The designer survivor

John Walsh meets... Helen Storey
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Indy Lifestyle Online
When Helen Storey was five years old, she was accidentally locked in a linen cupboard while playing hide and seek with her sister and brothers in the crepuscular basement flat in Belsize Park, north London where they all grew up. Rather than panic or collapse in childish tears, after 10 minutes in the darkness, "I started looking round for things to do. And I found my mother's wedding dress, inside a plastic bag. So I decided to try and work out which fabrics were which, just by touch alone - what was net, what was lining, what was boning, what was lace - and try to get a picture of the dress in my head. Everything just seemed to carry on from there..." Everything here means 11 years of being feted as one of the most innovative and dynamic fashion designers in the UK.

Claustrophobia and darkness may not seem very likely seedbeds of creativity to the likes of you or me, but the texture-loving Ms Storey is different. She has a perverse streak a mile wide. Her deliriously rackety childhood was devoted to chronic shape-changing. She tried successively to convince as "tomboy, hippie, skinhead, punk and glamour queen", never quite settling into one image for long enough. The iconic figure in her mind was, oddly, Edith Piaf. "I was attracted to her very early on - not her looks but her life. My mother used to play her records. I remember her humming `Je ne regrette rien' over the ironing board, and her songs were in my head from an early age." But all that tragedy (I protested), the drugs, those ghastly men she got tied up with... Storey raised a sophisticated eyebrow. "I'm always attracted to people with trauma in their lives," she said. "I like it. There's something very real and gritty about people who've been through trauma. I like the blatant way they live their lives thereafter."

She should know. Helen Storey has had more than her share of upset, tragedy and heartbreak, her troubles coming not in single spies but in battalions: just as she was fighting to keep her million-spinning frock house afloat, her husband Ron (the company's financial director) discovered he had cancer - a T-cell lymphoma was spreading through his head, making him deaf and blind. He retired to bed for a year. Just as he began to recover, the business collapsed in ruins and its proprietor went on the dole. And as she was considering what to do next, the couple split up, overwhelmed by the strains on their relationship of illness and receivership combined.

Since then, she has made a living only through writing - a memoir of her traumas in the rag trade and the cancer ward called Fighting Fashion, and the beginnings of a career as a journalist, writing features for national newspapers. The day we met, at a noisy cafe in Islington, she had just come hot-foot from interviewing Katharine Hamnett, the formidable progenitor of a million XL white T-shirts bearing the legend "58% DON'T WANT PERSHING". "She didn't tell me anything I didn't already know, but that was OK," said the new cub reporter. "I had a list of questions to ask, for which I needed answers, but she talked to me as a person rather than as someone who'd gone there to do a job. I thought she was very charming and very strong." Did it feel a little odd asking another designer the kind of things a journalist might ask? "The thing I like about not designing," she said smartly, "is getting to talk to designers. I love asking the kind of questions we wouldn't have dreamt of asking each other when we were all designers together."

A suspicious bunch, journalists tend to be rather sniffy about having newcomers, whether resting actors or deselected MPs, invading their ranks from other disciplines. But it would take a heart of stone to deny Storey a chance to shine. Our meeting in the cafe was delayed for several minutes as I prowled ineffectually round the tables trying to spot a woman who corresponded to the image in my head of an ethereal, wispy-haired, Biba- meets-Burne-Jones dreamboat in a Monsoon frock. "If she's anyone in this establishment," I told myself, "she certainly can't be that strong-looking woman with the severely yanked-back hair and sub fusculum sweatshirt and chinos coolly regarding me from the window seat...".

She was, of course. Storey, in her new incarnation as The Survivor, is a stripped-down, unpainted, clear-sighted, bullshit-detecting version of the creative idealist who once flogged sequinned corsets and tight black PVC second-skins to the likes of Cher, Madonna and Sandra Bernhardt. She is more Gloria Gaynor than Edith Piaf these days. Her large and beautiful eyes regard you steadily, eyes that have stared death and financial ruin in the face. Her air of ineffable melancholy is occasionally subverted by a hearty laugh. She is warily friendly with strangers, as if convinced everything might go wrong (some cataclysmic misunderstanding) at any moment. But by the time you leave her side, you experience the strong feeling (a pretty rare one in interviews) that she deserves your support and you must go and do something about it right now. You must help her out. You must visit the banks who pulled the plug on her company, and condemn them, loudly and in public. You must comb the streets of Islington to find her a new backer...

"I'm not waiting for a backer any more," she says shortly. "I went through all that. I'm not in a state of mind for a career at anything. Having made a career in fashion very quickly, I'm not sure I want to go back to it in the same way as before."

How much of a designer is she still? "Oh, I'm purely a designer. What makes me one is that I design from an emotional standpoint, rather than a practical one."

You mean your clothes aren't wearable? She smiled. "Well, no, occasionally they're not. And I think it's important that some parts of a collection aren't wearable. They're the future. They're the couture thought, if you like, and from it you can, if you're clever, commercialise it so it fits in with what everyone else is doing." She is very keen on what she calls "the Dreamworld", that is, the adventure playground of sculpted fabrics and clashing textures where the creative side of a designer's brain can disport itself without having to worry about what the passing trade in the High Street will make of it. "While I respect the High Street, and it's clearly what everybody wants, I have to be myself, which means doing things in a dreamlike way. Although - "she bridled, just slightly, "I must have done something wearable, since I was trading for 11 years."

