The designer on his great pivot, the early aughts, the iconic eye patch worn by Agyness Deyn and finally being at peace

HH Portrait by Carys Huwys
Runway photos courtesy of Henry Holland Studio

Amanda: I have to say that this means so much to me and my friend Christopher John Rogers. We talk about your career all the time. It was so defining for us. 

Henry: It was so fun then. It was the last time anyone could have any fun in my opinion. 

A: Honestly, I’m sure people get really annoyed at me when I talk about this incessantly on Instagram because I sound like an old auntie, but you just had to be there during that time. 

H: And I mean if you were, you weren't watching it through someone else's eyes on Instagram. You were there and you would live with just knowing that you were there.

A:  I think of you often because you're one of the figureheads of the last great era, in my opinion, and your career is very emblematic of that era. It's 2008, there's a very palpable shift going on. Barack Obama is elected president of the US, Lehman Brothers has collapsed and we’re on the verge of a global recession.

Beyond those political moments, there’s a socioeconomic shift going on in media, music and fashion and the prominence of individualism versus establishment. Notably, the rise of bloggers versus publications.

And then there's you, an unlikely representative of this shift who didn't have a traditional design background, but you were able to independently build your brand and become this monumental figure at that time. What did you see within yourself and in the world that made you think,
this is what I want to do

H:  Wow, do you know what? All I've ever wanted is to find something that fulfills me, that I enjoy and that I love to do. And I've been so fortunate in that all of my careers and different guises, I feel like they've found me in a way. In hindsight, all of those things you listed are so important and seminal in all of our lives. But when you were there and living it, you were too busy getting on with it to really think about it. And I think the best way I can describe it is that I was being true to myself and being really authentic to where I was in the world and what I was doing. 

H: I'm really one of those people that, if an opportunity presents itself, I will grab it while I can. I will work my ass to the bone until I've realized all of that opportunity. And I think that was essentially what happened.

I suffered a lot from imposter conflicts, but I don't have an inner saboteur. I was brought up by a mother who taught me to manifest and visualize what I wanted for as long as I can remember. People now talk about manifesting like it's this new movement, and I'm like, mate, that's what I was told to do as a 6-year-old. I was saying affirmations in the kitchen trying to get rid of my mum’s breast cancer. I was brought up with a belief system built around the idea that anything is possible if I dreamed it, believed it, and visualized it. I focused on that wholeheartedly.

A: Your fall 2008 collection is monumental for me. The opening look worn by the icon Agyness Deyn. I tried to buy it and it was sold out and I had to settle for a dupe from Primark.

I remember wearing it around Notting Hill with Giuseppe Zanotti shoes and everyone was stopping me asking, is that Henry Holland? And I was like, yes, yes it's Henry Holland, of course. It just all seemed to happen so fast for you. I remember the t-shirt collection, and then suddenly it was the RTW collection. What was the journey like ?

H: That's a really interesting question. I initially had no plans to do anything other than t-shirts, and then Lulu Kennedy invited me to join Fashion East. She was like, I want to do something with your t-shirts, maybe a show? And I was like, oh my god. To me, Fashion East was serious, it was real fashion shows. I used to go to Gareth Pugh shows and sit on the floor. The fashion t-shirts were called fashion groupie t-shirts because I was a fashion groupie. It was my way of creating a football shirt or a band t-shirt for these young designers that I idolized. In my sort of insatiable ambition, I wanted to do everything there and then. So the first collection that included more than t-shirts was Fashion East, I did some sunglasses with Linda Farrow, and I did bags with Mulberry and Stuart Vevers. I did footwear, I did denim. I did dresses. I did swimwear. I really went to town.

One of the main reasons I did that t-shirt show is because of Sarah Mower from American Vogue. We have a great relationship now, but she said some vile things about me and I wanted to show her. She called me a one trick pony. She said the joke's very funny, but if he wants to be around more than 5 minutes, he's gonna have to think of something else. And that was like a rocket up my ass because I was already thinking about it. I always wrote my own review in my hand before the show, so the show's about a t- shirt. I came out from a bar wearing a T-shirt saying one trick pony.

