There are some interviews that end up being as fun as an afternoon spent hanging out with your mates. Meeting British designer Henry Holland was one of those occasions (maybe it’s a Brit thing because Giles Deacon was equally amusing).
I didn’t know much about Holland before I met him except for the fact that he created those naff fashion slogan tees that every was crazy about a few years ago. I was surprised to find that this ex-journo has a great business sense, wicked sense of humour and plenty of talent. Read on to find out how he transformed a small T-shirt business into a lifestyle empire that includes naughty knickers and much more.
House of Holland Spring/Summer 2012 collection
HENRY HOLLAND has a talent that no other designer possesses: the gift of rhyme. While you’d be correct in assuming that a razor sharp tongue and fashion have nothing in common, Holland has managed to combine the two and become a star in the process.
“I was working at Bliss magazine a few years ago  and I had an idea to make T-shirts with slogans. So I created four styles featuring designers like Gareth Pugh, Giles Deacon, Christopher Bailey and Heidi Slimane,” he explains in his strong Northern accent.
“I made them for my friends to wear as a laugh, but then Giles wore his at his runway show, and style.com noticed. All of a sudden everyone wanted one and overnight people were wearing them to the front rows of the shows. That’s how my fashion label started.”
While coming up with tongue-in-cheek slogans like “UHU Gareth Pugh” and “Get Yer Freak On Giles Deacon,” isn’t exactly rocket science, it was enough to catapult the aspiring designer onto the international fashion stage. Today he is one of London’s most sought-after names while his brand, House of Holland, is stocked by international retailers including Browns, Opening Ceremony and Liger in Hong Kong. He’s even won several awards including the recent Fashion Forward Award from the British Fashion Council, while stars such as Rihanna and Sammi Cheng have been spotted wearing his quirky designs.
“I want to be the next Michael Kors or Paul Smith. I interviewed Paul once for Vogue TV and as we walked around his five-floor office he introduced me to everyone by name and told me what each person was good at. I was so impressed. I even meet Michael Kors once with Bette Midler – he was so camp and brash – everything that’s so wrong but right in life,” he laughs.
In person, Holland embodies a quirky British cool you read about in fashion magazines. He’s tall and beanpole thin, and is wearing a battered Tee, jeans and funky trainers. Even his perfectly coiffed signature quiff is working in his favour until he whispers, “I got it because I have a big nose and I had to detract from it.” Alas, his self-effacing sense of humour only makes him cooler. It’s no wonder that he counts supermodel Agyness Deyn and other British brat pack designers as his mates.
Holland is in Hong Kong to DJ at a private event but is also using the opportunity to show his collection to select editors and retailers. After conquering Europe and Australia, he now has his sights set on Asia, especially China.
“We started a Weibou account but right now our fake account has more friends than the real one. We’re also speaking about doing lectures and talks about fashion in China, like I’m doing at the Victoria & Albert Museum in London.
“I’m really excited about the opportunity for growth here, especially looking at the way women dress. There’s a real sense of individuality here which is really key to what I do. You can’t buy my clothes and fit into the crowd. I like that attitude and that sensibility and it seems to work in Asia,” he says.
Holland has always been obsessed with women’s style – he was appointed his mother’s stylist at a young age and was frequently pulled out of school for last-minute shopping trips. The fun continued when he decided to become a journalist and worked at popular British teen magazine called Smash Hits where he penned his own fashion column under the moniker of “Henry Trendy.” He gave up journalism when his slogan tees took off, but soon realised that the fame wasn’t going to last forever.
“I did a show as part of Fashion East with Lulu Kennedy and she said I could do whatever I wanted. We sent out the T-shirts featuring slogans about models and at the end, I took my bow wearing a shirt saying “One Trick Pony”. I wanted to say it before anyone else had the opportunity but that didn’t stop fashion critic Sarah Mower [of style.com] saying that I’ll only last five minutes unless I did something else. That sentence really struck a chord with me. By that point I had seen what I was able to achieve so next season we did denim, bags, shoes, everything really. We really went for it and from that moment we haven’t done the slogan T-shirts.” he says.
As an untrained fashion designer, Holland had lots to learn so he hired an intern who taught him how to make patterns using a sewing machine in his bedroom. He held his first solo show in 2008 and it was a hit with editors and it girls like Lily Allen and Pixie Geldof who immediately related to his youthful style that referenced pop and street culture. From bold shirts to customised colourful tartans – he even won a ‘Best Use of Tartan” award at the Scottish Fashion Awards – Holland’s designs are about fun, and plenty of it.
“I like to explore different themes with my collections, but the thread apart from the obvious sense of colour and print, is a personality. I feel they have a personality to them and it’s a humorous one. People ask me who the House of Holland girl is and I say someone I want to hang out with. She approaches fashion the way I do – it’s about expression, something that should be fun, not to be taken to seriously. Fashion is there to be enjoyed.”
His current spring/summer collection, titled Pastel Punks, embodies this spirit and was inspired by a Gavin Watson photograph from the 1970s called Skinhead Girls, along with a trip to Miami. As such it’s a collection of contrasts – tough and masculine silhouettes are sweetened with pastel colours and sheer fabrics. Leather, snakeskin, a camouflage print and tartan also add character.
“The past few years have really been about concentrating on the collections and developing the brand into a design led house. We do a catwalk show every six months but there’s still an element of accessibility to what we do. The point of difference we have as a label is that we have the same level of design but we our customer is much younger. I want people to be part of this world we are trying to build,” says Holland.
In his bid for global fashion domination, Holland has followed the footsteps of other young designers in Britain and delved head first into the world of licences and collaborations. A line of hosiery kicked it off and now he’s added sunglasses, denim and underwear to the list, along with high street collaborations with stores such as Debenhams. Next up is a line of trainers with 1980s favourite Superga and a line of fun tights to usher in the 2012 Olympics.
“We’ve never tried to leave that customer behind, we want them to grow with us and be a part of what we ware doing and the plan. I want our customer to be able to come to the House of Holland and buy everything. That’s maybe me being overambitious but I want to harness that and do it properly. The thread that holds it together is that personality. I would love to have a retail concept, like a mini department store, where it’s all under one roof.
I also like to control everything myself – Its important to me because if the nature of what I do. Imagine if I had a board of directors and took them a pair of underpants …can you imagine their faces?” he says wrinkling his nose.
And while Holland has made his millions cashing in on his passion for fun, surely there will come a time when the 28-year-old has to grow up?
“Obviously as anyone grows older, their taste level evolves with them. You do grow up and the kind of events you go to change. I said after one of my shows recently that our girl is starting to attend more cocktail parties. It is about that girl we design for – she is growing up with us. I hope to evolve the house and take out customer with us as well. It will be a natural progression.”
As published in the SCMP, February 10th 2012