Leader of the Glam
by Sarah Mower
At the 1989 British Fashion awards Janet Street Porter delivered the most memorable fashion quote in years. What she was interested in, she said, was 'result' wear; the kind of frocks that don’t beat around the bushes, the sort of thing that leaves a bloke no room for doubt. To illustrate her point, she was wearing a short, curvy, off-the-shoulder cocktail dress in wine-coloured crushed velvet by Antony Price and, naturally enough, it was to him she handed the award for Glamour Designer of the Year. Trotting up to receive the award, in a grey suit with a bumfreezer jacket designed by himself, Antony Price waved the trophy aloft and said, 'Thanks. It’s been a long time'.
Antony Price makes saucy dresses for women who like to tease - and he has been doing it for some time. They are clothes, he says, 'designed by a man for a man.' If you’re worried that his dresses might be demeaning to women, you only have to look at those who wear Antony Price to be quite sure of who is in control of what is meant by them: Jerry Hall, Joan Collins, Paula Yates, Francesca Thyssen, Marie Helven, Janet Street-Porter herself. Not exactly a bunch of doormats.
'I don’t profess to dress radical women,' asserts Antony, with typical downrightness. 'I know from experience they don’t want the radically new. If I want to know what’s a seller, I get in a typical client, show her a rail of dresses and say, "Which would you wear?" They always want the same dress, and the reason they end up buying the same one is that they - the dresses - answer the right questions. Does the neckline look good above the table level? Can you life a glass, eat in it? I’m not embarrassed if they sell. This is commercial art built around a twenty-two-inch zip!'
Antony Price has a shop in South Molton Street, a studio in SW15, supplies collections to A La Mode in Hans Crescent - who can hardly get enough of them - and is now selling healthily in Europe. He is big, forthright, funny and nearly forty-five, his conversation an endearing mixture of Yorkshire spade-calling and flamboyant hyperbole. As disconcertingly observant as he can be about flaws in the looks of others, he is doubly acutely conscious of his own imperfections. Caught up in the social whirl that he sees as part of his job, he admits, 'I’m not one of those people who can just go straight out in the evening. I have to spend time on myself, otherwise I can easily appear a bit knackered and northern-looking.' Spruced up, however, he cuts an imposing figure at parties, often wearing his military cap and something big-shouldered and narrow-hipped, a Star Captain beamed down to earth for an evening’s rock ‘n’ roll.
The generous scale of the Price genes has cast its own influence. “We were not a straight up-and-down family,” he says. 'My sister Judith was a poor man’s Sophia Loren - I’ve always loved that curvaceous type, even when thin and flat were in. My designs were born from my own physical type.' It’s a long way for a boy of strong Keighley stock to the bright lights of London at the height of the sixties, but Antony was no ordinary lad. 'Look at these hands; like a labourer’s,' he exclaims. From an early age they were turned to all kinds of practical and creative uses, dry-stone walling was one. 'At ten, I was always gardening, digging up the place to put in lily ponds.'
Antony’s mother - an ace on the sewing machine - was separated from his father when he was five. ('A Welshman called Prince in the RAF. She was attracted to uniform - so am I.') She took the family - an older sister, Antony and a pair of younger twins - to live in a quiet stretch of the Ribble valley, where the main excitement was the railway line. 'There were thirteen children at the local school and four of them were Prices. It was like a cross between The Railway Children and Whistle Down the Wind; a fabulous, happy life of waking up to a million birds singing, working carthorses, home-made lemonade, hand-milking cows - it was beyond the Hovis ads.'
Among young Antony’s obsessive hobbies was an interest in birds - in watching and drawing wild ones and breeding bantams and pheasants: 'They were the most beautiful, elegant things, like women in fabulous hats. When they held themselves up to strut around they looked just like models on a catwalk.' (Aficionados will remember the dresses with tail feathers that had pranced on Antony’s catwalk in past years.) When he was sixteen, his affections shifted from birds to people. 'My sisters had to be pushed and pummeled into clothes I’d made for them, and I’d spend ages doing their hair, and then take photographs of them'. Coming across a copy of Vogue, he remembers a moment of revelation that propelled him towards fashion and dreams of glamorous women: 'It was a spread of hair by Alexandre de Paris, and the girl was Fiona Thyssen. I was transfixed'.
In 1962, Antony Price arrived to study fashion at Bradford College of Art, a place whose obscurity had just been forever expunged by the legend of David Hockney, who had recently passed through. Fashion design, however, in those pre-swinging sixties, was still much a dressmaker’s discipline, for which Antony is eternally grateful. 'A Miss Betts taught me how to cut flat patterns for Givenchy and Balenciaga dresses and I got quite good at it. By the time I arrived at the Royal College, I was considerably better than the others, technically. They thought I was weird to like those old lady things- but construction has always been crucial for me.' (Until recently, he has cut the patterns for all his dresses, a factor that has given him their fit and flattery a particular reputation amongst his clients.)
