Interview with the vampire’s wife
Lisa Armstrong meets Susie Cave – former
It girl, wife of Nick, and founder of the coolest cult fashion label in town
It’s the fiendishly seductive cult label that grants its converts timeless, feminine beauty. The woman behind The Vampire’s Wife, Susie Cave – ’90s It model and wife of music legend Nick – tells Lisa Armstrong how to build a brand on a single silhouette. Photograph by Lauren Joy Fleishman
Iused to assume, from pictures of her in her modelling days, that Susie Cave must be terrifying. I’d look at fashion spreads of her in the 1980s and ’90s – she was all across Vogue and, especially, Harpers & Queen – and think that anyone with such luminous pale skin and raven hair (we’re talking proper Brothers Grimm Snow White) must be ruthlessly focused and a bit weird, because her contemporaries were all bronzed Amazonians.
I certainly didn’t anticipate this softly spoken, quick-to-laughter woman who has just put a comforting arm on mine.
But we’re getting ahead of ourselves. Susie Cave, or Susie Bick as she is also known, is a delight. (She is married to the Australian musician Nick Cave, who has thrilled generations since the ’80s with darkly intelligent lyrics and surprisingly catchy melodies.) Cave is funny, fragile and strong. A little bit like her dresses, which are not funny ha-ha – they’re gorgeous, romantic, lush – but funny in the sense that in an era filled with gorgeous, romantic dresses from big labels with mega budgets to pay celebrities to wear them, the celebrities are instead choosing to wear Cave’s label The Vampire’s Wife. She appropriated the name after Nick discarded it as the title of a book he was writing. It’s clever and memorable: opaque if you know nothing about the designer, and wryly selfreferential if you do. There was brand consistency chez Susie and Nick way before there was a brand.
The label was born in 2014 – the lovechild of Cave and her friend and business partner Alex Adamson (whose Romanian family crest features in the logo). ‘Susie told everyone that she was just launching some dresses,’ says her old friend Bella Freud, who first met Cave in the ’80s when the former was working for Vivienne Westwood. Although there are now skirts and jackets, initially there was one dress – one dress – which tells you a lot about Cave’s resolution and quiet confidence. She knew the silhouette and feel she wanted: ethereal, in ghostly colours and antique-looking English fabrics. ‘It took a long time to get the original shape right. It had to be something that would flatter anyone, be comfortable and work in different materials: The Vampire’s Wife silhouette.’
Cate Blanchett was the first to latch on. And I do mean Blanchett, not her stylist. It was Blanchett who saw Cave in one of her frilled dresses and asked if she’d make her a pink satin skirt. Next, Blanchett wore one of the dresses – now designated The Cate Dress. Then Florence Welch wore one. Then Kylie Minogue (an old mate of Nick’s). Then Dakota Johnson, Keira Knightley, Sienna Miller, Ruth Negga… Rachel Weisz was a vision in an iridescent lamé one at the Baftas in February. I was obsessed with that dress, because on the one hand, I really wanted it – I mean really, and I normally loathe frills and flounces and maxis – and on the other, I had spotted that from some angles Weisz looked ever so slightly potbellied. Was there something wrong with the fit?
A few weeks after my brilliant detection work on the tummy front, Weisz announced she was pregnant. There was nothing wrong with the fit. Cave is meticulous about that, and about the fabrics, some of which she sources from one of the last remaining silk mills in the UK. All those years being fitted by the greats has rubbed off.
According to Ruth Chapman, co-founder of matchesfashion.com and one of The Vampire’s Wife’s earliest supporters, it’s the attention to detail that puts the brand ahead of most of the competition. ‘The pieces work on most shapes and ages – something for everyone. I wear them and so do my daughters. I love the fabrications she’s using too, from cotton prints to metallics, brocade and velvet. It’s so clever of her to stick with one key shape and develop a recognition.’
‘What’s so striking about Susie is her rigorous specificity,’ says Freud, who worked on a small collaboration of knits and dresses with Cave early on. ‘She knew exactly what neckline and cuffs she wanted . She also came up with the idea of a detached collar you could wear with anything. To develop such a fastidious eye for cut and fabric without any formal training is really impressive.’
In truth, no one looks better in the dresses than Cave herself. A slender but surprisingly curvaceous walking contradiction, part Marilyn Manson (the extreme contrasts of colouring) part Marilyn Monroe, she could make a camel coat look edgy. The day we meet in an industrial-lite café downstairs from her PR’S offices in Hackney, she’s not wearing any jewellery or accessories – apart from a Gucci shoulder bag and a pair of heavy-black-framed, oversized and pink-lensed cat’s-eyes spectacles. The glasses are such a counter-intuitive contrast to the ruffled maxi – like plonking a Mies van der Rohe Barcelona chair in the middle of a swagged Victorian boudoir – you can imagine a stylist producing them on a shoot. ‘The sad truth is I need them,’ she says. ‘I’d quite like to get a pair that make me look as though I’m wearing lilac eyeshadow.’
