Interview: Price of perfection: Antony Price once dressed Bryan Ferry and the Rolling Stones. Now he reshapes women in frocks that are quite simply gripping

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Antony Price likes birds, preferably rare and exotic ones. His studio in Kennington, south London, resounds to their high-pitched shrieks and swooping cries. On the first floor he works at his drawing board, flanked by papier-mache torsos and fabric samples, overlooking a central showroom with aviaries at each end. Inside the cages brilliantly coloured birds flicker to and fro, while at ground level two hulking cats prowl and lash their tails with desire and frustration. It would be an oversimplification to liken the birds to his glamorous clients and the cats to predatory males, but the image undeniably springs to mind.

Price has a cliched view of what women and men want from his dresses, and like all the best cliches it is accurate. He understands that women want to look shapely without always being able to supply the cartoon curvaceousness of Jessica Rabbit. His job is to construct dresses that will make them resemble the alluring young women they were when their husbands met them, although that original allure may since have led to marriage, child-bearing and the redistribution of curves.

'My clothes are men's idea of what women should wear, and for that they'll pay good money. (Between pounds 800 and pounds 3,000 for an evening dress.) Men are looking for the sex robot from Lang's Metropolis with the perfect body offering endless fantasy sex. They're obsessed by the size of sexual protuberances - their own as well as women's - and I'm an illusionist. My job is to give them what they want.

'Most of the women I make for are married, so it's not done behind his back . . . indeed, many husbands come here and are turned on by it. Rather than fashion, men love the art of clothing, which is that of altering people's bodies, so that to the external eye they seem a different shape.'

I was curious to know how this illusion is achieved. Antony Price drew back a curtain, revealing a rail of voluptuous dresses in his favourite materials: velvet, lace and brocade. Shaking out a creation in emerald green and black shot velvet, he undid the zipped back, disclosing an inner garment like a torturer's corset made of 1 1/2 in-wide bands of elastic webbing. These, stitched into the dress and worn against bare flesh, grip and control the woman's body, reshaping it into the approved hour-glass silhouette, while creating the illusion that the dress clings naturally. Isn't this garment agony to wear?

'There are certain people who want to star, like peacocks on parade, and they get a sexual buzz out of the pain, counteracted by the visual pleasure of being gasped at and knowing that they look fantastic.

'Women's view of what their bodies should look like is quite different from men's. Nature gives real women curved hips and stomachs, but they want snake hips. Every woman I've ever met thinks her bum is too big. I rebuild women's bodies; my dresses are pure corsetry, contorting and clenching and pulling them in.

'There's nothing new about it. The human body has always been deformed in the name of fashion and eroticism. When I was a child in north Yorkshire, the Spirella corset lady would come round and visit. Huge farmers' wives and daughters with their big red bodies would be reshaped by flesh-pink corsets in a way that was practically S & M'

His longtime friend and business partner, Rick Cunningham, comes in to say he is taking a bird to the vet, a parrot finch from Burma. 'Don't worry,' Price says in response to my stricken glance, 'she'll probably survive.'

Tropical birds and pneumatic bodies aside, Price's favourite subject is his childhood. 'My father was a painter and also a Spitfire pilot in the war. My parents got divorced I think because of the strain of the war and their long separation, so I and my sister and the twins were brought up by my mother alone.

'We lived on the scenic railway line from Settle to Carlisle, in Yorkshire, on grouse moors, in the most beautiful old farmhouse, and played among farm animals and violets and cowslips and singing birds. It was the most idyllic childhood anybody could ask for.

'Our little village school was just over the road: 13 children, of whom four were us. There was one wonderful schoolmistress with large breasts which waggled up and down when we did PE and all the farmers' boys would lean over the wall to watch.

'I was obsessed with birds and built huge platforms in the tree tops. I wanted to fly . . . but eventually, although as a child I wanted to glorify nature, I ended up doing it for people.

'Then we moved to Oxenhope on the Worth Valley line near Keighley, another scenic railway, and I took the 11- plus which I did not scrape through. My Granny had some money - she was well-born but ran off with the village hatter, known as Price the Hat - and sent me to a school called Eshton Hall.

