By Alan Jackson
Neil Cunningham is a below-the-radar phenomenon, a man who neither follows fashion nor courts publicity and who prefers to be that copywriter’s cliche, a best-kept secret. Now, as throughout that heady decade during which some of the nation’s most celebrated and influential women passed through the door of his titular Piccadilly salon, he maintains a determindedly low profile, never seeking attention, preferring to let his work speak for itself. Despite having closed his West End retail operation in 2006, he has continued to act as couturier to many of those same women, all of whom cherish his flair and eye for detail, his craftsmanship and customer service. New commissions are considered via personal introduction only.
At once a traditionalist and an iconoclast, Cunningham is both the product of his background and a glorious reaction against it. His parents suscribed to an apocalyptic but prohibitive and drab strain of Christianity. Birthdays were not celebrated, nor Christmas Day. Only on the occasion of a wedding was a party permissible. Such a monochrome existence might have extinguished his spirit, particularly as he himself believes, “that those years from seven to twelve, just before puberty takes hold, are when we’re at our most artistically impressionable.” Happily, his parents were sufficiently liberal to allow visits to the cinema and Royal Opera House. Such outings gave the young Neil a tantalising glimpse of another, more glamorous world, even if it was one he could see no real way of accessing.
Yet obvious and conventional beauty held little interest for him. “It was never the prettiest girl in the room who attracted my eye, even as a child,” notes Cunningham. “It was the most charismatic – and there’s a huge difference.” Thus was shaped a conscientious fashion student who found himself out of step with the aspirations of his industry peers, those who sought to make their mark as deconstructivists, challenging tradition and toppling the icons. “I wanted only to learn my craft in the correct way. ‘How stiff should this collar be?’ ‘What’s the correct interlining?’ I find it ironic that so many of those would-be anarchists have ended up embracing the Savile Row ethos and all that it stands for. To me, anarchy always comes from within. It’s what you do while wearing your clothes that makes you genuinely subversive.”
To some casual observers, Cunningham’s designs can appear conservative, static, even (the word was once used by someone viewing his Piccadilly window) impenetrable. He prefers to see those same designs as a kind of homage to those buttoned-up women of a bygone era, the ones who surrounded him in childhood. “In my recollections, they simmered, mysterious and frustrated beneath impeccable tailoring. In art and popular culture terms, Catherine Deneuve as Bunuel’s Belle de Jour comes to mind, or Tippi Hedren as shaped and manipulated by Hitchcock. So much was concealed, hinting at a darker secret life.”
More recently, projects outside of but still parallel to the fashion industry have been inspiring Cunningham and taking up his time, chief among them film-making and portrait photography. He sees this as a natural development of his much-celebrated skill for transforming his clients: “Capturing that transformation as a moment in time is, in a sense, the ultimate in control for me.” And as for his couture work, while acknowledging that sex and seduction are universal starting points for fashion designers, he says that his creativity continues to be sparked by those women who reveal their wisdom (often in just a few well-turned sentences) ahead of their vanity. “To me, that is sexier by far. That truly is seduction.”