It’s approximately 24 hours until Liam Payne’s design debut is revealed but already he’s in possession of a little black book to rival that of a fashion industry stalwart.
“I’ve made a lot of friends in the industry,” says the 25-year-old Wolverhampton-born pop megastar, who found fame as one-fifth of boy band behemoth One Direction, when we meet on a grey, grizzly day in London a fortnight ago.
We’re here to discuss the imminent arrival of his capsule clothing line for Hugo — the young, cool, image-conscious arm of German style juggernaut Hugo Boss — which is due to be celebrated with a star-studded party in Berlin tomorrow night, before launching on Instagram on Thursday and in stores on Friday.
Among his closest confidants is British Vogue editor-in-chief Edward Enninful, who he first met “at the same time as Anna Wintour”. Casual. “I was like ‘woah, what’s going on?’,” he says, eyes wide in mock panic. “But I don’t like to hover so I went over and said hello and left as quickly as possible to avoid saying anything stupid.” Since then he has come to regard Enninful as a firm friend and mentor, from hobnobbing with fashion’s inner circle at Chiltern Firehouse’s legendary after-parties — “the best fried chicken is there” — to ringing in the New Year on holiday together in Africa. He also recalls bonding with Idris Elba on the front row of a Versace fashion show in Milan and swapping design tips with Dior menswear superforce Kim Jones. “He said to me, ‘it’s kind of the same as music — once you have a hit and you know what you’re doing, everything becomes a little bit easier’.”
So is he ready for fashion’s frontline? “I’ve got a long way to go before I could be considered a style icon,” he concedes. Though the collection — a polished 10-piece range of T-shirts, trainers and tailored trackpants which expertly cater to the modern man’s smart-casual sensibility — suggests he’s come a long way from the X-Factor fashion cupboard. “When we were in the band, everybody had their thing. I was the guy in the patterned shirt. Louis had the trousers with the Tom’s, and no-one could wear stripes because he did. I haven’t worn a stripe since I was 15. It’s funny now looking at how everyone’s style has changed. Growing up as famous as we were, you can’t get away with all the fashion mistakes you’ve made over the years.”
I ask for specifics. “There’s a shot of me wearing this furry thing with no T-shirt and sunglasses on — inside — and red jogging bottoms. I don’t know what was going on that day,” he laughs, also remembering a fondness for wearing huge gold chains around his neck. “I think there was a part of me that enjoyed that the way I was dressing was annoying people — I was like, I’m going to get abused whatever I wear. Before, I used to hide behind my clothes, rather than putting them on and being myself. But you soon figure out what works. Now I’m more confident.”
There’s a self-assured quality to the collection too. A chevron design, which is laced into the logo and trimmed onto shirt pockets, is lifted from an early tattoo on his right forearm — “it was a mistake at the time but I didn’t want to tell this big, muscular biker guy that it was too big” — while the double zipper pocket which features on the joggers is inspired by Payne’s perpetual habit of breaking his phones.
Just as Hugo Boss straddles the worlds of streetwear and tailoring, so too does Payne. Today he’s dressed in a slim-fitting polo top which does justice to his jiu-jitsu-honed physique — he’d been training before we meet — with suit trousers and boots. He’s a big fan of a suit — an affection harboured through binge-watching Peaky Blinders — and describes his style now as laidback yet considered, adding “I don’t find myself leaving the house in joggers and trainers any more unless I’m going to the gym”.
Though if Payne has a criticism of his collection, it’s that it doesn’t come in tiny sizes. “I want to make all of it really small so that Bear can wear them.” His face lights up when he talks about his two-year-old son with former partner Cheryl Cole. “I love being a dad,” he smiles, joking that he was “always kind of seen as a bit of a Dad in the band”.
If Payne finds it a struggle to juggle a toddler with a solo career and now a fashion line, he doesn’t show it. “I think everybody has their own idea of what parenting should be but I’ve got a job to get on with and I think it’s important for him later on in life as well. He doesn’t want a lazy dad sat around doing bugger all. Now when I go there I know the time is dedicated to him. The way Chez and I have it at the moment is really good. She’s a wicked mum.”
Has growing up in the glare of the spotlight caused Payne to be protective over his son’s exposure to social media? “We spoke about this a lot,” he says. “Once you let the seal off you don’t have control, so it seems safer to me that nobody knows what he looks like to start with. It gives him a chance to be him.”
He speaks openly and with refreshing honesty about how an adolescence spent in the company of one of the biggest boybands on the planet has led to a life where even the simple act of shopping can prove a source of anxiety. “Sometimes I get high-pressured in shops now, like I’ll pick something up and stand in the queue, then I’m sweating but I don’t know why, so I put it back and walk out. Sometimes it just gets the best of me. I’ve had such a weird life in that sense.” At its worst, Payne’s anxiety led to him avoiding social situations altogether, something which he says his friendship with Enninful has helped to overcome. “At first I struggled going out. I developed this agoraphobia thing where I would stay at home and not meet anyone. Before, I was in my little comfort zone, buffering people away, but Edward was a massive help for me. He’s just so confident.”
When he needs to relax, you can often find him in the gym. “Going to the gym is grounding for me because it’s the one thing I have control over that’s totally up to me. When everything else in your world is so micromanaged it’s nice that that’s my thing,” he says, pointing out a gash on his chin from today’s training. “There’s going to be more music coming very soon,” he teases, before dashing off the studio. Jiu-jitsu disciple, megastar and style icon in the making — it sounds like he’s bossing it.