It really is no time to be a fashion designer. No catwalk shows, no front rows, no parties, no awards ceremonies, no red carpets, no shops. Nowhere to show off your fabulous clobber, nowhere to watch someone showing off theirs. Molly Goddard, one of British fashion’s most lauded and fun young designers of the past decade, can’t go to her beloved market at Portobello Road in west London, as she has done all her life, to examine, say, the underpinnings of a Victorian blouse or to check out the stylish punters. “I do rely quite a lot on people-watching,” she tells me. “And, you know, everyone’s in their gym gear now. Everyone’s in their walking gear. It’s so boring. Lockdown has made me look at those times when I had the opportunity to go out and think, why on earth wasn’t I wearing my favourite dresses all the time? Why would I ever have done a day in jeans and a T-shirt?”
One glance at Molly Goddard’s womenswear collections and you might ask yourself something similar: why am I sitting here in sweat pants and not wearing one of those delicious dresses? The price tags might be one reason – a pale yellow, hand-smocked ballet-inspired tulle dress is currently on Net-A-Porter for £3,800. But since launching her label in 2014, Goddard has been showered in awards by the British Fashion Council, was shortlisted for the LVMH prize in 2017 and scooped the 2018 Vogue Designer Fashion Fund. She doesn’t make ordinary clothes.
Her dreamy creations, often hand-sewn and comprising metres and metres of tulle or reams of taffeta, are like the baby sisters of the haute couture collections: huge-skirted, multi-tiered confections, with frothing shoulders and sleeves, in bright pastels and Crayola colours – sculptural exercises in fabric manipulation. Part sugar plum fairy, part stomping Brit girl, they are styled subversively with clashing patterns, chunky shoes and loud knitwear. “I find it funny having a reputation for things that are kind of pretty,” she says, “because often the process of constructing has been quite hardcore. We’ve needed to nail machinery to the table in order to make it happen and have three people carry it. It’s not dainty in any way, the construction, and that’s what I like.”
Even if you don’t know Goddard by name, the chances are you’ll know her through some of her dainty-not-dainty frocks. Rihanna, who introduced the US to Molly Goddard, has worn some of the designer’s frothiest pieces, including in 2017 a voluminous, sky-blue, off-the-shoulder number, worn with white trainers and black-out sunglasses – the coolest prom girl in the world. In 2019, Jodie Comer’s psychopath assassin, Villanelle, wore a bubblegum-coloured extravaganza for a visit to a shrink in the first series of the hit TV show Killing Eve. Last month, Rosamund Pike, winner of the best actress award for I Care a Lot at the Golden Globes, was also best dressed at the (online) ceremony in a gigantic red Goddard dress and great stomping boots .
Goddard had been showing clothes at London Fashion Week for some years by the time that pop-culture moment popped up on Netflix, but for many people it was an introduction to the designer’s work. “It was amazing,” she says. “Because it just opened up such a wide audience for us and really kind of cemented the idea that we have a strong signature. But I also feel somewhat disconnected from it. The costume designer just called and then bought it. I wasn’t such a large part of that conversation, you know what I mean?”
We’re speaking on a late January afternoon via Zoom. Goddard, who is eight months pregnant with her first child, is wearing one of her own pink and red mohair knits while sitting at her desk in the flat she shares with her partner, Tom Shickle, a press manager for the French label Celine. They’re based in west London, close to where Goddard grew up in Ladbroke Grove. She is of arty stock. Her mother, Sarah Edwards, taught art at her daughter’s primary school and is now a photographer who works on the sets of Molly’s shows. Her father, Mark, is a graphic designer turned sculptor. Her sister Alice, is a fashion stylist who also works with Molly on her shows.
Those shows, which have starred glamorous London model mates Adwoa Aboah and Edie Campbell, are always engaging and imaginative. Her first official presentation at London Fashion Week in February 2015 was a mock-up of a live drawing class alongside a nude male. On other occasions she has served bread and butter to front-row editors seated at dining tables, produced an entire kitchen party mise-en-scène with models sipping wine, and summoned up a Spanish market.
In September 2020, she put on a live fashion show for the collection that is in stores now, DayGlo dresses, skirts and knits that in this epoch of sweatpants provided a neon memo about the joy fashion can bring. It almost didn’t happen like that. With a national lockdown in place in the lead-up to the making of that collection, Goddard had thought it might be more appropriate to do something simple and unshowy. “Like, just 12 white dresses,” she remembers. But on returning to her studio when lockdown lifted she threw out the idea. “Me and my team got excited about seeing colours and fabrics and textures again,” she says. “And we couldn’t resist doing a U-turn and going for it.”
