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Philip Treacy and Katy England by Michael HemyPhotography Michael Hemy

Katy England and Philip Treacy: hat tricks

Alexander McQueen’s creative partnership with Philip Treacy and Katy England made fashion history. Three years after his death, the magnificent milliner and super stylist reunite to reminisce about their thrilling return to the runway

TextKin WooPhotographyMichael Hemy

Taken from the March 2013 issue of Dazed:

It was one of those madcap ideas that could only come out of London: reuniting milliner extraordinaire Philip Treacy and groundbreaking stylist Katy England for a one-off show in which an all-black cast modelled stage outfits loaned from Michael Jackson’s archive along with Treacy’s own genius concoctions. It is testament to the rapture and sheer delight elicited by Treacy’s first London show in eight years that having Lady Gaga as mistress of ceremonies (channelling Treacy’s mentor, the late Isabella Blow) wasn’t even the main attraction. Beneath the soaring gothic arches of the Royal Courts of Justice, the Irishman presented creations that ranged from a giant smiley-face saucer (twinned with the “Thriller” red leather jacket) to a Swarovski glove draped in a black-lace veil and even a hat that resembled a miniature carousel, complete with blazing lights. It was a terrific showcase of his incredible sculptural skills and savoir faire. 

Since Isabella Blow took him on as a protégé back in 1990, Treacy has won the British Accessory Designer of the Year award five times and received an OBE, all while crafting extraordinary hats for everyone from royalty and pop stars to designers like Valentino, Karl Lagerfeld at Chanel and Alexander McQueen. It was through McQueen that Treacy first met England, then a contributing fashion editor at Dazed, where she was rapidly establishing a reputation as one of the most innovative stylists of the day. After working on McQueen’s third show, “The Birds”, England became the late designer’s creative director, “second opinion” and muse. Together the trio (and show producer Sam Gainsbury) produced work that still resonates: spectacles that could be viscerally thrilling, emotional and breathtaking. Treacy’s SS13 show was a welcome return to those heady times. 

“It was magical, wasn’t it?” recalls Treacy now, sitting with England over a cup of tea in his Battersea studio, surrounded by images of his famous clients and wooden hatblocks of his famed creations. It’s a few months after the show and they are in a reflective mood, their minds lingering not just on the show that’s been but also, perhaps, absent friends. For while the show was a celebration of the King of Pop and the “richness of Africa”, it was dedicated to Blow and McQueen, with Treacy sending out a sailing-ship headpiece in tribute. “Well, it’s just that they are part of us,” he offers, his voice tinged with tenderness. “Of course they would have complained about it and found something they didn’t like, but they would have enjoyed the oddness of it all.” 

Philip Treacy: I remember when we first met – you came to the shop.

Katy England: I was assisting on You magazine. And I must have come here to borrow stuff, no?

Philip Treacy: I remember your hairstyle. The thing is, 20 years ago we were quite a lot younger. 

Katy England: I was always looking a bit strange, wasn’t I? I loved wearing anything I wanted to. But we got to know each other really through McQueen.

Philip Treacy: Lee (McQueen) and I met through Isabella. Isabella met Alexander at a college show, and you know it’s very easy now for everybody to say how wonderful he was, and what a genius he was, but there was a moment when she was the only one thinking that, but with such commitment that it was a little intimidating, because she decided he was the new Saint Laurent.

Katy England: She also thought that you were as well, right? 

Philip Treacy: Yes, but she was very forceful to everybody about her opinions. What was very different about Alexander was that he broke the mould of what designers were supposed to look like, and she loved that about him. So she wasn’t really looking at what he wore or how he spoke, she was only really looking at the clothes. It was when Isabella was working at British Vogue, and Alexander wasn’t allowed in the building because he didn’t really look the part. The other girls were a little afraid of him – they thought he was going to mug them or steal their handbags so he used to have to come into the building in the goods entrance at lunchtime when everyone was gone. Isabella would take him into a cupboard with Tiina (Laakkonen, then fashion editor) and they’d operate a flashlight, and he’d get the clothes out of a bin liner and show them, and five years later they were looking for advertising from him. And the thing about Isabella is that when she met somebody, she fell in love with them. But Lee and I weren’t best friends at the beginning.