"I was brought up with a belief system that was built up around anything is possible if I dreamed it, believed it, and visualized it, and I focused on that wholeheartedly."

H: I called it the one trick pony collection because I felt like that was the one negative that they could have said about it... so I said it for them. I got ahead of them and I was like, you think I'm a one trick pony so I'll show you. The next season, we did a full show and we were doing everything. We worked so hard to deliver that in the space of six months. Then from there, the following collection was the tartan. I was being talked about alongside these amazing designers that were producing really incredible clothing and so my attempt at elevating myself to any sort of semblance or anywhere near my contemporaries in that way was to kind of poke fun at their establishment in a way by creating a registered tartan with this mill in Scotland, and then I created a fake family crest. It was all of what I consider to be really stuffy and silly emblems of British culture.

And then the look that you talk about was seen as such a striking look. Agyness and I were so close at the time, and we'd become quite well known as a partnership just from, like, we were out every night of the week at 22. What else can we do? We also lived together, and we'd grown up together. We've known we were genuine best friends. It was so nice to be able to go to the Met Ball, beaming on that horrendous carpet together, but with someone that you actually care about. The only reason Agyness wore the eye patch is because she went to Milan before or New York for a shoot and got conjunctivitis from the makeup brushes. And of course she was meant to open the show, then she was like, my eye is all messed up and I was like, I don't care.

I went to the joke shop, bought an eye patch. I bought some fabric glue and I stuck the tartan on the eye patch. The following day, it was on the front page of the newspaper and the headline was "pirate ship" or something. It was iconic. They thought it was like this preconceived thing. I'm just like it was a styling thing. All of these little nuggets of things that were situations that we found ourselves in and found our way out of, and it became these sort of visual markers that people remember, which is hilarious. Again, I'll go back to saying that it was not contrived and it wasn't preplanned. There wasn't some huge PR machine behind us, which is why it worked.

A: As you mentioned, Agyness Deyn. I was gonna leave this for later, but since you brought her up... I think about her quite a lot. In my opinion, I think that she was the last great supermodel in terms of resounding impact. And not to diminish anyone, but her impact transcended race. As a black girl, she influenced me and other black girls I know. We wanted to dress like her, cut our hair like her. That doesn't really happen in our community where a white woman influences black girls to cut their hair off. Hair is sacred to us.

Obviously, you've known her since you were very young, you grew up together, you lived together, you bought a house together and worked so closely. Did that ever put a strain on your relationship with her? 

H: It did at times. Because, you know, when models become really big and really popular, they have a huge team behind them that manages their every move. It's not always as easy as her saying, "I want to be in London for this." The first show I did for the t-shirt collection, she didn't walk because she was shooting the cover of American Vogue that day. So what she did is FaceTime from set, you know that cover they did that was a fold out and it was like Lily Donaldson, Caroline Trentini, Chanel Iman, Coco Rocha and others..

A: Agyness is on the second page of that fold out. I was shocked by that and furious. I just couldn’t believe it. 

H: Well, that was Steven Meisel, and he did that because when he'd done that cover in the past, it was kind of a recreation of a nineties supers cover that he did. And he placed her in the exact position where Linda was, because for him, she was the new Linda. 

A: Wow, that all makes sense now. Thank you for clarifying that for me because I was annoyed by that.

H: I think when you're working with Meisel, you just have to do it and cancel everything. I did ask for her to do the show and even Vogue was like, it’s Meisel. And so she had to do it. But she FaceTimed me from the set. She and all the girls were chatting and I was telling the girls, look, I've made a t-shirt about you, it was really cute. We weren't friends that didn't really know each other. We were friends who knew each other's families and we could check each other very quickly. But there wasn’t much need for that at all. Did all of what was happening put a strain on our relationship? Yeah. At times. Sometimes it did because I never wanted her to feel like she needed to do something for me. You know? And at the same time, I really wanted her to do everything for me. 

