With the recent opening of his store in the Dubai Mall and the second phase of his collaboration with H&M hitting the rails last Thursday, the flamboyant British designer Matthew Williamson is taking the region - and quite possibly the world - by storm. Feted for his joyful and colourful collections, Williamson's designs boast an impressive A-list following, including Sienna Miller, Keira Knightley and Thandie Newton. "Matthew Williamson's designs are the kind of clothes you dream about having as a little girl," enthuses Miller, who was the designer's muse for many years and is an important part of Williamson's inner circle. The designer's penchant for full-on colours, intricate embellishments, psychedelic prints, sumptuous textures and global references all contribute to his unique and spirited fashion sensibility. These themes have been Williamson's consistent handwriting since he and his business partner, Joseph Velosa, launched his eponymous company 12 years ago. According to Williamson: "There are very clear, key elements that are found in my collections. My summer mainline collection sees a new direction for me in the form of strong tailoring. However, they are still given the 'Matthew Williamson aesthetic' through the punchy tones of fuchsia pink and vibrant red."
"I grew up in Manchester and -perceived the surroundings as very grey and dull. I believe this influenced me to create colourful, -exotic clothes that give the wearer a sense of optimism." When asked to define his ideal customer, the -designer professes himself stumped. "When I first began designing, I had a certain bohemian girl in my mind. However, today, I can't pin down a certain person. The variety of customers in my stores is astounding; the only common factor is that the person who wears Matthew Williamson is a confident woman who is not afraid to express herself through her clothes." Williamson's particular brand of global hippy chic is, naturally enough, hugely influenced by his extensive travels abroad, including several visits to the Middle East. "I am a prolific photo taker and -often, only when I return home, do I -notice some small details captured within them, which then becomes the theme of my next collection or the inspiration of a print. I never directly reference one country in a collection; it's more about the amalgamation of places I have been. For example, a print inspired by Cuban stained-glass windows might be seen in a Japanese-style kimono dress."
Williamson's brand is very much on the march at the moment: though the flagship London store opened its doors back in 2004, this year has seen both last month's New York store opening in the hip Meatpacking District and the D-ubai Mall store, his third international boutique. He is continuing to look east, with plans to open in -Kuwait in the near future. "The Dubai store was actually planned before New York," he reveals. "It was only a coincidence that they opened so closely after one another. For both locations I felt there was a strong customer base that would benefit from a stand-alone store that held the full collection." All three eponymous stores exude the eclectic signature elements of Williamson and were -designed and overseen by Clare Ceprynski, the brand's image director. "In Dubai in particular, Clare's design was definitely influenced by the region," explains Williamson. "The rotunda and punched, starred ceiling are examples of this and the domed section of the store is wonderful. We very much wanted to -reflect the culture of the surrounding environment with, for example, intricate fretwork."
Williamson is one of those d-esigners that fashionistas in the Middle East have truly taken into their hearts, and the reasons are obvious, thinks the designer. "The garments I design are all about -relaxed glamour and luxury, which is very much a signature of Middle Eastern style. This, together with the fact that most of the pieces are relaxed in their silhouette and easy to wear in this climate, has shown us a hugely positive response." With several successful design collaborations under his belt, -including limited edition bottle -designs for Coca-Cola and a range of exquisite stationery for Smythson, Williamson's current designs for the fashion behemoth H&M have attracted unprecedented -interest. When he was approached by -Margareta Van den Bosch, the creative adviser of H&M, which has more than 1,600 global stores, there was no hesitation: he was immediately interested. With a legacy of working with leading designers such as Karl -Lagerfeld, Stella McCartney and Rei Kawakubo of Comme des Garçons, H&M was the ideal partner. "I think that H&M's democratic approach to fashion is to be applauded," he remarks. "Those customers who might not be able to afford the price points of my mainline collection are now able to buy into the brand."
