July 2005

Arts & Letters

Twist & whisper

By Katie Cohen
Perth shyboy Richard Nicoll has come a long way from green polyester flares

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.

There is nowhere quite like The Monthly. We are told that we live in a time of diminished attention spans; a time where the 24-hour-news-cycle has produced a collective desire for hot takes and brief summaries of the news and ideas that effect us. But we don’t believe it. The need for considered, reflective, long-form journalism has never been greater, and for almost 20 years, that’s what The Monthly has offered, from some of our finest writers.

That kind of quality writing costs money, and requires the support of our readers. Your subscription to The Monthly allows us to be the home for the best, most considered, most substantial perspectives on the state of the world. It’s Australia’s only current affairs magazine, an indispensable home for cultural commentary, criticism and reviews, and home to personal and reflective essays that celebrate and elevate our humanity.

The Monthly doesn’t just comment on our culture, our society and our politics: it shapes it. And your subscription makes you part of that.

Select your digital subscription

Month selector

From the front page

Kim Williams seen through window with arms half-raised

The interesting Mr Williams

At a time when the ABC faces more pressure than ever before, is its new chair the right person for the job?

Exterior of the Department of Treasury, Canberra

Tax to grind

Tax reform should not be centred on what we want, but on who we want to be

Rehearsal for the ABC TV show ‘Cooking with Wine’, March 13, 1956

Whose ABC?

Amid questions of relevance and culture war hostilities, the ABC’s charter clearly makes the case for a government-funded national broadcaster

Tony McNamara in New York City, January 2024

Pure things: Tony McNamara

How the Australian screenwriter of ‘Poor Things’, who cut his teeth on shows such as ‘The Secret Life of Us’, earnt his second Oscar nomination

In This Issue

Illustration by Jeff Fisher.

Comment

Fragments of a swooping mind. Raw tissue, ragged editing

Jonathan Caouette’s ‘Tarnation’
Illustration by Jeff Fisher.

Street talk

Illustration by Jeff Fisher.

Board shorts on Sunday


More in Arts & Letters

David Malouf, March 2015 in Sydney

An imagined life: David Malouf

Celebrating the literary great’s 90th birthday with a visit to his incongruous home of Surfers Paradise to discuss a life in letters

Tony McNamara in New York City, January 2024

Pure things: Tony McNamara

How the Australian screenwriter of ‘Poor Things’, who cut his teeth on shows such as ‘The Secret Life of Us’, earnt his second Oscar nomination

Jeffrey Wright in ‘American Fiction’

The dread of the author: ‘American Fiction’ and ‘Argylle’

Cord Jefferson’s satire about Black artists fighting white perceptions of their work runs out of ideas, while Matthew Vaughn’s spy movie parody has no ideas of its own

U2 performing in the Las Vegas Sphere

Where the feats have no name: ‘U2:UV’ at Sphere

It’s no surprise it took U2 to launch post-stadium rock via a spectacular immersive show within the technical marvel of Las Vegas’s newest venue


More in Fashion

Photograph of Gabrielle Chanel at her home in Faubourg Saint-Honor, Paris, 1929.

Beyond the little black dress: ‘Gabrielle Chanel – Fashion Manifesto’

The NGV showcases the controversial designer’s undeniable brilliance

Tanel Bedrossiantz, in a dress from the Jean Paul Gaultier Barbès collection, ready-to-wear, Autumn–Winter 1984–85. © Paolo Roversi

The artisan

‘The Fashion World of Jean Paul Gaultier’ at the National Gallery of Victoria

Sarah Caplan’s World Trade Center dress. © MPH Design

‘Modern Love: Fashion visionaries from the FIDM Museum LA’

At the Bendigo Art Gallery

© Peter Lindbergh

The enduring appeal of Kate Moss

The face


Online latest

Osamah Sami with members of his local mosque

In ‘House of Gods’, Sydney’s Muslim community gets to be complicated

Plus, Barnaby Joyce shines in ‘Nemesis’, Emma Seligman and Rachel Sennott deliver ‘Bottoms’, and Chloë Sevigny and Molly Ringwald step up for ‘Feud: Capote vs. The Swans’.

International Film Festival Rotterdam highlights

Films from Iran, Ukraine and Bundaberg were deserving winners at this year’s festival

Two women on a train smile and shake hands

‘Expats’ drills down on Hong Kong’s class divide

Plus, Netflix swallows Trent Dalton, Deborah Mailman remains in ‘Total Control’ and ‘Vanderpump Rules’ returns for another season

Image of a man playing music using electronics and the kora (West African harp)

Three overlooked albums of spiritual jazz from 2023

Recent releases by kora player John Haycock, trumpeter Matthew Halsall and 14-piece jazz ensemble Ancient Infinity Orchestra feel like a refuge from reality