Only a few years ago, Molly Goddard’s huge creations seemed fantastical. Now, they’re (almost) everywhere. Meet the designer who has changed the way we dress.
Molly Goddard’s most pressing problem is storage. In her atelier, bolts of multicoloured, vari-patterned cloth are stacked on the floor. Rails are stuffed with sequined items, garment bags and toiles – plain fabric mock-ups of future designs. The doors of the floor-to-ceiling cupboards are ready to burst open: a looming eruption of pleated, smocked and gathered tulle.
Because Molly Goddard makes big dresses. When a person steps out of one of her showpieces, the dress itself will remain standing upright, as though the ghost of the wearer were still inside it.
“When we get a new pattern cutter, there’s always a point at the very beginning where they say, ‘This hem is already three metres long’,” says Goddard. “And it’s like, ‘No, no, keep going; 40 metres isn’t unusual.’”
The team recently donated a dress to the V&A and, although they were thrilled to be part of the museum’s respected collection, they were also glad to reclaim the extra room.
The designer grew up in west London and studied at Central Saint Martins. She spent four years as an undergrad before starting her master’s.
“All I’d ever wanted to do was study with Louise,” she says, referring to the legendary course director Louise Wilson, who, before her death in 2014, counted Alexander McQueen and Christopher Kane among her former students. “In hindsight, it was probably a mistake,” says Goddard. “Perhaps I should have figured out what I was doing first.”
She failed her MA, but that failure led to her eventual success. Now Goddard’s dresses take up cultural space. There’s Rihanna draped in cobalt blue ruffles, a pair of pristine white trainers on her feet. There’s Agyness Deyn, beaming on her wedding day. Most famously there’s Villanelle, the Killing Eve assassin played by Jodie Comer, stomping through Paris with clouds of Calpol pink billowing around her.
Goddard was thrilled to see it on posters and spot so many imitations at Halloween. “It’s amazing, kind of remarkable,” she says. “You forget the power of TV. And, for me, it suddenly made sense when people said, ‘Oh you have a signature’, I could see it. People who wouldn’t know what item was from what collection could recognise it as my work.”
The Killing Eve dress was from 2016 and Goddard had almost forgotten giving it to costume designer Phoebe de Gaye. At that point, Goddard’s designs were seen as striking, creative, even avant-garde in their volume and use of sweetshop colours. “I even scaled up children’s smock dresses at one point,” she says. “Literally photocopied the patterns and adjusted the proportions.”
But those smock dresses don’t seem so out-there these days. The idea of a comfortable, loose dress in an interesting fabric has become normal, sold by every retailer from H&M to Net-a-Porter. The Zara polka-dot dress, this summer’s most talked-about high-street item, is a great example of this model (Goddard, interestingly, hasn’t come across it, but – textile nerd that she is – she’s keen to know what it’s made from. “Is it cotton?” “No, viscose.” “So not perfect then”).
The sketches for this year’s collection pinned to her office walls show no dimming of creativity – it’s more the world has come round to Goddard’s way of thinking. She wears her own designs almost exclusively, today in sheer black, layered over a white slip, with bright orange Nike Rifts.
“I try and make clothes that are easy, but feel special,” she says. “There will be something special about the textures or the volume, but you’re comfortable. Dressed up without being trussed up. It should feel as easy as wearing a T-shirt and tracksuit bottoms, but instead you’re wearing this dress!”
Do you think you’ve had an effect on the way people dress?
Sometimes I do see a silhouette or an idea and I think, ‘I wonder if people were wearing that a while ago?’ But it’s definitely not all down to me.
So what do you think the causes are?
Women, or anyone, are more confident wearing things that they want to wear, rather than dressing for anyone else, now. Which is great. I think there’s less pressure to look a certain way.
Do you mean to look sexy?
I find it quite hard to know what to say, particularly at this point in the season. I’m thinking about creating show looks; things that say what I want to say, that maybe people have never seen before or make people feel something or think something. Then I’m also trying to design things that people want to wear every day – different people, different body shapes, different ages. So on top of all that, I don’t want to just say that being sexy is wrong, because I think something sexy is great! Sometimes wearing a funny, sexy dress is really good fun.
How does it feel being the person running the business as well as the creative person?
Well, I have Tessa [Griffith] who is our managing director and one of my six best friends from primary school. I’ve wanted her to work with us since I first started, but she had another job. But then luckily she ended up working here. It’s really amazing, because we can talk about anything, we’re totally honest with each other. It’s like working with family. We both know what we want.
