ARCHIVE PHOTO BY SUMISHTA BRAHM
In the 1980s, Brix Smith was best known as a guitarist in The Fall, and as the wife of its frontman Mark E. Smith, whom she divorced. Brix was one of very few women in British indie at a time when it was still any good. She brought fashion and glamour to the dour post-punk scene, helping make The Fall a decent pop act rather than the arch experiment in post-pop polemics for which they’re often mistaken. Perhaps more pertinently, back then Brix dressed how every girl interested in looking good is dressing now. Basically, she is and always has been ahead of the game.
In 2002 she set up Start with her new husband Philip Start. Start is a network of boutiques scattered along Rivington Street in Shoreditch that make things easy for less ahead-of-the-game people by stocking all the best that brands have to offer. Born in LA to a Beverly Hills psychoanalyst father and an ex-model-cum-TV producer mother, who divorced when she was one, Brix Smith remembers nothing about her early childhood apart from having a black cat and a fish. She can’t even remember what colour the fish was. We had a chat with her about The Fall, Mark E. Smith, and making a successful fashion chain that actually manages to sell stuff you want to buy.
Vice: What were you wearing the first time you met Mark E. Smith?
I was wearing a white plastic dress. It was short. I oscillated in those days between rockabilly and go-go girl, so I would imagine I was wearing black, pointy, kind of Chelsea rockabilly boots. My hair was pretty much the same as it is now. As for make-up, only dark smudgy eyes and pouty lips. I have really big lips and if I put too strong a colour on my them they take over my face.
What’s the first thing you said to Mark?
I said, “I loved that show so much but I don’t understand a fucking word you’re saying!” And also I remember looking at him on stage and thinking he looked really scary. He didn’t fit into the general mould of most singers. You could tell he was really smart. I think he thought I was cute and sat down with me and invited me to a party in Chicago that night. I said, “Great, I’ve got a car, I’ll drive,” so we went in my car, a pale blue Ford Futura with grey vinyl seats. I played him a tape of the band I was in. He said, “Who wrote those songs?” and I said “Me!” He said, “You’re a fucking genius!” I thought he just wanted to fuck me, and that he was just joking. But he wasn’t. He rerouted the tour to come back through Chicago. And by this point he had convinced me that I should come to England with him.
People say that you were the person who brought a sense of style to a band that didn’t have any style at the time.
I actually think Mark had amazing style. You know who has copied his style to a tee? Jarvis Cocker. Those polyester shirts, C&A-type trousers and the hard English black leather shoes. I don’t know how would you describe it.
He dressed like the people who interview you at the Job Centre. The look kind of said: “I mean business. I’m not fucking about. I don’t need pink hair or a studded bracelet.”
You are so right. When Mark was wearing those kind of clothes they were really out of fashion. It was cool because it was so wrong. But it was done so effortlessly.
How long was it after you met him that you moved to England?
Six weeks. Moving to Prestwich was a complete culture shock. I had taken such a risk. I took all the money I had in my account, which was $700. I remember Mark saying, “I’m not a rich man, I’ve only got about a £1,000.” I was like, “I don’t care!” We lived in an old rectory with about ten cats.
Yeah, he was a cat man, he hated dogs. Our flat was £20 a week and the furniture was threadbare and had springs hanging out of it.
How did Prestwich react to a new-wave punk-rock girl coming over from Chicago?
His family were fascinated. Even after I lived there for five years and owned a house, people would still ask me every day if I was on holiday because they couldn’t get it through their fucking heads.
Did you get him to change his clothes a bit or anything?
We were close to Michael Clark, the dancer, and because of that we were close to Leigh Bowery and people like Stevie Stewart from Bodymap and that whole 80s fashion thing. So we would get clothes and, yeah, I would say, “Wear this, wear that.” He wouldn’t wear something he didn’t like. And if he felt like a twat he would say, “I look like a twat.” I thought he needed one really good suit so that he could look not just smart, but more… not how Bryan Ferry would look or something. There was this store in Manchester called Woodhouse, which was owned by Philip Start. I didn’t know him, but I saved up my money and took Mark there and bought him a suit. A charcoal Armani one, for £700.
What were those first months in The Fall like?
In the beginning, I was reviled by the press. They thought it was nepotism. Sometimes Mark would help me write lyrics for my own stuff, I would give him my page of lyrics and he would look through it and cross out things all over the place. When I read it back after that, it was brilliant. Being in The Fall was one of those dream things where one person would inspire the other person and that would inspire another. It was really easy, we would write like five songs a night. It was an intuitive connection.