There are now around 40 dress variations, including minis and ones with flounces, which Cave added to make them easier to run in (her version of sportswear). This is a bona-fide cult, propelled by spontaneous desire, not marketing. And she’s about to increase her reach with a line made from African printed cottons (sourced, it turns out, from some African shops by London’s Vauxhall Bridge). Priced at £495, a generous £300 from each dress goes to mothers2mothers, a charity that has had remarkable success helping to eradicate HIV in Africa by employing and training local Hiv-positive women as ‘Mentor Mothers’, who deliver health services, advice and support to pregnant women and new mothers who risk passing on the virus to their children.
Consciously or not, Cave has hit upon a perfect solution to Time’s Up dressing: demure and dignified rather than pofaced and virtue-signalling. It wasn’t deliberate. ‘Nick’s really quite conservative in his tastes. He doesn’t like vulgarity. He likes tailoring, and things to be proper.’ Charmingly, the dresses seem to be a love letter to the aesthetic that pleases Nick most.
Although, to an extent, she has always dressed this way. ‘Usually in vintage,’ recalls Freud, ‘long before that was fashionable. I remember her arriving at The Ritz once in a yellow Sabbia Rosa silk slip, fishnets and mules. It didn’t look tarty, it looked intensely feminine, but also a bit punk.’ As a model Cave acquired an enviable wardrobe of Alaïa, Westwood and Yves Saint Laurent. ‘She’d wear self-customised Ossie Clark to walk the dog,’ says Freud approvingly. ‘She’s deeply unconventional, never “off-duty”.’
These days, she’s either in Gucci (creative director Alessandro Michele became a friend after she and Nick introduced themselves to him in a restaurant in LA, coming across, the way she tells it, rather endearingly, like proper awestruck fans) or Vampire’s Wife. Even in the office – which is around the corner from the Georgian seafront house in Brighton where she and Nick live with their son Earl – she is in sweeping skirts and gothic glamour. The office run is a good barometer of what works since, somewhat less grandly than the Caves’ home, ‘It’s on this estate where we’re surrounded by net curtains.’
Cave must be a vision when she pitches up each morning, having made breakfast for the family (she wakes up early, around 5.30am), run through her emails, and helped get her son ready (he’s 18, but a mother’s work is never done).
All the while she’s test-driving those dresses. ‘I keep bringing it back to “how would I feel going to the supermarket in this?” If I’d feel uncomfortable, I just keep taking stuff away. I keep refining it.’
She doesn’t strike me as someone who set out to conquer. She took 13 years’ maternity leave to look after her twin sons Arthur and Earl. The Caves weren’t one of those peripatetic rock’n’roll families that jog off on round-the-world tours. ‘We wanted [the boys] to have a really normal upbringing. I’d stay at home with the boys when Nick was away. I’d more or less stopped modelling anyway and I found I loved being a mother more than anything.’ From this, one surmises her connection with mothers2mothers is entirely heartfelt and poignant.
In 2015, Arthur Cave fell off a cliff after an afternoon of teenage drug experimentation and died. The ensuing trauma has been well documented – not least by his parents, who have both expressed their grief in their own articulate ways, most notably in Andrew Dominik’s extraordinary documentary
One More Time With Feeling (2016). We’d agreed not to go over it for this interview. But while we’re talking, Cave quite often refers to Arthur. How could a parent not? How to process the loss and not let it define you? Therapy, she says, has been profoundly helpful, as has her work. ‘I have to do things that make me physically strong.’
The fabulous, unexpected success of The Vampire’s Wife has helped her flex her survival muscles. And she and Adamson have big plans for the label. ‘I think people who know me would be quite surprised by how tough I can be in a work situation,’ Cave says. ‘Even though I’m shy. It’s like I’m another person at work.’ Who is this person? ‘I’ve got very high standards about the quality. If it’s not perfect it goes back. It has to be perfect. I’m a bit of a dictator.’
An acquaintance of Cave’s told me she could be quite closed, but she doesn’t come across as either shy or fenced-off. ‘Maybe private’s a better word,’ says Freud. ‘She retreats deep within herself. Perhaps it’s a survival instinct. As a friend you want to help as much as you can, but you just have to wait for her to come out of it.’
