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How Theo Fennel Became the ‘King of Bling’ Designing Jewelry for Elton John, Madonna and More

The British designer explores the ups and downs of his life in a new book that chronicles his work with iconic talents.

Theo Fennell for The Times Magazine Tom Jackson

If I hadn’t had another appointment to get to, I would likely still be holed up in Theo Fennell’s Chelsea apartment now, happy hostage to his vivid tales of high jinks, attempting frequently but with little joy to prise a question in edgeways.

A consummate raconteur with an infinite quiver of anecdotes—from his brief, youthful career as a one-man band to his appearance on American TV after a multi-martini lunch (spoiler: it didn’t go too well) and the time he was tasked with delivering Oscars dresses to half of Hollywood, including Cher and Elizabeth Taylor (that went better, culminating in beers at Walter Matthau’s Bel Air mansion)—he also enjoys a meandering aside: “Have you ever heard an opera singer in a small room? The noise is terrible”; “Those old pommel horses you get in gyms, I find them very fetishistic”; “Sorry, how have we got on to Algeria?”

And so it is, two and a half hours of lively conversational detours later, I’m still struggling to leave as the Tiggerish Fennell starts regaling me with the time he and Lord Lloyd-Webber (“I’m afraid to say we both weren’t totally sober”) amused themselves by persuading a roomful of rich Americans that the composer’s name was really Arthur Lloyd Webster. Fennell has taken the gag so far as to produce a spoof version of his friend’s autobiography, Unmasked, a glossy, professionally printed tome called Unhinged, which he pulls down from his bookcase to talk me through: “Here’s the first thing he wrote, on the Bible, called Godspell; then he wrote Imelda… And this is Dolly Parton singing Mammaries from Cats…”

I am, inevitably, quite late for my next appointment.

The 70-year-old jewelry designer, dubbed the King of Bling, is as well known for his starry clients and celebrity friends–including Elton John, Madonna, Elizabeth Hurley and the Beckhams—as he is for his quirky, flamboyant designs: jewel-encrusted skulls and crucifixes, silver ketchup bottle sleeves and Marmite lids. He made a jewel-studded 18ct white gold charm bracelet with a nappy rash cream holder as a gift for the Duchess of Cambridge before the birth of Prince George.

In that resolutely British way, though, Fennell finds starriness—success even—rather distasteful. “Success isn’t funny. Everybody hates a winner,” he says. Worse, though, are show-offs, showboating being “the most indescribable crime when I was growing up”. His 2007 exhibition at the Royal Academy of Arts was—either perversely, ironically or probably both – titled Show Off!.

Consequently, the notion of writing a memoir had never occurred to him.

“I tried to write a sweeping novel is how it started,” he sighs. “A trilogy, with three parts to each—a nine-part book, about one hundred pages each part. Then I got to page 60 and I’d virtually finished.”

He consulted a friend, the novelist William Boyd, who encouraged him instead to write “all those stories you bore us with all the time”.

The result, I Fear for This Boy: Some Chapters of Accidents, is a collection of calamities, mishaps and misjudgments, comprehensively hilarious and mostly swimming in booze, casting our ever optimistic protagonist as hapless, reckless and incredibly lucky. Having gobbled it down in one incredulous sitting, I was left wondering a) how he remembered any of it, and b) how on earth he is still alive.

When I arrive at Fennell’s apartment, in an elegant mansion block near Sloane Square, he is not just alive but irrepressibly so. Tall, craggily handsome, barely greying and brimming with vim and vigour, he yanks open the door dressed as few septuagenarian straight men would dare, in pale stonewashed jeans, a pink cardigan, fuchsia socks and raspberry pink suede ankle boots. What’s more, he’s pulling it off with aplomb.

His London home (there’s a country home too, on the Berkshire/Hampshire border) is much like its owner: large, posh, eccentrically furnished but stylish, with enormous urns and vases, a stone pug on a plinth and a bathroom wallpapered in lurid circus scenes. He makes coffee in a dark green galley kitchen, and serves it at the vast dining table in fine china cups.

