THE TASTE SUPERMARKET - Habitat at 50
The Habitat team - clockwise from back left, Philip Pollock, Sonja Jarman, Terence Conran, Kate Currie, Caroline Herbert and Pagan Taylor | Terence Donovan, 1964
THE TASTE SUPERMARKET
by John-Michael O’Sullivan
On 11th May 1964, at 9.30 in the morning, a tall oak door pivoted open on the corner of Sloane Avenue and the Fulham Road. Everyone - from the waiting queue of curious customers, to the guests invited to the launch party that evening - knew the shop inside was going to be worth a visit. But as Fiona MacCarthy - the Guardian's design correspondent at the time - laughs, “No-one knew what to expect; it just seemed like a fun idea, and it sounded as though it was going to be a nice party. Beyond that, it didn’t seem especially important!” But Habitat, the shop behind the oak door, would become a landmark in the history of the British home; the place which would revolutionise a generation’s way of living, and where modernism (or something like it) would finally go mainstream.
Fifty years later, Edinburgh-born Kate Currie - one of the shop’s first managers, alongside Sonja Jarman - still fizzes with exuberantly-enunciated enthusiasm about the opening; "Well, it was amazing, it just WAS! I know everyone says Fulham Road was rundown then - but to me it always had tre-MEND-ous style. There were lots of little boutiques, and you were so close to the Kings Road, where EVERYTHING was happening. And suddenly you had this new shop with atmosphere, and life - and MUSIC. At Woollands (the Knightsbridge department store, where Currie had previously run a pioneering modern furniture department) we’d NEVER had music, but Terence in-SIST-ed on it!”
Currie’s "Terence", of course, was an entrepreneurial 31-year-old furniture-maker called Terence Conran; by then already a well-known figure on the London design scene, who’d found himself becoming increasingly frustrated with the stagnant state of furniture retailing. Caroline Macdonald-Haig, a former editor at The Ambassador magazine, traces the roots of that frustration back to the mid-Forties; "After the war, you see, I think people just needed to feel very domestic and safe in their homes; they weren’t ready for something new. When the Festival of Britain came along (in 1951), it was an incredible moment for design, and Terence and his contemporaries must have felt they were about to change the world - but afterwards, they quickly found out they couldn’t!” In theory, the time should have been ripe for the kind of democratic, mass-produced modern design being championed internationally by the likes of Charles and Ray Eames. But the average British middle-class consumer’s reality was something far more depressingly old-fashioned; grand dinosaurs like Maples, Waring & Gillow or Heals, where the business of purchasing furniture was a formidably formal experience, as befitted what Angela Carter would call the "once-in-a-lifetime grand slam" - marriage, a good set of china, and a sturdy three-piece suite.
By 1964, though, Britain was ready for change. In the space of the decade since the Festival of Britain, the average wage had doubled to £16 a week; wartime and rationing were rapidly fading memories; and the baby-boom generation were just beginning to explore their new-found affluence.
And Habitat - with its’ sociable atmosphere, its’ clean-lined furniture and its’ heaped piles of quirky accessories - was timed to perfection. Suddenly, there was a place where you could buy homewares as easily, as casually - and as pleasurably - as you could an outfit from Biba or Bazar. And although images of the Oliver Gregory-designed shop seem innocuous now, with its’ slatted ceilings, simple shelving and exposed brick walls, it’s hard to overstate the impact of its’ arrival; it was, as David Phillips (Habitat’s first professional buyer) says,"as startling and eye-catching as the first mini-skirt."
Maurice Libby, Currie’s assistant at Woollands, laughs at the memory of Conran swearing them both to secrecy, months before the opening; “But of course, we didn’t know then that Terence couldn’t keep a secret himself!! And then suddenly, everywhere you went, all everyone was saying was, “Have you HEARD what Terence is up to?” What Conran was up to, as it turned out, was the creation of what the opening press release called a store for "young moderns with lively tastes." And those young moderns came in droves (as they would for the next four decades) both to look and to shop, furnishing their homes with Habitat’s genre-hopping mix of Corbusier and Magistretti chairs, bean bags, paper lampshades and bentwood rockers - or to pick something up on impulse, from the £3 Brown Betty teapot to the 13-shilling pepper grinder that ended up starring in the fashion pages of Queen. In those early years, the breadth of the Habitat offer was key to the brand’s class-hopping appeal. “Things weren’t cheap, but they were certainly affordable,” Sonja Jarman qualifies, “and I think the person who’s never really had credit for her part in all of this is Caroline - she sourced the kitchenware goods, and brought in all those things that weren’t available anywhere else at the time.” Caroline Herbert - the latest Mrs. Conran, and a former home editor at Queen - brought her copywriting skills, too, producing the text for the shop’s first brochures, double-sided sheets covered with typewritten text and endearingly homespun illustrations by Juliet Glynn-Smith. Initially, Conran himself stayed firmly in the background, wary of antagonising his contract company’s retail clients, and named only as a "prime collaborator"; " managing director Pagan Taylor, a top Fifties’ model, acted as the shop’s public face, bringing a dash of well-connected glamour to the whole enterprise (as well as providing its’ name, plucked from Roget’s Thesaurus.) That fleeting sense of cool ensured that Habitat attracted the whole spectrum of Swinging London; mid-flow, Currie briefly pauses to fret, “I hope I’m not talking TOO much about the celebrities, am I?” It’s perhaps hard not to, in fairness when her clientele included Lord Snowdon, Anouk Aimée, Albert Finney, Pattie Boyd and George Harrison (whom she remembers debating rugs with in the basement - "the whole marriage thing seemed FAR too much for him, poor dear!")
