In some ways, Matthew Williamson embodies that unique
London blend of glamour and grit.
For his first runway show in fall 1997, his new friend, Jade Jagger, offered to model for him. She called her pal Kate Moss, who quickly volunteered her services. Not long after, Helena Christensen and Diane Kruger came on board to model the 11 pieces that Williamson had lovingly embroidered with butterflies and peacock feathers.
Despite the impressive runway lineup, there was nowhere to sit. "We couldn't afford seats, and we thought nothing of it. Now, I can't believe we expected people to stand!" said the Manchester native from his slick new headquarters in a Georgian town house in Mayfair.
But Williamson also has defied other London stereotypes, including that of the utterly creative — but poor — spirit who wins rave press reviews but can't sustain a business, or the young buck whose fledgling business gets gobbled up by a big conglomerate.
In the 10 years he's spent designing his own label, famous for its flashes of fluorescent color, embroideries, beading and whimsy, Williamson and his business partner, Joseph Velosa, have blazed an alternative trail.
They've kept their headquarters in London, grown the business organically and recently partnered with Baugur, an Icelandic investment company specializing in retail, and TSM Capital, Marvin Traub's new investment vehicle.
Thanks to cash injections from Baugur, which holds a 26 percent stake in the Williamson business, and TSM, which holds a 22 percent stake, Williamson is in rapid-expansion mode.
He will open his second freestanding store on Manhattan's Upper East Side next spring and will launch his first full accessories business in February. A third store, in Los Angeles, will follow at the end of next year, with a Paris store after that.
The company's annual volume was 8.1 million pounds, or $16.2 million at current exchange, in 2006, and is expected to close this year with sales of 9.5 million pounds, or $19 million.
Williamson said his success so far is due to a really good marriage.
"If you were to caricature us, it would be me throwing pink chiffon in the air all day, and Joseph presiding over piles of money," said Williamson with a smile.But, of course, that's not all true.
"I'm business-minded. I'm a commercial designer making a product that I want women to pay hard cash for and to wear," said Williamson. "And Joseph is incredibly creative. He'll come to me with a business strategy, and I'll go to him with a dress design."
They've kept a rein on expenses, and have never advertised. Even Williamson's consultancies are testimony to his work ethic: He's served as creative director of Pucci for the past three seasons. On the other end of the glamour spectrum, he designs a collection for the decidedly unglamorous British department store Debenhams. The line, Butterfly by Matthew Williamson, is part of a series of collaborations known as Designers at Debenhams.
Williamson is celebrating his anniversary with a return to the London runways this season — he'll be showing under a tent in Eaton Square — as well as a retrospective at the Design Museum here.
His spring collection is inspired by an English rose who travels to Africa — and is transformed.
"But there's no batik," said Williamson. The collection is filled with raffia flowers and necklaces, colored beading, metallic sequins, prints inspired by butterfly wings and world maps. Williamson has even slipped in some black-and-white men's wear fabrics, because "the English rose loves to mix vintage with African."
Although Williamson has been showing in New York for the past five years, he said it was appropriate for him to return to London to celebrate in the town that gave him his start.
Writer Plum Sykes remembers those days. She was a features assistant at British Vogue, and received an envelope — out of the blue from Williamson — with fabric swatches in them.
"They were jewel-toned, embroidered, so original and brilliant. I remember thinking, 'I really want a dress made out of these.' He was so original at a time when everything was drab and Helmut Lang-y. And he's remained true to himself, and his luxurious bohemian style," she said.
The exhibition at the Design Museum opens after London Fashion Week, on Oct. 17, and runs until Jan. 31. The show traces Williamson's history, and the designer believes it tells a very personal story."I picked the dresses I instinctively loved," said Williamson, who will be showcasing the ruffled, pale blue print gown he created for British Vogue's 90th anniversary issue; a pink, sparkly bias-cut dress from his first collection, and a strapless, striped dress worn by Sienna Miller.
Mario Testino has shot a series of photos of the designer at work, showing how Williamson creates a dress. In addition, there are mood boards, notebooks and print archives, and 15 looks from the fall 2007 collection on mannequins suspended from neon lights.
Williamson said he's as inspired today as he was in the standing-room-only days a decade ago.
"I'm proud I've come this far," he said. "The parameters of my work have changed, and I have less freedom than I once did, but the energy and excitement carries on."
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