He styled Roxy Music and Duran Duran. His best customer is Camilla, Duchess of Cornwall. From rock aristocracy to the royals, Antony Price has dressed them all. Friend and muse Jerry Hall talks to the British fashion designer about Joan Crawford, Flash Gordon and toilet roll.
Jerry Hall: Antony darling, do you remember the first time we met?
Antony Price: We were doing the Roxy Music cover for Siren with Bryan [Ferry]. I had made you a mermaid costume and painted your body blue. It was the hottest day of the year. We shot it in the middle of the day in bright sun and we had to use umbrellas to get ride of the shadows. It was quite a performance. After the shoot I had to wash the paint off you in the bath very quickly so we could catch the train.
One of my favourite runway moments was at one of your fashion shows. It was the late 70s and Marie Helvin and I were both modelling as British Vogue cover girls at the time. We wore leather zip skirts and motorcycle helmets to the sound of motorcycles revving up. We threw off our helmets and let loose our hair to a huge roar from the crowd.
Jerry Hall: How did you plan the shows?
Antony Price: They were always planned at the last minute because we never had any money. It was a monstrous panic as that was my first big show. Everybody turned up for it because I was kind of the Christopher Kane of the moment. I opened the show with the music from Close Encounters and had an incredible crash sound effect. We hadn’t had any rehearsals and there weren’t any cues. Backstage, I could hear the music whirring up and thought, "Oh my God, the crash is any minute now and they’re still standing here!" You got out just on the nick of time and pulled the helmets off right on the crash. It’s not that long ago but the business has changed so much. The public never saw fashion shows. Now there are banks of cameras and it’s straight out on five million fashion TV programmes. In fact, my music and fashion spectacular at the Camden Palace three or four years later was the first time the public had actually seen a show, much to my horror of the fashion business as suddenly they lost control of what the public saw. But removing the power of editorship cost me dear because Jagger was there and I remember the publicity went out as the ‘Mick and Jerry show’. My name never even got mentioned!
Jerry Hall: I once had a black sequin suit by you called ‘Joan Crawford’. What do you love so much about the golden era of Hollywood?
Antony Price: I think my interest in that Hollywood thing is the culmination of a quest for perfection. I was always fascinated by Travis Banton’s costumes for Dietrich in her films for Josef von Sternberg. At the time they worked in the Hollywood system where clothes were made in huge costume departments. It was all done on site, like a temple of illusion. When Mommie Dearest, the film about Joan Crawford starring Faye Dunaway, was released we did a fabulous window display in Plaza, my King’s Road shop. The dummy wore my Crawford suit, had a giant 1940s victory roll hair-do and held a red coat hanger in her hand. There’s a scene in the film where she beats her daughter saying, "No wire coat hangers!". It’s a hysterically funny scene. Joan Crawford was a monstrous witch. We sold loads of those suits.
Jerry Hall: Your clothes had a futuristic, Flash Gordon look to them...
Antony Price: Definitely. The adverts for my shop Plaza, which I drew myself, had a recurring sci-fi character in them called Zonda. She was an extremely camp woman with an hourglass figure and bullet breasts. Everything looked very film and modern in Plaza. We used to display the clothes as photographs in the windows, which was shaped like a big letterbox movie screen. I remember one display of a model with sprayed-on black hair and a skirt with gold zips revealing blue skin. She looked like she was from another planet.
Jerry Hall: Your cap sleeved T-shirt was copied by the world…What inspired it?
Antony Price: I loved all the camp drawings by the gay fashion artist Tom of Finland. They were a big influence. I dressed the guy on the back-cover of Lou Reed’s Transformer album in one of my cap sleeve T-shirts. He ended up looking like a Tom of Finland figure. He wasn’t a model: he was actually Ernie, the tour manager. He had the perfect body for that T-shirt – wide shoulders and a miniscule waist. The girl opposite him in the shoot was model Gayla Mitchell. Everyone thought she was a drag queen.
Jerry Hall: You spent your winters in the Caribbean…Did you get a lot of your ideas by sitting on a beach there?
Antony Price: I sure did. Especially when I was camping it around Mustique with you. I’ve got a great photo of us in front of Colin Tenant’s Gingerbread House, which Bryan [Ferry] had hired and we were all staying there. Watching you swim and Gayla dive was very inspirational. Gayla was so white underwater that she went blue and she used to wear this sort of red jam on her lips that didn’t come off in the water. She was a ballerina so the shapes she made under the water were so elegant, quite astounding. I’ve always been inspired by nature and Mustique has the most gorgeous flowers, especially the blue water lilies.