But behind the scenes, the fledgling business could be chaotic. "It seemed as though we were always on the telephone, apologising to SOME-one! " Currie sighs, "There were always delivery problems, especially with the furniture. And of course WE didn’t know where the money was coming from, or how tight it really was." Speaking decades, Taylor tersely remembered her time there being "like a hard fall from a galloping horse." She left after just six months - and Currie and Jarman would follow suit soon afterwards. But by then, it was already clear that Habitat was all about one man - and mid-decade, Fiona MacCarthy neatly summed up his disciples; "These are Conran people. Or at least imitation Conran. They buy their lives from Habitat … Or else they set up cheerful home from minor Habitats, bright shops on Conran principles in almost every town."
And Terence Conran was just getting started. At the end of the first year of trading, the business recorded an unspectacular £1,600 profit. But within the decade, the Fulham Road space had been converted to the more upmarket Conran Shop - whilst a simplified, entry-level version of Habitat, selling an accessible ideal of informal contemporary living, had become a phenomenon. Branches sprouted across the country and beyond, spreading to the United States, Canada and Europe. By then it had already started to acquire the nicknames that reflected its’ mass-market allure - Shabby Tat, Habi-Tatty. But it had also filtered into every aspect of popular culture; in fiction, the pages of novels from Jilly Cooper’s Octavia and Malcolm Bradbury’s The History Man are littered with Habitat products, whilst "a Habitat bathrobe (like Pandora’s dad)" made it onto Adrian Mole’sChristmas list in 1982, the year the company’s shares finally floated on the London Stock Exchange. "Terence WANTED Habitat to be popular," Stafford Cliff - a graphic designer who worked with Conran from the mid-sixties onwards - recalls, “he WANTED everyone to have a Chicken Brick. That’s where the catalogues came from, really.”
Via the Habitat-by-Post catalogues (published annually every summer from 1969, with a separate Christmas supplement) Britain would encounter a brave new world, filled with exotic ideas - not simply about how homes should look, or what furniture they should contain, but about what living itself could (and should) be like. Through its’ pages, readers were introduced to visions of the home as a relaxed, informal experience, alive with activity and individual identity. It was a universe of lofts and sleeping platforms and open-plan studios, for people who Carter would describe - in stark contrast to their parents’ generation - as living “with their furniture, not alongside it.” The catalogue launched and popularised now-familiar products like the bean bag, the wok, and the legendary Chicken Brick. Some would be instant successes; others, like the duvet - or the 10-second-bed, as the Habitat campaign dubbed it, eager to extol the virtues of a life without blankets and sheets - would become more slow-burning, long-term victories.
The catalogues became a well-loved household staple, with the initial print run of 30,000 increasing five-fold across the decade. But it could provoke controversy, too, as it did when the 1973 issue showed a naked mixed-race couple, curled up in bed. "We weren’t aiming to shock, though.", Stafford Cliff qualifies, "Yes, we tried to push the boundaries - but only in terms of what was fun and interesting. We were thinking, “Who is this purchase for, what is their life like?” And we created environments that felt inhabited by real people. It was about how I was living, and how the people I knew were living.” And arguably, it was the confident, seductively complete world that Conran and Cliff depicted in those catalogues - and, later, in best-selling publications like The House Book - that made Habitat’s impact something far greater and deeper than the reach of its’ individual shops; by the mid-Seventies, Angela Carter had labelled it "the dominant domestic style of a generation."
It seems to be standard practice, nowadays, to say that Habitat lost its’ way in later years. That’s an easy conclusion to draw, as you leaf through the catalogues and watch its’ aesthetic twists and turns - from Pop plastics and Hockney prints to earthy romance in the Seventies, matchy pastels to sleek metallics in the Eighties, quiet minimalism to vague exoticism in the Nineties. And the business has had more than its’ share of ups and downs over its’ half-century, swelling from that first shop on Fulham Road into a retailing Goliath, with eighty stores across three continents. But perhaps it would be more accurate to say that - after decades of growing up alongside the brand - Britain finally simply outgrew it. By the time Conran himself was ousted in 1990, Habitat was making more over £300 million in annual sales - but instead of being an unchallenged voice, it found itself jostling for space and attention in a retail landscape where choice had broadened to the point of chaos, and where newer concepts like Muji and IKEA were taking over.
Modern retail’s short history is littered with brands that once utterly epitomised a zeitgeist (Biba, Laura Ashley, French Connection), and who’ve since struggled to either capitalise on - or move on from - that past. In 2011, Habitat - or what was left of it - was taken over by the Home Retail Group, and condensed down to just three London stores. Today’s company is run by managing director Claire Askem and creative director Polly Dickens, who both grew up in the Habitat era, and both share a clear affection and passion for the brand they’ve rescued. They’re slowly, understatedly expanding, with mini-Habitat spaces opening in the parent company’s Homebase stores. And despite the doubts, their cleaned-up, refocused vision has begun to win critics and customers over. To mark the 50th anniversary, autumn will see them launch collaborations with a cross-section of designers from Habitat’s history - Tord Boontje, Simon Pengelly and Claire Norcross amongst them. But beyond that, neither of them seem focused on recapturing yesterday’s moment; Dickens, a former Conran buying director, seems particularly unfazed by the challenge; "You’ve just got to have a point of view that the customer can relate to and understand. What was great about Habitat, originally, was that Terence put together a fantastic edit of what was out there. It was what was interesting, and relevant. And it really led the way."
In a fundamental way, though, Habitat wasn’t entirely new, even in 1964. Contemporaries (like IKEA and Marimekko in Sweden, Crate & Barrel and Design Research in the US, or even the Design Centre and Woollands in London) were far more pointedly - and single-mindedly - modernist.Habitat, though, was something else. It launched at the dawn of the Sunday supplement age, the year the Beatles conquered America, a week after Michael Apted’s seminal Seven-Up documentary series launched, and a few days after Joe Orton’s dysfunctional siblings first began to entertain a lodger called Mr. Sloane; in other words, at the point at which Britain started to simultaneously celebrate, examine and scathingly subvert its’ own identity as never before. And Conran’s pick-and-mix of newness and tongue-in-cheek tradition was a disarmingly easy sell to a generation who thought themselves consumed with ridding themselves of everything to do with the past - and yet who would end up being consumed by the idea of consumption itself; post-modernism, before anyone had thought to give it a name.