'It was the ultimate haunted mansion, with wonderful grounds and a bird sanctuary, and I became the school ornithologist. I used to rescue wounded pheasants and spot poachers. I was obsessed with nature, like lots of kids of that age before they get obsessed with sex.'

After this Wordsworthian childhood the young Price went to work on a poultry farm, and then learnt to build dry stone walls, until a youth employment officer noticed his drawings and decided he ought to pursue that talent. Off he went to Bradford Art School, in the footsteps of David Hockney.

He turned out to have a natural flair for pattern-cutting ('a doddle but also a puzzle: producing something round from something flat') and progressed from Bradford to the Royal College of Art where, under the basilisk eye of Janey Ironside, head of fashion, he learnt to copy anything from Balenciaga to Mary Quant.

In 1968 he started designing Stirling Cooper menswear, making beautiful trousers and coats and waistcoats designed to be worn with the sort of elegant strut not seen since Byron's day.

Life accelerated. He won a competition and went to New York, where he encountered drop-dead chic designers and their clients. Back in London in 1972, he opened a menswear shop on the corner of Wigmore Street. 'The first rock music fashion person was Ossie Clark, who floated around in a silver- blue Buick Riviera with doped-up models. It was really a very exciting period.'

Price began a lifelong association with Bryan Ferry, then the singer with Roxy Music. Their kind of fashion became the dress code of the Seventies. 'He was as good a vehicle for me as Madonna has been for Jean Paul Gaultier. I went on to make tour wardrobes for Mick Jagger and the Rolling Stones, Annie Lennox, David Bowie, Duran Duran.'

Bryan Ferry and Mick Jagger set a new standard for style, helped by Price's imaginative scissors. Theirs was perhaps the last 'tailored' look, but this was not Savile Row tailoring; rather, it was sharp, sexy, young tailoring.

I cannot decide what era inspired his present look. He is wearing a navy blue suit of his own design: a suit the Kray brothers might have worn, with Forties-size square shoulders, wide lapels and a double-breasted jacket, tapering at the waist above saggy trousers and teamed rather oddly with clumpy black boots. The effect is gangster to the waist and elephant from there down. Add to this a lilac shirt and lilac-and- orange tie and the total effect is swaggering and eye-catching.

(I long for him to comment on my blue silk Chinese jacket and long, putty- coloured skirt, even if only to tell me that the combination is disastrous; but he does not. So much for free advice.)

Antony Price has the perennially youthful face demanded of people in the fashion industry. His skin is smoothly tanned, or fake-tanned, or made-up: I can't tell which. He looks not exactly young, but ageless. Like his friend Calvin Klein, the hard planes of his face are honed to shiny smoothness, unmodified by wrinkles. He says he hasn't had a facelift, although his chin-line needed to be 'corrected'.

Why, in the early Eighties, did he return to designing for women?

'Because men will sign a cheque for women's clothes for three times the amount they'll pay for their own incredibly complicated tailored jacket. It just wasn't economically viable to make clothes for men.'

He does not exhibit in Paris and will not be at the couture shows this week, though many would argue that his cut and seaming are of couture standard.

''Cut used to be the crucial skill, but not any more. People are less and less interested, because they no longer make their own clothes so they can't see the difference between a dress with 15 seams running round it and one that the dressmaker down the road could run up in 15 minutes. At the end of the day cutting is an art, and I and a few others have got it.' Who else? 'Azzedine Alaa; Claude Montana . . . not many.'

He lounges on a calico-covered sofa stroking a lustrous dark Siamese cat that, abandoning the quest for birds, sprawls beside him.

Where is fashion going next?

'The Sixties were flower power and painted faces; the Seventies were flares and pouffe hair-dos; the Eighties shoulder pads on power dresses. I suspect the Nineties are going back to real people in real sizes.

'We've become very aware of the instability of money. After idealising money and materialism, people are now paralysed with fear. The recession made us realise how fragile all that was, and fragile I think is the name of the coming look. The spectacular is out; women don't want to confront each other any more, especially not at work; they don't really want the responsibility of power. After the complicated and dramatic clothes of the last decade, navete is now the name of the game.

'It's crept into evening wear, too: the last thing they want is overt sexuality that winds up other people. So people will wear very fragile fabrics and give off an image of congeniality. Which is a big lie, because underneath all that the crocodile is still waiting.'

(Photograph omitted)

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