In September 1961, 22-year-old factory worker Vivian Nicholson and her husband Keith won £152,300 in an English lottery. That's about 5 million in today's money. When the tabs asked her what she was going to do with it, she guaranteed herself a place in pop history by squealing, "Spend, spend, spend!" Five years later, with the husband dead and the money all spent, Viv was singing "Hey, big spender" in a tawdry strip club. With that backstory, how could arch miserabilist Morrissey not love her? He put her on two Smiths covers. Which is where Peter Jensen encountered her, when a friend gave him "Heaven Knows I'm Miserable Now" in 1988. It was love at first sight.
So it was only a matter of time before Viv joined Jensen's roster of unlikely icons. She's the inspiration for a fall collection charged with all the designer's signature strangeness, but this time given an early-sixties er the word is not quite "gloss," more "downbeat chic"—from the plain-Jane shapes and dun palette of an early-sixties working girl and a print of the grimy streets in the North of England where she grew up, to the more graphic, dressy quality that seeps into her wardrobe when she hits the jackpot.
As impossible as it is for Jensen to play anything straight, his rags-to-riches-to-rags scenario followed no conventional trajectory. When he used sequins, they were so huge and unwieldy that they were stripped of any connotation of glamour. In theory, an astrakhan coat could have implied spendy-spendy. In practice, its fauxness made it cheap chic (and politically correct, of course, but that hardly applied in Viv's heyday). The dowdiness was as deliberate as everything Jensen does, but this time, it felt like there was less wit to elevate the clothes. What was missing was Viv's verve. A sausage-dog print didn't quite do it. And Bernstock Speirs' blond bouffant hats, droll though they may be, don't quite count.
It is funny, however, that Jensen should choose a muse like Viv Nicholson at the same time as Christopher Bailey was latching on to her equally scandalous contemporary Christine Keeler for inspiration at Burberry. Jensen's collection for men, on the other hand, was inspired by pipe-smoking Danish architect Arne Jacobsen. If Jacobsen himself may have been too logical to have much truck with a life as undisciplined as Viv's, Jensen gave his guys glitter shoes and the odd hint of disarray. There's a future for him there.