The first time I met Richard Nicoll he was in a Sydney cocktail lounge, looking rather hangdog about a recently broken love affair. The source of his malaise was Jonathan Saunders, then the It-boy of the East London fashion set, who for a moment in 2003 had the critics lauding his David Bowie-meets-Barbarella use of colour and form. Rumour had it that Nicoll had lost out in the love stakes to Alexander McQueen, though about this he was determined not to talk. Regardless, he was downbeat enough to be considering relocating to Australia. “It would be cheaper,” he said, nursing his second vodka and coke (my shout), “in terms of patterns and makers. And it’s less pressured in Australia, which gives you time to incubate ideas. In London you’re so fucking stressed, poor and hungry it’s harder to create.”
Even then, in his lovelorn state, Nicoll was happy to talk up his work. He had recently made his London Fashion Week debut. He was hopeful of getting his picture in the paper. The critics were curious about his ingeniously constructed silk separates, knotted and twisted to fall just so. Nicoll’s train was in sight of the station – he had just dressed Kylie Minogue – but funding was a problem and competition robust.
When I saw him in Paris two years later he was still poor and stressed, working 20-hour days helping Marc Jacobs in the run-up to his Spring/Summer 2004 show for Louis Vuitton. Happily his father, a Perth doctor, was in town on business, and so Nicoll was sleeping on Dad’s sofa to save rent money. He was hungry too, his French being limited to that required to order a beer. But these seemed trivial concerns when the sun was shining in the Marais. Nicoll was en route to a tryst with a model who had followed him to Paris from London. He looked tanned and healthy and smug. And why not? He was one of three young designers taken on as freelancers by Jacobs, the American svengali at the creative helm of Louis Vuitton. This kind of apprenticeship, though exhausting and low-paid, sounds snazzy on press releases for your own label. Which is exactly what Nicoll was planning. “It was in Paris,” he says now, “that I decided I was ready to return to my own label for real.”
Nicoll trained at the only British fashion school that counts: Central Saint Martins. Now he is back in London’s Clerkenwell, selling his fourth womenswear collection and his most comprehensive to date, comprising 19 looks. For Autumn/Winter 2005 he showed a wearable collection of cleverly constructed bomber jackets, tank tops, mannish shirts, corsets and wide-leg pants in tweeds, cottons, wool and leather. Those ingeniously knotted and draped dresses for which he is renowned turned up again. But this time he eschewed slinky pastel-shaded silk for jersey in a muted palette, fixed with giant wooden beads in warmer shades of ochre, paprika and blue, and sometimes shredded into ribbons. The beads were joined by equally oversized letter pendants, some in the shape of Nicoll’s own initials – a wry wink at the ego culture that plagues the fashion world. As always, he used only the finest fabrics and laboured to high heaven over the detailing: French seams, perfectly placed darts and pockets.
Though he has yet to secure a backer, Nicoll is on the verge of establishing a serious business. In February he appeared in British Vogue; the magazine’s fashion features editor, Harriet Quick, is a customer. In March he was the subject of gushing praise in the independent style bible i-D. His clothes are stocked in New York’s Opening Ceremony – in shopping terms it doesn’t get much edgier than that – and have sold to 60 stores in Japan. The London department shops declined to place orders this time round, although “I was on their buying radar.” “It’s a good response, and that’s satisfying,” smiles Nicoll. “But I’ve put in the groundwork. I’ve done ten years of hard labour.”
Born in London in 1975, Nicoll was three when his parents moved to Perth. They divorced soon after and his mother, a lawyer, returned to Britain. Nicoll stayed with his father, sister and stepmother in the Perth suburb of Shenton Park, freaking out about his below-average height – he is now 5ft 7in and wiry of frame – and wishing he was in London going to gigs. “I was an anglophile and I was really shy, I didn’t fit in at school,” he says. “I used to express myself through my clothes because I didn’t really speak to anyone.” In the beginning there were green polyester flares, then pyjama tops and cut-off army trousers. “I was big into grunge at the time. I looked reasonably terrible.” All of this fed Nicoll’s interest in identity and the central role clothing plays therein, an idea that now forms the basis of his design ethos.
“I used to go to op-shops all the time with my friend Jane [Blackwell, who went on to work for Sydney fashion retailer Belinda]. We’d go round Perth dressed to the nines just to convince ourselves we didn’t belong there.” He didn’t make piles of other friends. Anthony Kendall, a Perth contemporary who now works for posh London handbag designer Anya Hindmarch, doesn’t remember Nicoll. “Obviously there aren’t so many male designers who grew up in the Perth area,” says Kendall. “It feels like my entire life people have been saying: ‘You have to meet Richard Nicoll.’ I finally did when I was 26.”
Lots of guys have crushes on Nicoll: he can be charming and friendly, though not effusive; considered and intelligent. He is focused too. At 17 he left Perth for London, where he found his mother, a job as a kitchen hand, a place on an art foundation course and a shaky plan to be a professional sculptor – though a career in architecture might have made more sense when you consider the technical precision of his garment construction. He headed to Saint Martins to study sculpture but took on fashion too. Three years later he graduated in menswear. Then he did a masters in womenswear because “there isn’t the scope to expand in menswear – it’s hard to get a man into a skirt, try as you might.”
Back then, Nicoll says, he was still shy and nervous. “But a lot of creative people are a bit neurotic. Maybe, I realised, that’s part of the creative character, to have this dysfunctional side. That’s why you’re forced into doing something obviously extroverted, to cover it up. John Galliano was meant to be really shy at college.” Galliano, chief designer for Christian Dior, is a man in eyeliner who popped out at the end of his last couture show dressed as Napoleon.
Anyway, Nicoll fits in fine. The outsider, though, looms large in his mind. He cites the rule-breaking Italian design collective Memphis, led by kitsch king Ettore Sottsass, as his current inspiration, along with Tina Weymouth of post-punk band Talking Heads. “My aesthetic is really about naivety – but knowing naivety, you know? Like Talking Heads. Their videos were both really simple and really fucking complicated at the same time: intelligent and seminal, but seemingly simple. I’m excited by idiosyncrasies of personality.”
And if you are thinking the man sounds a tad pretentious, if not an out-and-out wanker … well, don’t. Nicoll is good at talking himself into a tangle but his work speaks for itself, and it speaks perfectly clearly – of a clean-lined beauty and unfussy grace that is first and foremost flattering to the wearer.
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