Katy England: You shared the same bloody building though. 

Philip Treacy: We shared it in a state of collapse! One night a quantity surveyor came round and said, ‘You have to move out tonight because the wall is collapsing on the house.’ But I didn’t have anywhere to go so we stayed in the building, and then Alexander moved in. There was a slightly endangered situation going on.

“I come from a rural background in the west of Ireland, and McQueen came from a high-rise block in Stratford. That’s my favourite thing about creativity – it can come from anywhere” – Philip Treacy

Katy England: I’m trying to think of the first show we collaborated on. I know it was the first Givenchy haute-couture show. 

Philip Treacy: I'll always remember the first time I saw his show – Isabella brought me to see the “Highland Rape” show (1995). 

Katy England: Which I was already working on.

Philip Treacy: And it was incredible! These mad women came down the runway with contact lenses in and just looked so different to everybody else’s version of fashion week. You could see the expressions on the fashion editors’ faces – they were fucked off. It was really exceptional and it didn’t look like anybody else’s show. I respect originality more than anything else. It’s very difficult to be original, and this was a different perspective. It rattled everybody and everyone had their own opinions about it, but he didn’t care about their opinions. I come from a rural background in the west of Ireland, and he came from a high-rise block in Stratford. That’s my favourite thing about creativity – it can come from anywhere.

Katy England: It’s been a while since you showed...

Philip Treacy: Everybody says that but basically it’s been a pretty heavy-going few years. Isabella killed herself, Alexander killed himself and it was not easy. These weren’t just acquaintances. So now everyone is their best friend, but we knew them well. When you die you become public property, and also become tragic. And they were the least tragic people I’ve ever come across. Of course it is tragic, but they weren’t tragic, they were triumphant characters. They were very decisive.

Katy England: Working on your show felt like working at McQueen because it was about doing what you wanted to do without worrying what anyone else thought. Your idea of putting Michael Jackson’s clothes with the African girls, with the amazing hats. When you told me six months ago, I was like, ‘Oh my God, what the hell are we going to do with that?’ It was so extreme; the clothes were so extreme and the hats were so extreme, how were they going to come together? But then I felt like, ‘Oh, thank God, someone’s going to take it on and not be worried about what people are going to say about it, just for the process of creation.’ And I was like, ‘Great, let’s do it.’

Philip Treacy: But also I learnt about that extreme from working with you. It’s the first time I’d worked really closely with a stylist, so it was a new experience for me. Luxury is not a monogrammed handbag, luxury is working with people you like. And I trusted you, and so you just did it all!

Katy England: Hardly! But things are so different now to how they used to be. Because we’re so saturated with information, we’re living more on edge, and uptight because we have so much access. The way I work now is completely different to how I worked at the beginning. People expect a lot more because of the internet – in the digital age, they want to see things in advance. I guess we were spoilt working with Alexander, because the way he worked was so free.

Philip Treacy: Well, you let me indulge my fantasies.

Katy England: That’s what I always wanted to do. With Alexander and you, you want the designer to be able to achieve the dream they have, to develop it and make it happen. That’s the point of us, that’s why we’re here.

Philip Treacy: The idea of using African models came from when I worked with you on a Paco Rabanne show. We were sitting down talking with a friend and I looked across and there were these three African girls leaning against the wall waiting to do their walkthrough, and they just looked phenomenal. I went over to this girl and I said, ‘What’s your name?’, and she said ‘Grace’. And I remembered her. 

Katy England: You never got her out of your head, did you? 

Philip Treacy: No. This girl looked so African but very modern. I mean, the black girls have something extra. The best way to explain it is that when white women try a hat on in my shop they look in the mirror, and then they look at me for reassurance as if to say, ‘Is it okay?’ And black women, they look in the same mirror and think, ‘I look great in this hat.’ It’s a different exuberance. So I wanted to do an African show, and then one day I was playing Michael Jackson’s music and ‘The Way You Make Me Feel’ came on, and I thought, ‘That’s it.’ This show was about Africa getting rich, and Michael Jackson was rich, and he indulged his sensibilities when he dressed up. Those clothes on Miss California wouldn’t have looked right, but on those girls they look expensive.

