Sitting across from British Couturier Nicolas Oakwell at the roof top lounge of the London West Hollywood, I knew immediately that a glamour had been cast and I, like many of his international clients and followers, had fallen victim to his elegant incantation of immaculate design and a reserved, but fiery passion for British craftsmanship. Eloquent and soft spoken, this dapper druid of design lured me in to a world where luxury remains pure, unscathed by the ravages of modern democratization. For you see, a Nicholas Oakwell creation is only available from his ateliers- no high street stores, no on-line retailers. Couture in the grand tradition, where the client is the epicenter of the experience, swathed in the perfection of an expertly mitered tweed, the brilliant glimmer of a bead’s faceted edge, and by the architectural purity of a plume’s wispy curve. Reminiscent of the great French Couturiers of the 60’s and 70’s, Nicholas Oakwell draws inspiration from contemporary art and cultural references whilst revives lost crafts and skills to create a collection which is both modern and loyal to the overarching principles of his vocation as a couturier.
DAVID DE LA MARCA: Watching your shows I am immediately transported back in time to the über-chc era of such legends as Valentino, Balenciaga, and Balmain. Would you say that 60’s and 70’s have an influence on your work as a designer?
NICHOLAS OAKWELL: I guess I would class my influences as spanning many decades, not just the 60’s and 70’s. I think a lot of people look negatively at the 70s, but I think it was a super chic decade. I get inspired by the fabrication, the cut, the actual techniques of construction. I find great inspiration from the early periods of Valentino and YSL, both from that era.
D.D. I have heard your collections described as a “perfect blend of glamour and modernity”. Is this is an accurate description and if so, how do you personally define “modern glamour”?
N.O. Thank you, I’m glad that is how it is perceived. I start my design journey with the modern lifestyle of my clients in mind. Show specials, whilst a wonderful thing to make, can become self-indulgent for a designer. It is something I am always conscious of. Modern Glamour to me is about someone who wears clothes as an extension of their personality. Clothes should be worn by someone, not the other way around. The greatest compliment, one I strive for, is when a client states they “feel beautiful”. That is how the client should feel, there has to be that magic moment when putting on a piece of clothing, and how it slips over the body and sits in position. A moment of pure luxury, when the garment fits and touches your body perfectly, it is a priceless feeling. That is when the client will radiate beauty, and that is true glamour. Not jewels, not shoes or hair, it’s about the feeling inside.
D.D. I am fascinated by your use of feathers, glass, beads and metal. Do you feel your experience as a former milliner plays in your use of such unexpected materials?
N.O.I do love feathers, they are such a fun material and make me smile. I’ve used them in every collection as for years I have worked with them, especially during my millinery days. They have become second nature to me. As a designer, I am always wanting to experiment with new materials.
D.D. Are you a perfectionist?
N.O. Yes, it pains me to say, but I think you have to be, in order to produce the best work you possibly can. It causes my workroom team a bit of pain from time to time! I spend so much time in the workroom with my team, as I love being in there. Over the last 2 years, they really have understood how I like to have things made and my attention to detail. There is a lot less remaking now compared to earlier on. I am lucky to have such a diverse team from all around the world and all ages. It gives a wonderful mix of older and modern techniques which brings something really special to the pieces.
D.D. Designers always seem to bond with a muse that embodies their vision and philosophy. Describe the perfect Nicholas Oakwell muse…who is she?
N.O. My muse has to be a woman that has her own style, identity and confidence. I find someone who has an inner strength a truly beautiful and special creature.
D.D. Is there a particular style of music or film that embodies your approach?
N.O. I love diversity, and musically I am likely to be listening to Rachmaninov back to back with 80s dance music. My assistant has such a passion for music as well and plays his compilations in the studios, which is an eclectic mix. I love that. I tend to watch a mixture of films including nostalgic Hollywood classics from the old studio greats, to more art house or creative movies that are less well known such ‘The Fall’ for its visual along with the Curse of the Golden Flower. I also like popular films as ‘The Iron Lady” and ‘The King’s Speech’.
D.D. The A/W 2012 collection is quite bold and graphic with a definite 1970’s vibe and rich play of textures. Particularly impressive is the amount of smocking, beading and craftsmanship. Has this mixed media use of materials become your signature?
