Seriously good design: Why Henry Holland is more than a figure of fashion fun

Pixie Geldof exclusively models the latest collection from the designer.

Gemma Hayward
Monday 15 October 2012 00:22 BST

Don't say the F word!" designer Henry Holland shouts, en route to our shoot with his friend Pixie Geldof. "If the headline on this article is 'House of Fun', I will be sending it back to you – once I've shredded it – in a Ziploc bag."

Trouble is, I'm having quite a lot of it (fun) in the back of this taxi, balancing a meat and potato pie made by Holland's stepmum on my lap and listening to him tease his PR team. There are some people you can just sit back and watch like television – Holland is one of them. If I was feeling sad, I'd switch Henry Holland on. If I had a hang-over, I'd make him come round and talk to me as I lay prone with nausea and giggles.

Doubtless this is part of the reason behind his astronomical rise, from one-time teen-magazine fashion k editor to fully fledged designer, with several successful collaborations under his belt (including a range for Debenhams available in 150 stores nationwide), and a presenting slot on Sky Living's Styled to Rock programme alongside the pop star Nicola Roberts. He presented his spring 2013 collection in London last month and is taking it to show to press in Paris after our interview, then he's off to Russia for a while. And his first collection of sunglasses launches this month, too.

"It's two different things, isn't it, to be serious and to be taken seriously," the 29-year-old continues. "It doesn't keep me up at night, but I would like to be taken more seriously. That's what the new collection was about – trying to show that there is growth and development, and that you don't have to use the word fun every time you talk about my clothes. I'm so over the word fun. But we've said it now, haven't we?"

The collection he is talking about was shown to press and buyers – and his attendant gaggle of bright young things – in a Soho car park a few weeks ago. His signature pop-culture schtick remains, with a jokey soundtrack of 1990s anthems and T-shirts emblazoned with the word "bitchin'" ("Everybody thinks it said 'bitch'," he says, looking stricken, "because the model's hair was so thick"), albeit toned down with a more sober colour palette and more tailored pieces. Shadow-check separates morphed into floral dresses with exaggerated frills and peplums, before tie-dye took over, in electric blues and pinks and acid-rave neons.

"It was a bit darker and moodier than normal," Holland says. "We darkened the palette a bit, we used black for the first time – we made a black dress and then dropped it from the collection. For summer, you know…" He rolls his eyes. "I thought summer was the perfect time to do my first black dress."

Contrarianism aside, he has come a long way since his first catwalk show in 2007 – hosted as part of the Fashion East collective, a scheme that supports young designers – when he failed to realise what season he was designing for until the models lined up to walk.

"I got an intern who taught me how to pattern-cut a long T-shirt, and taught me how to use the overlocker [stitching machine]," he remembers. "And I worked with a friend who helped me make some clear plastic macs that you could read the T-shirts through. But the other designers' line-ups were all girls in knitwear and mine were all in T-shirt dresses. I was like, 'Oh my God, it's winter!'"

Holland grimaces in mock-fear. But his enthusiasm and drive – his chutzpah and his own admission of never having tried to be a traditional "designer" (he has no formal training and has learnt on the job) – are inseparable from his success, founded not just on one bright idea, but also on a cult of personality that has grown up around Holland and his clique, which includes the likes of Alexa Chung, Kelly Osbourne and Pixie Geldof, who can be seen on these pages modelling House of Holland's pre-spring/summer collection.

"It's often seen as being very happy and frivolous," he says, "and I'm fine with that because that's what k we're about. But I wanted people to see a bit more, to talk about something different."

Holland has been making people talk since 2006. It was at London Fashion Week that the public first saw his slogan T-shirts, when designers Gareth Pugh and Giles Deacon took their post-show bows, each wearing a Holland design in homage to the other. "Get yer freak on, Giles Deacon," read Pugh's. "UHU, Gareth Pugh," said Deacon's in return.

"There wasn't a plan," he says emphatically. "In hindsight it was the world's best PR strategy, but I was at Gareth's show and somebody said he was wearing the T-shirt. I sat there panicking, not paying any attention to his clothes. And the reason I did them was because I'd made these other two T-shirts and they'd bombed."

The original prototypes were odes, in typical Holland style, to pop-culture icons Coleen Rooney and Lindsay Lohan, then famous for their respective shopping and alcohol addictions. "BUY THIS COLEEN" read the first.

"It was when she was in the paper every day with all these bags," he remembers. "She actually bought that one, which was quite funny, but, yeah, those T-shirts were terrible. And Gareth took the piss about my failed T-shirt business, so my retort was, 'Oh, I'll make one with your name on it and that'll really sell, won't it?' And it did actually."

