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Prestige | Runway | Interview | MATTHEW WILLIAMSON | Autumn/Winter 2012

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MATTHEW WILLIAMSON is celebrating 15 very colourful years in the business of fashion. ALISON CATCHPOLE meets the designer to hear about his milestone and explore his latest collection.

FROM THE MOMENT I walk into the Royal Opera House for Matthew Williamson’s London Fashion Week catwalk show, I feel a spirit of excitement. D] and model Leigh Lezark arrives, followed shortly by socialites Heather Kerzner, Olivia Palermo, Poppy Delevingne, Jemima Khan and 1960s icon Twiggy. Another elegant woman glides in discreetly past the bank of hungry paparazzi and warrants a warm welcome from the events team — she is Matthew Williamson’s mum.


“She was, I guess, the first person who I encountered growing up who used fashion to her advantage,” Williamson says later at his studio, a five-storey Mayfair townhouse. “She to me was a little bit like a peacock. She’d kind of turn getting ready into a bit of an art form and a pleasure. I was fascinated by that.


“I remember a garden party one summer. All the guests were in the back garden and she came down and outside just at the right point. Everyone turned; the spotlight was
on her. I must have been about nine years old and I remember the dress she had on. I remember thinking, she looks her best in this environment, and she knows it, and they know it, and it’s powerful, and engaging, and people want to be around her, and it made her feel good, happy, confident about herself. I really think that’s the kernel of why I began doing what I do. That’s where it all began.”


Fifteen years on from starting his eponymous label in 1997, the blue-eyed moustachioed Mancunian with finely chiselled cheekbones has plenty to celebrate. “From a childhood dream it’s become a niche fashion brand, but nonetheless a brand that has a global outreach. And in order to have that you obviously need the creativity and the infrastructure and the ideas; you need a backbone and a disciplined team of people that are all fighting for the same goal.”


With 160 stockists around the world, including stand- alone stores in London, New York and Dubai, Williamson’s keeping his team busy and from a relatively uncommon position — namely that of a completely independent British designer who is not part of a luxury-goods group, and who has a multimillion-pound business on his hands. From starting in a bedsit in Holborn with his CEO Joseph Velosa — then also his boyfriend — it’s been quite a journey.


The timing of Williamson’s debut, the vibrant 1997 Electric Angels show, fired the imaginations of a fashion press bored by a uniform output of black and grey androgyny. “I put on this little tiny show, managed to get Kate Moss, Jade Jagger and Helena Christensen to model — pretty much just because they liked the clothes, and much to everyone’s surprise — and then the day after the show it was in The Times, The Daily Telegraph, all over the broadsheets. It was really innocent, unique, naive, and Kate Moss was wearing it. I had just sent out these little neon fireflies of simplicity and optimism. So the next day we got this mountain of press and an equal amount of interest from buyers; we were two guys in a bedsit with no money, you know — it was a little overwhelming.”


Williamson’s parents, an electrical salesman and an optician’s receptionist, resigned from their jobs, left their home in Manchester and came down to share the central London bedsit. Initially helping with everything from cooking and sewing to bookkeeping, eventually his dad — the former electrical salesman — settled into a role as company odd-job man and courier, sending clothes to Browns and Harrods, while his mum became a very popular sales assistant at his Bruton Street flagship store.


“My mother would be wearing the collection; you’d get a mother and daughter coming in and the mother would sit on the sofa at the front and let the daughter shop, and my mum would go, ‘Come on, I’m 60 — there’s things for you as well.”’


After seven years Williamson’s parents moved back to Manchester, by which time the company was well and truly up and running. From 2005 to 2008, he was creative director at Florentine print label Emilio Pucci, and was already planning a sell-out
collection with high-street giant H&M for release in 2009. In 2007, London’s Design Museum recognised his unique designs with a 10-year retrospective.


In his shop on Bruton Street — where Stella McCartney, Diane Von Furstenburg and Maison Martin Margiela also have stores — he likes to keep his finger on the pulse. “I like going into my store to see who’s buying in it. How old is she? Where’s she coming from? Who is the customer? When you’re doing that, you really start to learn.”


Williamson holds a monthly in-store event for fans of the brand. “I’ll go into the shop and help them, advise them, chat with them. And a girl will say, ‘The zip isn’t going up,’ or, ‘I don’t like this part of my arm.’ They’ll tell you all those things that you kind of really need to know.”


At the press event to showcase his latest Escape resort collection, the sheer kaftans, woven leather skirts and hand-embroidered pieces continue to enchant. While journalists nibble on sandwiches in the same nature- inspired shades of delicate pink, ochre and green as the clothing, they seem to be equally relishing the range and diversity of the creative direction. With the Duchess of Cambridge, Kate Middleton, joining his fan base — she recently wore a turquoise gemstone-neckline peplum dress to a movie premiere — he’s clearly hitting the mark.


For the 15th anniversary, there will be a video exclusive to Net-a-Porter featuring 30 of his favourite models; naturally, he is planning a landmark show. “The collection is based on an Indian theme,” Williamson says, “which is where I started my business. We've got a kind of a rich DNA lifestyle brand that’s quite recognisable. I want to do a show that drinks in and absorbs all those things that we’ve become known for. Some of what I do, it’s not changed really. It’s become more refined, more polished, more professional, better made, more considered, but it’s still the same spirit.


“It’s still trying to do what I saw with my mum as that little boy in my back garden — making a woman walk into a room and feel like a million dollars.”

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