Were you into fashion from a young age?
Not really. I grew up in the north of England, in Carlisle, in a very normal working-class family. I didn’t know there was a fashion industry until I was 17 or 18 and started going to London, which was a four-hour train ride. I was as far in the north of England as you can go before you get to Scotland. It’s more of a factory town. My mom is a cleaner. My dad used to look after criminals while they did community service. He’s a cool guy. He’s quite tough.
Did you feel out of place growing up there?
I was definitely considered a bit of a freak. People used to shout “Freak!” at me in the street—anything if you were different. Plus, I was gay, so that was a big thing.
You said your father was tough. Was it hard to come out to him?
My dad was really cool about it right from the beginning. Sometimes I would get beaten up in school or something. But I think it’s one of those things that make you tougher. It was also because of the way I dressed. I liked to stud my jeans and my shoes and wear too much color. But it was the style then. It was The Face and i-D magazines. That was the early 1990s.
Did you go to college?
I went to the University of Westminster in north London. That’s when I decided I wanted to study fashion. My dad was like, “What are you doing? I never got a further education and you’re going to go and study fashion? You’re going to waste this opportunity?” I guess I had to prove him wrong.
I had a similar experience. I had wanted to go to art school, but my parents said, “We’re not going to pay for that. We want you to go to a regular university.” So I went to UCLA for English. But once I got to Los Angeles, I also became interested in acting. I told my parents, “Fine. I’m not going to art school, but I’m going to acting school.” My father was worried I wouldn’t be able to make a living. They said they weren’t going to pay for it, so I dropped out of UCLA. It was a big moment.
I wonder what would have happened if my dad hadn’t said that to me. Maybe the fact that he was against it kind of gave me something to prove.
How would you describe your style in the beginning?
I knew very early on that I didn’t like things that were too designed. I often say “touched by the ugly hand of design” if something is too thought through. In terms of things that I want to wear, there’s less effort in it. And for lack of a better word, I was always drawn to “cool.” For me, cool always had a touch of rebellion and nonchalance. My style icons were people who didn’t look too put together. And I was looking at America a lot. It was a big moment for American fashion in the mid-1990s. Gus Van Sant movies were a huge thing for me. I grew up liking River Phoenix and Keanu Reeves.
Me too. I own the red jacket River wore in My Own Private Idaho. I got it on auction. It’s on my wall.
Wow. For me there’s very rarely a mood board without a Gus Van Sant original in there.
You worked at Vuitton, Calvin Klein and Givenchy early in your career. Is it tough to express yourself when you’re working under someone like Marc Jacobs?
He was so detailed and involved and so thorough in everything. I had never experienced that before. I learned a lot—and also how he worked with people and collaborated with different artists. It was very exciting. But yes, at a certain point you’re like, “I really like what you do, but I want to make the decisions.” Sometimes I would come to the table with an idea, and it would be like, “Well, I don’t like it.” You would just have to be quiet and move on to the next thing. I realized that I couldn’t do that. I had to get my ideas out.
There’s a lot of pressure in fashion to be new. You sometimes talk about looking to people in clubs for ideas, which raises something of a chicken-or-the-egg argument: Are the designers influencing the people in the clubs, or are they being influenced by the people in the clubs?
I think it’s a mutual back-and-forth. People are quite fascinated by it. They always ask, “Well, how do all of you know what to do?” It’s not like there’s a conspiracy. We all just went to see the same film. We’re all referencing a new book that came out. It’s just something that’s in the air. It’s certainly not something I study. It’s just instinct. Usually I’m quite drawn to things that make me a bit anxious. If something feels a little off or like it’s pushed too far, I’m drawn to it, because I find the things you do that are most interesting are the ones that give you a little bit of fear.