Susie Cave: ‘Work was something I did because I enjoyed it but then it became a necessity... I had to work, it took my mind off everything’
She was an original Nineties It girl - now Susie Cave runs a cult fashion brand that’s revitalising women’s wardrobes the world over. She tells Fiona Golfar about love, marriage and how the rise of The Vampire’s Wife has helped her cope in the aftermath of an appalling family tragedy.
Susie Cave smiles as she says: “It seems my dresses have coincided with a certain moment in time as bold, proud statements of female beauty. “ We are chatting together over fresh mint tea at The Lanesborough hotel in London. She is wearing her own design, a creamy silk ankle-length dress covered in large flowers with ruffles at the elbow and hem. In the current climate of #MeToo and Time’s Up, what actresses are choosing to wear has never been more of a signifier. The Vampire’s Wife’s restrained designs and modest cuts, laced with Cave’s inimitable style and attitude, feel strangely timely.
In the flesh, Cave is one of the most feminine women you could ever wish to meet. Her body is as slender and curvaceous as it was when I first met her more than 30 years ago on a video shoot, when she was modelling for her friend Bella Freud. In those days she was one of the most famous models in the business: sexy, naughty yet nice, known for her alabaster skin and her raven black hair. Hers was a powerful beauty, interpreted by photographers from Helmut Newton to Guy Bourdin, Sarah Moon to Steven Meisel. At 51, she still has it. Her voice is soft, almost girly, her hair still glossy and black. “I read that Dita Von Teese dyes her own hair so I started to do mine from a bottle too,” she says. Home for her these days is with her Australian husband, singer-songwriter Nick Cave — frontman of the Bad Seeds — in a Georgian house in Brighton, with their son, 17-year-old aspiring actor, Earl. “I feel a bit country mouse coming to London these days,” she jokes.
It was towards the end of her modelling career after turning 30 that she met Nick. “He found me under the T Rex at an event at the Natural History Museum,” she says with a deep happy smile (“She was all the things I’d obsessed over for years,” Nick has said of the moment he first set eyes on her). They married in a medieval chapel in Surrey in 1999.
Hanging in the cupboard behind us are dresses from The Vampire’s Wife in a delicious assortment of fabrics: metallic lamé pink, silver, emerald-green and purple; colourful printed cottons, velvets and jumbo cords. From ankle length to mini, they are all a variation of the same shape: high necked, demure yet not. Prairie-girl meets gothic heroine, Ophelia meets Victorian maid, you almost expect them to smell of tuberose (its sultry scent was forbidden to Victorian maidens because, despite its apparent purity, it concealed a dark and suggestive side, too). To say that the brand has been a runaway success is an understatement. Founded in 2014 with friend and business partner Alex Adamson, The Vampire’s Wife takes its name from “an unfinished novel by Nick about the relationship between the muse and the creative process”. Designed in a small atelier in Brighton and manufactured in Poland, early support for the brand came from the couple’s inner circle which includes Florence Welch, Kylie Minogue, Daisy Lowe and Alexa Chung.
As one of the most sought-after models of the 1980s (Prince sent her flowers constantly), Cave says she was in the “low self-esteem department” compared with the formidable supermodels of the day. But she was also a muse to designers including Yves Saint Laurent, Gianni Versace, Azzedine Alaïa, Vivienne Westwood and John Galliano.
And being dressed by them has paid off: the moment one of Cave’s dresses is put on the body there is a surprising sense of structure while the fit is immaculate and flattering. “You pull the zip up, modesty becomes sexy,” says Ruth Chapman, co-founder of Matchesfashion and one of the first retailers to stock the dresses.
In the past year it’s become a juggernaut, a huge hit for millennials and mothers alike, and the go to ‘cool girl’ label: the likes of Dakota Johnson, Maggie Gyllenhaal and Keira Knightley confirming its Hollywood A-list status on the red carpet. Yet Cave is the first to be astonished by the celebrity endorsement. “I am walking very tall at the moment because Chloë Moretz just wore one of my dresses at the Sundance Film Festival. My son Earl stared at a picture of her and said, ‘My God I’ve been in love with her since I was a child.’ I just thought, “Hmm … when did you stop being a child?’”
