On a Friday night in 2012 when Marco Capaldo was 18, he headed out to a naff club with his school friends. It was the week before he was due to start university, the tail end of a summer suspended between adolescence and adulthood, and promised to be a fun though not particularly noteworthy night of cheap drinks and cheesy tunes. But there on the dance floor he spotted the most beautiful girl he had ever seen. ‘I just thought, “Who is she?”’he says now. ‘I remember being infatuated.’
Cut to the following Monday morning and Marco’s first day at the London outpost of Italian fashion college Istituto Marangoni. Standing with a friend, he was suddenly, inexplicably moved by the sound of footsteps on a mezzanine above. He followed the sound, and it was her, the beautiful girl from Friday night, in a baby blue mohair coat and a purple velvet hat. ‘I remember going, “Oh my god, she is perfect.” And my friend just turned around and went, “In your fucking dreams, mate.”’
That girl was Federica ‘Kikka’ Cavenati and, despite his friend’s scepticism, she did – for the next nine years – make Marco’s dreams come true. From Bergamo, near Milan, Kikka had pitched up in London after completing a foundation course in Bournemouth; Marco is also Italian, but London born and bred. ‘We fell in love quite quickly. We became the best of friends and each other’s confidantes,’ he says. They kept their fledgling relationship secret for a year. ‘It felt so special that we wanted to treasure it before letting anyone else in.’
From the beginning, they did ‘everything together’. Kikka-and-Marco, Marco-and- Kikka; to those of us who knew and loved them, they came as a pair. They had a rare compatibility that led them to take their partnership beyond romance and into design and business. Having proposed the idea of creating their graduate collection as a duo (the university wouldn’t allow it), in 2017, encouraged by Kikka’s father, they founded their own brand: 16Arlington.
It took its name from the address of the flat they shared at the time. There, they had an open-door policy for friends who’d swing by, pop in, crash on the sofa. Crucially, they would also try on the couple’s co-designed samples. Those friends would then take those dresses out and word of the brand spread organically.
Although they were aligned in vision, initially they brought quite different aesthetics to 16Arlington. Marco, minimal in his own clothes, had a taste for exuberance in his designs; Kikka, an immaculate pattern cutter, veered towards a quieter aesthetic in her work. In her own wardrobe it was a different story; I’ve seen her on Hampstead Heath in a PVC coat with a vintage Fendi Baguette. ‘She just had that knack of throwing anything on and making it look good,’ says Marco. ‘Super- glam, super-sexy Italian luxury but with a bit of London grit. I suppose that really formed the basis of the brand, these two polar opposites – a male and a female perspective, two quite different aesthetics – that somehow melded together.’
They launched their first season with five stockists, including Barney’s and Moda Operandi, a big deal for a small brand. Before long, their signature pointed collars and marabou-trimmed dresses (never too many feathers) were hitting dance floors and red carpets. Celebrities flocked to the label, as enamoured with the couple behind the brand as they were with the clothes. Lena Dunham wore a sparkly asymmetric dress to the Once Upon A Time In Hollywood premiere (she went on to become a close friend and closed their debut London Fashion Week show). Then there was Kendall Jenner in psychedelic leather, Miley Cyrus in an explosion of red feathers, Amal Clooney in shimmering white sequins: the list of 16Arlington loyalists grew and grew.
And as for the rest of us? We too felt like leading ladies in their fabulous, down-to- party pieces, which evoked that magic feeling of their first meeting: who is that girl? ‘It’s all about celebrating women. I know that’s an overused phrase but from day dot it was always how we wanted to make people feel,’ says Marco.
It was how they and the clothes made me feel. We met when they wanted to shoot me for a project they were working on. I was touched but surprised, since my own evenings now end at 9pm, not 9am. When they rocked up to my flat – dog Ralph in tow – we leapfrogged stunted small talk straight to the ease normally reserved for old friends. It had been the worst time in my life, torn apart by grief and heartbreak. But in the pictures from that afternoon the transformative effect of their company (and the silk marabou pyjamas I wore – as close as 16Arlington was ever going to get to loungewear) is palpable. On my face the kind of megawatt smile I never thought I’d own again. ‘We think you rock!’ wrote Kikka in a notebook that afternoon. The feeling was entirely mutual.
