Can lingerie save Laurence’s cheap lingerie sites bacon? Mr Llewelyn-Bowen’s new show follows him trying to flog his knicker collection in China… and revive his flagging fortunes
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Brace yourselves, ladies. Laurence Llewelyn-Bowen cute plus size lingerie is moving into women’s underwear, which can only mean one thing: major upholstery with the potential for maximum discomfort, with ruffles, swags and gilt cherubs popping up in very unlikely places.
Yes, the man who’s spent 20 years dishing up designs that make every home look like a tart’s boudoir is turning his attention to lingerie. God help us.
The shift from soft furnishings came when he was asked to design a collection for the Chinese market as part of his new TV show, Cracking China, which sees him jetting off to try and launch his brand, The House Of Laurence, on a global scale.
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In his new TV show, Cracking China Laurence Llewelyn-Bowen jets off to try and launch his brand, The House Of Laurence, on a global scale.
He duly did so (‘designing knickers isn’t that different to designing cushions,’ he points out, worryingly), but the project left him, as ever, craving a bigger canvas.
‘The problem with designing for Chinese ladies is that you aren’t working with a lot, size-wise,’ he says, making dinky little triangle shapes with his fingers. ‘You can’t fit much more than a butterfly on there.’
Which is where we British ladies – with our size 14 and 16 backdrops – come in. His next mission is to expand into the UK market. ‘My wife has set me the challenge of recreating the entire Sistine Chapel on a pair of knickers,’ he reveals.
So is it a logical progression from wallpaper to pants? Yes and no. ‘My style lends itself to lingerie. It’s frilly, feminine, opulent. It’s kind of rococo. But it was still a shock to be asked. I thought, “Really? Is this allowed?”’
You spend a lot of time in Laurence Llewelyn-Bowen’s company thinking, “Is this allowed?” Everything about the man is preposterous.
It’s 20 years since he burst onto our screens in Changing Rooms, acting like a modern-day Michelangelo but mostly leaving poor souls in Wigan in tears at the transformations of their modest homes. Since then he’s ditched the leather trousers (‘They were so practical! It was easy to scrape the paint off them’) but gained a beard and the mother of all moustaches. Teasing the ends is his new hobby.
Laurence with his wife Jackie who originally introduced him to the world of television
He swooshes into the chic London hotel where we meet like a panto villain, part dandy highwayman, part Conchita from Eurovision.
‘My wife vetoed a beard for years because she said it made me look like a grumpy John the Baptist, but now she rather likes it. She says it makes me look like an attractive terrier.’ This is a good thing? ‘Oh yes. She loves her dogs.’
You can see why he regularly gets offered the chance to go in the celebrity jungle, or on Strictly. More surprisingly, given the number of times he and his home have popped up in OK! he’s always said no. ‘The odd thing is the money on offer fluctuates wildly. There’s kind of a celebrity NASDAQ, which reveals your worth on the stock exchange of fame. Mine goes up and down like a yo-yo.’
In the past he hasn’t been unduly bothered by this, having what he describes as a ‘day job’, aka his own furnishing empire. All is not well in the wallpaper and sconce business, though, hence the new TV project. We’re told things are not as secure as he would like in the UK, and this is a last-ditch attempt to make things work. Gosh. Laurence Llewelyn-Bowen is on his uppers? ‘Well, no, but put it this way, if it doesn’t work then I will have to consider doing something like I’m A Celebrity…,’ he admits.
CHANGING TIMES! WHAT BECAME OF LAURENCE’S COLLEAGUES ON CHANGING ROOMS? ‘Handy’ Andy Kane continued making DIY shows like Change That and One To Three and was the DIY expert on Sky Active.
He also released a single, If I Had A Hammer, though his music career never quite took off…
Linda Barker finished third in both I’m A Celebrity… in 2002 and Splash! With Tom Daley in 2013.
She brought out her own fitness DVDs and homeware collections and is a designer on 60 Minute Makeover.
Carol Smillie presented shows such as Smillie’s People and Dream Holiday Homes.
She also came fifth on Strictly Come Dancing in 2006, and tried her hand at theatre in the comedy Hormonal Housewives. She currently hosts the Scottish TV series Finding Scotland’s Real Heroes.
Graham Wynne has appeared in other DIY shows including The Great House Challenge, and now runs his own design company and lectures on design all over the world.
Anna Ryder Richardson went on to appear in a few DIY shows as well as I’m A Celebrity… in 2002 – she came sixth.
In 2008 she and her husband bought a wildlife park in Wales, which featured in Channel 4 documentary Chaos At The Zoo.
It’s an eye-opening show: part serious business with meetings about breaking a British brand in foreign parts, part jaw-droppingly crass.
Few things are more cringeworthy than watching Laurence mincing about in China, name-dropping himself silly (‘This is the sort of look Princess Kate loves,’ he says as he shows off his furnishing wares), presenting himself as up with the royals. But at least he knows he’s shameless. ‘I hope Princess Kate will have a sense of humour about it, although I think I may have waved goodbye to my OBE.’
