KaufmanFranco Talk Taylor Swift, Red Carpet Muses, and Why They'll Never Stop Learning

isaac Franco and Ken Kaufman

Photo courtesy of Kaufman Franco

Designers Isaac Franco and Ken Kaufman

You may not recognize their faces, but there’s no doubt you know their work.

They don’t show during New York Fashion Week, adopting instead an Alaïa-esque practice of showing their collections by appointment whenever they’re finished, and they aren’t out getting their photos snapped left and right on the party circuit. But Ken Kaufman and Isaac Franco are doing something right: In the seven years since they launched their label, KAUFMANFRANCO, they’ve dressed Halle Berry, Megan Fox, Anne Hathaway, Beyoncé, Kate Beckinsale, Kim Kardashian, Jennifer Lopez, Eva Longoria, and Taylor Swift, who’s worn their pieces more times than you can count. 

FashionEtc caught up with the animated duo to talk about their wide-ranging background, their relationship, and their muses.

What can you tell me about Spring 12?

Isaac: We don’t like to say a word! It’s percolating. I put the grinds in this morning and Ken put the hot water in a little while ago.

Ken: Spring is always harder than Fall. It’s a little more relaxed, a little more washed. For Spring, we always say we take the air out of the balloon. Fall is more finished.

Tell me a little bit about your backgrounds.

Isaac: We’ve always worked together. Ken hired me out of school—I’m 10 years younger!

Ken: I hired Isaac as my assistant when I was at Pringle of Scotland. We were there for a couple months together. I left and Isaac stayed, and then he came and joined me at Bob Mackie, and we worked as co-design directors for Bob. Then after a few years we both went to Valentino, where we worked on everything from pret-a-porter to couture.

Isaac: It was amazing, because at the time Valentino was preparing for his 30-year retrospective, so a lot of the dresses that we didn’t have any longer we got to recreate. Dresses from the ‘50s and ‘60s. It was a great time to be there. And it was also great to see someone who was so involved. Everything that had his name on it, he saw. He was there every single day.

Pringle of Scotland, Bob Mackie, and Valentino are obviously incredibly different. How did you make the transition between them?

Isaac: We conned the hell out of them and told them we could do it! [Laughs] It was great, because it enabled us to really learn the business. We experienced knitwear, eveningwear, heavy beading, the foundations of a dress. Everything really made a foundation for us. We were always learning, and it was really a decision for us: Let’s learn this, let’s learn that. You lean how to swim pretty quickly in many different waters. It puts a lot more pressure on us because we do want to do every category, and we’re decent at it.

Ken: You might be decent at it. I’m exceptional at it! Excuse me!

Isaac: I didn’t want to say that! Ken is exceptional at it, but I didn’t want to say it out loud. What I mean is that while we enjoy doing eveningwear, and we’re known for it, we like to do it all. Younger designers starting out can be a little more one-dimensional. They might hire other people to be involved in other aspects when they’re building product lines, but we know it and we like to do all of it.

Ken: That’s what’s really so exciting for us.

What’s the biggest thing you learned from working in those houses?

Ken: It really laid the groundwork for us, because everything we thought we knew, we didn’t.

Isaac: And then when you start your own business, there’s so much you don’t know!

isaac Franco and Ken Kaufman

Photos courtesy of Kaufman Franco

Looks from the KAUFMANFRANCO Fall/Winter 2011 lookbook

At what point did you guys decide to start your own line?

Isaac: Everywhere we were, they were calling us “the boys.” We said, okay, we’re not going to be the boys much longer, we’re going to be old grandpas!

Ken: We started to think about what would be our dream job—would we want to take over a European label? And we thought, why would we want to direct something when we really want to create something? We wanted to start new, and create something for a new client that doesn’t have any expectations.

How do you two work together?

Ken: We’re like fire and ice!

