The fashion designer and co-owner of World, Francis Hooper, was at the Langham organising World's 25th birthday bash for the media later that afternoon. We met for a cup of tea (he had peppermint.) I have had cups of tea with many people at the Langham but he is likely to remain the only person I, or anyone else, has had a cuppa at the Langham with who is wearing a beanie. He'll be doing just that every Wednesday in October when World celebrates its 25 years of fashion by staging afternoon teas through which the clothes will "just waft". They could have done a fashion show but that would have been boring and predictable, he said.
He always wears a beanie and has done for most of those 25 years World has been in existence, and it might be the only predictable thing he does. It is a sort of signature look but also a practical one. He has very thin hair, which he shaves, and he doesn't like the cold - "I'm from Hong Kong" - so he wears his beanies, even in the summer. Sometimes he even wears one in bed, in the winter. This is extremely practical because it would save time. If he hasn't worn one to bed, he pops one on as soon as he gets up and wears it with his PJs.
He has a gentle, soft, perfectly round face so he looks like a friendly moon, with a pom pom on top. He was wearing his favourite beanie on Wednesday. He likes the colours which are pink and green and he had picked up a little vase from the tea table in which there was a pink rose with green leaves and which perfectly matched his beanie. I said: "That rose matches your beanie." He beamed, like a smiley, pom-pom topped moon, and said: "Thank you!"
He said: "It's not just fashion. It's practical." I didn't want to offend a fashion designer, but some might say it's not fashion at all. "Well said! Touche! Absolutely. Eye of the beholder. That's the wonderful thing with the democratisation of fashion. In the old days the designer was dictatorial. I'm telling you you have to wear spots this spring and the consumer said: 'Okay. I'll do that.' But everything's changed now. The consumer's king. You can do what you want." He said, about fashion: "It's just shopping."
He got a gong, an MNZM for services to fashion, in the last New Year's Honours and he wore a suit to his investiture and, of course, a beanie which he was asked to remove. He obligingly whipped it off. He is an obliging sort of fellow and, he said, the easy-going one in his family, which might not be saying a lot. They are a stroppy, opinionated lot. He said he'd tell me a really funny story about what happened at the after-gonging do. His ex-wife, Denise L'Estrange-Corbet, (I don't know how else to describe their relationship; they are separated but not divorced and still live in the same house) and their daughter Pebbles had come along to watch him get his gong but afterwards they couldn't find him because he wasn't wearing his beanie. "They're so lazy they don't look for me, they just look for the pom pom. They came into the room and they thought: 'Where's Francis? Where's he gone?' Because I was wearing a dark navy suit so I kind of blended in!"
Except for his choice of headwear and his rather unusual living arrangements and his obsession with collecting taxidermied things and his decision to name his daughter Pebbles, he has never struck me (from afar) as being particularly dotty. Actually, that list might make him sound really rather dotty but that he doesn't strike you as being so might have something to do with the competition from his family. I had to phone Denise for his phone number and she said: "Just so you know, Michele. He talks a lot." I could safely, she said, just turn the recorder on, go shopping, come back some hours later and he'd still be talking. That made me laugh so much I nearly fell off my chair. I have interviewed Denise and, really, talk about the pot calling the kettle black!
I told him this and he laughed so much he nearly fell off his chair and said: "That's rich coming from her!" But he does talk a lot (it's all relative) and is almost as bossy as she is (very) but mostly when it comes to the fashion. He's the chief designer and she looks after the money. "I'm not concerned with money at all," he said, airily. "I just love ideas and creating stuff." He's no good with money. "No. Not at all."
You could say that. He once bought a stuffed giraffe's head (neck included) from a junk shop in Cambridge for $6000. "I had to have it." The owner of the shop brought it up to Auckland in his convertible. It sat in the back, with its head sticking up which must have been quite something to see. "Well, it's a giraffe!" They had to have the wall in the hall reinforced before they put it up. I had a theory about why they go on living in the same house - he has three rooms downstairs, no doubt stuffed full of stuffed things - and it involved the near-impossibility of moving the giraffe. I put this to him and he said: "My giraffe! My lovely giraffe!" It is called Gerald and it was named by Pebbles. How do they know it's a boy giraffe? "It's a boy." He asked some taxidermists. One of the strange things about their living arrangement (one of!) is that Denise is a vegetarian who lives in a house surrounded by stuffed animals. They both love them, he said. What does he love about them? "I love their macabre beauty."