So how grim are things, chez Laurence? He claims that while sales are buoyant, he’s had a tricky year, first trying (and failing) to sell his £1.6 million manor house. There’s been one spectacular business flop – the Winter Wonderland debacle where the Santa-themed park he designed in Warwickshire had to close after a day amid complaints about queues and smoking elves. ‘I’d like to point out that my reindeers did not bite, as was reported. Reindeers can’t bite. They have no bottom teeth.’
The bigger picture is that, while sales of his wallpapers and duvets are steady, the celebrity-designed home furnishing business is a crowded one these days, which is rather unfair since, as he harrumphs, ‘I started it.’ Since every Tom, Dick and Kylie has a bedding range, the Llewelyn-Bowen brand has to become more streamlined. ‘These days, it revolves around me and my sketch book.’
Is he saying he’s in trouble financially? ‘No, no. Well, only in the middle-class sense. I mean, we are extremely well off, but it’s in property. We’re at quite a critical point.’ How critical? I ask if he’s been shopping at Lidl yet. ‘Oh God yes, we’ve been shopping there for years. Where else do you get a welding mask?’
Still, only Laurence could plead poverty one minute, and tell you about the plans for his new mansion the next. The idea of selling his Jacobean manor house in Gloucestershire was to downsize. But the opposite’s happened. Even before it has sold (and it’s been on the market for months), he’s bought a barn nearby from Prince Charles and appears to be on the verge of turning it into a new Versailles. ‘Yes, um, well, we’ve downsized from a 5,000sq ft manor house to a 10,000sq ft barn conversion. That didn’t quite work, did it?’
Conveyancing with the royals must be fun though? ‘Prince Charles signed the paperwork himself! And he has a caveat which means he has to approve my designs. I spent a day with his planning people and they said, “Now we’ll take the plans back to the boss.” I took them back. I said, “Give me a bit longer” and went home and started furiously shading.’ So are the revised plans more Prince Charles-friendly? ‘I hope he’ll like them. I stopped short of putting a statue of Camilla in the garden, maybe in a fountain, but it was a close call.’
Laurence, Andy, Linda, Carol, Graham and Anna in Changing Rooms in 1998
He’d be obnoxious if all this was said seriously, but it isn’t. Laurence’s tongue is firmly in his cheek, and he’s the first to send himself up. He admits it wasn’t always thus. He was much more up his own derrière, as he puts it, when he started out in telly.
Back then in the mid-90s, he moved in upper-class circles, having established himself after art school as a designer to ‘the likes of Lady Swank’. He only got into television because his wife Jackie, a wedding planner, dabbled in TV and her agent was asked if she knew any interior designers. Did he sneer at the idea?
I had a terrible time the first year of Changing Rooms. We had 10 million viewers, the paparazzi were going through our bins but we were paid virtually nothing ‘Oh yeah, big time. I did a screen test and they came back and said, “We’ve taken the tape to the BBC and they think your name is ridiculous, and this wearing a velvet frock coat business is preposterous and you’re so sneery, you don’t seem to care what people think. So can you start on Monday?”’
Changing Rooms changed more than décor. It opened up a whole new brand of lifestyle shows and made stars of its cast. ‘It was genius,’ he says. ‘They cast it like a Carry On film. Andy was Sid James, I was Kenneth Williams, being “Ooh matron” with the girls. Graham Wynne was very Charles Hawtrey.’
Obviously, what with the leather trousers and the pouting, everyone thought he was gay. Even his wife, whom he met at 19, thought he was gay at first. ‘I took advantage of that. I seem to remember I took advantage several times that evening.’ The pair have been through lean times before in their 26 years of marriage, particularly when his well-heeled and very private clients fled as his fame grew.
‘I had a terrible time the first year of Changing Rooms. We had 10 million viewers, the paparazzi were going through our bins but we were paid virtually nothing. I remember sitting in the kitchen with Jackie, and it was like a Victorian painting, with a starving child on the floor, wondering what on earth we were going to do. It was Jackie who suggested talking to B&Q and John Lewis and getting a wallpaper licence. No one had really done that then.’
Their daughters, Hermione, 17, and Cecile, 20, might think their dad’s most recent career move, into undies, is a mid-life crisis, but do they see him as an embarrassment?
‘Well, teenagers always get embarrassed when their 50-year-old dad draws attention to himself, but the fact is I’ve been doing that for a long time, and arguably it’s the thing that has paid their school fees, and put shoes on their feet. Shoes from Prada, I might add.’
Still, as he gets up to go, with another swoosh of the hair and a flourish of the cape (I jest; but it does feel like that), he says it could be worse. ‘At least I don’t wear shorts,’ he points out. ‘That would be awful for them.’
Laurence Llewelyn-Bowen: Cracking China, 13 July, 9pm, BBC2.