Saturday 23 July 2011
Michael Fish was born in 1940 in Essex. He started his career in fashion from working for a respectable fashion house - Collet's , in the mid-1950's. Quickly, he progressed to working first at New & Lingwood and then Turnbull and Asser - well known Jermyn Street shirtmakers who specialized in inventive, made-to-measure shirts. Michael Fish's arrival at Turnbull and Asser was a breath of a fresh air for the company. His highly imaginative and colourful designs helped the company to move with the times. Their first ready to wear shirts designed by Michael Fish were significantly different from their standard offerings. He changed the cut of a high collared shirt - he made the points larger and more widely spred and he introduced embroidery and ruffles. His designs for accesories were also revolutionary - his ties were wide and his pocket handkerchiefs were specially hand-blocked and printed.
Michael Fish and his customer at Turnbull and Asser, Sean Connery.
In 1966, after nine years at Turnbull and Asser, and a brief period at John Stephen's as an assistant designer, Michael Fish opened his own shop, Mr. Fish. His business partner was Barry Sainsbury - a wealthy young entrepreneur from upper middle class background , with good social connections. Their idea was to sell upmarket, fashionable clothes for the elite customers. The boutique was situated in 17 Clifford Street in Mayfair. The exclusivity of the shop was determined by high prices - usually around £35 for a jacket, £100 for a whole suit, and anything between £8 and £20 for a shirt. The reason for such high prices lied in the generous use of expensive fabrics. The originality of Mr. Fish's clothes was expressed in the slogan written on his shopping bags: "Peculiar to Mr. Fish". The shop was famous for its colored silk and cotton shirts, often ruffled, which fitted loosely around the body, rather than tightly (like typical shirt of , for example John Stephen). Another design typical for Mr. Fish was velvet jacket - it was usually double - breasted and elegantly draped. His famous paisley-patterned wide ties - also known as 'kipper ties', had become one of the symbols of 1960's male fashion. Mr. Fish was also one of the first designers to venture into gender-bending territory with his designs for dresses for men. The most memorable one is a white dress worn by Mick Jagger for The Rolling Stones free concert in Hyde Park on 5th July 1969.
A year later, David Bowie, on the cover of his album The Man Who Sold the World wore colourful velvet frock designed by Mr. Fish.
David Bowie wearing frock from Mr. Fish on the cover of Curious. 1970
I tried to break down the frontiers for man - said Michael Fish in the interview for Nik Cohn. Do I care about the masses? Jesus Christ had only twelve disciples and one of them was doubting Thomas (Nik Cohn, Today There Are No Gentlemen, p 145). Whatever masses might have thought of Mr. Fish's clothes, he certanly became a sensation in fashion world. he was praised by journals such as Elle or Woman's Daily Wear. He did joint fashion shows with Mary Quant, Valentino and Annacat. His clothes were worn by fashion photograpers such as David Bailey, Patrick Lichfield, Lord Snowdon (Tony Armstrong - Jones) and actors Terence Stamp and James Fox.
Above and below: Patrick Lichfield modeling Mr.Fish's clothes circa 1971
James Fox on the set of Duffy wearing shirt and dice-motif suit by Mr. Fish. 1968.
It seemed like the clientele of Mr. Fish boutique consisted mostly of rich and famous or those aspiring to be rich or famous. Michael Fish himself tried to sound like he was unconcerened by it: A lot of top faces come to me but I don't give names, that's not my bag. I could reel off the list that's unbelivable, pop stars and film stars almost anyone you could mention, but I despise all that. I loathe vulgarity. I think I have a certain humble kind of chic and chic is something rather special (Cohn, p 148). In the same interview, however, he states: I don't care about taste. I think taste is a word like love; it should be forgotten for fifty years, I don't even know what it means. Actually I think I'm very vulgar. Revolutionaries have to be (Cohn, p 145). Though it may seem that second quotation is much more honest expression of Mr. Fish's true politics, the truth probably lies somewhere in the middle of those two statements. What he tried to do, one may argue, was to make flamboyancy chic. It was an attempt to challenge traditional notions of dandyism. Beau Brummell famously said that to be well dressed meant not to be noticed. It seems like Mr. Fish's reply would be: Not anymore. Not in the 1960's. The success of his shop and the elite list of his clientele gives him a power to say it and remain a credible authority in fashion.
Janet Lyle (Annacat) and Patrick Lichfield in a shirt from Mr. Fish. 1971.
Michael Fish in purple silk tunic jacket and poplin roll-neck, 1967
Michael Fish and Barry Sainsbury. Photo shoot for Sunday Times, 15.10.1968
It is important to say, however, that both, his success and his time as an authority in fashion did not last long. The withdrawal of Barry Sainsbury as a financial backer, the expiry of the lease of Clifford Street premises, the fore-mentioned use of expensive fabrics and Michael Fish's tendency to give generous credit to his famous clients had quickly caused him financial problems. Nik Cohn in Today There are No Gentlemen (1971) sensed that Mr. Fish's star as a designer was fading. He expected him to go wholesale or strike a deal with chain stores. This did not happen. Barry Sainsbury's replacement as an investor - Captain Fred Barker, bewildered by financial losses decided to shut the shop down in the early 1970's. Michael Fish tried briefly to resurrect his business - in 1974 he opened a new shop in Mount Street, this time with rock managers Robert Stigwood and David Shaw as investors. However 1974 was not 1966 - London was no longer a 'swinging' place it used to be, and the idea of the boutique ran in the laid back manner and selling expensive clothes to the elite clientele seemed out of place in the country struggling with recession. Michael Fish withdrew from fashion world altogether, and spent the rest of his days as the nightclub owner. The significance of his boutiques, however , should not be underestimated. Large collection of his designs in Victoria and Albert Museum is a proof that between 1966 and 1970, he was one of the most important fashion designers in Swinging London, and the inventor of the Peacock Style.
Suit from Mr. Fish from 1968. Donated to V&A by David Mlinaric.
Above and below: Mr. Fish's suits in V&A Museum