Aligned with the stars
Matthew Williamson's designs are regular sights on the catwalk. Carrie Chan talks to him about his famous friends and making his mark
CELEBRITY ENDORSEMENT can be a tricky business. It's a challenge faced daily by fledging British designer Matthew Williamson. Although his name has been linked to the likes of Jade Jagger and Kate Moss, both of whom appeared in his first catwalk show in 1997, the 33-year-old wants to refocus attention on what made his name in the first place: his designs.
Williamson was in Hong Kong recently for the opening of Harvey Nichols at the Landmark, which carries the city's biggest selection of his designs. The vivid colours, gold-embossed knits, crystal embellishment and floaty dresses of his Rock-It Girl collection have made his boutique one of the store's most dazzling.
Despite a night of partying, Williamson seems clear-headed. His down-to-earth manner and openness may be why he's good friends with celebrities and fashionistas such as Sienna Miller and Helena Christensen. But despite all the hype about his dresses, he admits to being trapped in the celebrity game.
After graduating from London's Central St Martins in 1994, Williamson briefly freelanced for Marni before becoming head designer of British high-street brand Monsoon. The job required visits to India, where he met the supplier who later agreed to produce the first 11 outfits of his collection, including bias-cut dresses with neon-coloured butterfly patterns, which would become one of his signatures.
After his collection was ready he cold-called Vogue, hoping one of its editors would like his work. Running through the masthead, he opted for contributing editor Plum Sykes.
'I sent her a Polaroid of one dress and then I was invited to the office,' he says. 'All the editors put in an order for about eight to 10 pieces. They told me that if I could sell them in a store, they'd write a full page on me. That's why I went to Barney's and others to sell the collection.'
So began the media coverage. As a result, jewellery designer Jade Jagger asked about one of his skirts. She wanted to wear it for a Tatler magazine photo shoot.
'We became pen pals over the price of a skirt over a few months,' he says. 'Quickly, she became a fan and we became good friends. It was never a business and she wasn't even that famous [back then]. Then it just became a press thing that she became my muse.'
Nonetheless, Williamson began to look to her for inspiration, and Jagger gave him suggestions for his first collection, Electric Angels. 'She said she wanted to model and went on to mention Kate,' he says. 'I said Kate who?' he says. 'A few days later, Kate [Moss] came in with a bag of McDonald's and said, 'I want that dress'.'
In the end, Williamson got Moss, Jagger and Helena Christensen for his same show and his collection became an overnight success. The celebrity fans quickly followed. Sykes, a regular on the New York social scene, is said to have hooked him up with many of these famous faces. Over the past years, Madonna, Elizabeth Hurley and Naomi Campbell have been added to the list.
'My critics claim they're the reason I got where I am,' he says. 'They're important ingredients' - but not the whole picture, he says.
Williamson knew he wanted to be a designer from the age of 11 even though none of his family was in the business. 'It was very clear to me,' he says. 'I never wanted to choose between this and that.' His mother's style was conservative, but Williamson says she was always 'meticulous'.
He was determined to be accepted for Central St Martins, which produced the likes of Alexander McQueen and John Galliano. Despite his ambition, Williamson says he was never the cream of the class. 'There's massive competition,' he says. 'Either you thrive on it or you don't. There was a lot of peer pressure and I didn't make any friends there.
'The reason it was difficult was because it was about challenging concepts, about being avant-garde. My work is the antithesis. I'm just interested in colour and pattern. I make women happy and look feminine.'
This aesthetic is apparent in all of his designs. He describes his autumn collection as polished and decadent with 'lots of jewellery so that someone would feel super-precious wearing it'. It features his signature dresses, including the best-selling tie-dyed peony print dress, and crystal-embellished wrap tops worn over cosy turtlenecks and tailored trousers tucked into sturdy riding boots.
An evolution in his designs is most apparent in his spring/summer collection, which was presented last month at New York Fashion Week. It included pieces in more elongated shapes, including long cashmere in the shape of a tuxedo jacket. Dresses became sleeker, with tulip-shaped versions as well as fluted grey skirts signalling a more refined and feminine look. Williamson says this is in line with a return of minimalism.
'I'm trying to make it less Bohemian, less hippy, more womanly,' he says. 'Now we're swinging back to purity and clean lines. I'm trying to bridge between the two aesthetics.'
The US, Middle East and Britain are his three biggest markets, with 160 sales points around the globe and a store in London. He's also planning to open boutiques in Moscow, Kuwait and New York. With the help of his business partner, Joseph Velosa, yearly sales revenue is expected to reach about GBP7 million ($95 million) by the end of this year.
As well, Williamson has been tipped to take over from Christian Lacroix at Pucci next year, after Lacroix announced at last week's Milan Fashion Week that the spring 2006 collection would be his last for the brand.
Williamson says that, despite the celebrity-related drawbacks, he's not ready to give it up yet. 'It does often override the work,' he says. 'But when I'm showing my pieces next to Marc Jacobs and Donna Karan, perhaps I just have to go with it.'