He is not a vegetarian. "No. I'm Chinese!" He was born in Hong Kong where his mother's family ended up after fleeing Shanghai, to begin with to a refugee camp in Macau after the communists took over. There were five daughters; one was shot by a soldier as they fled. "So I always have a bit of a heart twang when I hear about refugees ... "
He doesn't know anything about his father, not even his name, except that he wasn't Chinese. His mother was about 19 when she got pregnant and it was a terrible scandal and never to be spoken about, although he was a much-loved baby and raised and embraced by the extended family. His mum now lives in Australia and he long ago gave up asking about his father because she refuses to say and he thinks that it's her business. She married an Australian journalist when he was about 4 and they had two daughters and he says his step-father, now dead, was a very nice man and he was never made to feel like a step-child. Of course he would like to know about his father but "I can't get any answers so: Move on, move on. Otherwise, what am I going to do? I have to live my life. I want to do things."
He was always an outsider. He wasn't allowed to go to a Chinese school in Hong Kong. "Don't think it's just the white man who is racist. In a country like Hong Kong you are always an outsider because I was Eurasian and you go to an international school and it's clearly a Chinese country and you've got a Chinese face and everyone around you speaks Cantonese."
He likes being an outsider. It's good training for being a fashion designer, really, which he had no formal training in. He sort of fell into it after going to London when he was 20 and having to find a job and ended up working as "a slave" in the industry and graduating to being a workroom assistant for John Galliano - before being deported for working illegally. When he and Denise were married and then had Pebbles, people always said they were a weird couple and he'd think: "I'd rather be a weird couple. I kind of thought: 'It's a badge of honour to be a weird couple'!"
The other thing that people, or some people, thought was that he was gay. He knows, of course, about the rumours. "Let them think it." It doesn't make him angry, or upset him? "Let them. I don't care. I mean, so you think that? That's fine. I'm a guy in the fashion industry. So, of course! I knew that from day one." He is also quite camp. "Absolutely! Ha, ha!" Why is he? "That's who I am."
Actually, I don't think they were a particularly weird couple. Neither of them fitted into the lives they'd been born into very well. Denise had a wretched childhood; his was happy, but not the norm. So you can see that they might have had a yearning and determination beyond the usual to create a stable and happy family, and they did. He said: "I've got a wonderful family and it's lovely to see Pebbles grow up. I know it's an unusual life but it's okay. It works for me."
The really odd thing, I think, is that they bothered splitting up at all. I have quizzed Denise on this and got no nearer to understanding it, so I had a go with him. "Umm. Well! I guess we just wanted to move forward." Neither of them have even moved out! "I know! I know! It's a funny one. We're best of friends."
He is 50 and he's not interested in having another relationship. "No. I'm just really quite focused on the brand, and on my daughter." Most people want to have a partner. "Well, you see, I'm different." Oh why didn't they just get married again? I said. He looked at me in mock horror, and said that I wasn't to suggest this to Denise because she'd think she was Elizabeth Taylor.
"No, I'm an artisan. I think fashion designers, as they lose their humbleness, can become megalomaniacs."
He is not an artist. "No, I'm an artisan. I think fashion designers, as they lose their humbleness, can become megalomaniacs." How exciting. Were there any here? "Oh there are megalomaniacs everywhere!" The difference between him and Denise is that she would have named them. Other than that, they do both talk a lot, and so, he said, does Pebbles. He said: "Can you imagine Denise, Pebbles and myself in a room? That's scary!" I can imagine it and that it would be a formidable prospect. The other thing I can imagine, I said, is that he and Denise will still be living together in their house full of stuffed animals and God knows what else - he is also mad keen on German ceramics of the sort, he said, some might think garish - when they are 90. "You can come and visit us!" he said. Well, I just might. For World's 65th birthday bash. I fully expect them to still be going strong then, and still talking, talking, talking, in a house they share with a giraffe called Gerald. And good for them. What fun they are.