She is the daughter of David Storey, the distinguished novelist and playwright who published This Sporting Life in 1960, won the Booker Prize in 1976 with Saville and whose plays - In Celebration, Home, The Contractor - were massively applauded in the Seventies, a decade when his work seemed to be a fixture at the Royal Court theatre in Sloane Square. Still only 63, his readers have not heard from him in some years, but, says his daughter, "he's just fine. He's at that stage of his life where he feels he doesn't have to publish anything just for the sake of publishing it." It's with a slight frisson that you recall Storey studied at the Slade art school. Is that where his daughter's designer genes came from? Had he taught her anything? "Apart from putting a crayon in my hand, no." Was the house filled with her dad's pictures? "No. It was full of pictures by Philip Sutton, who was with him at the Slade. Those and the odd poster from one of his plays."

Helen recalls hanging out at the Royal Court at rehearsals of her father's plays - "it was like a second home to him, the other workplace outside his bedroom" - and meeting all manner of famous actors. "But as a child you've no sense of who they are or their greatness. They were just nice blokes or they're not. So I thought Gielgud was very withdrawn and Ralph Richardson was very warm." (Both men were starring in Home.)

At Hampstead Comprehensive, a school of hard knocks rather nearer Finchley than Flask Walk, she was pulled between twin impulses to be a ballet dancer or a punk, and endured the attacks of some deeply unpleasant youths who terrorised the corridors, groped her nascent breasts and stabbed at her with metal rulers. "My father firmly believed in comprehensive education," she calmly recalls, "and was very disillusioned when he found out through me it wasn't working."

Helen wasn't working either, however, preferring to hit nightclubs and drink unfeasible quantities with her friend Sophie. Then one night, after smashing milk bottles and taking a swing at a policeman, she wound up in the cells. Sprung by her father at 4am, she abruptly stopped being a rebel. At Kingston Poly, she did an art foundation course and discovered a feel for clothes. "I loved experiments. I've always liked mistakes, which is commercially and professionally a dangerous thing to like. But I wasn't sure if I was going to be a sculptor, a painter or whatever. I was into making clothes that weren't `made', putting together clothes without stitching. I made a knitted jumper full of holes and threaded with red ribbons, so the body inside would look like a human maypole. The head of the school came round and took my dabblings and mistakes for originality."

Such modesty. But none of it counted anyway, since she got a job at the Valentino salon in Rome and learned about the weirdly unreal, court-of- Versailles collective of neurotic enthusiasts and sycophantic popinjays that flap and fluster around a major-league designer; how a design on a sheet of paper is transformed (her words) "by a form of glorious madness" into a hundred frocks and jackets and blouses and unstructured frou-frou in the Paris shops.

She started her own label and opened her own shop in Newburgh Street, London, in 1984. Her first catwalk show, in 1990, was titled "Rage" and featured some coolly extravagantly sights - abbreviated sequinned shorts, lycra leotards in pop-art abstracts, a battle-field brassiere covered in bullets and a rose. Later, her tastes got wilder. Wherever you looked, there were draughty cutaway garments that sometimes looked like terrible accidents (the evening dress with cut-away bottom caused a lot of fuss). She dealt in festishistic materials like rubber and latex, and threw in some Moschino-like subversions of the whole opulent fashion circus, making dresses out of council bin-liners, a boa out of scraps, a ballgown out of men's shirts sewn together. "I did it out of guilt, I think, guilt at being a fashion designer. I thought you were supposed to hate your job, you were there to make money. Then I realised you could make money from doing what you enjoyed. Then I worried that it wasn't really a profession. And my answer was to make something out of rubbish. Something's always drawn me down to more earthy things..."

Noting the trouble her excesses have caused in the past (in one show, the models had to parade up and down their faces hidden behind the heads of birds or the antlers of deer), I wondered if she concerned herself over the dignity of the human body. Was she in the business of dehumanising it? "Hmmm. Rather selfishly, I often think of the body as just part of my design process. I don't design to protect the body. But the part of my work that's most publicised only accounts for about three per cent of what I do. Behind the dress with the bare arse, there's 10 versions of it, complete with arse, and they're the ones that end up selling in Paris."

The story of her success and where it all went is documented in Fighting Fashion, plainly told and full of nightmares, as huge orders come in from America ("One order was a quarter of a million quid, which for a little girl was a lot of money. It was for thousands of dozens of items - we had to add extra columns on the order forms") and she discovers that the banks won't underwrite her against losses. She will be appearing at the ICA on 24 March to talk about her experiences. What advice will she give aspirant designers? Don't go into fashion? Don't trust banks. "The only real answer is: leave. Go abroad. Certainly get the clothes made abroad. And if you can, get financed from there too. The other thing is not to rely on third parties. I really admire Katharine Hamnett, who's grown her whole company off the back of her income, without any bank loans. It's the same with Paul Smith. They're probably the biggest successes we've got at home and look how they managed without any outsiders."

She has to run. Storey has to take her son Luke, 10, to a football match. "Every bloody weekend is training," she says fondly. "That and the Spice Girls..." After that she'll go back to her modest house in Willesden Green, to write her interview and worry about where the next cheque is coming from. Storey is handling the fallen-idol stuff very well, considering the losses she has sustained - of love, money, career, success, profit, reputation, stuff like that. The only thing that stops you swearing undying fealty to this resilient heroine is the certain knowledge that she'll be back in business before the year is out. She may despise the fashion business for its flakiness, its volatility, the things it did to her; but you just know the enraptured little girl in her soul will always be around, fingering fabrics in the dark.