In­ter­view with the vam­pire’s wife

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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 match­es­fash­ 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 vam­ 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

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