Others followed, all with witty (Holland's word for it is "obnoxious") slogans in a 1980s "Frankie Say Relax", Katherine Hamnett pastiche: "Do me daily, Christopher Bailey" for the chief creative officer of Burberry; "Cause me pain, Hedi Slimane" for the notoriously absolutist designer then at Dior Homme.

What started as a joke between friends soon blossomed as a business and a social scene, with Holland and his crowd at its centre. Just before the credit crunch hit, east London was the world's stomping ground and the young designers it had nurtured were in demand.

At this point, Holland was working at the teen magazine Bliss, living in a flat with a friend from his schooldays and would-be model Agyness Deyn. He set up his own business alongside his day-job, selling his T-shirts through his website and shooting them on Deyn for promo imagery. The story was picked up by Grazia and things really took off.

"I sat at my desk all day, then I'd sit there all night and ship out my international sales through the work post," he smiles. "My editor kept saying, 'We're going through a lot of Jiffy bags.' I was using the fashion cupboard as my stockroom. I was once in the middle of a meeting with my editor and my phone rang, and it was someone from American Vogue. I just stood up and walked out of the meeting."

During the first few weeks and months after the inception of House of Holland, the designer found himself between two very different lifestyles – the first, living with Deyn and his schoolfriend Jessica Fletcher (now one of his closest colleagues) in a two-room flat where beds were slept in on a rotational basis; the second, flying with Deyn on a modelling job to New York, meeting Anna Wintour, having his picture taken by Steven Meisel, and going to a sales meeting with the department store Barney's. k

"I met Barney's literally with a carrier bag full of T-shirts," he says. "I didn't understand the enormity of it. I was wearing a vest with jewels stitched on to it when we met Anna Wintour. And a Karl Lagerfeld for H&M sequinned blazer. With a white jean. I feel sick."

Holland quit his job two months later, and started working on his first show – the one with the plastic macs. After that came another collection with Fashion East of studded biker jackets and hot pants, before Holland's first stand-alone show for autumn 2008 – a year after he left his magazine job. "In a way, I'm very ambitious," he admits. "I want to have a brand. I don't have a specific three-year business plan, but I have a plan in the back of my head of how I want to grow and build a business.

"Paul Smith is a big idol of mine," he continues, having interviewed the designer recently for British Vogue's website. "Not the most high fashion or directional, but he's been doing it for 30 years and every single day he's bowled over by the fact he does a thing he loves."

Smith and Holland are not all that different when it comes to it: both work in a quintessentially British vein (Holland has reworked heritage fabrics such as tartan and tweed according to his own irreverent world-view, while Smith overhauled fusty tailoring for modern customers), both understand the importance of franchising and growth in distant markets (Holland's Pretty Polly hosiery line, featuring trompe l'oeil suspender belts have become a hit across the globe, while Smith is a godlike figure in the Far East), and both came to London young, with the hope of making their fortune in the city of grit and glamour.

"When you grow up in a tiny village called Ramsbottom [Greater Manchester], which I did, you do whatever you can to get out," he says. "I know that sounds bad. But you gravitate towards the glamour. We used to buy The Face and i-D and think it made us cool. My mum used to find them and say, 'Is this a gay magazine?' She was desperate for the answer to be yes."

Nostalgia for the 1990s, the era when Holland was daydreaming of leaving home, permeates every collection; his is an affectionate aesthetic rooted in the decade that style forgot, as it has since been dubbed. "It was when I was growing up," he says, fondly, "when I first became aware of fashion and what was great – and what was terrible – about it."

The soundtrack to Holland's most recent show featured the 1994 hit "Trouble" by one-hit-wonder girl band Shampoo. He was later told that a tween in the audience had asked when the song would be released; clearly his tastes are in line with youth sentiment.

"Shampoo is the greatest thing that ever happened to the world and so are these clothes," laughs Pixie Geldof, giving her friend a double thumbs-up on the shoot. "He thinks about the people who buy them. A lot of the time designers forget to love what they make, and he just thinks everything is fun and brilliant. And it is."

She's right, of course, but Holland – who at this point is trying on a pair of shades with adjustable wiggly eyebrows attached to their frames – is not going to thank me for using the "F" word again.

Model: Pixie Geldof at Select

Make-up: Celia Burton using Nars Cosmetics

Hair: Kota at Balcony Jump using L'Oréal Paris Elnett

Stylist: Gemma Hayward

Photographs: Julia Kennedy

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