It’s aesthetic - informal, open, abundantly-stocked, eclectic - might have seemed radical at the time, but it was no different from the French markets and provincial retailers which had inspired Conran in the first place - or from the Cornish village shop where Libby (who would remain Habitat’s visual merchandiser for 25 years) learnt his trade decades before."Habitat liked and embraced traditional values," Stafford Cliff acknowledges, “and it was never ‘MODERN’ in a way that would alienate.” He’s echoing what MacCarthy wrote about the shop she was already calling "homely old Habitat" in 1966; "The furniture (Conran) makes is not especially original: safari chairs and Chesterfields renewed for modern life do not contribute greatly to the progress of design. The odds and ends he sells in Habitat are scarcely aesthetic revelations when you see them one by one . . " It was the confidence and panache of the Habitat experience, though, that made it singular, and utterly novel: in 1968, a BBC commentator thoughtfully called it “a sort of taste supermarket … like an urban dream of farmhouse living. He sells people the present by re-interpreting the past.” And the confident safety of that taste, for right or wrong, would become indistinguishable from British taste itself for decades to come.
Habitat made Terence Conran’s name; it also flattened his career to a single dimension. His early career - as a prolific, ambitious furniture designer - saw him create pieces which were purchased by everyone from Picasso to Philip Johnson. But he’s become more known as the nation’s avuncular, blue-shirted shopkeeper and restaurateur, whose 'Conranisation' (another of McCarthy’s hard-to-resist appellations) has made him a globally significant, albeit polarising, name. You sense he may not have minded much - over the course of interviews for this piece, he’s been called both a romantic idealist and a ruthless entrepreneur, and compared to everyone from William Morris to Mary Quant, and Paul Klee to Martha Stewart. His is a life that’s been lived in soundbites, whether his classmates at the Central School of Art ("32 virgins from Surbiton"), to his popularisation of the duvet, which he would claim "changed the sex life of Europe", to his own reputation as a borrower; Conran himself would be unapologetic about his magpie reputation; "What’s a plagiarist?", a friend’s daughter once asked. "I am." was his prompt reply. And yet it would be decades before anyone plagiarised Habitat itself; "Terence was always surprised that no-one really copied him," Stafford Cliff muses, "And I think he would have been happy if someone else had."
But looking back, it’s hard to think of any other retailer, particularly in homewares, that’s had comparable impact. What’s most striking of all, though, is not so much Habitat’s impact on Britain today, but in its’ impact on one very specific generation. Stafford Cliff still has a Seventies Habitat sofa, and Caroline MacDonald Haig mourns her broken Cribier jugs: Maurice Libby’s gently immaculate home has a career’s worth of Habitat images and cuttings thoughtfully archived: and David Phillips and his wife start and end their day eating at one of the Summa tables which Conran was selling before Habitat even existed. Sonja Jarman - now Sonja Waites - runs the elegant florist Pulbrook & Gould in Mayfair, in a grand period room where masses of flowers explode from a wall of starkly modern, black-stained frames; and Kate Currie, in Florida, remains as fascinated by Modernism as she was fifty years ago. Conran’s vision of modernism - democratic, optimistic, affordable, comforting, beautiful - feels as though it’s in their bones.
And McDonald-Haig - who was still a schoolgirl when Habitat first opened, "reading newspapers," she laughs, "which had all the Profumo bits cut out!" - is currently touring the country lecturing on the brand’s history, and finding herself overwhelmed by her audiences’ affectionate nostalgia. To these people, and to their broader generation, Habitat represents a moment in popular design that may never come again - and the memory of a revolution whose soldiers came outfitted in Polly Peck shifts and butchers’ aprons, and armed with bags stamped KITCHEN GOODS/FABRICS CARPETS/CHINA & GLASS/FURNITURE.
But that’s all yesterday. The new Habitat, whatever its’ future, is focusing firmly forward. "We don’t have the same heritage baggage a fashion brand might have," Askem says thoughtfully, " - we know people love Habitat, but we equally feel we have the permission to do what feels right for today’s world, and today’s way of living." And Dickens shrugs, with pride and just a little defiance, as she surveys a Clerkenwell studio filled with young designers, working with everything from intricate computer models to handpainted paper cut-outs; "Habitat was ALWAYS about the now."
Habitat Catalogue | 1973
Written for The Observer
POISON - A Once Upon A Time Story
Michiel Meewis for ARTICLE | 2013
Mary Poppins, Swallows & Amazons, The Railway Children, A Traveller in Time: the first half of the twentieth century was, and remains, a golden age in children’s literature. Decades later, these books have become part of Britishness itself - stories passed between generations, rubbed soft with affection. Always a ‘Once upon a time’ at the start, always a ‘happily ever after’ to end - but what came in between was rarely as simple as it seemed.
From as far back as I can remember, I knew exactly what a children’s author should look like. Their pictures were printed inside the dust jackets of every book we carted home from the Kerry County Library; motherly women with mild expressions and sensible tweeds, sat stiffly at tidy writing desks and squinting anxiously away from the camera. They had names like Enid and Elisabeth and Alison, and they lived in houses called Old Thatch or Hemmingford Grey (brick-and-timber houses that always had climbing flowers and white-painted gates), and they wrote with a kind of uniform, comfortingly bossy predictability - so that even when there wasn’t a picture or author’s note to be found, you felt certain you knew who you were dealing with. And you knew that you were safe.