He likes nice things, clearly—he’s a jeweller, after all—but attaches no great value to them. “I’ve never known anybody whose life has been made far better by money,” he declares. “I don’t mean a level of money that gives you a certain amount of safety and security; I mean a ridiculous amount of money. Because they lose things—friends, family and fun, which are the greatest currencies in the world.”

He and Elton John have “been friends for a very long time, because he’s just a very funny man, and our conversations are about things that you can no longer find in corner shops—like Wagon Wheels—and about people like Thora Hird no longer being on the telly. To this day, when he walks on a stage, I think, ‘Get off, you’re going to embarrass yourself.’ Because it just doesn’t seem the same person.” Joan Collins? “Joan’s been Joan for 70 years and to maintain that is an act of brilliance as well as defiance. She’s a tree full of monkeys—incredibly funny.” Elizabeth Hurley? “Very funny person. I would like to think there is no one on whatever list you read out,” he says, as I run through his friends, “who isn’t terrifically good company.” Indeed, “Do not have dull friends. And, if you do, don’t ask them to parties,” is one of Fennell’s (wisest) rules for life.

I mention that I’ve also seen a picture of him with David Bowie—did he know him well? “Yes, I gave him most of the ideas for his songs,” Fennell deadpans. “No, I was lucky enough to sit next to him a few times. I might even have had lunch with him once. I’d love to have known him.

“Oh,” he cries suddenly, pointing out the window to three green parakeets that have landed in a tree. “It’s against all the laws of nature: parakeets in SW3,” he beams, delighted.

Their country house he describes as “like Charleston”, the Bloomsbury group’s Sussex base. Fennell’s wife, Louise is a novelist, their youngest daughter, Coco, 32, a fashion designer whose fans include Rihanna and Kylie Minogue, and their eldest, 36-year-old Emerald, has starred in Call the Midwife and The Crown, wrote the second series of Killing Eve, and wrote and directed the Oscar-winning film Promising Young Woman. I ask what it’s like to watch your offspring win an Oscar. “I suppose acute jealousy was the first thing that came to mind—it should have been me,” quips Fennell.

“They’re both really good at what they do and made it happen themselves, but it never occurred to me for a moment—I hate to say – that she would ever win anything.” But when he saw Promising Young Woman, “I really was bowled over by the brilliance of it. And you’re more bemused when it’s the flesh of your loins, as it were.”

He takes no credit for his daughters’ successes. “I think because we were grafters, they became grafters, and they thought, ‘Well, work does make you happier and it does make you have some sort of self-respect.’”

Later, he adds, “I would think the thing the children got from us was a sense of security of home, that we were together, that we made each other laugh, that we loved being together and we loved them being with us.”

That had not been his own experience. “I’d had an almost frigid family experience, not that I was aware of it,” he says. “There was never any kind of praise… It wasn’t what one would call a warm family. So I did often in my life find myself looking for surrogate families.” What he concluded in his search was “that the only ones that really sort of worked were the ones that were mutually supportive and bigged up each other”.

Theo Fennell for The Times Magazine at Home

Theo Fennell at home.  Tom Jackson

Fennell was born in Moascar, Egypt, where his father, a major in the British Army, was stationed. The family moved to Germany, then Pakistan, before Theo was sent to boarding school in Sussex aged five. At this, I let out an involuntary mewl of pity. “I can remember being miserable, but there were lots of other people in the same boat,” he shrugs. “I’m sure that one can have a field day with it now, but either those things [by which I think he means psychologists] didn’t exist then or we knew so little about it that we didn’t care.”

His twin sisters, Claire and Ginny, eight years his senior, were barely present—“We were rather on the periphery of each other’s lives”—though all three now are close. In the holidays, with his parents “in India or Malaya or wherever”, Fennell stayed on at school, or was dispatched to the care of Great Aunt Nellie or Great Aunt Dubberty, “whose whole house smelt of boiled heart”. Occasionally, he’d fly to join his parents, under the care of a stewardess on BOAC.

