Exotic, erotic and glamorous, Matthew Williamson is high-fashion’s master magician. And he is getting more bohemian by the day
“The chandelier is Italian and from the 1970s – it’s quite fabulous, isn’t it?” Matthew Williamson declares. He is gesturing towards an impressive glass fixture with multiple oblong amber shades arranged in an inverted pyramid. You would require tunnel vision to miss this fixture that hangs from the stucco ceiling rose in his living room. It casts a glowing light over a full-size stuffed peacock, a velvet and tapestry patchwork sofa, and shelves and tables of collectable curios and souvenirs from his travels in Asia and South America. “You should have seen us assemble it. We were washing the pieces and passing them along one by one in a production line – it took hours.”
To behold Williamson’s home (the spacious ground floor of a 19th-century villa in Belsize Park in north London) is also to understand the fertile, eclectic and many-hued imagination of a designer who has been successfully seducing women with his exotic, bohemian vision since he started up his eponymous fashion label in 1997, three years after graduating from Central Saint Martins in London. His debut collection was given the tantalising name Electric Angels and featured a series of bejewelled neon silk slip dresses worn on the lithe forms of his model friends, Kate Moss and Jade Jagger. It swept the decadent post-rave spirit of Ibiza onto the London catwalks and made front-page news.
The Puck-like Williamson and a coterie of jeunesse dorée became the new darlings of fashion. He became in demand everywhere and was toasted with awards (including the British Fashion Awards Red Carpet Designer of the Year in 2008). Even Prince performed at Williamson’s catwalk show at London Fashion Week in 2007, which he then featured in the video to his song ‘Chelsea Rodgers’ from the Planet Earth album. These many sponsorships and collaborations were all skillfully managed by his then partner and business manager, Joseph Velosa, who now acts as chairman of the business.
The pretty, colourful, footloose style that he adores and which has become his signature, proved the perfect antidote to the dramatic, conceptually driven fashion of the time pioneered by Alexander McQueen and Hussein Chalayan. A roster of glamorous friends and fans (his shows always have an impressive front row) and his own party-friendly image – he cuts a handsome, gently tanned Peter Pan figure – broadcast the Matthew Williamson brand across the world. Between 2005 and 2008 he was creative director of LVMH-owned Florentine house Pucci, and in 2009 he created a capsule line for H&M. In 2007 he was given a retrospective at London’s Design Museum. This very popular show included a telling personal photograph that showed Matthew, aged about 9, sketching away in his bedroom wearing a patterned shirt against a background of patterned wallpaper and bed coverings. It seems the nascent designer had insisted on choosing a lively decorative scheme, even then.
I ask him about the boho style for which he has become so well known. “Bohemian is a way of expressing yourself that is never going to date,” says Williamson, sipping fresh mint tea. “It’s an aesthetic that genuinely I have always been drawn to – it’s what I love. Look at the champions of that style like Anita Pallenberg and Kate Moss – they don’t wear what’s at the pinnacle of fashion, they wear pieces that they love. It might be a vintage Ossie Clark dress or a Celia Birtwell blouse; a leather biker jacket or a slip dress. The essence of the style is always rooted in the same thing and I think there will always be that pool of people who gravitate towards it. It’s a zone that I am comfortable in.”
Global party people now not only migrate to Ibiza every summer, they flock to resorts near Bodrum in Turkey to party on the beach; to Lake Tahoe in California; to islands in northern Brazil and to José Ignacio in Uruguay in winter. The lifestyle with which Williamson connects appears in various parts of the world at different times of the year. That migration (whether you are a part of it or simply an observer) has helped maintain the allure of his brand. He is a survivor in the fickle, ruthless fashion world where the demand for The New has rocketed and brought down many small businesses in the process.
Over the years, Williamson has built up a lexicon of signs and symbols, silhouettes and colours. Throughout his designs you will find the world of birds – hummingbirds, peacocks, feathers, ostrich plumes – mirrors; stars; hothouse plants and flowers; tigers; rainbow waves; psychedelic patterns; all described in scintillating colours. Every season, those patterns and rhythms mutate. From the pre-fall collection you will find a strapless, mini-crini dress covered in fronds and wild flowers. “Prints play such an important role in my work. I love creating them as they really help to tell a story and are so expressive. My inspirations come from far and wide.”
