London's it boy

By Elizabeth Day

Henry Holland thinks that, on reflection, he did not inherit his style from his father. "He told me the other day he'd be wearing his new jacket to my sister's 30th birthday party. I said, 'Which one?' He said, 'The pink one."'

Holland leans across the table with the air of someone sharing an embarrassing secret. "It's not actually pink," he says, dropping his voice to a whisper. "It's more a deep red. And I said, 'Is it new?' My dad said, 'Well, I've only had it four years."'

Holland shakes his head with affectionate exasperation. "He's a solicitor," he says, as if that explains everything.

Holland junior would never be mistaken for anything so prosaic. At 26, he is one of the most sought-after young designers in Britain and is styled accordingly. Today, he is sporting his trademark vertical quiff, a feat of follicular engineering that one imagines can only be achieved with a remarkable amounts of patience and hairspray. His grey T-shirt is artfully splattered with fluorescent paint and his black Prada shoes are patterned with eye-catching silver studs. His slender fingers are weighed down with chunky gothic rings. The effect is exotic cockatiel meets Sex Pistols. Bizarrely, it works.

Three years ago, Holland, then making his living as a fashion editor for teen magazines, started designing rhyming slogan T-shirts for his friends (sample: "I'll Tell You Who's Boss Kate Moss") that rapidly became a fashion crowd in-joke.

In 2006, designer Gareth Pugh appeared at the end of his London Fashion Week catwalk show wearing a T-shirt tribute to fellow designer Giles Deacon ("Get Yer Freak On Giles Deacon"). Soon, everyone who was anyone wanted a Henry Holland T-shirt.

"Yeah, I started my entire business as a joke, which sounds bad, doesn't it?" He grins. "It's been a transition. I was a writer, I wrote on clothes and then I made clothes." He says the couplets came naturally. "I own a rhyming dictionary, which helps."

The shirts became so popular that he diversified and founded his own label, House of Holland, now stocked in Harrods, Barneys in New York and worn by celebrities including Lindsay Lohan, Jaime Winstone, the singer M.I.A. and Holland's best friend, supermodel Agyness Deyn. He has known Deyn since childhood - she served fish and chips at a shop near Holland's home village of Ramsbottom in Lancashire, in the north west of England. "She had braces and mousy brown hair and we hung out in town with mutual friends."

Later, Deyn was spotted by a model scout while the two of them were shopping in London and was soon being photographed by Mario Testino for the cover of Vogue. Do they ever sit back and marvel at the fact that two kids from Ramsbottom are now riding the crest of a fashion wave? "We'd be complete wankers if we did that, wouldn't we? Pause the TV! 'Hang on, you're the hottest model and I'm one of the hottest young designers, let's talk about that while I make a brew."'

He delivers this scenario with the timing of a stand-up comic. "It is nice to have someone else in the industry," he concedes. "She can call up and say, 'I just shot with Steven Meisel' and I know what it means, whereas if I called my dad and said, 'I'm doing this', he'd be [puts on strident Lancashire accent], 'Do they pay your travel?"'

We are sitting in a cavernous record shop basement in Soho, London, where Holland is preparing for the launch of his new collection designed for Debenhams, a department store more traditionally associated with middle-aged women wanting something nice for the Women's Institute cake sale. So, Henry, I ask, how often do you shop at Debenhams?

"I'm always in there buying aftershave and, er, swimwear," he answers, a bit too quickly.

To be fair, the collection is impressive - pretty, floral-printed tops, leather pencil skirts and neon leggings, all delivered with Holland's appealingly quirky touch at ridiculously competitive prices.

Was he worried that his vision would be compromised? "Possibly when I first started, but it wasn't like I came into the interview and said, 'Let's do a full leather body sheath.' You know, I was thinking about the Debenhams customer already. There's something for anyone in there."

Holland knew from "a really young age" that he wanted to be in fashion. "My mum [a management consultant] is stylish and into clothes and I would go shopping with her for hours, telling her what to buy." He vividly recalls his favourite childhood outfit: "I had an amazing pair of bright blue cords and a yellow and white knitted jumper with a horizontal stripe," he says, misty-eyed at the thought. "And a utility jumpsuit with zips."

It wasn't until later that he realised he was gay, but Holland was unhappy at his "macho" all-boys school, where the female teachers insisted on being called "Sir". His parents, who divorced when he was three, moved him to a smaller private school where he thrived.

"I think it [being gay] makes you more experimental," he says. "There's not that whole thing of, 'I can't wear that, I'd look like a poof', because you are a poof."

But Ramsbottom offered few opportunities for a flamboyant teenage boy who yearned for a life of box pleats and pincushions. "There, a career in fashion is: you work in a shop or you don't," he says drily. "It was not an option."

So he moved to London to do a BA in journalism at the London College of Printing and went straight from graduation to a job as fashion editor of Bliss magazine. "What I loved about teen magazines is that it's fashion, but it's got that more fun, frivolous element. For a teenage girl, it's like, 'What will I wear down the bus stop? What flip-flops should I wear to pull boys on holiday?' I think fashion should be playful."

Holland has two younger siblings, Alice, 15, and Tom, 13, who keep him in touch with his adolescent side (there is also an older sister, Fleur, 30 and a 27-year-old stepsister, Laura). "Alice is like my education into the young people of today," Holland says. "She wears bits and bobs from the mainline collection, she loves the high-heeled shoes and jersey dresses."

Holland, by contrast, is not afraid to look stupid in the name of style. "Looking stupid's part of the fun," he says, before recalling his greatest-ever fashion disaster when his mother gave him a shellsuit for Christmas in the mid-90s.

"I was sitting in front of a gas fire and it melted on to my arm. We were skint so we couldn't afford a new one so I had to wear my sister's pink and jade green one for a year. I was devastated."

Yet the love of pink and green two-pieces obviously stayed with him. The first time he was invited to a reception for the fashion industry at the Prime Minister's official residence in Downing Street last year, he wore "a pink and lime green floral suit. I walked in, everyone else was in black, and I was the only one dressed like Liberace." He returned for this year's Fashion Week reception more soberly attired. "I was all black and reserved and everyone was like, 'Oh we were counting on you."'

Still, there's always next year, by which time one can only hope that Holland will be dressed head to toe in a bespoke, synthetic shellsuit and standing at a safe distance from any naked flames.

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