Designer Matthew Williamson talks about a recurring motif in his work

Matthew Williamson talks to Pavan Shamdasani about being inspired by the '70s and surviving in the ruthless and notoriously fickle world of fashion

PUBLISHED : Friday, 14 March, 2014, 10:21am
UPDATED : Tuesday, 18 March, 2014, 1:38pm

From the 49th floor of the Upper House Hotel in Admiralty, the clear blue skies reveal the city's skyline - but it's practically lost on Matthew Williamson.

The British fashion designer seems a little dazed, but then he's been a busy man. Williamson has only just finished his autumn-winter 2014 collection which debuted at London Fashion Week. He then flew to Hong Kong, where he held a retrospective show as part of the British Government’s Great Week. On top of all that, this is his umpteenth interview of the day fielding questions about his journey from a schoolboy obsessed with the patterns of the 1970s to the toast of women's fashion.

His mother, an optician's receptionist known for her snazzy sense of style, was a big influence on how things turned out. Williamson's open-minded parents accepted his artistic ambitions and sent him from their quiet Manchester home to that essential institute of high fashion, Central Saint Martins in London.

"I don't think it was ever a question or a doubt that I didn't want to do it," Williamson says of his beginnings in fashion. "I just had an early instinct when I was a young boy. It was a field that I was fascinated with and I had a natural affinity with it, and it was quite easy to navigate my way."

The environment was as cutthroat as most designers make out, he says, but his upbringing allowed him to stand out from the intense crowd - particularly by embracing his strange but chic interests.

"I was born in the '70s, and that era is where I'm drawn to for some reason," says Williamson. "That loose notion of hedonism, the lifestyle, the design, that's my constant source. It's the core of my brand, and you need a DNA and a foundation. That's what draws me back to that era. My eye is all about sense of luxury and a bohemian spirit. Those are closely linked to the '70s."

That particular aesthetic style is sometimes known as "boho-chic", a blend of hippie patterns, flowing dresses, Indian-inspired embroidery and leggings that was particularly popular in the early 2000s. Some say Williamson invented it, others that he merely propagated it through model-muses Kate Moss and, more famously, Sienna Miller. But the one thing that is for certain is that it's appeared in every one his collections throughout his 16-year career, from his 1997 debut collection at London Fashion Week, all the way through to last month's autumn-winter line. It's the latter he wants to talk about because, while some fashion press recently had a field day with his "boho-again" current collection, he feels it's different to anything he's done before, studying a darker side to his aesthetic.

"The last collection was again based on the '70s, but it explored that hedonistic, night-time sense of a woman," he says. "We started to imagine this woman that really didn't exist and what her wardrobe would be. We were inspired by an interior shot from a '70s magazine and used that as her home to dress her."

The line was mostly met with acclaim, but any kind of repetition in the world of fashion comes with its naysayers. What they don't understand, Williamson says, is that fashion is a balancing act between commercial and creative, and those that tip too far either side eventually lose out.

"I have the freedom to do what I want. There's no one poking me in the back saying I have to stick to a formula," he says. "There have been points in my career where I've wanted to completely break free, but it wouldn't really make sense. I'm not an artist, and there's a fine line between a commercial business wanting to keep its customer base and a sense of movement."

Williamson is well aware of the commercial side of his business and his brand, something that many a haughty designer can't claim.

That's most obvious in his merciless attitude when dealing with attempts to branch out: a menswear collection that he regrettably had to kill after a couple of seasons and a leather handbag collection launched last year that he isn't sure where will go. However, he's had fruitful collaborations with luxury hotels and on fabrics and wallpapers for Osborne & Little.

Last year also saw the relaunch of his website and e-commerce site. When asked which designers in the fashion world he admires the most, he's quick to answer. "I respect every designer that has lasted for more than 10 years because it's tough, no matter how big or small their brand is," he says. "But if they have a brand and they produce clothes seasonally, then I respect that."

For Williamson, the mere act of survival in the thoroughly ruthless fashion world is most impressive, and maybe that's part of the reason he looks a bit tired. Right now, he's supposedly on a break, as much as you can call a Hong Kong retrospective showcase a break. Sixteen of his most famous outfits were modelled, including the purple empress dress worn by Keira Knightley, the textured flower embroidered black gown worn by Gwyneth Paltrow and the jade stone peplum dress worn by the Duchess of Cambridge to a London film premiere.

But in a couple of weeks' time he'll start thinking about his spring-summer 2015 line. "And no doubt I'll be thinking about the '70s," he says.

Down the road, there's nothing on his mind except pushing his brand forward.

"My grand ambition is to do more of what we do, and to do it better," says Williamson. "I just try to keep my clothes as fresh as they can be for the price that they can be. I like to think that they are full of character and will enhance whoever chooses to wear them, even if it's just a tiny bit."