N.O. Fashion is a wonderful industry to be in, I love meeting new artisans with different skills. We are working closely with the British Craft Council to make sure that some of these skills still exist in years to come. Smocking was such a find. My team that worked on the AW12 collection had only ever worked on basic smock techniques so it was great to see them use those skills and push them further. The Vicuna smocked cape coat is a work of art. The cape is made in one piece and fits so beautifully over the shoulders. During my research I met a lady in the north of England who makes hand bobbin lace, which was exquisite. It takes her 16 hours to make just 4” square. She had only ever worked off existing patterns and again I had to push her to develop the zig zag design. I feel happy that for her, her hobby making trims for table cloths for friends can now blossom as we opened her eyes to making an income from her passion, and now she is making her own patterns.
D.D. The last show at Claridge’s was presented in small luxurious lounge settings rather than on a traditional runway. I had the feeling of sitting in a chic and impeccably decorated 1970’s penthouse whilst sipping elegantly concocted cocktails. Tell us more about this inspiration.
N.O.One of my influences for the latest collection was the film “The Eyes of Laura Mars”. The design of the protagonists’ apartment was super chic. It was such a rich tapestry of textures, colours and art-works decorating the sets. As this collection was very tactile, I wanted to embrace that, making models brush past guests so they could not only see, but almost touch the models. It was about encapsulating the voyeuristic nature of watching a woman in her apartment with the lights down low. Four ‘rooms’ were adorned by John Bassam with Amethyst, crystal, velvet and fur, consisting of a lounge, bar, piano room and study acted as the catwalk. They were built for the models to interact with. What you miss from the photos was the hedonistic intoxicating perfume that filled the space, designed by Roja Dove. We briefed Roja on recreating a memory from when I was a child, catching the scent of my grandmother’s leather handbag. Suede, and smoke from her cigarettes countered by the smell of her sweet perfume built on gardenias and roses. Everything about it speaks to sheer luxury living.
D.D. As you are based in London, but have elected to show in both London and in Paris do you consider yourself more an international couturier?
N.O. Our clients are international, so we present where our clients are based. We will soon be showing in Russia, Middle East and China for the coming season, along with our heritage of London and Paris. Personally it has been my life’s ambition to show at Paris Couture week, so I am so blessed that I have been able to and continue to do so.
D.D. In terms of craftsmanship, does designing from London rather than Paris present certain challenges for the technical aspects of producing a couture collection?
N.O. I was worried when I first opened the house, that I wouldn’t find the skillset in London, but we are now getting approached by so many different and talented artisans. We have the most amazing silversmith, a saddle maker who works at the Royal Mews and so many others. I am so proud and amazed with the skills that can be found in the UK and will always champion these talented and skilled people.
D.D. Here in Beverly Hills we have a very potent Red Carpet Culture, born from a rich tradition of Hollywood glamour dating back to the early 20’s and 30’s. As a purveyor of style and elegance, do you have any advice to the cavalcade of celebrities that will be attending the upcoming 2013 Oscars?
N.O. Always be true to your own style, don’t let the dress wear you. Make sure it fits, as this can ruin the pleasure of wearing the gown and the look. If it fits and feels great then its difficult to fail.
D.D. Its hard not to remark that personally you are as equally dapper and elegant as are your collections. Do you have your suits tailored on Saville Row? Who does those amazing trademark glasses?
N.O. Trademark? I don’t see them that way, they are just sunglasses that I change the lenses of. I’m currently wearing Oliver Peoples, but also wear Cutler and Gross. As for the suits? It’s come a long way from being a teenager visiting Savile Row and saving my pocket money for my first pair of Tommy Nutter trousers from the sale rail. Since then I’ve followed my dream of having my suits tailored, and our in-house tailors who have all worked on Savile Row now make my suits when they aren’t busy with clients’ orders.
D.D. Currently your collection is only available in London. Now that Hedi Slimane has relocated Saint Laurent to Los Angeles, when can we expect a Nicholas Oakwell Couture Salon on Rodeo Drive?
N.O. I would love to come to LA. It’s one of my favourite cities in the world. The ladies in LA are very glamorous and there are so many more events to wear beautiful clothes to. Who knows what the future holds.
D.D. I was wondering if you would share a few of your favorite addresses here in Los Angeles.
N.O. I have a few regular haunts in LA, I love to stay at the London West Hollywood. It’s designed by my friend, interior designer, David Collins. I love his work. I love the newly renovated Bel Air, they have such a great history. When I go out to eat, Cut at the Beverly Wilshire is great for fabulous steak. I love the Little Door, Comme Ca and Providence are great places to eat and Château Marmont is a must for some pre-evening cocktails. Their bungalows are great to escape from the bright lights of the city. NICHOLAS OAKWELL