Watching Susie Cave in front of the camera, it’s hard to believe she officially gave up modelling in 1997. With her signature jet-black hair and ethereally pale skin, Cave has been a cult fashion reference since the 1980s, but today she’s promoting her own project, a new clothing line called The Vampire’s Wife. Windswept and barefaced on Brighton beach, she’s as captivating as ever.
Of course, a Cave-designed collection isn’t entirely surprising. Her instinct for fashion came to fruition at an early age; she was taught to sew by her grandmother at 11 and her subsequent school years proved sartorially formative. ‘I went to a very progressive school in the 1970s called Dartington Hall, where people would wear chiffon tea dresses and wellies. I was fascinated by that look – by that bohemian style,’ she recalls. At 14, a photo shoot with Steven Meisel was the catalyst for her modelling career, and the enigmatic teenager quickly intrigued the likes of David Bailey, John Galliano and Azzedine Alaïa. Despite her gravitas as a muse, the ‘camera shy’ Cave (née Bick) was never seduced by the idea of modelling, but rather the craftsmanship behind the clothes. ‘I found it quite painful being photographed initially, so I think for me the attraction was often to do with wearing these wonderful clothes with different things, not having one particular style and just working with so many different designers,’ she says. ‘Working with creative people, I had my own romantic idea of things that I liked.’
In 1999, she married legendary musician Nick Cave, and for almost 12 years they’ve lived in the seaside town of Brighton (‘It’s quite sleepy and laid-back and that’s really, really lovely’), in south England. ‘Being married to Nick, I felt that if I was going to an event with him, then I wanted something nice to wear!’ she recalls. ‘So I started making things that I wanted to wear – that was sort of the premise of [the label]. To be honest, I don’t really go out, but – in my fantasy of where I would be going or where I’m invited to – I was thinking, well, what would I wear [if I did]?’ Approval – and orders – from close friends gave Cave a vote of confidence, and The Vampire’s Wife was born. The label’s moniker (not indicative of the unashamedly girlie, colourful pieces) was borrowed from her husband’s abandoned book project: ‘Nick wrote a book called Vampire’s Wife that, in the end, he decided not to publish. He said, “Well, why don’t you use that as the name?” I was really happy because secretly I wanted it, but I didn’t know how to go about asking,’ she remembers. ‘The book that Nick was writing, it was sort of about me – not exactly me, but about his idea of me. I don’t know if it’s really who I am exactly, but it kind of works.’
Last year, the couple tragically lost their teenage son, Arthur – one of two sons – in an accident near their home. Designing has proved a cathartic process for Cave: she brims with zeal when discussing her new venture. ‘One of the Beach Boys, who wrote all the songs, was actually a recluse. He was a manic depressive, but he built a sandpit in his house, where he would write these incredible, sunny, happy songs. I kind of identify with that because a lot of my clothes are very bright and pretty, but actually I struggle with certain things that have happened in my life and sometimes can be in quite a dark place,’ she admits. ‘The clothes have a lightness, which is sometimes the opposite of how I feel personally, so it’s a very creative thing for me. I get really lost when I’m designing, time just flies by. It’s actually an absolute gift, because the worst thing happened to me. I channel any positive energy I can into creating clothes and I really love it.’
The pieces are beautiful, feminine, rather than fashion-focused, and tinged with vintage touches like a ruffled hem or ribbon-tie. Sumptuous colours are inspired by a myriad of influences, from founder of the Ballet Russes, Sergei Diaghilev, to children’s illustrations. ‘I love the Bolshoi Ballet and Kiev Ballet company, the costumes and the colours. I would say my biggest inspiration has always been that – all of these incredible colours, the way they mix the purples, greens, golds and yellows. It’s just beautiful,’ she explains. ‘There are these twin sisters called the Johnstone twins, who illustrated lots of children’s books in the 1950s. The clothes and colour combinations are so beautiful. There are children and adults and fairies, and things like that, but often one of the skirts may be in this beautiful blue, with these pale-grey socks and little brown shoes, and then there’s a flash of red somewhere. I’m just obsessed with those books,’ she says, visibly brightening at the thought. Cut is crucial – discussing hems and finishes, Cave clearly has a gimlet eye for details – and the silks are made in England. ‘The silks come from a mill – one of the only two silk mills left in the country as they have all closed down – and one [silk] was woven for us especially. They have the most incredible archives from Marie Antoinette, which they let me access,’ she explains. ‘They can do anything, and in any colour. Nick and I went there, and it was just absolutely amazing.’
The label has already gained traction on the red carpet, with Cate Blanchett and Daisy Lowe both fans, but Cave is just as humbled by a fellow school mum wearing one of her designs. She hopes the pieces will be loved by women of all ages (Cave, herself, is nearly 50) and will have an easy versatility. ‘I actually want to design clothes that are very wearable for the day. I’ve tried to think of girls and how they feel, when you want to wear a really feminine dress and feel good, but don’t want to seem over-the-top or like “everyone look at me”.’ Yet, as Cave stands barefoot in a beautiful dress that skims her silhouette, one can’t help but stare.