Fashion: Armed forces

Robert Cary-Williams fought his way from soldier to hot new designer by destroying clothes. Susannah Frankel hears a ripping yarn. Portrait by Liam Duke, backstage photographs by Jane McLeish
Click to follow
Indy Lifestyle Online
To say that Robert Cary-Williams has a healthy disregard for his craft would be something of an understatement. The designer's debut catwalk collection included a canvas jacket massacred by what must have been a particularly ferocious staple gun, flying suits that wouldn't look out of place on a post-apocalyptic building site, ripped- up flesh-coloured leather, soaked, then moulded to the body and even a dress made out of crumpled silver foil.

"It's ugly but beautiful at the same time," Cary-Williams informs me. "The beauty is in the process. You have to be in the right mood to do it, it has to be done at the right time or else it looks forced."

Even before he left college, Cary-Williams had made a name for himself with his seemingly irresistible urge to cut up perfectly respectable - not to mention wildly expensive - clothes that he'd saved up to buy.

"You know, I got this great buzz out of doing it," he tells me, somewhat alarmingly. "It's just the fact that you'd paid pounds 300 for it. I think I'm a very destructive person. I'm lucky, though, because something comes out of that destruction: my creativity filters through." At the spring/summer shows last September, 33-year-old Cary-Williams unveiled, without fanfare, and to a small audience of those in the know (his own mother and father also took pride of place in the front row), an off-schedule collection that was the talk of the town before the day was out. He is currently coping with the pressure of being touted as London's Next Big Thing.

Cary-Williams is hardly archetypal for the world of fashion - quietly thoughtful, carefully articulate and apparently embarrassed by any hyperbole that comes his way. This is not so surprising, given his background, which is a million miles away from what one might expect of a designer. Aged 18, and disenchanted with the prospect of taking over his father's dairy farm in Wiltshire, Cary-Williams wasted no time signing up with the Army.

In his words, he spent "a good three years there. It was the easiest way for me to change what I was doing. Most of the men were a bit rough and you had very little time for yourself. Privacy's not high on the agenda". He was comforted, though, by the fact that there was someone else structuring his life for him, someone above him telling him what to do.

Cary-Williams married and left the army, then, when that didn't last, he went back to college - to art college to be precise, in (not very fashionable on the face of it) Taunton. "I'd always been interested in drawing," he says, "and when I did my Foundation I thought I wanted to concentrate on painting. What I wanted was to end up at the Slade School of Art. I visualised myself as a painter in a studio."

Thankfully for fashion, a perceptive tutor advised him instead to apply for a fashion degree at Central Saint Martins where, Cary-Williams says, his performance was unremarkable. In fact it was overshadowed, during his MA year, by that of Matthew Williamson and, even more so, Antonio Berardi. "They were both destined to stand out," he says. "I never believed that of myself. I just drifted through."

Although he says that his current collection is not literally inspired by the military (or at least by his own time in the Army), everything from the khaki-based colour palette to skirts made out of the sort of rope more readily associated with the assault course than Bond Street suggests otherwise.

The work is "ugly but beautiful at the same time", because despite the destructive force behind the manufacture of the collection, perhaps the most interesting thing about it is just how delicate, ethereal even, it looks when worn.

Cary-Williams says he is more interested in designing for women than men because "I like the shape of women. On a woman's body my clothes look beautiful, on a man they would just look silly. I see women's bodies when I design. The male body is too big and clumsy for me."

The designer's next collection - due to be shown in London next month - is lighter on the khaki; any military influences, he says, will be kept to a minimum. He's got more of a budget now too - his spring/summer collection was put together for a mere pounds 500. But then, Cary-Williams prides himself on being thrifty, on being in possession of that thoroughly English quality of being able to create something out of nothing. "I'm an English eccentric," he says. "I might have more financial backing now but I think it's very important I keep the edge."

Only around 30 per cent of the collection shown here will ever go into production. "I wanted to express myself," Cary- Williams says. "Give people a good show and see what came out of that."

He admits, however, that to see women actually wearing his clothes is of prime importance.

"If I bumped into someone wearing one of my designs in the street ... That would be the ultimate accolade".

Robert Cary-Williams designs, available from The Pineal Eye, 49 Broadwick Street, London W1, enquiries 0171-434 2567