“Stories happen to people who know how to tell them” — Henry James
This is a true story featuring the artist posthumously known as Prince. The time was the late 1990s. The scene was London’s Roundhouse and Antonio Berardi’s much-anticipated show on the last day of London Fashion Week. The fashion designer was once London’s hot new thing. Armed with the youthful conviction of immortality wrapped in a thrilling fog of buzz and hysterical adoration by his many fans, he was destined for greatness.
Before its snazzy redevelopment, the Roundhouse was a forlorn and semi-derelict venue. It was only used for a few weeks of the year when old-fashioned circuses came to town. The Victorian edifice showed its age with holes in the roof and a rocky, uneven floor of compacted soil. The stable-style doors let in a generous draught that raised a permanent cloud of dust over a brightly-lit stage. The shabbiness and discomfort gave the setting the approved-level of edge, appropriate for the darkly gothic creations of Mr Berardi.
“The show will run late,” the throng was told, as we squeezed in from the cold, narrow pavement. No one cared. The buzz would see us through; we were too happy to be inside. I have since learned that no amount of discomfort ever curtails a proper fashion frenzy once it is invoked – if anything it enhances the experience. Just as no blister is ever painful enough to stop a fashionable foot from entering a Prada boot.
As the waiting time stretched from one to two hours, the dust and freezing cold couldn’t soften our ardour as the news circulated that a major celebrity’s arrival was the cause of the delay – testified to by the empty seats on the front row. Deducing the celebrity’s hugeness by counting the number of the empty seats only added to the sense of excitement.
“OMG, it’s Jesus and all the disciples,” squealed someone, looking at the chairs. A snarling PR man hugging a clipboard prowled the front row in the manner of a lion over a fresh kill. To have set aside this many seats must mean the designer would be expecting a celebrity of Biblical proportions. You must consider that this cruel waiting period was not anaesthetised by smartphones. In fact, very few people had mobile phones of any level of smartness. Instead, the expectant crowd had to stimulate itself with the older technology of gossip. “It could be Madonna,” someone ventured, sort of cool but not really hot, or could it be Kylie who was totally hot, but never cool. Suddenly the waiting crowd was jolted to life by the sight of a phalanx of a dozen black-suited black men, each the size of a shower cubicle, storming the Roundhouse. They formed a human locomotive ploughing through the crowd, insensitive to the plight of anyone who partially blocked their way. They left a toppled and disarranged row of seats in their wake.
The crowd exhaled with an “aaaaawe!” as the artist, then still known as Prince, disembarked from the train. At the time of this revelation he was practically the only person (except Jesus) whose appearance in our midst could have lived up to the expectation created by the past two hours. The PR man’s expression melted to that of a priest presiding over a christening. The rubbernecking crowd nodded its approval with reverence. The included could bask in their exclusive inclusivity. All was well with the world. The models lined up and signals were exchanged between the PR man and the celebrity DJ, only for disaster to interject herself into the millisecond gap between a PR triumph and the start of the show.
From the opposite side of the circular stage a senior fashion editor leaped from her front-row seat and clambered up the knee-high stage. She was already known as one of the more eccentric members of the fashion press, a woman of indeterminate age who wrote a daily column for a broadsheet. Her signature style of a heavily sagging, comfy cardigan, typically worn over floaty, hippy dresses dated her somewhat. Her half-rimmed glasses were accessorised with plastic chains of deliberate unfashionableness. (No doubt one just like them is on the moodboard at the hyped brand du jour Vetements for spring/summer 2016.) She carried a notepad of the kind familiar to newspaper hacks and coppers.
As she rushed towards the singer, her notepad held aloft, in chaotic agitation, she appeared remarkably agile for her age. She also possessed the iron determination of a salmon leaping towards spawning pools. Barely had she crossed the stage when she was plucked out of the air by a pair of shower cubicles who appeared from the gloom, catching her in mid-flight like a pair of seasoned bears dining on the aforementioned fish in a favourite Alaskan river. They were soon joined in their effort by many of the seated gentlemen. Be assured that the journalist posed little danger of ever reaching her target.
Nevertheless, the main phalanx of guards as if animated by an unseen force, now rose once again and to the horror of the audience, engulfed the diminutive pop star as if they were expecting the attention of a sniper. Thus cocooned, Prince was carried towards the doorway from which he had emerged only minutes before. The entire audience – who had inhaled with her first leap towards the stage and held their breath for 18 seconds until Prince had disappeared – was unsure of what to do. Even fashion people need to breathe. The PR man was now less a person and more a puddle, quivering with rage. If looks could kill, the editor would have died a hundred times. As it was, no one died, the show started and finished, even if no one recalls how and with what effect. The startled audience remembered to exhale and most are thankfully still breathing.
Sweet dreams are made of this.
Since his death, Prince has been celebrated as a great hit machine with a vast archive of yet-to-be-released material. But as we experienced that day, Prince got to be Prince, not just because he was a hit machine, but because he was also a fiction machine. He knew how to be a myth. §
Footnote, recorded at the time: Royal at the Roundhouse. “But the celebrity coup of the week was at Antonio Berardi’s show spectacular at the Camden Roundhouse on Tuesday night, when the artist everybody knows as Prince waited outside in his limo for an hour and a half before creeping surreptitiously into his seat on the front row five minutes before the start, only to be frightened off by one particular terrier of the fashion press who sprinted half way around the circumference of the Roundhouse and sat down beside his majesty’s tiny figure. The singer shifted uncomfortably and within seconds had darted like a hunted rabbit, to stand away from the glare of the cameras amongst the students and fashion groupies. Prince’s agent requested four tickets in the afternoon and Naomi Campbell’s agent rang to confirm that the artist would be there. ‘Prince will love this,’ she said as she was getting into her first outfit, a yellow leather trouser suit. Berardi, 28, was amazed the singer was there. ‘He’s one of my great idols,’ he said after the show.” —Tamsin Blanchard, The Independent, 27 February 1997