My name is on everything, which sometimes I find challenging. I think running a business and your work ethic and the way you treat staff and deal with growth, it is quite tiring and very hard not to take everything personally. I mean, I don’t think I do, but it all stays in – it’s not just a problem you resolve and then you forget about it. I can spiral out of control with my thoughts sometimes. But it’s good on the whole.
How do you find it challenging?
I never really planned to start my own label and call it Molly Goddard. It just happened. I sound so naïve now. I did a party during fashion week because I’d failed my MA and I wanted a bit of work to show for those two years. Then I got an order from Dover Street Market and from I.T in Hong Kong. I thought I’d get a job from it, use the party as a CV, but I got orders from it. Even the first orders I thought, this will be a one-off, but it just… carried on. I think having your name on it, you’re then quite a big part of it and sometimes I’d like not to be. Sometimes you want to hide. Sometimes it’s a lot of pressure and the bigger the team gets the more every person is working specifically for you.
Do you think you end up being a ‘designer as character’?
Everyone can picture Alexander McQueen or Vivienne Westwood or John Galliano, for example. I don’t want my photo taken, I don’t want people to know what I look like. But I suppose it’s more part of it than ever now, so you just have to get over it. You could be that person who says no photos ever, but it’s just easier to get on with it and do it, isn’t it?
How would you describe yourself?
That’s very hard! I don’t know.
What’s the last compliment someone gave you?
I don’t know. I mean, Tessa says I’m frugal. Which I am. Coming from your business manager that’s probably a compliment. She’s always telling me to spend more money. And I think I’m quite hard-working. But I’m also a bit unhinged sometimes. I’m not that different at home to how I am at work. It’s a funny, friendly atmosphere here, we all chat about silly things and have a laugh. Frugal! Unhinged!
What were you like growing up?
A normal teenager. I grew up in west London. I have a big group of friends who have been my friends since I was about four, and they’re still my mates. I went out quite a lot, clubbing when I probably shouldn’t have been. I had a lot of freedom. I was 21 from about the age of 14 – or I said I was. I went to a big mixed comprehensive school which was fun and a bit mad and a bit scary.
Were you always interested in fashion?
I always had a plan. It’s the only plan I’ve ever had. I always did like clothes, but I don’t think I ever knew what it would mean to have a career making clothes. I didn’t know how it manifested as a job. I just thought I’d like to maybe work in a company with textiles or as a designer.
I have a younger sister who also works in fashion, she’s a stylist. We used to dress up and I made clothes for her. I used to make clothes for myself as a teenager too, actually. I’d go home and make a dress on Friday and wear it out the same night. Every Friday, pretty much
What were they like, these early Molly Goddards?
Very, very basic. I think I had one [style] perfected. I would get weird jersey that had frills on or weird stretchy fabrics and make a kind of comfortable, stretchy dress. That sounds really ugly. They were nice! Like, long sleeves, a round neck then a flared skirt or a straight one. Stretchy, easy things.
What do you do when you’re not working?
I’m quite good at switching off. Well, I suppose I don’t ever really switch off, but I’m good at taking time away. We work 10 to 6 nearly every day. And never weekends, until maybe a week before the show. I think it’s very important to have a bit of your own time. So, I’m very good at not being at work, but I’m probably always thinking about it. I watch TV, I watch films. I like just walking around. I like getting out of London. I like going to the pub, going swimming at a gym across the road from my house. I like swimming in ponds. Rivers. I’ll swim anywhere!
Your commitment to sensible working hours is quite modern.
It is quite sane. But we get a lot done in the hours we work. We’re not kind of ‘stand around and have a chat’ workers, we plough through it and get a lot done. I sometimes feel I’d be better doing a four-day week. I’d get a lot more done. Even when we plan to work late sometimes we don’t. You can kind of sense everyone’s flagging and it’s better to do it when everyone is at peak energy. I don’t want it to change.
How do you think people’s attitudes towards your brand, your business, have changed over time?
I think a lot of people have this romantic idea that you’ll continue to be a poor, struggling designer where it’s all very hands-on. I think there’s still an element of that hands-on approach, but in order to sustain anything you have to make a bit of money and you have to pay people properly, so you lose a level of that romanticism. I think people get disappointed by that, which is frustrating. Also, I think for a while people didn’t really get [what we were doing] and always used words like ‘princess’ and all these terms I didn’t really like.
What is it about princess that you don’t like?
I think princess sounds floppy. A bit wet. And people would see the clothes and always talk about femininity and pink and frou-frou. I don’t think I’m particularly sweet. Or particularly feminine. So now, I think people have figured out it’s a bit more than that, more than just pink princess dresses for people to feel pretty in. Maybe some of that is down to Killing Eve.
Photography: Getty Images, Rex Features