A: 2008 was a turning point for fashion and celebrity culture. The zeitgeist made fashion feel accessible in a way that it wasn't before. It was more so in England than anywhere else, and it was fueled by these weekly celebrity gossip and fashion mags, like Look Magazine and Heat magazine. You were at the center of that in an almost Andy Warhol kind of way. You were a part of the second generation of the Primrose Hill set.

Your friends were celebrities, and they all partied with you while wearing your clothes. It was all documented in the papers and in the magazines, and we were all eating it up. I remember you had your own show, Frock Me, on channel 4. You were really at the center of so many mediums in a very intentional way. What was it like for you being at the forefront of that while various entities were making money off of your image, such as the paparazzi? I remember reading an interview and they sort of asked you, well, are you, like, really rich now? And you were like, no. I don't have a lot of money because my money is going back into the brand. 

H: Looking back on it, I can see it from your perspective, the way you just described it. At that time, it felt a bit like a double edged sword because people wanted to talk about me and my friend group and my lifestyle and my nights out more than they did with my work. And at that point, I was putting my all into my work and every penny I had, every hour I had.

I remember applying for a funding grant once, and one of the people interviewing me was this really snobby lady I presented my portfolio and strategy to and I was like, this is my plan. And she was like, well, how do you do all of this? Because we know you're not at home in your living room. And I was like, no. I'm not. I'm actually out at night because I was getting paid to be there. And when I get paid in cash, I take that cash, and I buy my clothes out of the factory at 9am the next morning, and I deliver them to the stores. I was just like, how rude. Do you remember the London paper and the London lite? Because of those papers, the paparazzi culture in London was absolutely insane. Agyness, Alexa, and Pixie were target number 1 at that moment. I remember being followed by mopeds and I'd get up to go to work in the morning and the paparazzi would be asleep in their car outside of our apartment and they'd be like, morning Henry, Is Agyness up? 

And I’d say oh, yes, she's just in the shower when she was actually in New York. I'd come back from work, nine hours later, and they’d still be sitting there for days waiting for her to come out.

A: Tell me about the tv show you hosted, Frock Me.

H: Filming the Frock Me show felt like a day off for me. I was running a company by that point with maybe 10 employees so getting paid to have somebody fetch my breakfast and my coffee from a green room and working with Alexa [Chung] for the day was amazing. I was always monetizing my profile so that I could sustain my company. We were 100% self funded up until 2018 and we folded in 2020, I only had external funding for the last 18 months. The nature of the fashion industry is that every season has to be bigger, it has to be better. So I was starting to compete with it, trying to make noise on the same stage, nowhere near on the same scale, but on the same stage as a billion dollar LVMH brand. How do you get people to know about your work? That became gradually harder for the new partner.

I noticed that change with the explosion in the number of brands. When I started in 2007, there was no social media. I launched on Myspace, for example. So the changes that happened and the acceleration of the pace was crazy. Sometimes I wish Agyness happened now in this era, she would have been so much bigger, but she’s ok with how it all happened. However I think the way it all transpired probably saved her soul. It saved her sanity. It's why she has 3 gorgeous children and a beautiful husband and a real, wonderful life.

"To put a calendar on creativity is insanity if you think about it."

A: In retrospect, you were the first fashion designer to master the art of collaboration and they all made sense for your brand. Did those brands approach you or was it all a part of your strategy? The Pretty Polly collab was insanely successful, it was everywhere. How did that happen? 

H: I wasn't classically trained in fashion and even if you are, you can't know everything. So for me, collaborations were two different things. One, it was my education. It taught me how to work with footwear. It taught me how to work with eyewear. It taught me how to work with accessories, jewelry, and hosiery. Every single collaboration, I'd go to the factory and look at how everything was made. I'd learn the processes behind that.