In July 2015, soon after launching The Vampire’s Wife, Susie and Nick lost their 15-year-old son Arthur in a tragic accident after he experimented with LSD and fell from a cliff. How does one come back from something so brutal? In the case of Susie, Nick and Earl, who is Arthur’s twin brother, the family seem to have woven themselves as closely together as possible. In a heart-wrenching documentary, One More Time With Feeling, made later that year and directed by Andrew Dominik, what starts out as an exploration of Nick’s creative process while making his new album also becomes a study of the role of creativity in the wake of trauma and grief. Susie is filmed, fragile, ghost-like, trying to process the unimaginable, but also desperately trying to keep her head above water, which came from throwing herself into her work.
“Since everything that happened, my work has become something different. Before, it was something I was doing because I enjoyed it and loved it, but after, it became a real necessity. I had to work — it was the only thing that took my mind off everything.”
By her own admission, Cave is no longer the social person she once was. If you ask her what she does to relax she says: “Nick and Earl”. If you ask her what her interests are she says: “Nick and Earl. ”This is a family who have almost literally stitched themselves back together. It was Nick who suggested that the couple combine their worlds on tour with him and the Bad Seeds last year. And she did, bringing the press and friends of the brand to his concerts in Europe. Nick was delighted to see all these fantastic fashion girls in beautiful dresses backstage as he came off stage. He in turn enthusiastically accompanies her to the fabric fairs, choosing materials. “His taste is impeccable,” she says.
When we meet, her skin (still flawless) has a whisper of a tan — she’s just come back from Melbourne where she was on a family holiday with Nick and Earl following his first European stadium tour which garnered five-star reviews. In many ways the tragedy has been the foil to her success — rendering her both otherworldly yet grounded. She enjoys a girly chat. We talk about how important a good bra is — “It has to be a smooth underwired one, no bumpy lace under my dresses.” She buys hers at M&S. Her frame is tiny. “Oh it isn’t always like this. I gave up sugar and flour at Christmas because I eat so much crap chocolate — Twix and Mars bars and Flakes — and then I have to get on a diet.”
Although please don’t imagine for a moment that when Cave is at home she is hanging out in a pair of jeans or sweats. Her personal collection of glittery, vertiginous Gucci heels is lined up in her cupboard (the family are close friends with the designer Alessandro Michele), immaculately kept in their original boxes complete with the tissue paper they first came in.
But the dresses are a constant: “The dresses are just me making the kind of clothes I want to wear hanging out at home or going out at night. The only difference is at home I wear them with flip-flops.” When it comes to the brand, the time is clearly right for her to be doing things on her own terms. She recently dropped 200 numbered, limited edition T-shirts into the collection featuring a series of images of black-haired, child vampires created by a reclusive artist friend of the Caves called Karen Constance. Unsurprisingly, they sold out immediately. She will also be launching her jewellery collaboration with Annoushka in an installation at Dover Street Market in time for London Fashion Week, and her new summer dresses will be available at the end of May.
This polymath-like approach is something that Ruth Chapman most admires about Cave. “Susie doesn’t deliver clothes seasonally like most brands. She drops new things into the stores as she comes up with them,” she says. “She is part of a new generation of designers such as Palace or Supreme who do things on their own terms. I don’t think the customer cares about pre-collection or mainline. The designers should be in control of their brands.” And why not? After all, The Vampire’s Wife is a story of beauty born out of personal tragedy.
Of love and of family and of finding salvation through creativity. Let Nick Cave have the last word. “I think Susie and I are in a continuing process of saving each other. Maybe we always have been. Maybe that’s what drew us together in the first place. When we met we were kind of two lost souls. And part of that is to pay attention to what each other is doing. Clearly, Susie’s involvement in my songs is immense — not that she actually writes anything — but rather she is the foundation of so many of the songs. And the clothes are just so beautiful. In many ways The Vampire’s Wife has brought the house alive with its energy.”