THERE’S a subversive edge to Euan McWhirter’s bold, bad gems, which would explain his rock star following
Euan McWhirter’s fascination with the sparkly side of life has been known to get him into trouble. “I love looking at people and seeing what jewellery they’re wearing. I think it reveals a lot about a person. But it does get me a few funny looks. On the tube I will get women staring back at me as if to say, ‘Why are you looking at my breasts?’ Excuse me. I’m looking at your necklace.”
Since starting his own business in 2010, it is McWhirter’s own sparklers that have been the centre of attention. Kylie wore one of his eye-popping Lucky Bitches rings, with a gobstopper of a green cut-glass jewel whirling on a crystal- encrusted shank, for a recent magazine photo shoot. Shirley Manson prefers the black version, and showed it off on a recent appearance on US chat show Chelsea Lately.
This was not the work of some Machiavellian marketing maven; 32-year-old McWhirter does his own PR as well as designing and manufacturing all the metalwork and making the tea. He contacted Manson on Twitter.
“I grew up with Garbage,” he says. “Shirley Manson’s quite a subversive person. She was really brandishing the ring for the camera. While I like Kylie, this was a real honour, because she’s Scottish and such a cool woman.”
A bit of Manson chutzpah is essential to get the most out of a McWhirter bauble. Those who consider a dainty Mockintosh locket the height of daring would not be comfortable with a ring that looks as if it might have come out of a Tim Burton Christmas cracker. His Marie Antoinette collection comprises the kind of piece the 18th-century French monarch might have worn if she had, beneath the corset and panniers, been a secret Riot Grrrl. There are pearls, there are moonstones, there are dangly rows of contrasting loveliness to adorn a milky-white decolleté. It all looks terribly courtly and establishment – until you notice the studs and buckles.
“I’m a big fan of Courtney Love, Patti Smith," he admits. “There is always a rock edge to all of my pieces.”
Growing up in Troon in the 1990s, creating necklaces for the kind of chicks who know their way around a minor chord progression was not an obvious career choice. McWhirter’s father, a lorry driver, and his shop assistant mother were unsure about their son’s desire to watch The Clothes Show and chop up the family’s plant pots to make bangles. “I was known as ‘the arty farty one’. Which I hated, of course. Until my father saw me hammering big bits of metal he didn’t believe it was actually work.
“I always knew I wanted to do something creative. That or be a zoologist. I loved exotic nature, I was always attracted to bright colours.”
Fashion won over peacocks, flamingos and parrots and, after a year at Ayr College McWhirter won a place at Central St Martins in London. He left the seaside for the alma mater of Alexander McQueen, Stella McCartney and Christopher Kane among hundreds of stellar others. “That was,” he says with some understatement, “quite different.”
McWhirter kept his head in the big city. Unlike many other art schools, where students are encouraged to make wildly conceptual head-dresses and body armour out of whatever they find in a skip, he was out on work placements, collaborating with high street names on commercial projects. This gave him an insight into how the business works that has proved invaluable.
After graduation he freelanced in India and did a stint with London-based Erickson Beamon in the label’s Belgravia HQ. He diplomatically describes this experience as “very intense. It’s a rabbit warren, with the shop out front and then the beaders working through the back and the office. It was a crazy place to work.”
The Erickson Beamon brand, which began in the founders’ native Detroit in the 1980s, had a strong influence on McWhirter. Its wildly ornate pieces – a cocktail ring with multi-coloured confetti-like Swarovski crystals that looks as though it was chiselled from the wall of a psychedelic cave on Planet Janet; a 22-carat gold and midnight blue crystal dangling necklet that Tutankhamun might have bought for his favourite daughter’s school prom – are collected by fashion icons from Lady Gaga to Sarah Jessica Parker. They are red carpet perfect yet crazy enough to be cool, which is a hard combination to pull off. Plus Debbie Harry is a fan. Little wonder McWhirter felt at home there.
He came back to Scotland in 2010 to bring a bit of the Erickson Beamon bling-with-attitude to the west coast. Hooking up with Camille Lorigo, the American livewire behind various Glaswegian fashion ventures, he installed a cabinet of Lucky Bitches rings, pearl-studded cuffs and other sparkly bits in the corner of her office in the Barras.
At first it was those Lucky Bitches that kept him afloat. That ring has been with him since his St Martins days and is, he admits, “my bread and butter. I designed it at college and it’s been on the back burner since then.”
It’s their tactile nature, with the moving ball of glass, that makes them so hard to resist. “I love watching people’s reaction to them. They have to pick them up and play with them. It’s such a simple idea but people have not seen it on a ring before. They just have to see how it works and what it is.”
Last year was proceeding quietly when McWhirter’s phone rang. Did he know, a friend inquired, that he was on the Vogue website? He had been nominated for a Scottish Fashion Award, in the accessories category. Immediately the pace picked up. Bebaroque eventually won the gong with its crazy lady tights but even a nomination was enough to get his name out there.
This year, in comparison, has begun with a flurry of activity. As well as dressing the fingers of Kylie and Shirley he collaborated with fellow Scot-on-the-up Henrietta Ludgate, embellishing her cashmere tube frocks with ropes of crystal for London Fashion Week. Last week, at the From Scotland With Love fashion show in New York, American actress Kelly Rutherford (Lily van der Woodsen from Gossip Girl) stalked the runway in the very same ‘Hurricane Dress’.
McWhirter is in New York himself this weekend, part of the Scotland Re:Designed trade mission, to show his work to international journalists, buyers and other trade contacts. He has spent the last week finishing a huge necklace – “a wow piece” – to form the nucleus of his spring-summer collection and catch the eye of the Americans. “I tend to make the biggest piece first and then work down, playing with the same themes in bracelets and rings.”
This collection, called Empire, is all about Indian influences: “It’s very ornate, lots of colour: pinks, greens, gold.” That translates into gold-plated brass, crystal and semi-precious stones – McWhirter’s jewellery is designed to be affordable as well as utterly fabulous.
He enjoys the challenge of using unusual and less expensive metals and gems. Happily, this chimes with the world metal market, “When I started at college, silver cost 20p a gram. Now it’s around £1 a gram. Everyone is looking at other materials.
“Women are spending more on costume jewellery. They see it as an investment, they want more outrageous materials, a more definite look.” For him, it makes stocking the business a less financially terrifying prospect. “Say I was making a silver and blue topaz necklace. I might spend a lot of time and money on it. And it might not sell.”
McWhirter has a sensible wishlist for his New York trip: “Pick up some American stockists, get some international press, make new contacts, get more experience.” On the wilder shores, he has a dream directory of rock stars whose look he would like to enhance. “Courtney Love, of course. I’m a fan, so I’m biased. Roisin Murphy. I haven’t made a piece inspired by her yet. Beth Ditto. She would look great in my pieces. I’m all for the big girl.”
And while he has a few guys and several drag queens with their eyes on his crown jewels (“they particularly like the Marie Antoinette collection, they have picked out which pieces they want to wear”), there is one chap who will not be stepping out in a moonstone-encrusted wristlet any time soon. Himself.
“I don’t wear any jewellery myself. I just don’t feel I suit it.”
All the more for the rest of us.