Unless you stumbled across Beverley Nichols. On the outside, his books - The Tree That Sat Down, The Stream That Stood Still and The Magic Mountain - looked just as innocuously enchanting as all the others, with tiny figures wandering round washed-out watercolour landscapes. And inside there were all the familiar ingredients; wise grandmothers and wicked witches, talking animals and handsome princes. But the Nichols stories were different; designed, the publishers cautioned, ‘to be enjoyed by children of nine years and older’ (a warning guaranteed to attract a curious six-year-old like me.) At the end of each story, the villains were inevitably - if half-heartedly - dispatched; but they came back, again and again, devising nastier and deadlier plans each time - and revelling in being not just bad, but brutal. Nichols’ heroes and heroines weren’t just in mild spots of bother; if they weren’t being turned into fish or viciously beaten, they were being tricked onto booby-trapped planes or lured to the edge of towering cliffs. And they were forever barely escaping poison, in one form or another - toad-spit, snake venom, ground-up vulture’s claws. Reading them over today, it’s startling how much sheer physical pain there is - how his characters bruise and bleed and choke; how, forced underwater, they struggle for breath, or have their skin worn raw from chains. It was the kind of dark children-in-peril story that would become commonplace, decades later, among more bloodthirsty writers like Roald Dahl and Lemony Snicket. It wasn’t what you expected, though, from someone called Beverley, who lived in a place called Merry Hall - another house with climbing flowers and white-painted gates. But then Beverley Nichols wasn’t your average children’s author. There was no benevolent, reassuring lady gazing out from the back of these books - because, unlike most of the genre’s other writers at the time, Nichols was a man.
Make that a middle-aged man: Beverley Nichols was 47 when his first children’s story, The Tree That Sat Down, was published, and in his fifties by the time the last volume in the trilogy appeared. Three decades earlier, he had exploded onto the London literary scene as a dazzlingly handsome Oxford student; he was a local celebrity before he’d even graduated, and a global one from the moment he published his autobiography (called 25, but written - with characteristic impatience - at the age of 24). Witty, elegant and unfailingly entertaining, he became a darling of the social circuit and was hailed as one of the brightest of the Bright Young Things. And for the next decade he sped around the world, mingling with presidents, film stars, and royalty, and dashing off a dizzying variety of prose - screenplays, revues, novels and endless newspaper pieces - all of which were calculated to maximise his public profile. He specialised in unpredictability; turning from courtroom reporting to religion, and from crime fiction to celebrity interviews - and then, just when everyone least expected it, retiring to the countryside and reinventing himself as a best-selling garden writer. But there was, it turned out, a monster in the shadows - the narrative of a controlling, monstrously alcoholic Edwardian father, whom Nichols tried to kill three times (once with ground-up painkillers, once with a lawnmower, and finally with a mix of sleeping pills and alcohol.) Their relationship was a horror story which he gleefully transformed into a parlour anecdote, the detail growing more crowd-pleasingly gory with every telling.
That dark, hardly-hidden side of Nichols’ life seeped into everything he wrote; it even bloomed like a slow stain under the surface of his sweetly-wrapped children’s stories. His villains got off on casual violence and intricately-plotted revenge, and spent their lives concealing their evil intentions under perfume clouds of flattery and charm. (One of the books’ most regular, and most dangerous, forms of entrapment was a particularly modern one: Advertising.) And, in truth, the villains always seemed to be having a much better time of it than the heroes. Miss Smith, the 400-year old crone who stalked through each of his books, was a spectacularly-concocted blend of sociopath and painted glamour-puss: a vision of absolute loveliness - once she’d stuck her fake nose on, added fluttering eyelashes and a blonde wig, and tossed on the latest fashions. His contemporaries enjoyed the gleeful kick of malice, included just for grown-ups; the scarcely-veiled allusions to London’s social scene, the notion of witches shopping at Woolworths’ and living behind net curtains in Hampstead Garden Suburb, the ageing hostesses fancy-dressed as simpering Beaton ingénues.
Reviewing one of Nichols’ first novels, The Spectator sniffed; “He wishes to gain reputation. He wishes to have written books.” And writing children’s novels was simply another short-lived means to 'gain reputation'. He had no particular affection for children; his nieces would remember him as distant at best, and oblivious at worst (although he deigned to include them in a dedication once, signed ‘from their Wicked Uncle’ ). And in the decades that followed, the one-time literary golden boy would abandon childrens’ literature, and change tack again - writing a series of increasingly bitter, increasingly controversial titles. That series culminated in Father Figure, the sensationalist narrative of his relationship with the parent he loathed, and of his farcically doomed attempts to polish him off (a book which appeared a year after Miss Smith made her final, most enjoyably venomous appearance in The Wickedest Witch In The World.) It became a bestseller: and Beverley Nichols, parent-poisoner, rocketed back into the headlines.
It was a sour, stark note to end a career on. Yet Nichols was never arrested, or even investigated. It was just a children’s story, after all - wasn’t it? Surely someone would have known if it was real?
And when he is remembered today - if at all - it’s for something gentler; for living in a house with climbing roses and a white-painted gate, and for writing now-faded books about gardens, and cats, and beautiful witches - witches whose satin slipper-clad footprints could wither grass, and whose nostrils, when angry, puffed with delicate trails of venomous smoke.
Michiel Meewis for ARTICLE | 2013
Written for Issue 2 of ARTICLE
ALL ABOUT YVES
Yves Saint Laurent | Marie Cosindas, 1968
Seven years before he died, Yves Saint Laurent agreed to be filmed by documentary-maker David Teboul, for a rare behind-the-scenes look at his work. In the opening scene, watching a slideshow of family photographs, he grimaces: “J’ai joué le ‘grand couturier’…” His voice is both sad, and self-mocking; the voice of an old man looking back across a great distance at his frail sixteen-year-old self, head bowed over his lavishly-dressed paper dolls. Growing up in 1940’s French Algeria, the young Yves Henri Donat Mathieu-Saint-Laurent dreamed of Paris: a bullied outcast at school, he escaped into fantasy at home - devouring his mother’s fashion magazines, sketching endlessly, and predicting (in the safety of his adoring family circle, at least) a future of spectacular fame.
