The woman behind Katie Holmes’s bra-digan – and the unstoppable rise of Khaite

Katie Holmes; Catherine Holstein
Khaite’s sleek, urban aesthetic has won the brand a host of famous fans. Pictured: Katie Holmes, left, and Catherine Holstein - Backgrid/Stas Komarovski

When Catherine Holstein was 22 and had recently abandoned college, Julie Gilhart, then the fashion director at Barneys, one of the most watched department stores in the world, snapped up her collection of sailor dresses. This was 2006. To find an equivalent 2024 coronation, you’d probably need Pharrell Williams, or at a pinch Kim Kardashian, to blast a young talent across their social media accounts. Times were different then.

For a start – sailor dresses. This is not what anyone familiar with Khaite’s sleek, urban aesthetic would imagine its founder ever producing. Said founder sounds sheepish. No one should ever be judged for what they wore in the Noughties, I suggest. ‘Oh God, agreed!’ says the woman whose own minimalist and slightly unpredictable style is for many the definition of modern cool.

Deciphering this coolness has preoccupied Khaite’s competition. ‘What does a cool girl look like?’ asked The New York Times ponderously last year, concluding she probably looked a lot like Holstein, now 40. ‘I’m glad you read it as cool,’ jokes Holstein. ‘People used to think I was just aloof.’

Khaite leather Bobbie coat
Khaite’s Leather Bobbie coat, £6,010
Khaite leather Bobbie coat
Khaite leather Bobbie coat

Even recovering from a respiratory infection and food poisoning, she’s immaculately put together, all translucent skin, russet hair, a lot of black, and zero sartorial clutter. She’s not a big dresser-up at night, and doesn’t believe in saving things for ‘best’ – for her, a leather jacket can be evening wear. And she certainly doesn’t believe in strict demarcations between outdoor and indoor wear. She doesn’t restrict herself to wearing her own label either, but confesses to loving The Row and Phoebe Philo’s recently launched line.

‘I’m a luxury shopper. It’s important I experience what the customer does. I get the frenzy.’ Frank, funny and filterless, she’s good company – and challenging. ‘I’m very crude,’ she observes happily. ‘But I hide it by being shy.’

Anyway, the sailor dresses. Further scrutiny reveals they were inspired by Jean Patou, circa 1924, and made of Belgian linen. Having tracked down pictures of them, I can confirm they were not the kind of sailor dresses that Gen-Z Portia in The White Lotus might dredge up.

Mischa Barton in a Holstein sailor dress in 2006
Holstein’s sailor dress worn by Mischa Barton in 2006 - Ramey/Xposure

The Gilhart seal of approval, together with an impressive sell-through and a loan from her mother, meant Holstein soon had an eponymous label and her own business with 40 stockists, including Selfridges. College could wait. ‘I’m a dropout,’ she deadpans. She can afford to shrug off the fact that she never graduated from Parsons School of Design. Khaite, the second label she founded, now in its seventh year, turns over $100 million annually and is projected, thanks to new investment, to reach even headier heights.

Carey Mulligan wearing Khaite to the Oscars Nominees Reception at The Dorchester on 17 Feb
Best actress nominee Carey Mulligan wearing Khaite to the Oscars Nominees Reception at The Dorchester on 17 Feb - Getty

In a landscape of social media blowhards and evanescent cults, Khaite is consistently hot – the de facto staple of a young, rich customer who, if she’d been born 10 or 15 years earlier, would have shopped at Phoebe Philo’s Céline. Classic cuts (tailoring meets sinuous slip dresses), edgy accessories (the Arizona and Dallas kitten-heeled sort-of cowboy boots she introduced in 2020 remain bestsellers) and luxurious-but-interesting knitwear have proved a winning combination. It’s for the woman who loves The Row but wishes it were a bit sexier and not quite so heart-stoppingly expensive. Not that Khaite is cheap, but you don’t feel you’re being bled dry, and, as one retailer told me, the quality is insane. ‘Especially the knitwear. Even though she’s charging £1,200 plus for a sweater, I doubt her mark-up is that big.’

