The first time I met my friend Federica “Kikka” Cavenati, it took me about 10 minutes to realise how beautiful she was. And that’s really saying something, because Kikka was nothing if not beautiful – shiny copper hair, massive Bambi eyes, the kind of pillowy lips that women pay a lot for, and perfect teeth with just enough character to be disarming.
But that wasn’t what hit me first, because before all that – when Kikka threw her arms open to greet me, despite our never having met – what I noticed was her laugh. It was the kind of laugh that you might call a cackle if it wasn’t so sweet, but you also wouldn’t call it a giggle because it was too all-encompassing. She gave it generously – whether she was watching her dog Ralph act “girl crazy”, or helping you out of a pair of heels (because she never considered herself above getting down on the floor to perfect the line of an outfit, even if she had the bearing of a 1920s Italian aristocrat). Her laugh made silly things seem important and sad things seem funny and everything seem perfect. And her beauty, so easy to wax on about, paled in comparison to how beautiful she made other women feel. Not just the women she was designing for, but the women she met as she went about her day – everyone from the waitress to the design assistant to the mother of the bride. Kikka lived to help other women recognise their beauty, and that quality was inherent to her own.
Was. I’ve been told many times about the terrible cruelty of saying “was” about a vital person, a healthy person, a person who feels – in every conceivable way – present. But I’ve never felt that truth in the sharp way I do about Kikka. Her laugh – remembering it and celebrating it – has been one of the only ways to make sense of the fact that she passed away nearly three weeks ago. After a short and sudden illness – Kikka was a vibrant and present person who showed up to life with Olympic vigour, and she will not be remembered as sick – we lost Kikka at age 28.
Kikka was, by trade, a fashion designer. Along with her partner in work and love, Marco Capaldo, Kikka founded 16Arlington, a label that has single-handedly redefined the spirit of London fashion and given style back its folly and joy. Kikka’s sense of play, combined with the rigorous skills of sewing, draping and fit that she and Marco honed when studying at the London arm of Istituto Marangoni, meant that she had a presence in her industry far beyond her years. Kikka loved fashion with a capital F – sherbet colours, luxe textures and the dissonance of casual-wear when paired with a pop of drama. She brought the old world hysteria of a Bob Mackie-era Cher together with a race-car sleekness, and even her perfectly fitting casual-wear – a leather shirt, a satin pant – was always possessed of a wild detail, like a comically large collar coming to a point, or a bow twisted from an unexpected material like leather or thick brocade.
I was one of the lucky ones – along with women from Lizzo to Amal Clooney – who got to be a 16Arlington girl. Finding Kikka and Marco felt like coming home to familiars. When we met in mid-2019 so that they could make me a custom gown for a London premiere, I found myself in orange sequins having game-time hot-pink marabou hand-tacked to my bust (yet another chance for Kikka to let out that wild cackle). I said, “Wow, Kikka, you’re the chicest goof I’ve ever met”, which is how our WhatsApp group gained the name “chic goofs”. And she was, through and through – her goofiness making her infinitely chicer. Marco recently recounted to me a day this past summer when she strode into the studio in an orange sweater with a matching orange shearling over the top, holding two orange coffee cups: “You know you’ve made it when your bitch matches your coffee,” she said. That was the embodiment of Kikka – making style fun, and making fun into a pure expression of style.
I have been flooded by the lucky memories of my friendship with Kikka: laughing in yet another pile of feathers, this time inky black, as she asked, “Is it too much?”, before deciding, yet again: never too much. Eating cold French fries while she and Marco fit me for their fall 2020 show, and then Kikka making me practise my “Versace walk” up and down the hallway, the resultant iPhone video full of her giggles. Tea in the studio and on the floor. Selfies and voice notes.
The last time I saw Kiks was in late winter – she and Marco came by to drop off a leather shirt they had created for International Women’s Day, and we got to share a masked hug. At the time I commented on the fact that Kikka did everything relating to her job – even dropping off the finished product – with the glee of a schoolgirl, even as she had the finesse of a decades-long industry professional. It was that infectious sense of joy about having the chance to create art that made so many of us into 16Arlington girls, and the effect Kikka had on shaping our identities means that the world feels dimmer, less sparkly and less full of possibility right now.
Because the loss of Kikka’s voice as an artist is impossible to square away, and becomes even more painful when we think about the family, at work and home, that Kikka is survived by. Because besides fashion, family was everything to Kikka – the one she was born into (mother, father, brother), and the one she made at work, where her studio still buzzes with a sense of a shared mission, even as it beats without half its heart. She made her friends into family (she was one of six European girlfriends who, spread across the continent, considered themselves sisters and who all laughed with that same abandon), and most of all, she made a family with Marco – and of course their beloved dog Ralph, for whom Kikka would always stop everything to get down on the floor and love and baby. (That dog has laid in more luxury fabric than most heiresses, and he walks with a swagger that says he knows it.)
Marco and Kikka’s love is something I consider myself deeply lucky to have witnessed. They shared (and share) a brain, not just as designers – where they could settle on an idea with a nod – but as they built a home and life together. Marco knew and appreciated every fibre of Kikka as an artist and a woman, and that is one of the central ways she lives on. As Marco continues to design, so too does Kikka – and it is our job as the people who loved Kikka to crowd around the person she loved best, Marco, and help him to keep making, doing, feathering. In Marco, all of Kikka’s wishes, dreams and flights of fancy are housed. It’s where art and love meet, and that may be the definition of style. At least, it was hers.
Kikka loved to celebrate, but she couldn’t be at my wedding. She was at that point not feeling her best, and for Kikka, being seen without that trademark sparkle just wasn’t an option – not because she was vain (she was the farthest thing from it), but because she loved joy and she always wanted to embody the values she held so dear. And so I couldn’t celebrate with her, the best celebrant of all, but she sent herself in the form of Marco, and in the form of some delicate satin pyjamas with that trademark pointed collar and feathery cuffs. Since then I’ve worn them almost non-stop, and everywhere I go I seem to be dropping feathers, little white curls on the stairs or in an office chair. Each one feels like Kikka reminding me to have fun, relax and embrace the madness of style. But then again, I don’t really need reminding, because – as with everyone who knew Kikka – she impressed it upon me the day we met. No one who crossed her path will ever be the same, and neither will fashion.
Kikka Cavenati’s creative spirit will live at the heart of 16Arlington house, always. Marco Capaldo will present an unseen collection in February 2022 in her honour.
Originally Appeared on Vogue