Six decades on, the story of the little boy who played ‘grand couturier’, and who grew up to become the century’s most notorious fashion designer, shows no sign of losing its’ appeal. 2014 will the release of two films based on his life: the first, actor/director Jalil Lespert’s Yves Saint Laurent, is currently topping the French box office, charming audiences with its’ affectionately human portrait of the man behind the myth. In October, the second - directed by Bertrand Bonello, best known for the controversial L’Apollonide (House of Tolerance) - will be released. Pierre Bergé, Saint Laurent’s partner, has been vocal in his support for Lespert’s film - and equally outspoken in his condemnation of Bonnello’s: he’s granted Lespert access to his extensive archives, whilst Kering (the luxury conglomerate which now owns the Yves Saint Laurent label) has thrown its’ support behind Bonnello’s rival project.
And so the stage is set for the latest round in the battle for the Saint Laurent legacy. Since the late Nineties, some of the biggest names in fashion, from Lanvin’s Alber Elbaz to Tom Ford, have spent periods at the label’s helm; but ultimately, even the all-conquering Ford was defeated - simply, it seemed, not Yves enough. In 2012, Hedi Slimane - first hired as a menswear designer back in 1996, when he (like Yves four decades before him) was a shy, awkwardly tall young man - returned to the house, and immediately shortened the label’s name to Saint Laurent. The move provoked an immediate storm of protest, and a surprisingly long-lived backlash: last autumn, Parisian store Colette fell out with the label over t-shirts which bore the stark, compellingly catchy slogan: AIN’T LAURENT WITHOUT YVES.
It’s not hard to understand the world’s fascination with the YSL story; it’s a saga that blends wild public success and private suffering, centred on a man who incarnated all the glamour and pain of modern celebrity. Outwardly, he led a charmed life from the start. Just two years after that family photo was taken, he had won an international design competition (beating future rival, Karl Lagerfeld), and been hired by fashion’s reigning Sun King, Christian Dior. Lespert’s film begins at this point, with the twenty-year-old Yves enthroned as Dior’s crown prince. As played by Pierre Niney, he is at once violently demanding and intensely shy, pampered and secure – as he had been in Algeria – in a world of adoring women. But that sheltered, happy existence was soon to be shattered, with Dior’s premature death in 1957 pushing his seemingly-reluctant successor into the spotlight.
Hauled in front of the cameras for endless interviews and photoshoots, Saint Laurent became an object of immediate fascination: quiet, timid, with neatly-parted schoolboy hair, anxious eyes lurking behind thick glasses, and a frail body encased in a tight black suit. L’Express hailed him as France’s latest ‘enfant triste’ – another of the country’s new wave of melancholy prodigies, like novelist Françoise Sagan and painter Bernard Buffet. WWD’s correspondent was more specific, and less charitable – she saw an “an ugly, ungainly, overgrown boy with thick glasses, and so horribly shy he couldn’t take his eyes off the floor.” Charged at 21 with safeguarding the future of the world’s most successful fashion house, the pressure was intense: after his’ first, rapturously received collection, the International Herald Tribune’s correspondent would famously report: “Everybody was crying. It was the emotional fashion binge of all time.” The rapturous reviews were soon followed by doubting ones, though, and within two years the House of Dior would take advantage of his military call-up to have their boy wonder replaced. Exiled from his Avenue Montaigne paradise, Saint Laurent fell apart, and was admitted to mental hospital a bare three weeks after reporting for duty: a has-been, at 24.
But Yves was not alone. Shortly after his Dior début in 1958, he had met Buffet’s then-boyfriend, Pierre Bergé, and embarked a personal and professional relationship which would endure to the end of his life. Bergé got Yves out of hospital and back to work, helping to set up the label whose three sensuously entwined initials would revolutionise Parisian fashion in the Sixties, scandalise the world in the Seventies, and stamp themselves imperiously across in the Eighties. From the outset, their roles were clear. Yves was the vulnerable, suffering artist, and Pierre the fiercely controlling protector: a man who, in Lespert’s film, is painfully aware of his public image - “the pimp who’s found his all-star hooker.” As Bergé, Guillaume Gallienne is a solid yet strangely vulnerable presence; a jailor who seems just as imprisoned in their tormented relationship as Yves himself is. And in the frail Niney, the story has found an actor perhaps more like Saint Laurent than Saint Laurent himself ever was - tortured, intense, and yet endearingly childlike as he stumbles out of couture’s disciplined universe into the liberated decadence of the Sixties. There are signs of a dark side, too; the jealous possessiveness of friends, the trembling fear of physical intimacy, the ability to work himself up into convenient hysterics at the slightest hint of pressure. And there are flashes of a strain of steel that few saw, or chose to see. “Yves was a very strong person,” says Susan Train, Condé Nast’s Parisian bureau chief, and a friend of both Saint Laurent and Bergé. “Don’t forget, he’s a Leo! But he was much happier to keep Pierre out in front, making all the noise, and doing the barking and nipping at people’s heels. That’s what, when I first knew him, Pierre had been for Bernard Buffet; the public voice, and the one who took over all the nitty gritty. But Yves depended enormously on Pierre, and he would never have been the success he was without him.”
That success took time: the first Yves Saint Laurent show, in January 1962, was only moderately successful. But in the years that followed his star soared. He created ideas became overnight sensations, and then timeless icons: the Mondrian-print shift dress, the Saharienne safari jacket, the Le Smoking trouser suit, Catherine Deneuve’s Belle de Jour wardrobe. And in the mid-Sixties, his ready-to-wear Rive Gauche label became a global phenomenon, offering women everywhere the chance to get an affordable slice of the YSL dream. The young, timid Yves (the “shy, sad-eyed person who seemed to quiver at the sound of strange voices” ) had gone, replaced by a charming, seemingly assured man who was more than just a household name - like Coco Chanel, he had become his brand’s most alluringly potent incarnation.