Khaite’s New York flagship store
Khaite’s New York flagship store - Eric Petschek

It’s not only impeccably lush yarns and leathers that make Khaite so desirable; Loro Piana and Brunello Cucinelli have those. The industry has struggled to put its finger on exactly why, of all the labels vying to fill the void left by Philo after her departure from Céline in 2017, Khaite is the buzziest. Lauren Sherman, a fashion business journalist whose Line Sheet newsletter has become a must-read, dissects its appeal frequently, observing that there’s a school of fashion critics who like to disparage Khaite’s catwalk shows at New York Fashion Week as derivative. It’s a pernickety barb, given how everyone in fashion seems to feed off each other. Holstein, meanwhile, says she loves putting on shows. ‘That’s where the majority of my marketing spend goes – not on the venues, but on the lighting, the capture. It’s so key. I would do one every month if I could.’

According to Sherman, on the day of its last show in September, Khaite’s Manhattan store racked up £175,000 in sales. No wonder the Council of Fashion Designers of America anointed Holstein US Designer of the year in 2022 and in 2023.

Khaite’s appeal probably comes down to its founder’s knack of enabling women easily to achieve a fashion credibility that projects a controlled rebelliousness. Like Philo and Miuccia Prada, she can turn bourgeois tropes into something more interesting. ‘I love a bit of darkness. These days, now that I have a child, I just like it in movies.’ (Her favourite film director is David Lynch.) ‘But once… I used to like a bit of it in real life, too. I’m constantly telling the team to push it, be provocative, don’t be logical. Luxury doesn’t sell on logic.’

Katie Holmes in a cashmere bra-digan (a category no one had previously imagined) is pure Khaite. So are Hailey Bieber in her beloved light-wash Khaite jeans or bustier dress, and a bunch of Gen Z figureheads, such as Selena Gomez, who love to flex their Khaite street style; Meghan Markle in a white off-the-shoulder bodysuit is Khaite too.

Katie Holmes wearing a Khaite cardigan-bra set in 2019
This image of Katie Holmes wearing a Khaite cardigan-bra set (a ‘bra-digan’) was widely circulated in 2019 - AKGS

In the past few months, the brand has been on a more sophisticated red-carpet trajectory: Greta Gerwig in a black semi-sheer fringed skirt at the BFI London Film Festival; Julianne Moore in a black leather coat at a London screening of May December; Vanessa Kirby in a black satin zip-front pencil skirt; Jodie Comer in a glossy black drop-waist dress; Rebecca Hall in a nude fishtail gown… Khaite is on the cusp of becoming much more than an insider label. More stores are planned – in LA, Dallas and London. The injection of cash from growth equity investment fund Stripes means Holstein has been able to step down as CEO and focus on design.

Greta Gerwig wearing Khaite at the BFI London Film Festival
Greta Gerwig wearing Khaite at the BFI London Film Festival - Getty
Julianne Moore wearing Khaite in London
Julianne Moore wearing Khaite in London - Getty
Meghan Markle in a white off-the-shoulder bodysuit from Khaite in 2022
Meghan Markle in a white off-the-shoulder bodysuit from Khaite in 2022 - Getty

‘I don’t know how I did both,’ she says. ‘It’s so liberating to be able to focus all my time on the creative side now.’ Last year she and her husband, Griffin Frazen, a child actor turned architectural designer, had a baby son, Calder, and renovated their Manhattan loft on Great Jones Street. When we spoke they were still living out of a hotel.

Holstein nearly didn’t set up Khaite at all. ‘I have this constant fear of having the rug pulled out from under me,’ she explains, which is unsurprising given that her father died when she was 19 and her mother died during the Covid pandemic. Both were premature, unexpected deaths. ‘Years of therapy…’ she says briskly.