How does that creative/love relationship feel?
It’s magical. You feel hot, your skin tickles, you know it’s something so special. In a way I have that with my husband now, but it’s much more business-oriented. That was almost spiritual. It was intense. This is much more cold-hearted.
How does your husband feel about that?
My husband and I have created something really great with Start. It’s a healthy relationship which is going to last. It’s not volatile. With Mark it was completely different, it was complete drama, a roller coaster. It went until it burnt out. As wonderful as it was, at times there was some terrible stuff. I divorced him because he cheated on me continuously. After that a whole can of worms was opened. All this shit was going on behind my back. I’m happy for what we had, and I’m happy for what we don’t have now.
So he was a dog, basically?
A dirty dog. But so what? We were young. I woke up one morning and he was crying in bed. He said, “I’m leaving you,” and I was like, “Where are you going?” and he said, “No, I’m leaving you.” And then it all came out and he just left and went to Edinburgh. I couldn’t stand it, so I packed.
There was that song “Bill Is Dead” that people speculate is about you and him breaking up.
Yeah. I was supposed to play on that record. People say “Bad News Girl” was as well. I wrote one about him too, so we’re even. After we broke up I was basically completely devastated.
So you left Manchester. Then where did you go?
I lived in Holland Park, got a really cute apartment, I started to go out and did things with my other band The Adult Net. I was 25 and a pop star and having so much fun, but I fell into a terrible depression. I became anorexic, I needed to go to a shrink and I had to go on anti-depressants. I was a mess.
What sort of stuff were you wearing in those days?
Of course I wore a lot of Bodymap, which I still have, and Jean Paul Gaultier. I went out and bought an Antony Price dress. I used to wear psychedelic shirts with skin-tight leather jeans, like super-skinny. I’m 5' 2", so it looked quite cute. Onstage I tried really hard to channel the mum in
The Partridge Family
. Then, in ’94, Mark said, “I will fly you back and forth, whatever you want. We need you back.”
He wanted you back in the band?
I don’t know. Some people say that all he did was sit at home and stare at photos of me. His current wife won’t let him anywhere near me. So maybe that’s true. I’m in love with what we had, and grateful for what we created. But he’s a mess. It’s horrible when you love somebody and you see them destroying themselves.
How did you meet Phil?
I rejoined The Fall and did two more albums in the 90s. The albums were OK, but not a patch on what we did before. By that point Mark deteriorated in all departments, physically and mentally. He was not well and it was just not going to work. While I was over I came out of a restaurant and I saw people going into Harvey Nichols at night. I thought it was a party and wanted to crash it. I got into the lift and Philip and two friends said, “Are you going up?” He bought me a drink and I discovered that he owned Woodhouse and told him I bought my ex-husband a suit there. We had a great chat. The next day my ex-boyfriend’s manager’s secretary calls me at home. She said, “This gentleman has called the office, his name is Philip Start.” I was like, how the fuck did he track me down? I called him and said, “What can I do for you?” and he asked me out.
So, the shop.
Philip sold Woodhouse. I left The Fall. I tried to get a record deal but nobody wanted me. I wanted to get TV stuff, but no one gave a fuck. I lay on the couch all day and watched
. It was this major upheaval for Phil too—selling the shop he had owned for 30 years. And he had just divorced his wife. We ended up moving to Shoreditch in ’99. Two things happened. First thing was, I woke up one morning and I had a brilliant idea for a TV series.
What was it?
It was called
and I was the kitchen bitch. I would have a guest over to my house. My first guest on the panel was Alan McGee. I would talk to him about his relationship with food, and using the metaphor of food I would get him to open up. While we were doing this we would cook really simple things. It didn’t get picked up, but it started me on this road. The other thing was that we woke up one morning and I said, “Honey, there’s nowhere to shop,” and he said, “Well, let’s build somewhere,” and that’s how it started. And now look at it. I’m doing three TV shows at the moment and we have four shops. I’ve never been this happy in my life.
What’s your life advice for readers?
Firstly, you need to feel comfortable in what you’re wearing. If you’re wearing shoes that pinch, you’re going to be crabby and have a bad day. Dress appropriate. For girls, a little black dress is always good, and a nice pair of shoes that you like that make you feel good. And it’s also fine for people to ask for help. I have lots of customers here who don’t have great personal taste, but they come to someone they trust.
Do you like anyone new? Everyone’s talking about Dominic Jones’ jewellery (see Death Becomes Her).
I love anything with claws and teeth. I think I’ve got a dentition obsession. I am always asking my dogs if they can show me their teeth.