In place of the enfant triste’, magazines began to be filled with pictures of Yves at play: partying with Halston and Warhol in New York, making mischief with muses like Betty Catroux and Loulou de la Falaise in Paris, and relaxing with the kif-smoking jet set in Marrakech. His dark suits disappeared, replaced by luxuriously louche kaftans, silk shirts, suede jackets and leather trenchcoats. And when he stepped in front of Jeanloup Sieff’s lens to promote his first men’s fragrance in 1971, he went nude. His instructions were specific: “I want to create a scandal.” The resulting campaign did exactly that, creating the image which would endure in the public gaze forever - the rich sweep of brown hair, the thick, black-framed glasses, the lean, sinewy frame and long, elegant hands.
But that same image became a desperately effective mask. The paparazzi-friendly Yves that danced the night away in the Sixties and Seventies was high - on success, on fame, and on an ever-changing cocktail of alcohol, acid and cocaine. Off camera there were fierce, increasingly violent rows with Pierre, who was struggling to keep both the business and Yves himself afloat. Ultimately, Bergé would move out, unable to cope with Yves’ utter self-absorption. As the years went on they would both have other interests, other passions, other lovers (most notably Lagerfeld protégé Jacques de Bascher, whose affair with Yves would add yet another dimension to the bitter Lagerfeld/Saint Laurent rivalry.) But they would continue to function as a symbiotic double act to the end. And while Pierre became an increasingly belligerent spokesperson, Yves flinched away from the public gaze, exhausted by the fashion treadmill and yet - apparently - unable to stop. There would be rumours of illness, rumours of AIDS, even regular reports of his death. In his diaries, Warhol recorded: “Loulou told us that YSL really was such a genius that he just can’t take it, he has to take a million pills and the whole office gets so depressed when he’s depressed…” Finally, Yves simply withdrew: after his death from brain cancer in 2008, Pierre commented simply that his partner had “entered depression as one enters a religion.” And, as ever, he took care of everything. “Everything I didn’t have, he had,” Yves would say in 2001; “His strength meant I could rest on him when I was out of breath.”
Even at his most extroverted moments, Yves had been shielded by his cabal of intimates; towards the end, his world would reduce to his studio on Avenue Marceau, to the couple’s holiday home in Marrakech, and to the cloistered apartment on Rue de Babylone to which fewer and fewer people were admitted. (Although Pierre, long after they stopped living together, would continue to have his own key.) The man who had once declared couture’s certain death retreated back into that world’s rarefied nostalgia, whilst simultaneously signing his name to everything from sunglasses to bedlinens to cigarettes, and licensing a range of era-defining fragrances (Opium, Jazz, Kouros, Paris, Rive Gauche), which would keep YSL’s name firmly in the spotlight - as the man behind the initials slowly faded away.
In life and in death, Yves Saint Laurent was endlessly reviewed, interviewed, gossiped about and analysed (as were those around him; “What can I tell you that I haven’t already told somebody else?” Susan Train sighs.) Yet, at heart, he remains an enigma. Early in Lespert’s film, he confides in Bergé “You know, I’m not that nice.” And you sense that not-niceness remains the largely untold part of the Saint Laurent story – the man who could cut friends and supporters out of his life without a backward glance, who averted his gaze from unpleasantness, and who sheltered behind Bergé’s aggressive energy just as completely as he sheltered behind his thick-lensed glasses. But Yves was a genius, indulged and excused by a generation who believed that geniuses should live by different rules. But in some respects that archaic hothouse universe still endures, particularly in Paris: it’s only been three years, after all, since Christophe Decarnin left Balmain amidst rumours of a nervous breakdown, and since John Galliano - another indulged Dior boy wonder - had his own startlingly public fall from grace.
Lespert doesn’t shy away from that dark side in Yves Saint Laurent, but focuses on what the director calls the “belles années” - Yves’ best years, from his accession to the Dior throne in 1958 to his triumphant Ballets Russes couture collection in 1976. They were also, quite literally, the most beautiful years; years in his world blossomed from restrained black-and-white into glamorous colour, and during which everyone he knew and cared about was beautiful too. And the film ends when the beauty does, with Yves stumbling onto the runway - mouth slumped askew, eyes lost behind his glasses, his movement unsteady and uncertain. He would carry on designing till 2002 – every show remorselessly measured against his past hits, and every final bow accompanied by the suspense of waiting to see whether he’d manage the short walk to the end of the runway.
Bonello’s film, starring Hannibal Rising’s Gaspard Ulliel, will condense the timeline even further, narrowing to the 1966-1976 period. That means missing the beginnings of the relationship with Bergé - but allowing a greater focus on Yves during the years when he accomplished his definitive works, fell in and out of obsession with Jacques de Bascher, and finally imploded. And as the press fans the flames of rivalry between the two productions, the Bonello team are playing up their version as the ‘unauthorised’ story - one which will portray Yves’ truth, rather than Pierre’s.
It’s hard to know how much the truth matters. Yves Saint Laurent has long been more legend than fact, and even in life spent decades lost behind a screen of conjecture and rumour. And whatever the reality, the house that Yves and Pierre built remains a powerfully tangible legacy: one whose story will continue long after this year of biopics is over, and all the story’s players have finally left the stage.
Yves Saint Laurent | Abbas, 1986
Written for The Observer
BURBERRY PRORSUM, WINTER 2014
On Burberry Prorsum’s pop-up invite, London is all mixed up. The Tower of London is tucked behind Marble Arch, the stature of Eros from Piccadilly Circus has migrated to St Pauls, and the Burberry store itself teeters in the shadow of Tower Bridge, seemingly on the verge of floating away downriver. It’s wrong, just like the London you see in souvenir shops is wrong – a city of black cabs and Beefeaters, where the only colours on postcards are red telephone boxes and blue skies.