But still, her risk aversion may seem curious, given her coup with the sailor dresses. ‘See, ultimately, I don’t regard that as a success,’ she says. She shuttered the label after the 2008 crash. ‘I had no business acumen. I was more interested in partying. My husband jokes that he wishes he knew me then, because we never go out now. But then? I would go to Bungalow 8 even when I had flu. That’s how desperate I was to go out.’

Jodie Comer in a glossy black drop-waist Khaite dress
Khaite on the red carpet: Jodie Comer in a glossy black drop-waist dress - Getty
Hailey Bieber wearing Khaite jeans
Hailey Bieber wearing Khaite jeans

She decided to see what it was like working for a big company and went to Evisu, the denim brand, spending a lot of time in Japan. Then she joined Vera Wang. From there she did time at Gap, because she’d heard its company culture was highly regarded and wanted to experience that. ‘It was great. It was the tail end of their glory days, but I was in charge of knitwear, which made up 70 per cent of their business. I don’t have a bad word to say about that brand.’

She was making a lucrative living as a consultant who understood the mass, luxury and niche markets. The daughter of a former Cartier employee (her mother) and a father who worked in finance and oil, Holstein spent her formative years in London, attending The American School, in St John’s Wood, after her parents decided New York was too dangerous for their five children (this was the 1980s) and moved the family to first California, then the UK. ‘I had the best childhood in London – we lived in Belgravia.’ She makes it sound very agreeable. She thinks some of her ideas about style came from her mother. ‘She was very Annie Hall – the bourgeois version.’

Holstein grew up ‘a luxury customer’ but is not immune to the lure of a flawlessly conceived high-street basic. That gave her career breadth. She freelanced for The Elder Statesmen, Madewell and Maiyet, a sustainable marketplace that was slightly ahead of its time.

And yet she felt increasingly lost. Eventually a good friend sat her down and told her she really had to start another label. But the doubts persisted. Finally she realised her acute self-critical reflexes constituted a super power, and that convinced her to give the industry one last go. ‘On the one hand I had nothing to lose. And on the other, everything. For my own sanity, I couldn’t afford to fail twice.’

The name she chose for her precious venture is instructive. Khaite is pronounced like Cate, the abbreviation of her own first name. She categorically does not want to be the personification of her brand. Before it launched she wasn’t even on Instagram. ‘Khaite is Greek for long, flowing hair,’ says Holstein. ‘I think of it as a way of letting down your hair and playing with it. I always said from the start, Khaite is a feeling.’

I think that another reason for Khaite’s immediate success is that while Holstein undoubtedly sprinkles everything she approaches with cool-girl style, her label is grounded in a kind of (rarefied) pragmatism. ‘What are the five things you gravitate to each season? That was the challenge I set myself to identify – and make better.’ She came up with a cotton poplin tunic shirt, her Vanessa jeans, one thin cashmere turtleneck, another thick one, a pair of high-waisted black trousers with a teeny kick ankle. ‘Everything you need for a week,’ she says. It sounds simple, ‘but weirdly they weren’t out there.’ 
Or not in iterations that felt youthful and appealing to Holstein.

khaite flagship
Holstein: 'I always said from the start, Khaite is a feeling' - Eric Petschek

‘I regard Khaite as a service,’ says the cool girl. ‘We [she uses ‘we’ a lot, a throwback perhaps to her experience of Gap’s happy working culture] try to make women’s lives easier and speed up the decision of what to wear, because really, who has time to agonise over proportions? That’s our job.’ It’s her job too, she says, to sweat over the tiny details that flatter – moving belt loops closer to the zip to draw the eye in and make the waist look smaller, or modernising a slimming princess waist (that’s the V-shaped one) by curving the V.

She may sweat, but she doesn’t dither. When she and her husband were plotting that first store (concrete, steel, slashes of red) or renovating their loft, she was happy for him to make most of the design decisions. ‘We both have strong opinions, but I said, ‘You choose, I trust you.’ When I find someone who’s good, I really lean on them. I don’t ask too many questions and I don’t push too much. I’m good at identifying people who are better at things than I am. Basically I’m lazy.’

She’s joking. She has to be.

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