Fashion: Price is right for the house that Gianni built

Long before Gianni Versace began courting rock stars to wear his clothes, Antony Price was dressing Roxy Music and the Rolling Stones. Now, as the house of Versace looks for a new couture designer to step into its founder's shoes, London-based Price has emerged as a front-runner. Tamsin Blanchard meets a man for whom fashion doesn't end at size eight and whose clients love the way he treats their curves.

The photographer is crouched on the floor telling Antony Price he will look great. "Not from that angle I won't, darling! You should never shoot people with long faces from below." This is the man who has spent his working life making women look beautiful. Now that he is rumoured to be on Donatella Versace's most-wanted list to design the company's haute couture collection, the camera flash is being directed at him and not at Jerry Hall, Tara Palmer Tomkinson or any of the of the fabulous women who inhabit his clothes. And he wants to be shown in the best light possible. After all, he is only too aware that the fickle finger of fashion will point at him fleetingly.

If he gets the Versace job, Mr Price will enjoy a few more months of frenzied press calls and photo sessions. If he doesn't, he knows that frenzy will fizzle and die and as he says, he will be "put back in the cupboard." He jokes he feels like "Sleeper" or a "nice carriage lamp being pulled out for inspection on Antiques Roadshow", but is making the most of it and enjoying taunting panting fashion editors with barbed comments like: "Where have you been the past decade?"

They dare not turn the question on him. He is too formidable a designer. And besides, since his last show in 1991, he has been doing what he's always done, and will continue doing, with or without Versace: designing special one-off dresses for the wives and girlfriends of wealthy men.

He has become known as the creator of "straight men's fantasies." And he is under no illusions that the men who spend pounds 3,000 upwards on a dress for the love of their life want her to look as though she goes in and out in all the right places. This might strike you as totally un-PC and out of tune with the times, and it is. But the fact remains that such clients exist and the female partner's own fantasy is often the same as her husband's.

Anna Harvey, deputy editor of Vogue, says "the secret of Antony's success is that he really has always admired the female form. He is not in any way vulgar, never revealing in an overtly sexy way." Josephine Fairley, owner of Knightsbridge boutique, A La Mode, has sold Antony Price as ready- to-wear with prices starting at pounds 1,000 for a dress, since the shop opened 11 years ago. He is the one designer who has stayed with her all these years, a feat in itself. "He makes women look wonderful without looking tarty. They flatter the female figure in the best possible manner. They are glamorous." When a woman tries on an Antony Price dress, she has to buy it. "She knows that to get the same look, she would have to spend thousands at Harley Street, or months with a personal trainer."

Certainly, a consultation with Antony Price at his World's End studio is akin to a visit to the plastic surgeon. "I see myself as a frock doctor," he says. "My clients have to get more or less naked in front of me. I feel I'm like a surgeon in some ways." The designer has a unique way of working. After a client has showed her commitment by paying 50 per cent of the price in advance, ("that will cover the cost of making a dress - an escape clause in case she changes her mind") Price gently gets on with the work of recreating her in papier mache. His studio is filled with papier mache torsos, both male and female, of clients, so that they are around whenever a fitting is required. The method works well, especially for overseas clients. "The papier mache casts pick up everything: the shape, the stance, the posture." They range in size from a buxom amazon woman made out of chicken wire, to a tiny slip of a girl with no hips and pancake breasts pasted together out of pages of newspapers.

Quite how Versace's most finnicky customers would react to being requested to strip off and made into a mould like a giant shoe last is uncertain. But they would be guaranteed clothes that fit like the proverbial glove and after their first fitting, they wouldn't have to go back for more. Antony Price is a hands-on designer. Although he specialises in evening and occasion wear, he began life as a menswear designer with Sterling Cooper. "I'm incredibly good at tailoring," he says completely matter of fact. "If a woman wants to get rid of her bust and hips, I can do it." And you believe him. He is not a man prone to exaggerating his own talent. He simply knows he is good. "I'm an expert pattern cutter and fitter, and I'm also a good machinist," he says in the same sentence that he also tells me he is good at dry stone walling, hair and make-up and electricals, in short, streets ahead of anyone else. "There are certain clients who wonder why you're stooping with a mouthful of pins. I will actually lie on the floor to pin a hem and they'll expect me to have some minion doing it for me. They don't understand that it's better that I do it. They wouldn't expect a surgeon to stand back and watch as an assistant did the work."

Price's clients do not all have figures like Jerry Hall, either before or after four children. He might design "straight men's fantasies" and his sketches of women might look like fierce creatures, but he has a great understanding of the female psyche and the way women perceive their own bodies. His fantasy woman might be scary but she is also real - she has hips and curves and a bum. There would be no challenge otherwise. "Women love waists," he says. "But when you go in, you gotta go out again, and they don't like that. They're obsessed with the smallness of their bums. Every woman will apologise for the size of her bum as she walks through the door."

Small bums or big bums, Antony Price is not deterred. While other designers want a woman to conform to their pin thin sketches, Price positively enjoys designing to make her look good. It's all about proportions. "I have customers who are a size 24," he boasts, berating the fashion industry for ignoring larger women. "It's our job to alter her proportions, to find her something she will look good in. Something like 60 per cent of women in this country are classified as overweight and the fashion industry has turned its back on them." As well as being a wide range of shapes and sizes, Price's customers also range from age from 16 to 60. And without fail, he says, they want to look like a size eight.

Compared to Paris or Rome, the London couture scene is small and low- key. But it is precisely that reason that women are increasingly choosing to ignore the overhyped luxury clothing market in Paris and shop instead with British couturiers like Price. These days he is working with women who travel from Paris for consultations; the British couture scene - designers like Bruce Oldfield, Catherine Walker and Bellville Sassoon, as well as newer names including Deborah Milner and Victor Edelstein protege, Marco Matysik - is thriving. Price's last show was in 1991, "before the money ran out" and he hit hard times, forced to sell up his Kennington studio where exotic birds flew wild, spreading their plumage as Price's customers spread theirs. Unlike some of the French houses, Price says he is "trying to sell clothes, not perfume or cosmetics." At any one time, he works on clothes for about 10 clients, not bad, considering some of the world's most famous French houses probably have half that number per season. Ready for some last-minute hand-finishing, an oyster satin-backed crepe wedding suit hangs in a clear plastic bag. It is for the client's second wedding, a lace dress and matching jacket with lace inserts. Price's friend, Philip Treacy, will make the hat.

Antony Price is perhaps an obscure name for Versace, at 52, considerably too old to be classed as one of London's young guns, like Antonio Berardi, another who is said to be under consideration. But he is one who would make great sense. "It would be the perfect marriage," agrees Josephine Fairley. Long before Gianni and his sister began courting celebrities to wear his clothes and attend his fashion extravaganzas each season in Paris, Antony Price was dressing Roxy Music and the Rolling Stones, and they were not only flocking to his shows, they were buying the clothes as well.

Price himself was one of the first designers to stage theatrical extravaganza fashion shows that not only featured his own team of super models - Jerry Hall, Marie Helvin, and Yasmin Le Bon - but featured star-studded audiences as well. "I'm partly responsible for the marriage of rock and fashion," he says. "When I started out, rock people thought fashion people were snobby and fashion people though the music industry grubby and dirty." The relationship was not in any way cultivated. It was simply because Antony happened to be friends with Bryan, Simon, Mick and co. They wouldn't miss "Tone's show" for anything.

Ultimately, Price has a realistic view of his world and the truth behind the glitz. If he doesn't get the Versace job, he knows he will never have that sort of money for his own label. "It would be easier to win the lottery," he says.

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