But London IS like that, too – not the London we live in, but the London that’s for sale: a place with all the city’s ordinary noise and extraordinary chaos concertina-ed into a neatly laser-cut P.L. Travers skyline. And today, just north of Kensington Palace, Burberry recreated that fairytale London. There was a tent covered in slabs of grey-brown suede, and lined with dense grey-brown carpet, and walled with softly-lit grey-brown curtains, and filled with grey-brown camping stools. There was a projected backdrop - inevitably, of London, sketched in flickering swathes of grey-brown ink. It was indoors, unlike the vast greenhouse show-spaces of recent seasons; a small change in itself, but one that signalled a shift in stance which became clear as the show went on.
Burberry has always been about the trenchcoat, at heart – fancied up with ruching and embroidery, or fetishised with rubber and studs, but always with that lingering notion of clothing designed for shelter rather than display. But this season’s Prorsum collection was set in a world of flowing, translucent dresses covered in faded flower prints, and of vast, blanket-like shawls and scarves, and of cardigan-like layers so casual that they barely seemed categorisable as coats at all. It all felt incredibly ‘indoor’, despite the fact that every piece came covered with outward-facing imagery – with heavy, black-lined woodcuts, and naively bohemian watercolour florals, and Constructivist geometric repeats. But maybe ‘intimate’ was a better word for Bailey’s satin slips and towelling-like shearling robes, slashed so they showed as much skin as surface. If – as everyone keeps saying – the era of aggressive, outward display is over, then maybe the era of introverted self-indulgence has come to take its’ place. And if Burberry’s show felt designed to communicate one thing, it was comfort – the physical comfort of softly luxurious textures, and the deeper, vaguer comfort found only in the London of nostalgia and fairytales.
Written for Fashion156
ANTONIO BERARDI, WINTER 2014
The interior of the Grand Connaught Rooms – Antonio Berardi’s show venue this morning – is described in English Heritage’s listings as being in the “opulent Edwardian Baroque manner.” That’s not a bad summary of Berardi’s own aesthetic, with its’ unrestrained delight in surface and embellishment. But today, the Grand Hall’s wedding-cake ceilings and vast expanses of mirror played host to a designer in comparatively restrained mode.
Restraint, in this case, was largely a matter of dampened-down colour – of solid black planes broken only with shafts of sheer or mesh fabric, and stained-glass bursts of amethyst and green. That aside, it was business as usual – short skirts, sharp lines and carved, emphatic contours. And it was interesting, at a point when younger brands are focusing on increasingly blurred fabrication combinations, and when the Internet’s flatness is seeping into every aspect of our visual world, to see such a focus on articulation; in fabrics which were overlaid rather than interwoven, their varying thicknesses accentuated, and in seams which raised sharply off the surface instead of dissolving into nothing.
There was a formal, sculpted precision about the whole thing that bordered on stiffness - like the elaborate, allegorical costumes you’d see in medieval court paintings. But Berardi’s approach had enough tension and movement to ensure his caged garments felt less like unforgiving armour, and more like supremely engineered second skins.
Written for Fashion156
HOLLY FULTON, WINTER 2014
Arriving late for the Holly Fulton show, I’d missed the 30-second orientation which the show notes usually provide. As the lights went down, someone hissed “Fritz Lang’s ‘Metropolis’ ” down the row – a fairly safe steer, you’d have thought, for something unremittingly sleek and hard.
But the bleary nudes and pastels that opened the show made me think of a very different urban dystopia – the damaged, nocturnal world of desperate debutantes Whit Stillman painted in his Nineties film, ‘Metropolitan’. Fulton’s mood seemed far closer to that hothouse-flower universe of pained privilege, with demure Lurex knits and flowing, printed and pleated skirts. Machine age motifs and Schiaparelli-esque jewelled hands adorned the collection, teamed with high-gloss boots and bags that provided at least a hint of Lang’s slick, anonymous fetishism.
Scattered bursts of deeper, richer colour brought the show to its’ close; but it was the washed-out delicacy of those opening looks that lingered - both intensely luxurious, and evanescent as one of Stillman’s doomed, Gatsby-shadowed ghosts.
Written for Fashion156
CHRISTOPHER RAEBURN, WINTER 2014
Raeburn’s become a master at playing off the menswear and womenswear parts of his business, and at translating what might seem like a quintessentially masculine aesthetic of re-appropriation and rugged utility into a convincing womenswear format. Season on season, each line bleeds a little further into the other, building up a brand that’s become increasingly refined, and almost elegant at times – without ever losing its’ fundamental sincerity.
Today’s take, though, was a little different – a show which took the same polar inspiration as the menswear collection (teamed with howling gales on the pre-show soundtrack, and a quote from Thirties’ Arctic explorer Louise Boyd leading in the show notes); the same bleak blues and military olives, the same zig-zag quilted details. But the mood was cooler, and stricter, and more serious, with colour-banded cropped trousers and chunky knits under Raeburn’s trademark parkas and bombers. There were a few flashes of something softer, with Thirties landscape prints and hints of fluttering silk hems – but, by and large, it was a collection that traded solely on the crisp, disciplined efficiency of individual separates.
By comparison, it made you realise just how intensely romantic last month’s menswear collection was. Or perhaps it’s simply that menswear needs the aura of a backstory more more? For women, maybe a collection of very good pieces of clothing is enough in itself.
Written for Fashion156
CHRISTOPHER SHANNON, WINTER 2014
Christopher Shannon, Winter 2014 | The Old Sorting Office, New Oxford Street
Maybe everyone’s been getting the terminology wrong. Instead of saying fashion’s a circus, ‘merry-go-round’ is the way we should be thinking about it – especially after three days of menswear shows and presentations which have seen almost every designer spin their point of view at least ninety degrees. The ones that had been exuberantly diffuse last season, like Agi & Sam, had worked their issues out – while those that had been concise and resolved, like Richard Nicoll or Christopher Shannon, seemed to want to throw everything back up in the air again.