Isaac: We don’t get to design together enough, because there’s always so much to do, but the best part of our jobs is to sit and design together. We complement each other. For example, I’m not that fantastic in knitwear, technically. I can design it, but technically it’s trickier. And Ken is great at big picture stuff. He’ll say things, and then someone has to catch it and then we try and make it happen!

Ken: We talk about each other like we love each other!

Isaac: No, we’re not boyfriends. Everybody asks that!

Ken: But we like each other.

Isaac: Some days!

What was the hardest part about starting your business?

Isaac: Setting up systems. Structuring the company, how we wanted to set it up and how we wanted it to operate. Designing isn’t the hard part, ordering fabric isn’t the hard part—but if you don’t build the right foundation, it’s really hard to stand up. We love sourcing, we love getting down to the nitty-gritty.

Where do you source your fabrics?

Ken: All over the world.

And where’s your production?

Ken: We’re all over the world. We’re in Europe, we’re in Asia. We’ve been working in Asia for almost 25 years, so luckily we have a 25 year jump start on our competition that’s now trying to get over there! We’re very lucky to know the people over there that are doing such an amazing job—I think we can really change people’s perspective on what ‘Made in China’ means. They’ve been doing tailoring since the second century B.C., and Italy’s a couple hundred years old!

How big do you want your company to be?

Isaac: We want to still be able to be something that can be discovered.

Ken: You want to stay true to the customer as well. We don’t want to be everywhere, or something that everybody has—or our customer won’t want it anymore. We want to be better than the rest.

You only do ready-to-wear for now. Do you want to expand into other categories?

Isaac: We do belts, and we’ve done jewelry in the past. We’re excited to go into shoes and other accessories—we’d love to do eyewear. You can set a whole tone with one accessory.

Ken: And menswear. We’d love to be a dual-gender brand. We’d get a clothing allowance! All the clothes would mysteriously be perfect for my body shape—I’d look back and think, ‘Oh, I was really skinny that season!’ [Laughs] That’s not very consistent, is it!

isaac Franco and Ken Kaufman

Photos: Getty Images

KAUFMANFRANCO pieces worn by Megan Fox, Taylor Swift, and Kate Beckinsale

What inspires you when you design?

Isaac: There’s never, like, a themed collection.

Ken: But there’s always a good girl/bad girl thing, always. We like to think Angelina Jolie in Mr. and Mrs. Smith—someone strong, a little bit of a seductress. That woman, sliding down the side of that building in her black jumpsuit!

It’s funny that you say that—one person who’s worn your clothes a ton on red carpets is Taylor Swift, who’s about as good as it gets when it comes to good girls.

Ken: Some bad girls are really, really good girls!

Isaac: I think it’s more about the collision of the two. Everyone has those two sides to them.

Ken: We like to do a lot of sexy little details, like things on the inside of clothes, that only you discover—until someone else discovers it!

Who have you been most excited to dress?

Isaac: Halle Berry is always a dream come true. She has an amazing body, and she’s worn a bunch of our stuff. Everyone is so different. Oprah, Mary J. Blige, and Taylor Swift! Ken saw her concert last night, as a matter of fact!

Ken: She was fabulous.

isaac Franco and Ken Kaufman

Photos: Getty Images

Looks from the KAUFMANFRANCO Fall/Winter 2011 lookbook

Do you work with her personally, or her stylist?

Ken: Usually her stylists, but we have met her. The first time we met her, I looked at her and said, ‘What are you doing singing? You could just stand there and people would love you!’ She’s so, so pretty. That was before she started getting all the magazine covers, all the fame and the movies and everything. It’s when she was just starting out. Wow, what a pretty girl.

Anyone that you haven’t dressed yet that you’d love to see in your clothes?

Isaac: I think Angelina Jolie is our fantasy woman. She’s worn us before—trenches, stuff like that—but not on the red carpet.

Ken: And we’d like to get our hands on Mrs. Obama. We might even give her a sleeve!