“Creativity was no longer the priority”

Designer Matthew Williamson chose to pull back from his fashion label when the business side took precedence over the artistic.

As a celebrated fashion designer, Matthew Williamson employed 50 staff and split his time between Italy, the UK and the USA. But as the company grew, he struggled with the business demands. Now, he’s reinvented himself as an interior and homeware product designer, shuttles between just two countries and employs four people.

I got a job as a fashion designer pretty much the day I left college. It was with high-street retailer Accessorize and I was left to design everything. It was a good, solid job, but I handed in my notice three years later to set up my own label. A business in a bedsit, basically. My mum went berserk.

Things were about to get a lot more ‘berserk’. I sent some illustrations of what I was doing to a journalist at Vogue. My work was featured in the magazine and before I knew it I was doing a runway show at London Fashion Week. Kate Moss, Jade Jagger and Helena Christensen all agreed to model.

That first show was an overnight sensation and it became big news. My business went into the stratosphere, and grew and grew. In the coming years, I received two nominations for Designer of the Year at the British Fashion Awards.

We were riding on a wave of international acclaim, running on adrenaline and sheer excitement. It was sometimes disorientating and the deadlines were punishing – it was a cycle of four collections a year – but we managed well. When I say ‘we’, I’m including my partner, Joseph [Velosa]. He’s very smart and organised, and his skills perfectly complemented mine.

Eventually, we opened a flagship store in London’s Mayfair. The success of that attracted investors to open a place in New York, which is when the wheels fell off.

We had a board and investors. There were update calls to make, over 50 staff to look after, 150 retailers to please. We were being ‘watched’ and it felt very different. Along the way I started to make compromises. Creativity was no longer the priority and running the business became the driving force. Sometimes, I didn’t push for what I believed in.

There were many people who didn’t want to write about, shoot or stock my designs. Thick skin and resilience were definitely required.

I once put a collection down the runway with a particular red dress that I was trying to sell to a well-known store. Their buyer said they liked it, but they would prefer it in pink and gave me some specific ‘instructions’ about what they’d want. Fast forward a few months and I sent the new, pink dress down the runway. She didn’t buy it. I don’t think she even noticed it.

It’s not about being precious. Getting the creative balance right is probably a lifelong conundrum for a designer and the challenge is even more so if you’re running a big machine. To cut a long story short, I fell out of love with fashion design and decided to open a new business chapter.

Interior design was always a latent passion of mine and so, while I wound one business down, I began building the other up. The process took over two years. I bought a place in Majorca to take stock and in the past two years I started to activate my new career. It involves interior design work as well homeware product design. I’ve learned from past mistakes, and I’m now working with the specialists that I really want to work with and on the projects that I’m passionate about. Of course, there are still design compromises to be made, but I have the experience and, perhaps more importantly, the perspective to handle it without getting into a pickle.

What happens when a major retailer comes knocking? I take each day as it comes. And while I’m open to all offers, if I see crazy coming, I’ll cross the road.

This interview was carried out by SIM7’s Simeon de la Torre and first appeared in easyJet Traveller magazine. To read the latest issue (and the entire back catalogue of magazines), visit: https://ink-global.com/our-clients/portfolio/easyjet-traveller/