Shannon’s had a great few seasons, sharpening up his menswear and introducing a convincing womenswear line. But last June’s mix of Liberty prints and rave-coloured rubber set things up for a very different direction today. There were far less of the streamlined separates we’d seen in the same venue a year ago, and much more in the way of disconcerting hybrids - like double-and triple-stacked tracksuit tops, stepped-hem anoraks and trailing, skirt-like panels. The references to the dawn of Eighties leisurewear generated a closing section of vividly patterned tablecloth florals and swirls, applied all over skinny-fit tracksuits and inflated, drawstring-waisted bombers. Fag-packet stamped knits and split-fronted shirts overlapped with Shannon’s recent, more accessible efforts – but by and large this felt like an almost antagonistically uncompromising swerve in his aesthetic.
Written for Fashion156
KATIE EARY, WINTER 2014
Katie Eary, Winter 2014 | Victoria House, Bloomsbury
Mickey Mouse is having an interesting few days of it. First, at Bobby Abley, his startled eyes and unmistakable big-eared silhouette were teamed up with disconcertingly furred surfaces, and rings that forced the models’ lips apart. And today, at Katie Eary, there were entire Mickey headpieces, bristling with My Little Pony manes and jammed over the models’ heads.
It was just one of a host of ideas Eary jammed into her collection. Punk was the obvious reference point, especially with the zip-scarred latex trousers and tees, and the liberal use of tartan – a loving evocation of Seditionaries-era Westwood, revved up an overlay with Eary’s eye-popping, violently worked prints.
In the past few seasons, those prints have dominated the designer’s work – exploding roses, shimmering fish collages or psychedelic leopard patterns, applied to relatively simple sportswear silhouettes. But she was in eclectic mode today, as evidenced by collaborations with Savile Row’s Richard Anderson (on tightly fitted jackets), with rainwear brand Hancock (on garishly detailed flasher macs) and outdoor manufacturer Shackleton (on sturdy mountaineering bags.) Spliced with cutaway, fantail kilts, strait-jackets and staggered shirts, the end impact, there was barely a moment’s pause for the eye to take it all in - or to pull it all together.
What was most interesting, though, were the Twitter reaction from Eary’s customer base – men who wear her full-throttle prints as real-life armour. Unlike the sweet-faced, blankly innocent models on the catwalk, it sounded like the label’s fans will descend on this collection like a pack of wolves.
Written for Fashion156
OLIVER SPENCER, WINTER 2014
Oliver Spencer, Winter 2014 | The Old Sorting Office, New Oxford Street
Oliver Spencer’s collection was never going to match the drama of the pre-show moment when a water pipe got punctured, hosing a good chunk of the Sorting Office audience in a sudden geyser of hot water.
But drama’s not Spencer’s aim, despite the frenetic live drumming that accompanied the show, and the presence of label fans like Alex James and Gary Kemp on the catwalk. Instead, he carried on developing his particular brand of unstructured tailoring, twisting his focus this season to the idea of city/country contrasts. James – Britpop star turned cheesemaking squire – was probably an apt touchstone for a collection that was heavy on rusting plaids, mottled tweeds and rainproof nylons.
It was more interesting than that sounds – thanks to the jarring collisions those fabrics created, and to the presence of pieces like floral-print bombers with cleverly detailed flap pockets; things we’ve seen elsewhere over the past few seasons, but shown in a format that made them seem commercially believable.
Written for Fashion156
PRINGLE OF SCOTLAND, WINTER 2014
Pringle of Scotland, Winter 2014 | Bloomsbury House
Like Nicole Farhi, Pringle have been through a bit of a rollercoaster on the creative front in recent years. From Stuart Stockdale to Claire Waight Keller to Alastair Carr, each designer has brought a different skew to the house’s legacy – and each chapter has been marked by a struggle to match up the heritage with relevance and contemporary resonance. But I can think of few classic brands that people would like to see succeed more.
It shouldn’t be hard. Nice knits, luxurious fabrics, simple separates. And the presentation in Bloomsbury House this morning (with ex-Farhi menswear designer Massimo Nicosia holding the reins) made it look pretty effortless, with its’ rich palette of wine, ivory and navy blue, and its’ confidently streamlined execution. But Nicosia’s simplicity managed to encompass lots of fragments of the past – thistle prints and subdued Argyll grids from Stockdale’s Scottish-skewed years; Waight Keller’s dishevelled, sensual textures, and Carr’s futuristic fabrications and cropped proportions. It all hung together surprisingly well – to the point where, running my hand along the rails, I couldn’t stop browsing for the price tags.
Written for Fashion156
AGI & SAM, WINTER 2014
Agi & Sam, Winter 2014 | Victoria House, Bloomsbury
If Matthew Miller’s show yesterday promised politics, Agi & Sam’s delivered. Opening the final day of London Collections, the duo switched gears from the playfulness of previous seasons, getting serious – in every respect.
Black and white checks, stripes and woven prints formed the body of the collection, applied to oversized coats and cropped trousers. Those silhouettes – emphasised by the boldness of Agi & Sam’s graphics – formed the most immediately powerful dimension to the show; particularly in the way coats were teamed with dropped, fluttering lining panels or blocks of raw white padding. The combination was intensely, cinematically evocative (as, presumably, was the intention) of the trips through Masai territory which triggered the collection’s concept, and of the iconography of an Africa which hovers somewhere in the back of most of our minds.
Combined with safety-striped utility wear and luridly logo-ed tabards, the show was clear in its’ narrative drive. It would probably have been just as strong without those saturated logos, to be honest; leaving subtexts to one side, the juxtapositions of plenty and pinchedness, texture and austerity created a group of garments which stood out in their own right as one of the most interesting collections of the week. But those manifestos added an extra, food-for-thought dimension to a collection that left you thinking about ‘want’ – in all it’s various meanings.
Written for Fashion156