The second thing was I didn't have a marketing wheelchair, so the collaborations amplified brand awareness. We had billboards and campaigns with Jessie J, and along with that came brand recognition and brand growth. They were really valuable in that sense. We happened to create something that resonated with that era. And at that time, I feel like my brand had a much bigger reach than it had output, because we were still tiny. We sold two million tights, which is mad. The celebrity pictures would just come in day after day, like Rihanna at Topshop wearing the tights. They all bought it. 

H: And then I found that there's an ego trip allowed as a designer. I love putting my imprint or my aesthetic, my design sensibility, on everything from a microwave to a pair of shoes to a swimsuit. If I can make something that looks like I made it, there's an ego behind that. I approach every collaboration with a new set of eyes. You know, when you're a hosiery designer, there are certain rules and certain parameters that you have to work within. There's certain deniers and stitches and weights that you have to work within. You know, a pair of tights looked one one way until we made those suspenders, so I just approached them as if they were just like leg coverings. What do suspenders look like under a dress? What would I want that to look like? I always put that approach and different viewpoint to the collabs I do with brands.

I funded my business with collaborations and partnerships. When I first started doing it, I got quite a lot of snobbery. Now it's so prolific across the fashion industry because people recognize that to build a brand of any scale, they should be able to reinterpret everything from packaging to furniture. Though I think we're starting to get to the stage of collaboration fatigue. I think people in the industry are a bit like, oh my god, enough.

It becomes so diluted if these big brands only ever to tap into the same talents to create something new.

A: Henry Holland studio..there's this symbiotic relationship with fashion and interiors. How did this happen so soon for you after closing House of Holland? 

H: I feel like I found myself again. I didn't have a plan so I decided I was going to consult for the fashion company after I sold it. I thought that was going to fulfill me, and then I very quickly realized that I needed a creative outlet. Physical products are what really drives me. I made a few ceramic vases during the lockdown, maybe six, then lockdowns got more intense. I started making ceramics in my kitchen. Then I put a few of them up on my Instagram, then I got a message from the buyers at Liberty to say that they’d buy.

I think because of my following on instagram, people saw them more quickly than it would happen for others for sure, and because I've done this before in a different field, I knew that I needed a look book. I knew that I needed a line sheet. I knew how to do pricing. I had lots of transferable skills that allowed me to do this at an accelerated pace. I was by myself in the studio making ceramics, I think a lot of people might have turned that down and said there's no way I can do that in the lockdown, but I knew. I could make that happen because I feel like I've made so many things that seemed impossible happen. I was able to and I did. 

And we're now two years into this journey, and it's just as fulfilling. I'm trying to use all of my learnings from the past to protect myself for the future. I don't want to do 10 collections a year. I don't want to be on the plane every two weeks. I do want to be on the plane every two months though.

I love the fact that I'm now connected to the product. Everything we make is in this room. I don't work with external production facilities. I personally make a huge amount of the product, which I never was able to do with fashion because of the number of people involved with making a garment, from a seamstress to a pattern cutter to a fabric manufacturer to a trim supplier. I can see myself doing this forever. It's hard to see the end when you're in fashion, but now I can see myself selling pots on the market stall at 85. 

A: I first discovered the line about two years ago. I was scrolling on Matches Fashion [RIP] and I thought it was so stunning. And then I clicked on it and saw Henry Holland, I was shocked, you did such an amazing job.

H: Thank you. It took me a few goes. I made stuff that looks like I made it. That feels true to me. It's forced me to develop an evolved aesthetic because it works in more earthy neutral tones. But that's because I can't find neon green clay. Because, trust me, if I could, I would find a way. I'm really grateful for that as well. Trusting in those parameters and what they've kind of forced me into being. We just launched tiles and I've been working on wallpaper for September, which is gonna be a huge launch. It's really exciting. Little things keep popping up that just tell me I'm in the right place. It wasn't until I spoke to Architectural Digest that I realized Amy Astley is the EIC. Amy Astley was the EIC of Teen Vogue, and she was the person that invited me to the Met Gala. She was my first big supporter, she introduced me to Anna Wintour. She was the person who championed me from America.

