“For starters, I didn’t think I was going to win,” Catherine Holstein says of being up for the CFDA American Womenswear Designer of the Year award this past November. “On top of that, I don’t like attention.” So when presenter Christina Ricci called her name, she found herself onstage “looking at all these designers I have admired and respected for so long and thinking, ‘Are you serious?’” At the podium, the soft-spoken designer cradled the silver trophy in her hands, saying, “I’ve had many failures, so I guess this is failing up.”
In a world of social media braying and relentless self-promotion, Holstein’s modesty is refreshing. She lets her clothes speak for themselves, and like her, they’re understated, but come with some intriguing undertones. In mad-scientist fashion, she’s constantly tweaking the formula, splicing together combinations that shouldn’t work, but do: cashmere bralettes, sheer stirrup leggings, or partially unzipped leather skirts that look like slick wet suits. Often, there’s a union of primness and daring, as in a sheer bodysuit worn under a flower-print skirt, or a black bra layered over a cream sack dress. Even her touchstones, as cited in her show notes, are unexpected—they range from Isaac Bashevis Singer to David Lynch to the darker, pre-Disney-fied New York depicted in Martin Scorsese’s After Hours. Even the name on the label is deceptively complex. In addition to being a stylized version of her nickname, it’s modeled on the Greek word χαίτη, which translates to “long, flowing hair” (something both Holstein and many of her muses possess).
Holstein had a peripatetic upbringing between California and London. Her fashion career began in earnest in 2005, when she was still a student at Parsons School of Design. Barneys New York bought her junior thesis collection. She dropped out of school, then set out to launch an eponymous label, but the learning curve was steep. “I was a kid out of college! I had no idea what I was doing, and that does not make for a good business,” she says now. “You learn through time and experience, and I didn’t have that then.”
Shuttering the line circa 2008, she went on to work at classic American brands including Vera Wang and Gap—experiences that influenced her next step. Khaite, which she launched in 2016, is “rooted in American sportswear—the functionality, the versatility, and the reimagining of materials…and in moving that concept forward through a specific point of view.”
Holstein has scored the rare hat trick in fashion: She is critically acclaimed, beloved by street-style stars and internet-shattering celebrities, and (as any designer will tell you, this is the hardest part) wildly successful to the point where her items regularly command the hefty wait lists usually seen at much more established fashion houses. Her designs feel like modular building blocks for a modern wardrobe, but not in the interchangeable manner of much minimalist fashion. They “are designed to be combined and recombined, yet each is special on its own, because it’s been thoroughly considered. It’s a very American approach,” she says, and it’s one that has won Holstein a fervent following. When I tell her that those acolytes include many ELLE editors, she’s flattered, but doesn’t have a theory as to her fans’ loyalty, saying, “That may be a better question for our customer than for me.” And who is that customer? “She is intelligent and confident. That can apply to any age, time, and place.” Some of her designs have even gone viral on celebrities like Katie Holmes, an experience Holstein describes as “crazy. It is something that you just can’t put into words.”
Ultimately, she allows, the secret sauce is “the emotion and materials. I am a big believer in ‘Good ingredients make good food.’ We are very specific with the use of our fabrics and the factories we work with to create the best possible product.” Holstein professes not to pay attention to trends, even the “quiet luxury” moment we’re currently experiencing. Though she’s not shouting, Holstein’s woman definitely wants to be seen.
For fall 2023, the designer focused on power, which she distinguishes from strength. While some of her pieces channeled the traditional definition of power dressing (think tailored coats and pinstripes), in Holstein’s world, a leather and shearling top paired with a leather skirt could just as easily qualify. “Power dressing can mean whatever you want it to mean,” she says. “It’s what makes you feel like the best version of yourself, and there is power in that.” You could imagine a modern-day version of Kim Basinger’s character in 9½ Weeks stalking the streets of SoHo in these looks.
Appropriately enough, Holstein recently opened her first store in the neighborhood, on Mercer Street—designed by her husband, architect Griffin Frazen. The space is as somber as a medieval tomb and as spare as a Brutalist gallery, but there’s a hint of lightness and earthiness—via two skylights, under one of which is planted an evergreen shady lady tree. The result, she says, is “the physical representation” of Khaite. “It should live and breathe as a body. It’s meant to be interactive. The sounds, the tones, the music, the real tree, and the changing light—it brings life into the space.”
In March, the growth equity firm Stripes, which has invested in other cultishly followed companies like A24 and Erewhon, made an investment in Khaite; the amount was not disclosed. Holstein says that with this infusion of capital, she wants to expand further in retail. She also says that, contra her shyness, “I love putting on a runway show.” Fashion Week “is my favorite time of year,” she says, so expect her to channel significant energy into the catwalk.
What continues to inspire her, and what might be as evergreen as both her designs and her shady lady tree, is the city she’s called home for almost 20 years. “I love New York more every day. It’s a city of extremes, brutal and beautiful. People don’t end up here accidentally. They’re driven here by an intensity I’ve never encountered anywhere else,” she says. “It’s a choice to come and it’s a choice to stay. One of the things I love most about New York is that even as it constantly changes, it doesn’t shed its history—it carries it forward. I think of Khaite in a similar way.”
This story appears in the September 2023 issue of ELLE.
ELLE Fashion Features Director
Véronique Hyland is ELLE’s Fashion Features Director and the author of the book Dress Code, which was selected as one of The New Yorker’s Best Books of the Year. Her writing has previously appeared in The New York Times Magazine, The New Yorker, W, New York magazine, Harper’s Bazaar, and Condé Nast Traveler.