’s label is known for its colorful and distinctive designs. Where is this passion for the different coming from?

I have studied African, Islamic, and Medieval history. I’ve made over 25 journeys to Morocco, for example, and I have a great connection to the African continent. I even went to the Senegal Biennale, which is the biggest fashion event in Africa, to present Etro's collection one year.

How was that?

I was of course the only white man, the only European ever to go. It was 2001 or 2002 when I was still designing women's as well. I wanted to do it the African way, so I only travelled with one suitcase and put all 16 outfits from the collection in it. I had all the paperwork to get through customs, but of course you get there and if you have 16 lady’s outfits, they say, “What the fuck?” Once you break through customs you reach this place where everything happens. It’s like a stadium organized by an illiterate woman who is now the mayor of Dakar. Fantastic lady, very powerful. The catwalk was like 1950s stardust, with light bulbs and 8,000 or 12,000 people watching, a stadium roaring. It was the most amazing experience in terms of the fashion system.

Do you identify with those sorts of circumstances more than you do with what’s going on in Milan, where everything is so established and cyclical?

Certainly yes. Because there’s something you can share, simply. There’s something real. They have a gift. Etro at times has to follow certain steps, certain rules, but I think the recipe – especially nowadays – certainly is not just financial, as we’ve seen. I think the recipe is really putting enthusiasm. I think the small will make the change. Each tiny, small creature will make the change. Of course, we need to get them to join somehow.

Most companies don't think that way. Do you feel like an outsider in the fashion industry?

The fashion system, we all know, in Milan, in Italy, or the French one is very corporate… I was just speaking to my staff, my friends, just now saying how great they’ve been, because we’re not a part of a group that makes 3 billion Euro. We are tiny, we use our imagination, we are the outsiders in a way. I could even say another thing, which is a bit strong.

Go for it.

I feel discriminated against because I’m not gay. I’m very much discriminated against in this business. I’m even more alone in a way. So I’m very happy with what we manage to reach all together. We are tiny but we make it with our own forces.

And you also make that decision consciously.

Si, si.

Because I’m sure that over the years lots of companies have knocked on the door and said, “Hey, want to give us 50% of your stuff and we’ll tell you what to do from now on?”

Sure, sure, sure. It’s always been like that, but we all know that in the end there’s a lot of blood involved, a lot of human courage, human ability. It’s not just money. I remember this merchant banking where they would come up with this detailed analysis of when the time is ripe for everyone to fuse and merge. It was fashionable like 8 years ago or something like that. There was a moment where it was, “If you don’t merge, you’re no one.” So that was a big issue, I remember.

What was your solution?

I was creative. We said, “Yes, we are going to sell.” But only to ourselves. Meaning, let’s change our way of seeing the company. So it’s not a family company anymore, but it’s like the other companies, only run by family members. So let’s change the attitude. Let’s keep the values, the good points of being us and let’s bring in the abilities, the professional instruments of a company being run by top managers. So it’s also us changing, the brothers.

Do you also need time off to get away from the whole fashion scene and the politics of it all, perhaps especially after fashion week?

Sure. You can do it by traveling, or by traveling inside, through meditation or certain techniques. The thing is, you can travel so much physically but then your head is still full of stuff. So how do you empty your head from thoughts? For example, last night I stayed awake like an hour and a half just to meditate to get rid of all this stuff.

When I look around your office there are bright colors everywhere. It has also always been like that with Etro. Growing up within the Etro family, did this just rub off on you?

Si, si, si. But I think it’s also a state of the heart, when someone is flamboyant. Certainly then there are days that you want to hide, so you hide behind dark colors. The analogy also goes with warm countries, like Mexico or the Mediterranean. Certainly it’s part of our culture as well. But it’s also an ironic path, a path of courage. For example it took me years to wear a bright green coat.


It’s not something that you wear as a fashion statement, not for me. It’s something that took time to enjoy and to feel at ease in. Everyone looks at you. You have to be ready to interact with people. Otherwise you put on your dark uniforms and no one sees you.

Why do you think so many people are afraid of colors?

The black and everything came with the two World Wars. Look at the Renaissance and how men were dressed – amazing. Look at Venice, I’m thinking of Venice and all the fabrics that came over, that came along from all the journeys. The ladies going crazy in the 17th century. It’s the history of civilization that started to destroy that… You know, industrialization, the wars and everything – the way we live. So it’s really the way we changed our way of life, it’s part of urbanization. Sometimes when I see the tiny cars, the Smart cars driving around in colors, it’s good to see them in the street. But most of the people buy gray, black.

But not you.

No, when they stole my car and I got the money from the insurance, I painted it orange so no one would steal it! You don’t go around with an orange car. Then I made it like a Lego land inside. I got green corduroy for the chairs, I put a green floor in, I put orange, purple. So it’s green, purple, and orange.

And your car insurance probably dropped as well…

Exactly! I think color is a long story. Colored socks, a colored tie, a colored shirt. But I think to go along with color, it’s part of that great flight. It helps you (inhales) breathe. When I say breathe I think, “What is your inspiration?”(inhales and then whispers) This is my inspiration. This is total. Everything. There’s everything in this. It’s so simple. If we were conscious, conscious of just this? Perfect. It would be done. Inspiration.