Katy England: They did something else. 

“Luxury is not a monogrammed handbag, luxury is working with people you like”– Philip Treacy

Philip Treacy: Yeah. Then I called up Darren Julien (of LA auction house Julien’s Auctions) and said, ‘I’m doing this show, is there any possibility you might have a Michael Jackson glove I could borrow?’ And he said, ‘Well, actually I’ve got all his clothes and I’m selling them in December. Would you like them?’ When they arrived, it was alarming. Because they arrived in a couple of nondescript suitcases for security reasons, they looked like they’d been to Greece for a week or something. 

Katy England: On a package deal. 

Philip Treacy: And I thought, ‘We have to treat these things with respect,’ so I wouldn’t allow anybody to try the clothes on. We had to build a room with a metal door and get £10 million of security, and it was frightening because if it was stolen, we were liable. 

Katy England: Yes, it was top secret, of course.

Philip Treacy: The first day they got here I went downstairs and opened the door and it was like everything you remembered from Michael Jackson. They’re the iconic pieces, they’re pop relics, and what was amazing was that they were beautifully made. Usually costume clothes 

Katy England: It was really overwhelming to think he’d actually worn them, and that they were all together in this space. When the girls came and we did fittings, they were very emotional. A lot of them idolised him. We had girls crying. They were so excited, weren’t they? It meant a lot to them and it meant a lot to us. 

Philip Treacy: Once we got over the initial shock we just worked with the clothes. It sounds so new age and mystical but they had energy, because this person had performed and done exceptional things in them. What was unusual about Michael Jackson’s clothes was that nobody ever looked like him. He had his own particular vibe, and when you put all the clothes together it was a strong statement. Nothing was by accident. Michael Bush (Jackson’s co-designer, alongside his partner, Dennis Tompkins) told me that initially when they started working for him, he would send them all over the world to see what was going on, and then he would call them at the end of the day and say, ‘What did you see?’ And they’d say, ‘We didn’t see much,’ and he’d say, ‘Well, go back.’ They told me that when they would start a tour with him they would get hundreds of magazines – it could be car magazines, anything. And then he’d tell them to tear out whatever they liked from the pages. He didn’t like fashion magazines, because he didn’t like them to have somebody else’s opinion of clothes – that’s an editor’s opinion of that, which was quite perceptive. So he liked it to be unlike anybody else. 

Katy England: I talked to Michael Bush when we were working on the show and he was really helpful. I’d ask his opinion and he would say to me, ‘You should just do what you think is right.’ He said, ‘Michael would have liked you to be creative with it.’ I just thought, ‘Oh my God, that’s such a seal of approval.’

Philip Treacy: What was alarming was that the clothes fit the girls perfectly. That was unusual. But it was amazing to work with all those clothes. 

Katy England: I was excited all the time. Do you think people who came to the show were happy to see something so different? Because I felt that. People liked it because it was so energetic and so different and so much fun. It felt like people needed that a little bit. 

Philip Treacy: The idea of Lady Gaga opening the show came from her. I went to see her show a few nights before, and she said, ‘I want to come and see the show, but I want to come dressed as Isabella.’ I like her – she’s not like all those lady pop stars where it’s all about looking beautiful and wearing the slinkiest dress. I like that she doesn’t come from that angle and can survive. And so fun, talented and young. If Isabella had been a pop star, she would have danced. Privately, Lady Gaga is more Isabella than she quite believes. 

Katy England: The show was big scale and really hard work and it was a small team working on it. But when you sent me the catalogue for the auction, with all the beautiful clothes in it, I thought, ‘I’m going to look at this in another ten years’ time and think, “Oh my God, look at that!”’ And I was really pleased to have that. It was a great memory. But I was glad when it was over. 

Philip Treacy: I felt immensely grateful that we’d had this opportunity to work with these clothes, but I did get used to them being here. Everyone keeps asking me if I will do another show but I’m happy at the moment. I’m lucky that I don’t have to do this every season. It’s more fun to do it when you feel like it.

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