From Harvey Nichols buying his graduate collection to designing uniforms for some of the world’s top hotels, to becoming the only couturier in Britain, it seems as though at just 47, Nicholas Oakwell really has done it all. He’s dressed celebrities from Helen Mirren to Karlie Kloss and had his work featured on the cover of Vogue and showcased in London’s historic Victoria and Albert Museum.
ADDICTED was lucky enough to have the opportunity to ask the fashion giant how he made his dream job a reality.
What is your official title? Do you have one?
I seem to have three! Design Director, Couturier, Managing Director.
How did you get into your current line of work?
I studied fashion at Epsom School of Design. I became a milliner and launched my label when Harvey Nichols bought my graduation collection. After 4 years, I realised that I wanted to make clothes at couture level, so I worked for Danish designer Isabell Kristensen, where I learnt the art of couture from the workroom seamstresses, tailors, drapers and beaders. I started as a hand finder and after 6 years I left as Head of Workroom and Operations Manager.
I worked for Harvey Nichols for 4 years in the non-retail side as I wanted to see the business from a different angle. Whilst at Harvey Nichols, a friend asked me to design some uniforms for a small boutique hotel in Chelsea, which I did. I was then asked to design uniforms for The Great Eastern Hotel in The City. I was amazed to be asked. It was two worlds I loved, clothes and travel, so I launched NO Uniform. I set it up as a design agency that designs and supplies uniforms to the hospitality industry with clients including Claridge’s, Rosewood London, The Edition, Four Seasons and The Wolseley, to name a few in London alone.
I wanted to change the mentality of uniforms in the hospitality industry as it lacked any real design and thought behind it. After all, the staff is vital to any hospitality business and very much at the forefront of the brand. It is a dream job that has taken me to Dubai, Singapore, South Africa, Vegas, Antigua, Puerto Rico, Iceland, Europe and many more places around the world.
At 40 I decided my burning desire for couture was still within me and I was now ready to launch my own house. So in July 2011 in Claridge’s French Salon I held my own first presentation as a couturier with my debut collection Sylvia based on the 1952 production at The Royal Opera House staring Dame Margot Fonteyn, Choreography by Fredrick Ashton and designed by Christopher Ironside.
Did you go to school for your dream job?
Yes; Epsom School of Art and Design (now called Surrey Institute) studying Fashion Design and Manufacture.
Is this a job that you applied for or did you create it for yourself?
I suppose the uniform business fell into my lap so I became the Creative Director for that. The couture business was my dream so I created it myself with my own house.
What was your first ever job?
I worked as a pizza chef in Pizzaland when I was 16, oh my, that just took me back! Then I was a waiter in a Mexican restaurant whilst I was at Fashion College.
Before you started your dream job, what was the best job you had?
Hard to say, as I had my own Millinery label and at 20 I landed my first Vogue cover. I worked with a couture house in Paris making hats for shows, working with London designers for their collections, making hats for royals, that was all such an amazing time in the early 90s.
Then when I worked for someone else, I would say working at Isabell Kristensen as head of workroom learning from the talented colleagues who had worked in Chanel, Dior, Thierry Mugler and dressed stars as Shirley Bassey and Tina Turner. I learnt so much watching Isabell build her business from a small dressmaker in a Notting Hill basement to opening a Couture house in Knightsbridge and in Monte Carlo.
What was your worst ever job?
I’ve never had one as I always learnt from all of them.
If you weren’t doing this, what would you be doing?
All of my education has been fashion, so I would think I would be in it somewhere. However, when I was younger I wanted to be an architect. At 16 finding out the course was 7 years I was like ‘NO WAY’, I wanted to be able to earn my own money before I was 25 years old! I loved fashion and the construction of clothes so I studied fashion from 16 years till 20 when I had my millinery label.
What is your proudest achievement?
I’ve had a few but at 21 seeing Linda Evangelista wearing a hat of mine on the front of Vogue is simply a fashion student’s / designer’s dream!
Also seeing my first ball gown from my first couture collection Sylvia at the Victoria and Albert Museum was just WOW! As a student, and even as a child, [I loved] going to the V&A and seeing the fashion and everything else there, so to be included as part of this amazing historic collection is such an honour.
Then seeing my mother at my wedding in a couture outfit I had created for her was an emotional and proud achievement, as much as creating the wedding dress for my brother’s wife.
What advice do you have for someone who wants to find their dream job but hasn’t yet?
ALWAYS follow your dream in life. My mother taught her three sons to follow their dream no matter, and what’s the worst that can happen? When you fall over, you just get up and try again, but this time you learnt why you fell before and do it better next time around.
But then your dream can change in life. I feel that I have had three dreams at 20. I thought it was to be a milliner and it was as I loved every moment. Then it changed to be a couturier, but on that journey, another dream appeared, which is still magical as I design great clothes for great hotels and restaurants around the world. Then at 40, another dream came to come true to be a Couturier.
I never stop dreaming to be inspired all the time. Maybe I’ll be a gardener, a florist, a baker. It’s never too late to follow your dream; jump, have that leap of faith; really, what is the worst that can happen? Believe me, I have fallen a few times but I got up again and again.