‘It slightly worries me,’ says Cave, ‘this privacy thing, even with close friends. I can’t help it. It’s something I’ve become more aware of as I’ve got older. I think it’s become more marked because of everything that’s happened.’
If work has been a pinprick of light throughout, her marriage has been the saviour. She talks about her spouse in terms that most Brits, anxious not to overstate their blessings in case they tempt fate, would avoid. She’s past all that. ‘We’re together all the time except when Nick’s on tour – and then we speak about four times a day. I swear we never argue. He’s a very easy person to get on with: wonderful, generous, kind. If one of us isn’t feeling so good, we’ll prop up the other. We really don’t want the other one to fall.’
Susie Hardie-bick was born in Cheshire and raised in Malawi, where her father worked for the British government. Her parents were together constantly, which seems to have provided her own blueprint for marriage. It sounds posh, quasi-colonial. She says it wasn’t really, but she was sent to conventionally strict boarding schools from which, less conventionally, she ran away. As a teenager, she was repeatedly accosted by model scouts, whom she ignored. Then one day, in New York, where her father had moved for his job, she showed up at a model audition for the Click agency at Carnegie Hall. The agency sent her to see Steven Meisel, who would become one of the most revered fashion photographers of our times.
‘To his eternal credit, Steven, who must have been all of 19 himself, told me to go back to school,’ she says. So she did, this time to Dartington Hall in Devon, an alternative paradise where the children were encouraged to get down with nature. Academia did not beckon. It’s one of her hang-ups – especially as Nick comes from a family of professors. Perhaps that’s what drives her to succeed.
A t 16, Cave was living on her own in Japan, making a tidy sum from modelling. At 18, she was in London, living in Maida Vale. What about pastoral care? ‘Ha, if there’d been any of that I probably wouldn’t have liked it.’
She says she suffered from low self-esteem throughout her modelling career, never believing she deserved it. Really? Despite the success and all those years of being scouted? Despite Bella Freud saying that ‘every single man she met fell in love with her and proposed’?
‘I think I always put that down to looking a bit alternative,’ she says rather sweetly. After what she describes as a series of heartbreaks, she met Nick in 1997 at a Bella Freud show in the Natural History Museum. Could there be anywhere more appropriate for these two, with their cultivated, out-of-time delicacy? It was a coup de foudre for both of them. In the documentary 20,000 Days on Earth, Nick, with typical poetic verve, describes the encounter by saying Susie was ‘all the things I’d obsessed over all those years, Jenny Agutter in the billabong, Anita Ekberg in the fountain, Ali Mcgraw in black tights… Miss World competitions, Marilyn Monroe and Jennifer Jones and Bo Derek and Angie Dickinson as Police Woman… Wonder Woman and Barbarella and supermodels and page-three girls, all the endless impossible fantasies… Jackie O in mourning, Tinkerbell trapped in the drawer… All the continuing, neverending drip-feed of erotic data came together in one great big crash bang. I was lost to her and that was that.’
She – somewhat more succinct, but no less profound – says, ‘Without each other, we weren’t doing very well. I was a bit lost for a while.’ They married in 1999; almost 19 years ago. ‘I know. Amazingly, Nick’s 60 – he looks absurdly young,’ she muses.
She can talk: at 51, she has the same luminous qualities she had at 19. She doesn’t know why; she doesn’t go out of her way to keep herself youthful, other than staying out of the sun, drinking lots of tea (and no alcohol) and cutting out the junk food. I like to picture her flitting barefoot through their communal gardens in the moonlight (she says she sometimes nips out there at night to pinch some flowers), although lately she and Nick have been spending more time in LA. Earl, who is as striking as his parents and made a public debut of sorts at a recent Gucci show, is now embarking on an acting career (he has already been in a couple of TV series, and will appear in the film The True History of the Kelly Gang, from Peter Carey’s novel). The Caves are also talking about moving back to London. When I ask which area, she laughs, ‘We don’t know yet. It all looks so lovely.’ She is, by nature, optimistic. ‘Ridiculously so.’
Are there times now when she catches herself feeling happy? She thinks. ‘Yes… As much as I’ve been extremely sad and in pain, I now have happy moments. When you’ve had such loss you really value those.’ It’s then that I cry and she puts her arm on mine – because sometimes feeling happy can be a huge act of courage. No wonder she wears rose-tinted spectacles.
The Vampire’s Wife mothers2mothers dress is available at vampireswife.com from Monday
‘We’re together all the time except when Nick’s on tour – and then we speak four times a day’
Above Susie Cave wears The Vampire’s Wife mothers2mothers dress
Above With husband Nick Cave