Fashion people do have the tendency to take themselves too seriously. You just know that, in person, Gucci's Tom Ford will be as smooth as a neat vodka shot. Simon Carter's personality, and his dry wit, are stamped on all his designs. His are the cufflinks you see everywhere bearing the legends, "Men/Liars", "Rough/Ready" and "Piss/Off". The Carter "pill cufflink" - a hollowed-out aspirin shaped design - is getting street style bibles like The Face and Dazed & Confused over-excited at the extent of Carter's daring.
But Simon Carter himself would find any association with cool Britannia risible. In fact, his story has all the makings of an Ealing comedy. "When I tell people I studied at Chelsea they all think I mean the Art College," he says. "Actually, I studied immunology at Chelsea college: the way out for all those would-have-beens rather than wannabes. I went because my parents wanted me to and because I'd flunked every A level you could possibly flunk. It was torturous but I got a 2.1 degree. Now, of course, it's very useful to me. If I cut my finger I can find a plaster in no time."
Carter was clearly not a scientist, but he was in close proximity to the King's Road which gave him his exit clause from immunology. "Before college, my mother had clothed me. I must have had the largest collection of cheesecloth shirts outside Bratislava. Then I discovered the King's Road and a marvellous second hand store called Eat Your Heart Out where all the New Romantics and glam rock stars shopped. I worked there one day a week and spent my free time buying vintage clothes for the store."
Before we continue, you have to remember this was the early Seventies; the era when men rolled the sleeves of their jackets up to the elbows and weren't considered camp if they wore a wrist-full of silver bracelets and a brooch. "One day, this man came into Eat Your Heart Out with a little silver motorcycle Thirties brooch to sell," he says. "I wore it and had a lot of positive comments about it, so decided to have one hundred of them made up in pewter which I fully intended to sell on the Kings Road."
Carter peddled his motorcycle brooches up and down the Kings Road and finally made a last ditch attempt to sell to Cobra & Bellamy. "Out of desperation, madness and Dunkirk spirit, I went into Cobra dripping rain water on their Aubusson rugs and they said they'd take fifty of them. I thought they were tormenting me and were about to shut my fingers in a cabinet or crush my brooches underfoot with a sneer. But they were serious." From one little pewter brooch, Carter has built an accessories empire - even though he'd laugh to hear it described in such a way - on both sides of the Atlantic.
"We have a curiously disproportionate cache in America," muses Carter. "In the UK, people know the Simon Carter name and want the products. But in America, we're stocked in Bergdorf Goodman, Saks 5th Avenue, Neimen, Marcus and Barneys." Carter sounds pleasantly surprised by his success in the US. "It has a lot to do with trunk show appearance," he says, "or bring-and-buys as I call them. Trunk shows are like enormous Women's Institute sales."
Deflating fashion's pomposity is a Carter speciality. He recalls the first big break when Next's accessories buyer visited his Brixton flat. "Again, you have to remember, 12 years ago menswear in Britain was Burtons; take it or leave it," says Carter. "Next did revolutionise menswear. When you bought Next you were proud of it. The buyer visited me in Brixton and I bribed a friend to pretend to be a secretary and got my mother to call pretending she was a New York retailer. That Next buyer ordered pounds 27,500 worth of stock. It's only in the last couple of years we've beaten that record'.
The 1992/3 recession was, ironically, Carter's second big break. "In the late Eighties you could sell anything. And I mean anything. When the recession hit, we dropped all the products not sold under the Simon Carter name and traded-up." In other words, Carter made his own-name products better quality and higher priced... which is where we find him today, when anyone who knows about accessories will get Carter.
Simon Carter ties launched this year in the UK and US, and he now has designs on men's underwear for 1999. "I've survived 14 years in this business because I don't have a talent in one area," says Carter. "I am capable of seeing an idea through, of finding someone to produce it, of running a business. I don't even think of myself as a designer. I am an ideas man."
Modesty certainly becomes a man who stocks his own Regent Street boutique as well as major flagship department stores and diffusion labels for Debenhams and Next. "I often think what would have happened to me if Cobra & Bellamy hadn't bought my first motorcycle brooches. I'd probably be under an arch on the Embankment wearing one hundred pewter brooches and drinking fortified wine."
Simon Carter, 15 Quadrant Arcade, 80-82 Regent Street, W1, 0171 287 4363. For international Simon Carter stockists, call 0181 683 4475.Reuse content