Jerry Hall: Who taught you how to cut fabric?
Antony Price: A woman called Mrs. Betts taught me at Bradford Art College. Every week she used to give us a drawing, usually something from Balenciaga or Givenchy, and we’d have to cut the pattern for it. I was brought up on a farm in Yorkshire so I was good at dry walling, which is all about looking at a pile of stones and guessing what shapes would fit into what gaps. It gave me an early grasp of curvature. From that I understood exactly how shapes look when they are cut flat and when they’re sewn up how you create things to curve around the human body. By the time I got to the Royal College of Art I was an expert and could show the machinists how to do it. The only other person I met who was as good was the milliner Brian Harris, who made hats for me. He was a friend of Cecelia Birthwell’s. That was during the golden period when we all lived in the Ladbroke Grove area. Roxy music was being formed and Ossie Clark used to drive around in his silver Buick Riviera stinking of ganja. It had the first car sound system that played tapes the size of kitchen sinks. Very camp.
Jerry Hall: Did you feel a lot of peer pressure turning out your collections?
Antony Price: Absolutely. Fashion is like trying to create a number one pop hit every season. But designers achieve that success only once, maybe twice if they’re really lucky. I did it once when I was working for Stirling Cooper in the 1970s and designed the whirly skirt. I got the idea sat on the toilet looking at the paper’s spiral cardboard tube. The skirt was a one-piece pattern repeated eight times. It sold in the millions. Everyone copied it. So you do something like that and it’s fantastic but then you become your own worst enemy. It’s like Robbie Williams going fucking nuts after Angels because he’s expected to do it again. You go into crisis. Shows are really hard, especially when you don’t have the financial back up, which was always my problem. I couldn’t even afford assistants. After a show, when everybody else was at the party, I was still bagging the clothes and loading them into a van. Every penny I had was tied up with them.
Jerry Hall: You now have a couture business and make one-of-a-kind clothes for Camilla, Duchess of Cornwall, and do the best weddings. How do you like these commissions compared to the rest of the fashion business?
Antony Price: Well, the first thing is that they pay 50% up front. It’s fascinating now I fit people at their own homes because I see what other clothes they’ve bought. You see which designers they buy alongside you and it gives an idea of why they want a dress from you and what’s missing in the market that forces them to come to you. Knowing what influences people and knowing what they want is crucial. I know when my customer is pleased because they’re stood right in front of me. When you make something for the public that hasn’t yet bought it, you have to do a lot of guesswork. Also, I’ve never really understood about watering something down. My partner Rick used to say, "do what you want Tone, just do it half the size". Being a showman, I’ve never really understood half the size. I leave that to other people. I think it limits your imagination but doing clothes directly for people means that they take some of the responsibility.
Jerry Hall: You’re also known for your men’s clothes. What is your favourite shape for a man’s shape?
Antony Price: Menswear stays very much the same. It’s really just the fabric choice that changes and how the clothes are worn: tucked in or rolled up or pushed down, collar up or down. When men look at a garment in the mirror they only look at the collar, the chest and the sleeve. The real sale is made around the face and the shoulder area. I like highly padded shoulders as they were in the 1950s but now we are in a period of thin suits because it’s fashionable for the men to be incredibly skinny. That’s dictated by the shape of the male models that are being used. Using a massive muscled, athletic male looks wrong now. A minute ago, during the 1980s and 1990s it was totally right to have lots of chest and arm muscle. Now it’s Pete Doherty thin. So, all the collars and everything are very thin. I’m sure that the 40s shoulder thing that is happening to womenswear will creep into menswear. But nothing happens suddenly in menswear.
Jerry Hall: Would you ever consider working under contract for a big design house?
Antony Price: I’ve never been offered it. Last year I was put up by the Fashion Council as top couturier behind John Galliano and Vivienne Westwood, who’ve had endless shows paid for in Paris for 10 years. I’ve never had a single show in Paris. I’ve not had a penny given to me ever so I don’t think I’ve been given a fair crack of the whip. I’ve never met the right people and I’m not a hustler. I’m just not pushy and always found it deeply embarrassing to push myself on somebody. I’m the kind of person who wouldn’t ask for a date. They’d have to ask me. But they never would – I’m too tall.
Originally published in Wonderland, April/May 2008