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Ashley Williams AW16
Georgia May Jagger and Adwoa Aboah backstage at Ashley Williams AW16Photography Chris Rhodes

Ashley Williams fuses fun fashion and serious business

With a show of kitschy glamour and grabby graphics, the Dazed 100 designer continues her reign as London fashion’s princess of pop

This is one of four features on the Dazed 100 designers who showed their AW16 collections at London Fashion Week. Read features on Claire Barrow, Molly Goddard and Richard Malone, and vote for Ashley Williams in the Dazed 100 here.

On Tuesday, the final day of London Fashion Week, designer Ashley Williams ditched last season's fly-decorated gowns for a more executive offering. Walking out to the film score of hit 80s comedy starring Madonna, Desperately Seeking Susan, the designer’s AW16 girl gang were dressed in a uniform of short skirts, slouchy suits, strappy heels and sparkly rhinestone jewellery; they had the kitschy glamour of Melanie Griffith in Working Girl (before she started wearing Sigourney Weaver’s clothes). “I’ve done lots of eveningwear, so this time I wanted to do daywear,” the designer explained backstage after the show. “I really wanted a brown suit, and I couldn’t find a good one anywhere that was nice and comfortable. So I decided to start there.” 

In 2013, following a feted graduate collection modelled by friends Alice Dellal and Pixie Geldof, the United Arab Emirates-born designer blazed onto the London Fashion Week scene under the umbrella of Lulu Kennedy’s Fashion East. After three seasons showing with the initiative, she staged her first solo show in collaboration with the British Fashion Council’s NEWGEN scheme. Throughout this time, Williams’ tongue-in-cheek approach to fashion – which has seen her create bags shaped like soft toys and garments emblazoned with quippy slogans such as a speed boat “Dream Boat” print – has won her praise from the press and buyers alike.

Girly, glitzy and glamorous in a slightly off-kilter way, her aesthetic is characterised by her clever use of graphics (often designed by Fergus Purcell, who is behind Palace Skateboards graphics too – Williams’ partner is Lev Tanju, the brand’s founder), her nostalgia for 80s and 90s pop culture and a streetwear sensibility. She’s also known for her disparate and perhaps obscure points of reference which, in the past, have included 70s UFO cult Heaven’s Gate (AW15) and 80s nautical living (SS14).

Williams also doesn’t overthink things. Instead, she operates out of instinct – not only by designing garments she wants to wear, but equally referencing cultural moments that interest her. This season, Purcell’s graphics were a prime example of this. The opening look, worn by Dazed 100 star Adwoa Aboah, was a loose-fitting suit printed with graphics of tasers with Williams’ initials on. This self-defence weapon, which is used by the Metropolitan Police Service, has inescapable connotations. So was this a comment on the law enforcement system? Or on police brutality? Neither.

“I was just watching a lot of Cops!” she explained, closing the case in one fell swoop. Simple. No deep meaning, just a cool print. Similar too was the reason behind the graphics of pierced ears that adorned a pussy bow blouse elsewhere in the collection. “I found a picture in a book of drawings,” she explained. “Also, I remember when my friend pierced my ears – it’s like a bonding experience. I think it’s a girl’s thing to do, to go around to your friend’s house and pierce each others’ ears. It reminds me of being a teenager.”

“For me it is important for my clothes to be wearable – what’s the point if it’s not? I’m not making couture” – Ashley Williams

This sense of a girl gang can also be found in Williams’ approach to casting; her models are usually sourced from her own social or professional circles. Yes, she booked professional models Aboah and Georgia May Jagger to walk in Tuesday’s show, but she also enlisted her friend and fellow Dazed 100 designer Claire Barrow, her production manager Catherine and one of her former interns Daisy. In the last few seasons, we’ve seen a rising trend is casting ‘nodels’ (non-model models) – often a creative in their own right, these people usually have a personal relationship with the designer and seem able to embody their vision in a way that an agency-signed model cannot. Last season, Williams cast body-modified tattoo artist Grace Neutral – “To be an Ashley Williams girl, you don’t have to be like (Georgia May Jagger),” she told us. “Grace is on the other end of the spectrum but still on the same wavelength. I think she sits in the collection really well.”

Speaking on her casting choices this season, Williams said, “I put (the collection) in an actual context – people who are actually going to wear it rather than some like beautiful, giant model.” Each season, the idea of the Ashley Williams ‘girl gang’ returns; at her SS16 show, the designer said that her girls were in a bad mood and this seemed to have continued for AW16. Backstage Barrow said she was concentrating on trying not to laugh and “channelling Shirley from Eastenders” as she walked down the catwalk. Like Shirley, Williams’ girls had attitude – they’re not to be messed with.

With Williams, her genius lies in the simplicity of her approach – she designs to suit her needs and, in so doing, makes clothes that she and other women want to wear. She’s not interested in garments that only live in fantasy, but designs for a modern, female reality – and her designs are thus found in the wardrobes of many an IRL woman. “For me it is important for my clothes to be wearable – what’s the point if it’s not?” she asks. “I’m not making couture.” While she designs clothes that are fun, when it comes to business she is deadly serious. “It’s a crucial time – you turn it into a proper business or you flail off. I want my brand to be commercial.” As if to illustrate this, backstage the show’s guests and models alike could be overheard discussing which pieces they wanted to buy. If Tuesday’s show (her seventh since graduating) demonstrated anything, it’s her success in making the Ashley Williams label into a profitable business – and not at the expense of anything else.