That's not to say that there were no creative challenges, the main one, of course, being how to make the collection instantly recognisable as Matthew Williamson at an affordable price point. "This meant not watering down key elements of print, colour and embellishment. I also wanted to recreate some of the iconic pieces from my past collections, but modernise them for -today's customer," he explains. "The peacock feather, in particular, became a -motif for me simply because I love the bold colours and the multitude of ways it can be represented in prints. In the collection for H&M it is seen in a stylised print on tops and wrap dresses, as a shoulder -embellishment on the cardigans and bejewelled in the -accessories." It's not all about the instant identifiability though: the floor-length flamenco gown is Williamson's standout favourite from the range and the print is a more subtle reference to his brand, being inspired by an intricate de Gournay hand-painted wallpaper in the his flagship store in London. This attention to detail is what has made the collection such a huge success with both stalwart Williamson customers and new fans. Divided into two drops, the initial -collection sold out in London within hours of going on sale. Currently available in Dubai, phase two is a more extensive collection of covetable high-summer pieces and the designer's much-awaited first foray into menswear. "I wanted to take my global traveller girl and create a men's range that reflects the same idea," he explains. "So the H&M collection sees the journey of a traditionally English man, as seen in the schoolboy-like brocade suit, who travels abroad, and his wardrobe begins to represent the places he visits. The collection is based on my own personal style. It has been a treat for me to be able to design clothes that I can wear. My summer wardrobe is sorted!' According to Van den Bosch: "The collection is full of colour and a feeling of happiness. It's elegant, but in a relaxed way, and a little bit bohemian with some ethnic influences. We are also very happy that Matthew is producing his first ever menswear collection with us - I think it is something that will be very different. It's going to be a great, stylish summer." Ever the showman, Williamson and H&M hosted a glittering party in New York on board a pink cruise ship to celebrate the international launch of the second drop. Celebrity guests were treated to a fashion show and entertained by the pop diva Grace Jones. "The event kicked off my American Hurricane Tour," explained the performer who started her career as a model on the catwalks of Paris. "Matthew told me that his mum first turned him onto my single, La Vie en Rose." In fact, Williamson's mother not only influenced his early love of -music, she was also his original muse. "As a child, I used to watch her prepare her work clothes for the following day and see how she styled her look together. It was fascinating to see how she combined colours and textures and I knew from then onwards that this would be the -career for me." Accepted as a student at London's prestigious Central Saint Martins, he studied print textiles, fascinated at the impact a print could make on a garment. "I think my love of -colour was cemented by a work placement at Zandra Rhodes's studio," he -recalls. "It was one of my duties to sweep the floor each evening of discarded fabrics and I used those I collected to make my graduate gown." After college, Williamson was offered a position at Monsoon as head of accessories for Accessorize. The job included frequent buying trips abroad and signalled the start of his love affair with travel and all things exotic. In 1997, after some encouragement from Plum Sykes and her colleagues at British Vogue, Williamson launched his first collection. At a time when fashion was all about monochrome and minimalism, he literally burst onto the catwalk at London Fashion Week, with his Electric Angels collection of just 13 sassy jewel-coloured confections, modelled by Kate Moss, Jade Jagger and Helena Christensen. The next morning, his designs and models were front-page news and Williamson was the talk of the town. The bias-cut fuchsia pink and turquoise dress that Moss wore in that first show is an iconic Williamson piece and can be found in his current H&M collection, updated with one of his ubiquitous butterfly prints. Definitely an investment piece - if you can get your hands on it. The dress was also an integral part of Williamson's 10-year retrospective at London's Design Museum in 2007, which focused on the highlights of the designer's archive collections. At the time, Williamson was also creative director of Emilio Pucci, a post he had held since 2005. "I was so honoured to have been able to work at the house, given its incredible history of print and -design. I certainly learnt a lot about techniques from my visits to the archive there," he says. "I felt the need to leave Pucci after six seasons because I wanted to concentrate on the four collections I design annually for my mainline." Williamson's collections have been traditionally dress-based, but as he explains: "In recent years, the collections have taken a very definite new direction. There are still the key elements, but a focus on tailoring and silhouette has been introduced. I would say my winter collections have seen larger emphasis on outerwear and in particular a larger fur offering. The accessories and shoe collection have been growing steadily due to demand and we are now working with a range of -exotic materials such as python." Claudia Plant, the editorial director of the online fashion boutique Net-a-Porter.com, who cites Williamson as one of the website's most popular brands, first came across the designer more than 10 years ago when she was a fashion assistant at Tatler magazine. "He would visit our office and show us his collections of exquisitely beaded dresses and skirts with matching handbags. Even then there was something uniquely charming about his -designs. Matthew's collections have obviously expanded and evolved considerably, but he's stayed true to his luxe bohemian aesthetic - beading, embroidery and an extraordinary sense of colour." As the man himself says: "Fashion is as relevant now as it always was. Even in these economically -depressed times, people look to fashion as a way to lift their mood and express themselves."