The hallowed white-washed hallways of Vogue magazine are where a designer’s career can be made or broken. For Matthew Williamson, the man who invented boho glamour and introduced us to the show-stopping allure of pineapple and flamingo prints, it was the former. His story, much like his designs, is one of boldness and bravado.
Aged 25 in the late ’90s, the frustrated Central St Martins graduate and former Accessorize head designer looked up a journalist at the magazine whose name he liked (Plum Sykes), sent her a postcard and arrived at the offices with a box of his designs.
The gamble paid off – the editors so loved his work that they asked to keep some for themselves, and the young Mancunian has spent the past two decades reaping the benefits of a chance well taken.
“It was through that meeting at Vogue that I met Jade Jagger and she became a friend,” he says of this baptism of fire.
“Within six months, I was speaking to the British Fashion Council.”
His first show – a 1997 collection called Electric Angels, featuring Jagger, Kate Moss and Helena Christensen in bright outfits – helped change the pace of fashion, which was then bogged down in minimal ’90s grunge.
He has never deviated from this vivid style, despite an industry where trends change fast. He has a fan base that includes Sienna Miller, Poppy Delevingne and Kate Middleton, plus a lucrative contract with Debenhams for his diffusion line, Butterfly by Matthew Williamson.
We meet after the launch of his latest product, a collaboration with Nivea to design an anti-stain deodorant. Williamson is full of beans, buoyed by bucks fizz and the promise of a trip to Mallorca that afternoon.
“I love the idea of being able to diversify into something that isn’t fashion,” he chirps – plus his mother is a fan of the brand, a fact that sealed it for him.
Slight, and dressed in a blue velvet jacket, Breton top, camel trousers and loafers without socks, he describes his style as “quite low maintenance”, in between dry quips and genial comment.
While not shy exactly, he is perhaps more self-aware than you’d expect from someone who puts snarling tigers on the front of swimsuits. A few questions draw a gently raised eyebrow.
Now he is 45, Williamson can also lay claim to the role of father. Sixteen months ago, he had a baby daughter, Skye, with Joseph Velosa, who he calls “my life partner and my business partner”.
They met in Manchester, when Williamson was visiting his parents during a college break. They set up Matthew Williamson Ltd together in February 1997 and, though after 12 years the relationship ended, they remain “soulmates”.
“We’re definitely that yin-yang fit, in business and as friends,” he says. “We are very different but it works – well, it has for the 24 years I’ve known him.”
They have not made public the mother’s identity nor how Skye was conceived, but she now lives with Williamson in London and “it works like any other child-parent relationship”.
There are pictures on social media of Williamson beaming alongside Skye and border terrier Mr Plum, another of Skye giggling in a baby carrier with a flower behind her ear.
Williamson and Velosa are far from the first same-sex fashion partnership to co-parent a child: five years ago, Tom Ford announced the arrival of his baby son Jack (born via IVF using a surrogate), with his partner Richard Buckley. Sir Elton John and husband, David Furnish, walked the same path with their two sons, Zachary, six, and Elijah, four.
All say parenthood has made them slow down and reassess life’s priorities – something you feel sure is true for Williamson, who was once a regular on the party circuit.
He inherited his lust for life and vivid sense of colour from his mother, Maureen, a retired optician’s receptionist, who wore bold tulip print shirts. His father ran a television sales company and the family, including sister, Andrea, 47, now a nurse, grew up in grey, middle-class Manchester.
By 14, Williamson was using a sewing machine, given to him by his parents, to make rah-rah skirts for the girls at school. He moved to London at 17 to take a place at Central St Martins, where he was the youngest in a class of 60.
When he decided to launch his own label seven years later, his mother and father moved to the capital too – working day and night to help bring their son’s vision to life.
Another person to spot his talent was the incoming Vogue editor, Edward Enninful, who was one of the first to put Williamson’s clothes on to the pages of a magazine.
Outgoing Vogue editor Alexandra Shulman has also been a great champion of his work, but does he now sense that a new order is coming to fashion’s bible?
“Edward is amazing, clearly. He is full of energy and has a brand new perspective,” he says. “Broadly speaking, he’ll bring new ideas and make it look super modern. It’s probably time to give it a refresh. Is it interesting that it is a man? I don’t know. I guess it has been a woman for as long as I have known it.”
He is more concerned with the political changes currently affecting Britain. Williamson thinks fashion and politics are closely aligned and is seriously worried by the Brexit debate.
“If you are in fashion now and selling products, it’s a challenging time, as it is for any industry. If you are in England and exporting, there is general concern as to what might happen. None of us know what’s down the road.”
This September marks 20 years since Williamson’s debut catwalk show blasted him on to the scene. But for a man who commands a sprawling empire, has a young daughter and a contacts book bursting with high-profile names, his celebration plans seem subdued.
“I am not really in the mood for bells and whistles. I’ll have a nice dinner out.”
He opens his palms and laughs: “What you gonna do?” – The Daily Telegraph