Neil Cunningham is a British designer who started his career selling his gowns to Liberty in the late eighties opening his West End shop in the mid-nineties (1994 – 2006). He now divides his time between fashion projects, photography and writing.
Born in 1965 this son of a preacher man grew up in a leafy North London suburb. Although his parents were literally preparing for the end of the world they were still musical and creative and would take their son to the ballet and opera from a very early age and afterwards he would draw the costumes he had seen. By the age of fifteen he was teaching himself to make clothes and audaciously sought commissions from wealthy friends.
At sixteen he enrolled at technical college to learn essential trade skills: draping, pattern-cutting, grading etc and two years later he was cutting his teeth as the designer/pattern-cutter for a mass market manufacturer. He soon realised his strength was in one-to-one bespoke design and began taking further private commissions. Having broken away from his family’s religious cult, Neil was now working in a philosophical and creative vacuum. “It’s hard to imagine a time now,” says Neil, “pre-Facebook, pre-internet, and certainly with no well-connected friends, the sense of isolation and the enormous gulf between me and the world of high fashion – where I wanted to be.”
The kick-start came in the shape of an eccentric cigar-smoking lady who walked with a pronounced stride past his studio window each day. Neil now refers to her as his own Betty Blue – a slightly bonkers, very beautiful ex-Royal Ballet dancer who fell in love with his work and gave him a sense of direction. Neil was fascinated that she’d romped naked in two of his favourite films: Ken Russell’s The Devils and A Clockwork Orange – “This was my kind of fairy godmother!” She subsequently engineered a meeting with the prestigious London shop Liberty.
It was actually the bridal buyer at Liberty who saw potential in Neil’s work. She bought his collection – and placed an order for her own bespoke wedding dress. Seeing the gowns displayed in their Regent Street window, Neil realised he had at last found a vehicle for his work.
In 1992 Cunningham launched his debut collection for brides featuring a fresh take on the empire line and glamorous 50s shapes to a great reception. Several industry awards followed and in 1994, with some backing from his accountant, Neil (then aged 29) opened the doors to his West End salon. His private clientele developed quickly: Darcey Bussell at the height of her Royal Ballet dancing career became his muse, and several high profile weddings put his work on the front pages of national newspapers.
Neil subsequently went on to build up an eclectic client list from the worlds of stage, screen and politics. Bespoke eveningwear clients have included Helen Mirren, Nigella Lawson, Sharon Osbourne and British Vogue editor Alexandra Shulman. He also created outfits for the famous British Sindy Doll .
Neil describes his approach to fashion: “Many British designers of my generation were famed for their deconstruction of traditional clothes. I didn’t want to rage at the establishment – I was fascinated by it! I wanted only to learn my craft in the correct way. How stiff should this collar be? What’s the correct interlining? I was also intrigued by the exterior of powerful people and the immaculate clothes they chose to conceal their inner-selves from the public. Now I find it ironic that so many of those would be anarchist designers have ended up embracing the Savile Row ethos and all that it stands for. Anarchy always comes from within, I think. It’s what you do while wearing your impeccably tailored clothes that makes you genuinely subversive.”
More recently, projects outside of fashion 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 skill for transforming his clients: “Capturing that transformation as a moment in time is, in a sense, the ultimate in control for me. I now want to place my designs into a context that I have also created. Perhaps most artists really just want to be film directors after all.”