Matthew Williamson’s boho glamour set the dress code for the noughties while his A-list glossy posse made him a British household name. As he celebrated 15 years in business, we caught up with the pioneer of globetrotting chic and took a trip with him down memory lane...
Matthew Williamson with his models
Matthew Williamson is in full-on nesting mode when we meet in his brand new Belsize Park abode which he’s just moved into with his partner, model Stephen Baccari. While his décor schemes remain firmly under wraps and the walls still starkly bare, as ever when it comes to the moustachioed Mancunian there’s an explosion of colour as his three friends, French stylist Valentine Fillol Cordier, model (and girlfriend to David Gandy) Sarah Ann Macklin and blogger Sara Brajovic waft around in party gowns, all plundered from his archives especially for our shoot today. It’s both these attention grabbing party dresses and his coterie of beautiful girls dubbed ‘Williamsonistas’ – think Sienna Miller, Poppy Delevigne and Olivia Palermo - that have been the making of Matthew Williamson, a label celebrating its 15th anniversary this season.
Now one of London Fashion Week’s keynote shows, the Matthew Williamson story began with ‘Electric Angels’- the fabled debut collection of zingy dresses and cardis which were implausibly by modelled some of the biggest faces of the day including Kate Moss, Helena Christensen and Jade Jagger – all because they liked the young Williamson’s frocks. And how do those heady days compare with today’s catwalk schedule? “Everything you could imagine has changed,” says Williamson. “Back in ‘97, we made our music on a cassette tape and everyone had to stand - we didn’t have any money for chairs. I remember all these big editors coming in and it was so embarrassing, but it kind of worked because there were no expectations. Now you can spend up to £100,000 per show and everything’s coordinated to the nth degree. It’s just a different world.”
Cara Delevingne struts her stuff on the MW catwalk
Of course in a career of 15 years not everything has gone to plan. “Looking back there’s more ‘what was I thinking’ moments than ‘yeah that was good!’” Williamson says self-deprecatingly. “One season I thought it was a good idea to do an Alice and Wonderland collection. I actually can’t look at it now. It’s an absolute hell piece – all stripy tights and leather aprons. Then as if the clothes weren’t bad enough, a speaker fell on an audience member during the show finale and an ambulance had to be called. I was horizontal backstage just thinking, this is it - my career is over!”
Matthew Williamson with Helena Christensen in 1998
While Williamson’s shows may now be on a different scale, his vision hasn’t changed. As architect of the boho-glamour look of the noughties, Williamson connected with a customer whose penchant for fashion fantasies continues to keep the tills ringing. “My philosophy and style DNA hasn’t changed much in 15 years - a strong use of colour, a certain effortlessness and channelling other cultures and countries in that jet set way. I still have that desire to make women feel uplifted and special,” says Williamson.
His boho-babe has, he admits, grown up a bit, “For sure, she’s less flighty. She’s not lounging on the beach 24/7, now she means business. As I get older and my friends get older my work moves with that pace. Everyone thinks I’m always off on holiday but I’m actually quite a down to earth person - I settled down a few years back now.” Indeed while Williamson’s collection now runs the gamut of elegant work wear to razzle-dazzle floor sweepers. Also surprising for a man whose style is defined by Wikipedia as ‘Ibiza-glamour’ is the confession that he actually hates the Balearic party Isle, “I’ve never liked Ibiza and I’ve not been for at least 10 years. To be honest it’s the last place I’d want to go on holiday.”
Matthew's harem of beauties
What of his harem of beauties? “All the girls I’ve been associated with have tended to have something undone about their style. They’re glamorous on one hand but they could equally be barefoot without a stitch of make-up. If you think of Sienna Miller and more recently Dree Hemmingway and Valentine who’s here, there’s a thread that I’m drawn to. Dree hardly ever wears any makeup and Sienna’s the same, she always feels better the less work has been done.”
While there is plenty to celebrate, Williamson admits there have been occasions, especially during the recession, that he and his long-time business partner Joseph Velosa,“have flown by the seat of our pants.” His New York store closed its doors this summer, but he is set to open his third outlet in Qatar this year, a reflection of both the Arabian appetite for party frocks. And even fifteen years down the line Williamson is honest enough to admit he still gets pre-show jitters. “I get absolutely and completely petrified before every show and it seems to get worse the longer I’m in the business,” he admits, “We’ve now got a team of almost 50 people, 170 stockists to think about as well as three stores. It’s a massive responsibility. But we’re still here and still a thriving British business which I’m incredibly proud of.”
Matthew Williamson's anniversary dresses
In celebration of his milestone, Williamson created a film which recalls his childhood ambitions of glamour and fashion as imagined from a 1980s bedroom. With Poppy, Sienna et al making cameos and Andrea Riseborough playing his mum, there’s something of the Billy Elliot about the tale – the Northern lad who got his dream. Williamson agrees, “People think I’m odd because I’ve known I wanted to do this since I was seven. Cheesily I kind of love my job. I mean I’ve fulfilled my ambitions - I quite literally dreamt the career I’ve had. As far as achievements go, it’s pretty much as good as it gets.” Who doesn’t love a fashion fairy-tale ending?