From an early age Goddard would head to Portobello market after school, loving the mix of designer and secondhand clothes she saw people wearing there. “They were so cool in my eyes,” she says. “Amazing people who had market stalls or worked in the shops. I kind of wanted them to be interested in what I was wearing as much as I was interested in what they were. I think that was a big thing for both me and my sister.”
She thinks Portobello gets a bad rap (too posh). “But it’s still interesting and diverse. Friday market day is the most incredible resource in terms of seeing clothes that should really be in a museum. I like looking at them and trying to work out how I could do what someone’s done by hand for weeks on end and make it more viable by making it in our factories, not one poor person sewing it for weeks. But then I love that, too. We still do all our smocking by hand. A lot of love and care goes into our pieces.”
Her experiments in clothes-making began when she was in her teens. “When I started going out clubbing – which was too young, 14, 15 – I’d get home from school on a Friday night and find a scrap of fabric and make something so that I had no option to wear anything else. I’d just make it and walk out of the door.”
Goddard had already become obsessed with the work of London designers from the previous generation, John Galliano and Alexander McQueen. After discovering they’d both studied at Central Saint Martins under Professor Louise Wilson, she decided that’s what she was going to do, too. In 2005, she took a GCSE in textiles, as a start and, after A-levels, with work experience at Giles Deacon’s studio under her belt, she won her place at the famous London art college. While her fashion BA went well (she was selected to do a work placement at John Galliano in Paris and also interned at Meadham Kirchhoff), when she finally arrived on the MA course, in 2013, to study with the fearsome Wilson, she slightly fell to pieces. She had to leave the course partway through and defer for a year. “I was a disaster,” she says. “I was a disappointment.” Had her expectations of herself proved overwhelming? “Maybe. It’s hard to know really. I think it was just the wrong time for me.” The week she returned, Wilson died at the age of just 52.
But Goddard’s recovery from all of this serves as a life lesson in how to fail brilliantly. She didn’t want to have wasted the work she had done and hadn’t lost her nous. With the help of friends she’d met at Saint Martins, she hired a church hall in Mayfair for £300 and threw a party there at the same time as the fashion magazine Love was holding its own party next door. Her friends wore the dresses she’d made at college and photographs of the event led to her first order from IT, the multi-brand store in Hong Kong. Two weeks later another order came from Dover Street Market, the cutting-edge concept store owned by Comme des Garçons. She made everything herself on a table in her mum’s spare room – “130 pieces. From 8am to midnight for about three months.” It was only later she realised she could have used a factory.
These days, Goddard runs the business with one of her best friends from school, Tessa Griffith, who is her managing director. They have a team of nine and two interns, and the company has turned a profit from day one, with no outside investment aside from the awards and grants it has won. Her collections have expanded to comprise not only those signature dresses and skirts but tailoring and knitwear, and sculptural fabric bags. She has risen to the challenges thrown at the fashion industry during the course of the past year, which saw a complete season almost wiped out when wholesale orders were cancelled in the spring.
Now the brand has added two more pre-collections to its spring and autumn/winter collections, and has started a bridal business with a romantic collection of made-to-order dresses. A new spring footwear collection with Ugg featuring elf-like slippers, mules and booties in bold woodland colours is available to pre-order on her website, which also offers customers her designs made-to-order. It’s been full on. “I miss the good old days of just doing a simple show,” she says, with a laugh. “I mean, there was nothing simple about it, but it was definitely easier than it is now. Now it feels like a real, real challenge… making clothes and making them well and ethically with a good supply chain.”
And, of course, there’s been Brexit. “Yeah, that’s a load of shit. We’ve noticed delays in fabrics and shipping, although we are quite lucky as the majority of our production is in the UK. It’s made us realise how small our supply chain is and how lucky that is – we have factories we can walk to. But the paperwork that comes with shipping out of the UK and bringing stuff in from the EU, is an enormous additional task for a very small team.”
All in all, it has been an odd time of isolation for a young designer who thrives on seeking out people and places to get her creative blood running. But it hasn’t stopped her from doing her thing. “I think it would feel pretty depressing to change my approach to design based on something I hope desperately will pass,” she says. “So, in many ways, I’ve buried my head and tried to ignore it.” Goddard, like her bold and fabulous creations, is all about the optimism. “You’ve got to make the clothes to believe you’ll be able to wear them some day.”
Molly Goddard SS21 and Molly Goddard Bridal are available now (mollygoddard.com)