Laurette Kittle is often her best advertisement. Draped in the comfortable and chic fashion pieces that represent her clothing line, she rarely has to make a hard sell. At a recent trunk show, she had to hold tight to the sample dress of her latest kaftan design. More than once, a potential customer sought to buy it right off her back.
“What’s up with the kaftans,” she says, laughing.
This garment of ancient origin is having a bit of a fashion moment, and Kittle, whose Greenwich-based clothing line Walker&Wade carries quite a few them, is seeing the surge.
“Maybe the pendulum is swinging and people want something different than yoga pants,” she says of the athleisure trend of the past 10 years. “It could be that ’70s fashion is back. But, I truly think a lot of it has to do with Meryl Streep in that kaftan.”
A bit has been written about the scene-stealing white-and-gold creation worn by Streep, as she plays “The Washington Post” publisher Katharine Graham in a pivotal scene in the 2017 movie, “The Post.” Surrounded by a group of men in suits, she weighs the consequences of testing the limits of First Amendment rights while donned in a long, elegant kaftan.
For some, the idea of a kaftan (or caftan) seeps toward muumuu or house dress territory — simple, often shapeless, casual dresses best kept for chores or lounging around the house. Kaftans are unconstricted, but they tend to be more like a robe, knee or floor-length, with a deep cut in the front and full, baggy sleeves. Think Mrs. Roper of TV’s “Three’s Company” or Steve Coogan as English teacher Dana Marschz in “Hamlet 2.” Recently, designers have been taking some liberties, raising the hemline, creating shape with hems and using fun and sophisticated patterns.
“I didn’t want to make it like Mrs. Roper’s, with those ugly prints,” Kittle says. “I wanted to make the kaftan a little sexy.”
She began the line four years ago, after a family trip to Bali, with her husband, Kit, and their sons, Cody and Henry. Prompted by Cody to design a piece to be made by Bali tailors, she sketched out her first kaftan. She came back to Greenwich with a couple and began wearing them. “Every time I wore it, someone would say, ‘Where did you get that? I want that.’”
With backing from her son, she launched her company and called that first sartorial creation “Goddess.” “I felt like every woman is a goddess no matter what age,” says Kittle, 65. “When you get older, you still want to be cool.”
Her creations have been seen on celebrities like Real Housewife of New York Luann de Lesseps and Katie Couric, who is featured multiple times on Walker & Wade's Instagram.
Things took off. Walker&Wade are in about 40 stores in the United States and the Caribbean. The kaftans, along with the other dresses, pants and tops in her line, are designed in Greenwich and made by seamstresses and tailors in Bali. A graduate of the Rhode Island School of Design, Kittle, who started out as a painter, brings that background, as well as her work as a textile designer (for companies such as Schumacher and Waverly) and maker of home décor products to her fashion line.
“Everything I approach is like a painting,” she says. She employs bead work and an ombre effect of her Starry Night kaftan, for instance. Patterns and colors drive her interest and attention, and make her line diverse and colorful. These are not slouchy sacks of indeterminate shape, color and allure. They pop and draw attention. These frocks remain free and easy, but are every bit flattering to form.
“For me, the essence of a kaftan is that it is very much a free spirit. It’s nonconforming,” Kittle says. “The other thing that is cool about a kaftan is that it has movement. It is just really, really comfortable, and, it can move from the beach to a night out.”
The last time such togs carried a similar vibe was in the 1960s and 1970s, when international celebrities such as Elizabeth Taylor, Princess Grace of Monaco, actress and socialite Talitha Getty and her husband John Paul Getty, Jr. and “Vogue” editor Diana Vreeland made them cool. Some of the top designers of the day were making elegant designs, including Halston, Emilio Pucci and Oscar de la Renta.
These days, designers such as Nicole Miller, Tory Burch, Alexis Mabille and Monica Patel-Cohn have them in their collections, while Pippa Holt, a former British Vogue editor, recently launched a kaftan-only line. Younger buyers appear to be passing on traditional athleisure pieces for more flowy and classy looks.
“My friends are looking for clothes that are comfortable,” says Molly Peterson, the brand manager at Walker&Wade, who is in her 20s. That they also can quickly change from casual to chic is a bonus.
“It all depends on the way you style it,” Peterson says.
On this Monday morning, Kittle is indeed bringing a touch of chic to her office while wearing her pink Starry Night goddess kaftan. Fashion aside, she also hopes to impart another message - one the jetsetting, kaftan wearers of the 1970s likely embraced. Every day should carry with it a taste of the exotic and travels to distant and not-so-distant shores.
“I have this dream. Every day should be a beach day, even if you are not anywhere near a beach,” Kittle says. “When I wear this, it almost makes me feel as if I am there.”
Article By Christina Hennessy