Having looked to Angie Bowie and Twin Peaks' Laura Palmer for inspiration in past seasons, designer Richard Nicoll is no stranger to the concept of the femme fatale. He has inlaid corsetry and lingerie detailing on trenches and T-shirts, reinvented austere pencil skirts and cocktail dresses in black PVC, even made vintage cycling gear and lepidopterology sexy.
So it stands to reason that he took a shine to the diminutive but drop-dead-gorgeous actress, singer and model, Josephine de la Baume, when the two met at a fashion event last year.
"We just had this instant connection,"f he tells me on the set of the Independent shoot, as de la Baume sits in hair and make-up. She has come straight from an Agent Provocateur appearance (she is the face – or rather, the body – of the luxury lingerie brand) and the archetypal siren lippie-and-smoky-eyes need to be pared down to something more suitably modern before she wriggles into Nicoll's own pre-spring collection for our pictures.
"It's really nice to have someone who wears your clothes well and who is intelligent, funny – and who I respect as a person," he continues. "I love her in my clothes because she brings an unexpected context – she's quite experimental in the way she dresses herself. The way she mixes my clothes into her own life is completely unexpected and different from the way I design them. But I really like that about her: I think it's important that people bring their own personal style to fashion."
De la Baume, aged 29, may not seem an immediate fit for Nicoll's signature minimal and geometric pieces – planate and angular where she is, well, rather more generously rounded and paraboloid. But as she steps into the pieces on-set, it becomes clear that his talent lies in cutting and fitting those garments in a way that forms and flatters the female body – less starchy than sinuous; not strict but rather, structured.
"I wore a dress of his to the British Fashion Awards," she says, "and I felt like I was at a party with Peter Sellers, but in 2020. The shapes make me think of something from the past, but the prints are so novel and futuristic."
Nicoll, aged 35, is a graduate of the respected fashion MA at Central Saint Martins, overseen by the fabled sadist and sensei Louise Wilson, and his is one of the most acclaimed labels on the London schedule at the moment. It was for his retro sci-fi feel that he was initially known, an aggressively wearable feminine aesthetic that seemed to hark back to late-Sixties sexuality as well as to Blade Runner ballsiness. It exists still as an undercurrent in his work, but has been channelled into clothes that feel less constrained in their construction, more confident in their casual stylings. Pieces that are as at home in someone's wardrobe as they are on the catwalk – this is the evolution of Nicoll's own personal brand of purism.
"People come to us for the cleanliness of the lines," he agrees. "But there's also a component of our customers who like the colour and the patterns, so we're looking for a way of appeasing both, and that's also part of what I do. I've got some very, very clean outfits or, if I'm feeling that way inclined, I'll work on some clashing patterns."
So much is obvious in his most recent pre-collection, a diverse mix of casual wool pieces, banded in tonal shades of grey or blocked in bright yellow, and purist cotton separates, cut flat and sparsely, as well as opulent satin jacquards in deliberately jarring shades of neons and brights, with what looks like a pagoda-esque rigidity to their A-line forms. Originally trained in menswear, Nicoll has recently returned to that discipline, too, presenting his second men's catwalk show in London last month to rapturous reviews.
"It's basically a continuation of what I started in the first season," he explains. "But it's a little more complex – that was kind of wardrobe staples and creating the perfect boring essentials, whereas this one's a little bit more directional – it's a little more of a fashion collection, the last one was a starting point."
Denim blue, urban grey and accents of biohazard orange came on merino wool, cashmere suiting and angora knits, as well as jacquards and felt that mimicked the previous womenswear offering, too.
"They've started to feed each other," he admits, shyly smiling through icy blue eyes, in a soft Australian accent (he was born in London but grew up Down Under), "which I really enjoy. So they feel like a brother and sister collection and increasingly, as the menswear develops, the womenswear will change, too. I wear the menswear, which I think is a good benchmark of whether it'll be commercially successful. Because I'm not massively adventurous, but I like things that are special but normal."
That works as a description of Nicoll's entire aesthetic: special but normal. What his clothes have in common, whether for men or women, whether formal or casual, plain or patterned, is an everyday ease heightened by unexpected design flourishes that make you want to smile. Those striped knits, for example, are that much more exciting than your average grey jumper; the dresses feel feminine but never frothy or frilly.
"The shapes of his dresses are unique – I've never really seen those types of designs before," says Josephine de la Baume from her seat in front of the mirror. "They're very specific to him and he manages to use really graphic shapes, but at the same time make them flattering on a woman's body. Which is pretty impossible normally. Not many designers fit me that well, because I have quite a specific figure, tiny but curvy."
It would be disingenuous to say that de la Baume's striking physique hadn't played a role in her swift ascendance to indie royalty, but she has plenty of irons in the fire besides modelling. Married to musician and producer, Mark Ronson, she also fronts her own band, Singtank, with her brother Alexander, and has appeared in a number of French- and English-language films. Most recently, she was in Confession of a Child of the Century, a version of Alfred de Musset's 1836 novel, starring Charlotte Gainsbourg and Pete Doherty. Such are her Gallic-grunge credentials.
"He's a bit of a magical human being," she says of Nicoll, as she flicks through a rail of his pieces. "He's so beautiful and charming and smart – we met each other on Vogue's Night Out [an annual shopping event hosted by the magazine] which sounds very fashion-y, but we kind of fell in love with each other."
"Not that I'm his muse," she shakes her head at the suggestion. "I'm just his friend, he does his job. He doesn't need me – he's much better at his job than I would be."
"I'd never have a muse," Nicoll agrees, during a phone-call after the shoot. "I like that definition of personality – there isn't one person that I think represents my ideal in any way. I work with brilliant people whose opinions I rate, but all women have differing opinions and it's good to hear that spectrum."
Other names on Nicoll's impressive roster of clients include Keira Knightley, Emma Stone and Florence Welch, key tastemakers in the alt-glamour bracket that Josephine de la Baume also fits so perfectly into.
"I think my aesthetic is now formed," he says. "It's natural to experiment but at some point you realise through experience the way that people react to your work, and what they expect from you, what they see as your defining elements. I hope there'll be a strong consistency in the collections now."
This, if there is any quibble, is something industry pundits have criticised Nicoll for in the past, but it seems – from the reactions to his catwalk show last September and from the praise that followed his recent men's show, not to mention from star-outings and sales – that he can do no wrong currently. That menswear collection ended with models taking their final walk-through to Talking Heads' "This Must Be The Place", a sentiment that sums up both Nicoll and his label right now.
ALL CLOTHES FROM THE RICHARD NICOLL PRE-SUMMER COLLECTION; ALL JEWELLERY JOSEPHINE'S OWN
STYLING: GEMMA HAYWARD
PHOTOGRAPHS: JERMAINE FRANCIS
MAKE-UP: CLARE READ AT CAREN USING MAC COSMETICS
HAIR: CLAIRE ROTHSTEIN USING BUMBLE AND BUMBLE
PHOTOGRAPHER'S ASSISTANT: ADAM TYLICKI