At Eton, he was “incredibly lazy” and not academic, though he was a talented artist. The only person from Eton to go to art school in a decade, he claims, he wore a tweed suit, tie and brogues on his first day, “and no one talked to me all day”. He adjusted swiftly though, particularly to the co-ed environment. “And I learnt pretty quickly that the way girls thought about men was very little different from the way men thought about women, and if only more men who’d been brought up like I was had realised that, it probably would have saved everybody a lot of trouble.”

He proposed to Louise just a few weeks after meeting her at a party—a moment he has described as a “genuine thunderbolt” —when she was 20 and he 25. “Neither of us had any money, neither of us had much of a life plan… But we were grafters and, most of all, we made each other laugh,” he says. They sold a necklace his mother had given Louise as a wedding present “to pay for a selection of restaurant and bar bills” on their honeymoon in Venice. Does he feel guilty? Not a bit. “Louise did get to wear it once. And I’ve made her lots of nicer things since then.”

Only twice does Fennell turn truly serious. The first is when discussing education—“Children aren’t channelled in the right direction,” he laments. “There aren’t people there to say, ‘Fred, forget the Latin. Forget the maths. Here’s a screwdriver. Get on with it.’”

The second is when I ask about sobriety. He gave up drinking in 1999, for three reasons. “One, I think Louise probably would have left me.” Two, “The children were at an age where they would begin to notice.” The third, he says, “was that it just became impossible to continue at that age, going out every night, and working hard”. He didn’t suffer hangovers until he hit 45. “I might feel a bit tired, but I was always on parade… But I started to go, ‘Oh God, I’m going to America and I’ll be hungover.’ I was plotting my life, taking into account the carousing on one hand and not being able to make the meetings on the other.

“I was still the right side of disaster enough to realize that I was very close to the wrong side of disaster. There’s no doubt that I let myself down a few times,” he says.

Sobriety was “practically difficult, because I was a known carouser and I assumed that that was part of who I was and what I did, as so many alcoholics do”, he says. “You know, ‘Will anybody ever talk to me again? Will I ever go to a party again? Will I ever make anybody laugh again?’ I didn’t know the practicalities and the logistics of not drinking.

“It’s much easier because so many people don’t drink now,” he goes on. “I don’t mean it’s easier to do—it’s easier to talk about.”

He had “a couple of unsuccessful stabs at it, resulting in utter chaos both times”, he says, proceeding to tell a story about getting drunk with a fellow boozer, only to find his friend’s family arriving and realizing he’d gatecrashed an intervention. He hasn’t touched a drop since. “And it did get progressively easier.” He learnt that many of his famous friends had been quietly sober for years. “And the ones that had the highest profile, like Elton, and managed to still be the same person and still be creative were the biggest inspiration, because you thought, ‘Life goes on.’

“It’s really transformed my life. Not necessarily the business side,” he adds. “I didn’t become a far better designer or a far brighter businessman… I just had a much nicer life and a family that I could stay with and be with, which is the single most important thing, really, for anyone.”

In fact, the Fennell tribe spent the first lockdown living together in the Berkshire/Hampshire border house for almost six months. “Everyone got on incredibly well. The only real arguments were what to watch on the telly.” Fennell thinks we have complicated our lives with choice. “We like having choice taken away,” he believes. “If we could spend our lives ideally, our default position would be in the back of a car with an ice lolly, going through a safari park.”

He’s got a good point—he’s got lots, in fact, beneath the exuberant bonhomie. Fennell’s not being frivolous or flippant when he says, “After safety and family and health, I do think fun is the absolute key currency. I don’t mean sliding down the banisters; I mean enjoyment.

“People say you’re not put on this earth to enjoy it, but of course you are,” he insists. “Because enjoyment does mean reading books and looking at great pictures—and finding three parakeets landing out there absolutely extraordinary and joyful.”

His own upbringing was ‘frigid’. ‘Often in my life I’ve found myself looking for surrogate families’

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