By 2021 Kikka and Marco’s future looked brighter than the spotlight their designs commanded. They were more in love than ever, newly engaged and living in a new home. The business was growing. The pandemic had been challenging, but ultimately crystallised their vision. Returning to the intimate, DIY ways of their university days, they’d dye clothes in the bath and drape using a duvet. ‘I hate to say it, because it was very hard for a lot of people, but that time was really special,’ says Marco.
To produce something as superficial as clothes felt really meaningless. But then I thought that it was a legacy we built together and that somehow gave it meaning.
And then, a cruel and abrupt twist in their story. Following a short illness, Kikka passed away – aged 28 – last October. For life’s only inevitability, there is always something surreal about the finality of death, which is only amplified when you lose someone too young. For anyone who was lucky enough to have known Kikka, it feels like a horrible mistake. She was so electrifying, so energising, so alive. She was cartoonishly, astonishingly beautiful but completely unaware of it. When Marco says everyone who met Kikka was enamoured with her, it’s not hyperbole. She was kind; interesting and interested. Kikka’s family – Marco, her parents, and her younger brother – were everything to her, and her to them. Their loss is vast and profound.
Unsurprisingly, losing Kikka left Marco struggling to find meaning in anything. The idea of creating a new collection was unfathomable. ‘To produce something as superficial as clothes felt really meaningless,’ he says. ‘But then I thought that it was a legacy we built together and that somehow gave it meaning.’
You can also find meaning in the transformative effect clothes can have. ‘Kikka’s proudest moments were when somebody would say how they felt amazing wearing the brand. She loved knowing she had helped make someone feel good. What she did in person I suppose she did indirectly through the clothes.’
So, towards the end of November, Marco returned to the studio to start work on a new collection. Supported by his tight-knit team (‘they’ve been beyond amazing’), it flowed and flowed. The creation of the A/W ’22 collection, which has just shown at London Fashion Week, was, Marco says, ‘the opposite of a distraction because when we design, I can hear what she would say. It amplifies the void, but I’m grateful to still feel her,’ he says. Her sketches gave him a starting point. ‘Some, I knew exactly what she was envisioning, some became my interpretation of her ideas.’ One of the most moving moments came when a new team member mused what the collection would look like if Kikka had still been there. His production manager, Rachel Ashworth, replied, ‘It would probably look the same.’
So fluent were they in each other’s creative language, in a way Marco is still designing with Kikka. But he is also designing for her, spurred on by a desire to make her proud. ‘I don’t care if I like something or not, it’s would Kikka like it?’
The collection he has created is beautiful and intimate. Lean trousers pool at the hems, slinky jersey and crepe dresses are easy and elegant, and effervescent sequins glint in the light. ‘I think people would expect the collection to be really dark, painful and constricting. But it’s the opposite: light, airy and relaxed. And that’s what Kikka was.’ Since she found the first catwalk show stressful, he doesn’t feel guilty. ‘She’d hate the attention,’ he laughs. ‘But it’s what she deserved.’
It is a collection born out of love as much as it is pain. It’s fitting; one of the curious privileges of grief is that it means you have loved. ‘I say it all the time: I’m the luckiest boy in the world and the unluckiest, all in one,’ Marco says, ‘I often think: how will I ever experience [what I had with Kikka] again? But I’ve been lucky to have had it once.’ Marco is deeply grateful for the comfort and support his family, friends and collaborators (a handful of whom you see in the portrait with this piece) have offered in this time. We wouldn’t have it any other way.
There is a poignant beauty in the way grief cracks you open; light gets in through those cracks. ‘You just feel everything a bit more,’ Marco agrees. ‘Everything. Having a coffee in the morning and really appreciating it, walking to work and feeling the breeze.’ Everything has been reset in a way.’ It’s telling, I think, that these are clothes for people who believe life is worth celebrating.
The last time I saw Kikka she asked how my sister Olivia, who had been widowed the previous year, was doing. She cared and expressed a belief that it wasn’t the end of Olivia’s own love story – just the beginning of a new chapter. That love doesn’t disappear.
Now Marco, stronger than he ever realised, is embarking on a new chapter. What that looks like will unfurl in its own way. But 16Arlington will continue. ‘It’s definitely for Kiks now. This is something she’s built as well. To terminate that would really feel like losing a big part of her,’ Marco says. ‘Kikka will now live on through this, so why would I stop?’