c.2013 New York Times News Service
c.2013 New York Times News Service
LONDON — Brix Smith-Start was trailed through her store by a mother-daughter fashion duo.
“They’re ex-models for Mulberry,” she said. “Gladys did runway and Pixie did print.” Pixie snorted like a hog.
Gladys and Pixie are pugs and lend their names to the line Smith-Start designs for the Start shops she owns with her husband, Philip Start. The patrons aren’t just customers seeking Rick Owens, Kenzo and Erdem. Many come because of the peculiar celebrity of Smith-Start, a renown that spans fashion and music.
The two stages of her life rarely intersect. An exception was when the Fall’s 1984 punk stomper “Copped It” played at the Marc Jacobs spring 2013 runway show. Smith-Start played guitar on the track and is the ex-wife of the band’s mercurial visionary, Mark E. Smith.
“Your average Brit knows her as a TV fashion expert,” said Penny Martin, the editor-in-chief of The Gentlewoman, the British fashion magazine. “Your industry insider recognizes her as the woman that runs Shoreditch’s premier boutique and who can fit your jeans by means of the naked eye. That’s the girls. Boys of a certain age, however, remember her as Brix from the Fall.”
Smith-Start, who on this day wore Comme des Garçons drop-crotch trousers and a black voile shirt, is 50, but in her pep and garrulousness is more akin to a chipper teenager. She has lived mostly in England since 1983 but has held on to her American accent. When she slips, it’s charming and natural, not like someone who did junior year abroad and came back Cockney.
She is the host of “Ultimate Shopper” (now called “Shopaholic Showdown” in Britain), a fashion challenge that is broadcast on TLC in 150 countries (although not in the U.S.). When not filming, she can be found in her shop helping customers.
Before she became Brix, she was born Laura Elisse Salenger in Los Angeles. Her single mother, Lucy, was a model turned television producer. “Cher was my baby sitter although I didn’t know her,” Smith-Start said. “My mom worked at CBS and would put me in the audience of ‘Sonny and Cher,’ and I’d sit for hours while they rehearsed.”
Lucy married a University of Chicago professor and became director of the Illinois Film Commission. Brix took up the guitar in high school, which is where she got her nickname. Her friends were the punks. “I had an obsession with the Clash,” she said. “My favorite song was ‘Guns of Brixton.’” She went to Bennington College, where the freshman class was rife with luminaries.
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“She was already a star,” the writer Jonathan Lethem said. “At Bennington in the early ’80s there were a lot of weirdly ready-for-prime-time teenagers. It was like going to college in Warhol’s Factory. Brix was in the manner of Bret Easton Ellis or some of the painters who were ready for their first show. We were friends but also in her fan club.”
Ellis remembers her well. “A lot of people stood out because of bohemian singularities,” he said. “She stood out much more. She had very dramatic makeup and a punk haircut and an attitude. To have the kind of confidence she had at 18 was unusual.”
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She had a simple mantra. “Fake it until you make it,” Smith-Start said. “I’ve lived my life like that. I said I’m going to look and act like I’m in a band.” With her roommate, Lisa Feder, she formed Banda Dratsing, the name cribbed from “A Clockwork Orange.”
“They had a fast thrash drone sound,” Lethem said, “and wore miniskirts under plaid shirts.” In 1983, after her freshman year, she and Feder took a semester off to pursue music in Chicago. One night they went to see the Fall play. The band, formed in 1976 in Manchester, was a post-punk underground legend in Britain.
Brix met Smith at the bar after the show. “He asked me to go to a party,” she said. “I was 19 and carried a cassette with me because I wanted to be a rock star. He put it in the car and said who wrote this and I said I did and he said you’re a genius.”
After a careering romance, marriage and a move to Manchester, she joined the Fall as lead guitarist. Versions of songs from Banda Dratsing’s demo tape would appear on the Fall’s subsequent albums.
“It felt like she bent time and space,” Lethem said, “and projected herself out of our reality and into the world. We were all completely staggered.”
She added glamour to the Fall and was a pop foil to her husband. Her guitar work ranged from surf-style solos to a rockabilly squall. The bizarre pairing of the teenage American with the established group led to a halcyon period, the band’s first crack at the British charts and benchmark records like “This Nation’s Saving Grace.” The Smiths were the Andy and Edie or the Kurt and Courtney of the ’80s British indie scene and graced the covers of the music weeklies. She remained with the band for six albums and near-constant touring, until 1989.
“Our marriage started to break down,” Smith-Start said. “Mark was resentful of all sorts of stuff, and the truth of the matter was, he left me for the teenage daughter of his friend.”
She returned to Los Angeles, lived above a friend’s garage and waitressed at a health food restaurant. “I crashed back down to earth,” she said. “Nobody in America knew who I was or cared, and there I was serving blue corn and banana pancakes.” She played with the Bangles on a tour and had been the bassist of Hole for one day in 1994 when her ex-husband asked her to rejoin the Fall. She returned to England.
While working on a record in London, she fortuitously crashed a party at the Harvey Nichols store. “I was wearing a tight forest green Alaïa dress,” she said. In the elevator, she met her next husband, Phillip Start, a menswear impresario who had started the store Woodhouse (and sold it for a large profit). She added his last name to Brix Smith.
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“I’m not going to get rid of any names,” she said. “It’s like scars on a shark — you can see how it lived. I earned those names.”
During her second stint, the Fall made some enduring songs, but the albums were middling. There was strife behind the scenes. Smith-Start left the band in 1996 in mid-tour and hasn’t seen Smith since.
“He had lost the plot to drugs and drink,” she said. “You sometimes need to change no matter how painful it is to move on. I’m grateful that I went back because I wouldn’t have learned that if I hadn’t.” (The Fall released its 30th album in May. Smith’s second wife is the keyboardist.)
“The music sucked the life out of her in the end,” Start said. “People always say, ‘Oh, Brix must play music at home.’ She never does.”
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When the first Start store opened in 2003, Shoreditch was already the center of London’s art scene. Start established it as a hip shopping destination as well. There are now three Starts, including Mr. Start, which sells the casually tailored line Smith-Start’s husband designs and shows at London Fashion Week. Mr. Start Woman, a collection inspired by menswear, was introduced this year.
In 2007, through a chance meeting with the show’s host, Smith-Start got her first television gig, on “Top Dog.” “It was like ‘X Factor’ for dogs,” she said. “I was the fashion and style expert. The dogs would have challenges, like a blowup pool was filled with multicolored balls and a rag scented with rabbit blood, and the dog who found it would win the scent test.”
Then came a four-season stint on “Gok’s Fashion Fix.” “Gok is a big Chinese queen, and I was his nemesis,” she said. “He styled from the high street, and I would style from designer, and we went head-to-head every week.” She has gone on to do live red-carpet reporting at the Oscars for Sky TV and to be part of a morning show akin to “The View.” And she thrives in her new medium.
“I’m unscripted,” she said. “It is channeling the same part of my brain I would use to write music. It’s also performance, so I get the same sort of fulfillment. I’m not playing to stadiums, but I’m on TV in millions of households.”