He graduated from the Royal College of Art in menswear - 'unheard-of then' - and has perfect recall of each outfit in his degree show, an early manifestation of the nostalgic spirit of seventies glam, of which he was to become one of the authors. 'It was seriously thirties and forties: hair scraped back and ears showing - revolutionary in those days of long hair - and wide shoulders - also new. There was a ginger snakeskin jacket and a divine, long, narrow leather coat, lined in tweed, and fat ties. They were clothes people wanted to wear. They were all bought by people in the David Hockney set'.
By 1968, Antony was designing menswear (and later women’s) for Stirling Cooper, but not before another formative experience- a part-time job with the film, theatrical and TV costumiers Bermans & Nathans. 'We’d be dealing with wardrobes for Hammer horror films, all sorts of things. I’d have the chance to examine the construction of these fabulous things - the flapping wings, the Roman centurions’ uniforms.' From time to time, a ghost of that past drifts through his shows, like the dress with vast pantomime panniers, or the velvet one with a bow the size of wings on the bottom; the snake dress with an incorporated scaly headpiece, or the blood-red velvet dress, fit for a vampire, in which Christy Turlington va-voomed her way around the stage at the British Fashion Awards.
While making 'obscene amounts of money designing hideously commercial dresses that sold in their millions to Miss Selfridge', at Stirling Cooper, Antony began to connect with the pop world. He met the Rolling Stones and, at an Ossie Clark show in 1974, Bryan Ferry of Roxy Music. 'Bryan wanted me to do his album cover. We would meet in nightclubs: he was secretive and artistic, yet he didn’t dress particularly outrageously. When we did shoots, it would be half the pictures with the band in their own clothes, and half in mine. Bryan always wanted to have another option, but he always liked mine in the end. All this business about me manipulating his image is nonsense. No one bossed or pushed; he’d asked everyone’s opinion. He was the batsman, I was the bowler.'
Roxy Music became the art school intellectuals of glam rock. Their self-conscious construct of outrageous spivvy dressing, greased-back hair and gorgeous, curvaceous backing singers - chosen more for their looks than their voices - began, with Antony’s help, an obsession with appearance and pose that has escalated in the pop industry ever since. In the search for improbably glamorous women for Roxy Music covers, the seventeen-year-old Jerry Hall was procured to pose as a blue mermaid, dressed - if that’s the right word - by Antony Price on Holyhead beach. Thus began an ill-fated romance between Hall and Ferry, but a firm friendship between Jerry and Antony.
So life went on into the late seventies, with Antony (now owner of a King’s Road shop and a label called Plaza) happy, but ignored by the fashion world. 'We made so much money, but there was no snob value in the clothes, and they got no coverage in the magazines. I wasn’t particularly ambitious - I was having a great life, I knew everyone, was asked everywhere, would spend my holidays on Mustique and Mikonos. But the link with Bryan and pop music was doing me no favours. In those days, fashion people were snobby about pop music. They thought it was sweaty.'
And he was not playing by the fashion rules. His shows were held erratically, and in unconventional places like The Camden Palace, and once he made the mistake- wholly innocent in the breach of protocol he was perpetrating - of not putting Vogue in the front row, thinking they would be able to see better further back.
The final blow that made Antony realise he could not stand apart from the system came in 1985. At Bob Geldof’s instigation, a committee was set up in London to mount the world’s biggest international fashion show, Fashion Aid, to raise money for Ethiopia. Everyone who was anyone was asked to take part: Yves Saint Laurent from Paris, Giorgio Armani from Milan, Issey Miyake from Tokyo, and all the significant London designers. But not Antony Price. A rumour had reached him that the committee had written off his clothes as 'Not really fashion'. In the event, he did have his moment at Fashion Aid - Jerry Hall bursting out of a hat box in a vast black velvet pouffe dress - but from that time he was a man with something to prove.
So, to be standing in front of TV cameras, on the podium of the Royal Albert Hall, being applauded by the British fashion establishment on their biggest night out, meant a lot to Antony Price: acceptance at last.
Over the past three years, his show has become one of the most eagerly-awaited in the London Fashion Week calendar. Everyone knows it will be fun; he knows what he’s doing and won’t disappoint. Frequently, as one preposterously sexy number follows the last, a noise unfamiliar in fashion shows bubbles through the applause - it is the sound of laughter, and often it is coming from the models as well as the audience. In the scheme of fashion, Antony Price’s show in London has something of the spirit and significance of Azzedine Alaïa’s in Paris: the models clearly adore the designer and want to have the dresses themselves straight away. At his last show, the girls made great flirtatious play out of flipping their sixties wigs, Yasmin Le Bon risked an uncharacteristic grin and Denice Lewis, with a ridiculously Monroe-esque wobble in her walk, owing to an ankle injury, brought the house down.
Antony, vindicated at last, may not, however, remain content with playing the small London stage. He has always kept an eye on Paris, often feeling a kinship with the work of Thierry Mugler and Alaïa. 'In terms of design, I was where they were, and often before. I was always hoping someone would see it; it used to upset me not to get the recognition.' He has no plans to show in Paris, but sees it as an inevitability. As the women line up at the till to buy his frocks at £1,000 apiece, the next step, he says, is to become more European-minded. 'People believe in Paris now, you’ve got to go with the winner. In this country we’ve become more international. I don’t want to end up numbered amongst the quaint.'
Originally published in British Vogue, March 1990