You are not going to find groundbreaking conceptual design at Williamson but you will find evergreen pieces that exude a sense of escapism. The seduction factor reverberates on the same frequency as the work of Roberto Cavalli, Isabel Marant and Peter Dundas’s Pucci, all of whom riff on the fantasy of staying up till sunrise, dancing barefoot and loving with abandon. In our 24/7 connected lives, this dream is now ever more alluring.
Through the inevitable good and bad collections, and the ups and downs of business, Williamson has become a master of reinvention. He is currently creative director and acting CEO of his own company and employs a modest staff of 40 who work in a studio in Queen’s Park in west London and at the flagship store in Bruton Street, Mayfair. Williamson was born in 1971, into a middle-class family in Manchester in northern England and his upbringing had a significant effect upon his later success: “I have a dogged work ethic. My parents instilled that in me – you work, you get paid and you focus on how to make things better. I might not be at the epicentre of fashion and I’ve learnt to be comfortable with that,” says Williamson.
His frank attitude and laconic charm have helped cement friendships with some of the brightest beauties of a generation, including actress Sienna Miller and model/actress Poppy Delevingne. These are the types of celebrities who are just as happy backpacking in Peru as they are going to a pub in Primrose Hill or being the subject of a million Instagram shots on the red carpet.
The leggy, blonde Delevingne (supermodel Cara’s older sister) was very much on Williamson’s mind when she married businessman James Cook in London followed by a three-day party in Marrakech. Williamson designed a dress for Poppy for her Talitha Getty-themed evening party, held at the exclusive hotel La Mamounia. What better theme for a party in Marrakech than the boho pin-up who, before her untimely death, seduced Rudolf Nureyev, John Paul Getty and was muse to Ossie Clark and Yves Saint Laurent?
“It was ink-blue sequins with chain mail stars,” says Williamson of his design that no doubt looked the part when Poppy danced barefoot on the tabletops. He also created the dress for bridesmaid Sienna Miller. “She came to me for something with ‘cheeky milkmaid vibes’,” laughs Williamson who concocted a saucy baby-doll in white cotton trimmed with vintage lace he found at the antiques fair at Kempton Park in south-west London. “And I also made a coral gown with hand-dyed ostrich feathers fluttering from a chiffon cape for James Cook’s mother. She used to work for Ossie Clark and apparently I remind her of him,” he says smiling and waving an imaginary scarf over his shoulder. Then there was the small but not insignificant task of hand-painting pocket squares with the couple’s initials for all 14 ushers. “It was no holds barred,” he says of the giddy event, for which he packed a white tuxedo suit, a few T-shirts and jeans.
His mission after that was to refocus on the collections and up the ante on the lifestyle appeal of the store. He recently redid the Bruton Street flagship to create a more ‘at home’ feel, curating a mixture of vintage, reclaimed and contemporary pieces, and ousting the uniform fixtures. “With the rise of online shopping, when a customer comes to a store she wants to be seduced by smell, the touch, the intimacy – qualities that you cannot replicate in the digital universe.”
He has also designed two collections entitled Eden, one of wallpaper and the other a companion series of fabrics, for traditional English furnishings company Osborne & Little. There’s a dazzling array of decorative designs from baroque curlicues and tigers leaping through grass to a hummingbird print and a rococo pattern in velvet flock. The co-owner, Peter Osborne (brother of George Osborne, chancellor of the exchequer), and a rather ‘proper’ English gentleman, loved the collection so much he and his wife decided to have the ground floor of their London home decorated with the designer’s exotica. “It’s a lovely project – I just feel very much at home doing interiors work,” says Williamson.
His fondness and talent for this particular line of work has also lead him towards a lot of travelling: “I’m always drawn to countries which are culturally rich and expressive across the arts. Azerbaijan is next on my list of places to visit. I live and work in London but pull my inspirations from an exotic melting pot of destinations from around the world. The results are often very eclectic and rich in pattern, texture and style, which in itself is a very British sensibility. If a woman feels comfortable and confident in one of my pieces, I feel like we have done a good job.”
Illustration by Paul Holland
Words by Harriet Quick
A version of this story first appeared in the Autumn 2014 issue of Baku magazine.