WHAT’S a man to do? You’re a global rock superstar at the age of 18, you’ve made shedloads of cash (at one stage your personal fortune is estimated at £85 million). Then it all just kind of stops. You’ve done the sex, the drugs and the rock ’n’ roll rehab. What next?
It wasn’t acting or DJing or producing other artists that ticked that particular rich-but-bored box for Robert Peter Williams Esquire, formerly of Take That. “In 2006 I’d finished a massive world tour,” he says. “I’d played to three million people and I got to the point where I thought, ‘What do you do next? This is as big as it’s going to get.’ So I started doing documentaries about UFOs.”
Robbie Williams’s fascination with the supernatural goes back to childhood. His mother Janet read tarot cards and collected books on witchcraft and demons, and it terrified the youngster at the time. Then, in 2005, he asked Glasgow-born comicbook writer Grant Morrison to collaborate on illustrations for his Intensive Care album and the pair discussed magic spells together. At the time Williams was also said to be fascinated by ghosts.
He has since confessed that, rather than spiritual enlightenment, all it made him was fat and weird, with a big, bushy beard. And when we meet in Glasgow, he’s clean-shaven, with a new single about to be released, a first child about to be born and a third collection for his clothing label Farrell arriving in shops any day. His focus seems very much on terra firma. “The UFOs didn’t go down too well,” he says with such a straight face I can’t tell if he thinks it’s funny or frustrating. “I thought, ‘Maybe I’m investigating the wrong kind of paranormal stuff here.’ I live in America, where pop stars, actors, actresses all branch out into different things.”
Which is when someone suggested he might like to launch a range of clothing instead. “I thought, ‘I’ve worn clothes all my life, I must know how to do this.’”
It’s also a damn sight less weird than alien abduction. So, inspired by his grandfather Jack Farrell – whose name is tattooed on the inside of Williams’s wrist – he poached Burberry’s former design director, Ben Dickens, and created a wardrobe for the man’s man, full of items like the classic pea coat and Harrington jacket, the military trench and the grandad shirt. Savile Row tailoring, he says proudly, at high street prices. “My first version of a man on this planet was my grandad,” says Williams. “He was Jack the Giant-Killer. He was from an era where, even if you worked with planks, you had a tailor and you wore a three-piece suit every day.
“He was in the Second World War and worked down the pit. He was over 6ft tall – he was a big lad – and he taught me how to box. He wanted me to strengthen my legs.
“When Dad left, I was going to be raised by two women and I think he thought I was going to be soft, so he had me punching him. He was the first man in my life, and I just thought, ‘What would Grandad Jack want to wear?’”
But if Grandad Jack was the first fashion icon in his life, the most lasting one would have to be Bond, James Bond, a character the singer aped in his Millennium video, complete with malfunctioning jet backpack. Which one? “Sean, of course,” he says, with no hesitation and a knowing smile – he is in Scotland after all. “He was the butch Bond.”
Sitting on a distressed leather sofa with Dickens, the pair illustrate perfectly the two sides to Farrell – Williams dressed down in grey cable-knit, roll-neck cardigan and jeans; and Dickens smarter in long-line tailored jacket, grandad-collar shirt and skinny black jeans. Slightly bizarrely – perhaps in some kind of supernatural twist of fate – the shop mannequins behind them are dressed identically, almost like faceless twins. “We’ve actually only got five pieces of clothing,” quips Williams. “But they’re sample-size, we’re not.”
“The thing is,” adds Dickens, “who looks better?” Awkward.
So why this? Why now? “The single came out this week on radio,” says Williams, “the video’s out this week, I’ve got six weeks to wait until I get the approval or disapproval from the charts and, to be honest, I’ve been, more out of fear than anything, ‘Well, f*** you, if you don’t like the song. I’ll just do the clothes.’ This is what I’ll fall back on if everything goes tits up.
“It’s fun too. And I’m sure there’s loads of ego stuff in there. ‘I’ve got my own brand.’” He beams. “It means a lot to me. It’s my bit on the side that might end up being bigger than the other bit that’s not on the side, if you know what I mean.”
While admitting that he has no particular design skills, he says – and Dickens nods in agreement – that it is a fully collaborative project. “Basically, since Ben has arrived, I’ve DJ’d clothes. I’m not a designer, I didn’t study that, but I know fashion’s dirty little secret. Which is ‘inspiration pieces’. Quote, unquote. You go to vintage shops and you buy inspiration pieces, then you basically rip them off.
“So I’ve been through my wardrobe and what I’ve been wearing for the last 20 years and beyond, and I’ve remixed clothes. ‘I like this piece of clothing, what you do think?’ Then Ben comes back with a version. ‘I like it, but can you take that down a bit?’ ‘Why don’t we put a dogtooth lining on it?’ ‘Why don’t we put a secret stash pocket in every piece of clothing?’
“It’s enough for me to say, ‘I design clothes’ as much as other people can warrant saying they design them too. I’m talking to you, Victoria Beckham.
“I’m not doing this in a half-hearted way,” he adds. “I would hope that I’m smart enough and creative enough – with the help of my man here,” he plants a chummy hand firmly on Dickens’s thigh, “to come up with a unique brand. We’re not reinventing the wheel. There are only so many jackets, so many jeans and shirts a guy can have. But if we didn’t believe in it, we wouldn’t have done it.”
For all the talk of Savile Row tailoring and three-piece suits, however, Williams says the piece of Farrell clothing he loves more than any other and could not live without, the item that is on a constant wash cycle in the Williams twin tub in LA, is a plain grey tracksuit. “I’m very, very proud of it and I wear it every day. It’s on non-stop. I’ve got more than three sets now.
“I was watching Rocky the other day and I thought, ‘That’s where it came from.’ When he’s running up the stairs – that’s exactly the grey tracksuit we’ve got at Farrell. It must have been somewhere in my subconscious.”
He’s not quite ready to model it for us yet, though. “That would be something I would definitely do but I can’t separate me from chocolate. I gave up smoking and put on two stone. I went, ‘OK, obviously skinny jeans are not for me.’ So I went to the gym and am becoming a wrestler right now.
“Yes, I would love to,” he adds. “Hopefully this time next year. But I’m nearly 40, so …” and he suddenly bursts into song, “It’s now or never, just lose some weight ...”
So, apart from a strict diet and a new baby, what else is on the Farrell horizon? Childrenswear perhaps? “Right now we need to concentrate on getting the men’s right,” says Dickens. “We need to walk before we can run.
“It’s about men. It’s a tribute to Jack, so let’s get that right first. We might look at shoes, we might look at eyewear, but it’s a guy’s wardrobe.”
Designed by a guy who does a bit of singing on the side.