Mr George Barnett
He could have been a tailor in a seaside town in Essex. Instead, he’s fashion and music’s man of the moment. We go back to where it all started
If you’ve flicked through a fashion magazine or visited a shopping mall at any point in the past three months, chances are you’ve come across a young model-slash-musician by the name of Mr George Barnett. There just seems to be no getting away from him at the moment – especially if you happen to work at MR PORTER’s London HQ, which is situated opposite a new Burberry store that for the past few weeks has been clad in a great, two-storey-high façade showcasing the brand’s spring campaign. Shot by Mr Mario Testino, it depicts the sharply suited 26 year old alongside Mses Naomi Campbell and Jourdan Dunn and fellow multihyphenate, Mr George Le Page.
But Burberry’s just the tip of iceberg. This season he’s also in Hermès, Valentino and Tommy Hilfiger’s preppy new “The Hilfigers” campaign, to name but a few, while over the years his chiselled features and rake-thin figure have been snapped by lensmen including Messrs Alasdair McLellan, Willy Vanderperre and David Bailey. In absolute terms, this is a model at the very top of his game. But has this success brought him new-found status? Hardly. According to the man himself, he still hardly ever gets recognised. “I think I prefer it that way,” he says, grinning broadly as he leans back in his chair in an old pub overlooking the Thames. “I don’t want to turn into another David Gandy, do I?”
For some reason, Mr Barnett had asked to meet at Simpson’s-in-the-Strand, an eccentric old restaurant and chess club around the corner from the Savoy and an old favourite of Mr PG Wodehouse. But convenience has got the better of us and we’ve settled instead at the Prospect of Whitby in Wapping, east London. According to a plaque above the bar, it holds a serious claim for the title of the city’s oldest riverside pub. Which, one assumes, must only make it feel more like home to this born East Ender. He grew up some miles east from here, in Leigh-on-Sea. It’s the kind of place that only a glass-half-full commuter or a budget airline would describe as being in London, but it’s beautiful all the same: an eerie stretch of coastline dotted with marshlands, mud flats, petrochemical refineries and faded old Victorian holiday resorts. In Leigh-on-Sea, you can still find sheds that open onto the street to serve cockles, mussels and boiled eels packed in jelly like dog food. You could be forgiven for thinking that you’d stumbled through a wormhole and landed back in the early 1900s. No kid growing up here could fail to be seduced by the sense of isolation, of otherness, that the landscape inspires. And so it was with Mr Barnett.
“When you grow up in the suburbs, in a place as quiet as this, you have to invent your own world. You have to create something,” he says. “And when I was young, that thing was music.” He was still in his teens and working as a tailor in a dressmaker’s shop in Southend-on-Sea when, together with his twin brother, Jack, and two of their friends, he formed the avant-garde, genre-bending band These New Puritans, in which he plays the drums. Back then, they were new, cool and very, very young – and it wasn’t long before they pinged the radar of that great curator of music and youth culture, Mr Hedi Slimane, who photographed them while he was still creative director at Dior Homme. The band formed a relationship with him, and he commissioned them to compose a soundtrack for his autumn/ winter 2007 show. It was to be the last outing at Dior for the designer, though, who parted ways with the brand a few months later. Mr Barnett went back to focusing on his band, sure that his temporary fling with the fashion world had come to an end.
He couldn’t have been more wrong. That was eight or nine years ago, and since then his distinctive looks have attracted some of the biggest names in the business. “I’ve been really lucky to have worked with a bit of a who’s who of photographers… I mean, this season alone I’ve worked with Bailey and Testino,” he says, a touch of incredulity creeping into his voice.
With both his modelling and music careers in the ascendancy – These New Puritans are in the process of writing a new album that promises to be their biggest yet – how does he define himself? Is he a model, or a musician? “I’m both. But they’re two very separate worlds,” he says. “Music is all-encompassing. It isn’t something that you can just dip a toe into; you need to immerse yourself fully. So I try to keep a clearly defined line.” Granted, he tiptoes pretty close to that line with certain projects, such as his most recent for Alexander McQueen and AnOther, in which he plays the drums as a ballet dancer performs alongside him.
The movie was shot by Mr Daniel Askill, the director of Sia’s “Chandelier”, which has been viewed more than half a billion times on YouTube. It’s not out yet, but he happens to have a rough cut on his phone, which he’s keen to show off. “Check this out,” he says, as the camera pans through an underground tunnel before emerging out into a cavernous abandoned warehouse. “It’s like Solaris. The Tarkovsky version.” One for the cinephiles there. Does he want to do more in film? He pauses for a while before answering. “I’d love to do more… creatively,” he says. “Whenever I’ve got time, I always go back to my papers, to my scribbles. That’s where it all started.” He drains his pint and gazes out of the window. The river’s rushing by outside, down towards the marshy coastline where he spent his youth.
“Actually,” he says, “Do you know what? I think I’ve got enough on my plate for now.”