A: What do you think of fashion now? 

H: I love it in a whole new way. Now I can shop with my eyes and not my fingers because I'm not constantly feeling fabrics, and I'm not constantly looking at the content of cloth and what the base fabrics are and where they're made and why somebody managed to put that much embellishment on a gown that I couldn’t afford to do for the same price. I can shop without comparing myself.

I love fashion. I love to shop. And that was always my internal challenge. The pace at which the industry required me to work was exhausting. I’ve always felt that push and pull and I think as I've grown up, I've realized that not everyone can be all things to all people. That's the challenge that the industry has. You know? Some designers could do one collection a year, and that's fine because there's so many brands. There's so many people who are creating gorgeous, incredible things. We don't all have to do it eight times a year or four times a year. To put a calendar on creativity is insanity if you think about it.

H: A lot of my friends who are musicians, I used to joke with them and they'd be like, oh, I'm so tired of working away on this album. And I'd say, did you have two years to do it? Are you okay? People in fashion have to do a new album every three months whether we like it or not, whether it's good or not. It doesn't matter. It has to be there and you have two years to go away and be heartbroken. Like, come on. It's crazy to think about.

But now I love fashion as an observer, as a watcher, as an admirer. And, obviously, I have such inbuilt admiration and understanding for the people that do produce amazing things and zero judgment, I think, when people produce something that I think is a bit shit because everyone produces something that's a bit shit. And that it doesn't define them. That doesn't define their work. That doesn't define what they're capable of. I think that it's an amazing privilege to be able to make beautiful things. 

I love fashion even more now because it doesn't give me PTSD looking at garments on a rack in a shop. I used to just constantly be comparing myself to what I saw on the rack. 

A: Who has been the most important person in your career?

H: I'd have to say my mom because of that belief system. Both of my parents are blindly supportive, so much trust. When I quit my full time job to start my own brand, I had a mortgage that they guaranteed. They would’ve put up their pensions to support me. They were like, we trust you. You got it. There was no 'what do you think you're doing? Are you crazy? You can't do that.' Never. Ever. And it's the same with all of my siblings. My parents trust us, they believe in us.

Also Agyness is the friend that everybody knows about because of the public nature of our lives, but we were a trio. It was me, Agyness and Jessica, who was my friend that I knew before Agyness. We met day one in high school and we ran the company together for 10 years. When I needed my first member of staff, she worked as an agent for the model agency that represented Agyness. She was a huge part of the company and that brand had a soul because it was run by two people who love and care for each other. In my new business, I have my husband now and that helps.

A: Is there a life lesson that you learned being in the fashion industry for so many years? 

H: It’s really just about being authentic, being true. And that's one of the reasons the business was sold off. I'd created House of Holland at 22. And at 22, it was the perfect reflection of who I was as a person. But when I got to 38, I struggled to resonate as closely to the brand that I created. I tried to evolve a bit, I tried to make it a bit more serious and elevate it to be more in line with myself and who I was at the time. But when you put out something that has such a strong sensibility of its own, and people love it as is, that was hard. We created something that was great, and not everything can be great forever. So when the investors sold it, because it still exists, I didn't go with it because I felt like I had gone to the end of my time with it. I was at a point where I could walk away feeling so proud, thrilled, ecstatic, excited by everything we've done, no cringey moments. I mean, sure, there were some that were a bit cringey along the way, but I felt I'd always been true to the brand and myself. 

A: What would you like your legacy to be? 

H:  That I was a good person who made beautiful things and made people feel better when they interacted with something I created.