The London fashion world back in 1997 was a very different place. Minimalism was at the height of its reign; renegade, left-of-centre designers such as Alexander McQueen and Hussein Chalayan were presenting brooding, cerebral catwalk collections that doubled as art installations, and London was indulged as though it were an experimental art school – creative but lacking in commercial acumen. And then a teenager from Manchester erupted onto the scene, in a riot of rainbow-bright neon colours, unashamed glamour and kaleidoscopic print. The Puckish, elfin Matthew Williamson had arrived.
The designer’s 2012 shows of his spring collection for this year celebrated 15 years at the helm of his label, an ascent that has seen him go from hip London wunderkind to established brand with a sumptuous Mayfair townhouse store and a celebrity following that includes Sienna Miller, Thandie Newton and the Duchess of Cambridge. Williamson created such a buzz while he was studying at Central Saint Martins that he managed to entice a host of supermodels, including Kate Moss and Jade Jagger, to wear his debut collection on the catwalk. Since that first show in 1997, he has made an indelible stamp on the landscape of London fashion.
‘I feel tremendously grateful to have had the opportunity to do this for the last 15 years,’ says the reed-thin designer with the soft, lilting Northern accent. ‘It has taken a lot of hard work. When we started out we had to learn on the job very quickly and if you would have asked me then, I certainly could not have envisaged celebrating 15 years in fashion.’ It’s heartwarming to note that, when he began, his mother and father relocated to support his endeavours, with his mother sewing beads and his father acting as his chauffeur: they’re still involved with the business today.
There have, says Williamson, been many proud moments over the years – but two spring immediately to mind. ‘First, the opening of the Matthew Williamson flagship store on Bruton Street in London and, second, my 15th anniversary last year, with the screening of my short film XV, starring Sienna Miller, Poppy Delevingne and Andrea Riseborough, who played my mother.’
It’s no surprising that the Matthew Williamson aesthetic attracts such a constellation of star names. His signature style has brought a sense of bohemian ease to dressing for luxury events, with loose, free-flowing silhouettes inspired by exotic travel and 60s and 70s hippy culture – the ideal wardrobe for Talitha Getty if she were alive today. India and Asia have acted as a constant treasure trove of references, with lavish prints, peacock plumes, eruptions of neon butterflies and rich silks often incorporated into his pieces.
‘I travel a lot and often find myself drawing inspiration,’ says Williamson. ‘Past collections have referenced far-flung places in Africa, South America and Asia. For spring/summer 2013 I wanted to return to my design roots: rediscovering my love for India.’ Saturated saffron, crimson and tangerine tones recalled spice markets, while embroidery and tie-dye brought to mind the beachfront relaxation of Goa. It was, as ever with Williamson, a feast for the visual senses that transports the viewer. He is always on the move: a recent expedition to Cartagena in Colombia could act as further inspiration. ‘It’s a remarkably beautiful place. The city has a wonderfully laid-back vibe paired with a warm tropical climate and is set against a beautiful backdrop of colonial architecture.’
Williamson is remarkable for bringing a bohemian sense to a luxury brand. It is, he insists, all to do with the execution. ‘For me, luxury fashion is about bringing together the highest standards of design, craftsmanship and quality. There is an incredible amount of skill required to put together each collection and as a luxury British brand I am always mindful that each piece has to reflect this. Luxury fashion has certainly become more democratic and international.’
New style dawn
Williamson’s luxury stronghold will grow further in 2013, with two new collections set to bring accessories into the Matthew Williamson world – shoes for spring, with a collection of bags to follow in the autumn. So where will he be 15 years from now? ‘Hopefully we will have added more layers to our DNA and continue to strengthen our international and online presence,’ he says. In glorious rainbow technicolour, no doubt.