The designer’s collection of clients reads like the guest list for his most famous customer Elton John’s Oscars after-party.
He made the singer a unique brooch for the 2019 premiere of his Rocketman biopic, but for decades Fennell has been designing bespoke pieces for famous names including Madonna, Liz Hurley, Lady Gaga, Naomi Campbell and Courtney Love.
He is often called the “King of Bling”, but he feels the nickname does not really do his intricate designs justice.
“It is what it is,” he shrugs laconically. “It’s incorrect but there are far worse things I could be called. I’m not really a blingy person and I’ve never really wanted to deal in bling.”
Born in Egypt in 1951, where his Army major father was serving, Fennell spent his early years travelling all over the world with his parents. After attending Eton, he learned his trade at York’s College of Art before taking an apprenticeship at a Hatton Garden silversmith.
He opened his eponymous Fulham Road workshop and gallery in 1982. Now friends with many of his high-profile customers, he has built a loyal A-list following, sparked as much by his infectious personality as his quirky designs.
“From the moment I started, my clientele was always highly creative,” he says. “I think people who had made money themselves via their own creative endeavours felt more comfortable with me and what they enjoyed – and what I have enjoyed – is, if not being completely collaborative, then at least being part of the process.
“For Elton’s Rocketman, I did various drawings, and he chose his favourite, then we made a few alterations, then my workshop created it and it’s still an immense buzz for me all to see these pieces on red carpets and big stages.”
Had an early 20-something Fennell been a more proficient musician, however, Elton and Co would have been forced to look elsewhere for their show-stopping trinkets.
As chronicled in his entertaining new memoir, I Fear For This Boy, Fennell reveals that as a youthful folk and rock’n’roll fanatic, his ambitions were directed more at grasping a microphone than wielding a soldering iron.
The book’s title came about after Theo stumbled upon an old Eton school report during lockdown, recognising instinctively that his favourite school master’s slightly tongue-in-cheek career projection was not far off the mark.
But an abortive early attempt to get a record deal was followed by an equally inauspicious stint as a one-man band, before Fennell redirected his energies towards jewellery.
With the help of his wife Louise, his tenacity and eye for the unconventional eventually paid off but, at the back of his mind was always the distant hope that, however fleeting, musical glory might one day be his.
That day finally came (sort of) on November 5, 1985, when Fennell and his wife attended the Fashion Aid benefit concert at the Albert Hall organised by Live Aid hero Bob Geldof. The list of performers that night read like a “who’s who” of pop music.
George Michael, Sting, Freddie Mercury, Kate Bush and Madonna all wowed a full house, including Theo and Louise and their friends Mike Rutherford from Genesis and John Wetton from King Crimson and Roxy Music.
As they enjoyed the hospitality, Fennell was asked if he wanted to join Mike and John for a drink in the VIP room.
“Normally I’d be too embarrassed, but I thought, “Why not?” When I got down into the bowels of the Albert Hall, I was literally surrounded by famous faces. It was amazing,” he recalls.
“Everyone was wearing jeans and Feed The World T-shirts, but I’d come in my red suit and the next thing I knew, someone had handed me this lyric sheet and I found myself being swept along in this crowd of rock stars, up a slope, until eventually we were all spat out on the stage in front of thousands of people.
“I was next to the blond bloke from Status Quo – Rick Parfitt, is it? – and I could see all these big stars eyeing me up and down and thinking, “Who is this bloke wearing the red suit?” Maybe he’s an American country singer or something?'”
The next thing he knew, everyone was singing the finale, the Band Aid hit Feed The World.
“Mercifully I didn’t have to do a solo but the lights went up and I could see thousands of people including Louise sitting in the box with her hands over her eyes, surrounded by all our friends, screaming with laughter.” As Midge Ure and Bob Geldof started to call everyone forward to take their individual bows, Fennell made a hasty exit, shuffling off the back of the stage to safety.
He laughs: “Suffice to say, offers to do guest vocals on George Michael’s next album were not forthcoming.”
He deliberately avoided cashing in on his famous friends in his memoir, and also ducked the subject of sex. “There was no sex in the book because of my daughters,” he says. “I couldn’t bear the idea of anybody being embarrassed reading about my sex life.
“Sex is incredibly hard to write and somebody always suffers. Normally me. It’s a completely different level of self-abasement. You can fall over in a heap, you can fail but if you write about yourself having sex you come across as either a bragging idiot or a hopeless loser so I thought it was safer to avoid it.”
Despite such self-deprecatory protestations, creativity and the ability to thrive in High Society clearly run through the Fennell veins.
Youngest daughter Coco, 31, is a successful designer with clients such as Kylie Minogue, Rita Ora and Rihanna, while filmmaker and actress Emerald, 36, won a best original screenplay Oscar in 2021 for her debut feature Promising Young Woman, starring Carey Mulligan, also giving birth to Theo’s first two grandchildren before and after shooting the fim.
Emerald also won praise for her role as the young Camilla Parker-Bowles in hugely successful Netflix series The Crown.
“It’s fair to say that our family life has been pretty creative,” he says. “They’ve grown up around a broad spectrum of creative people with wide backgrounds, but they’ve also learnt that a person is just a person and that they shouldn’t be intimidated by fame or money.
“They’ve learnt that those things aren’t important and what they’ve both seen is that both Louise and I are grafters. We work very hard and enjoy what we do and believe that you should work hard and that you should be self-sufficient.”
Fennell, 71, says his greatest moment of parental pride came in the virtual Oscar ceremony in April 2021. “Emerald is incredibly low-key about all those sorts of things,” he says. “But it was a very surreal moment when she won the Oscar.
“She was out there in LA, but the ceremony was remote because of the lockdown, so we were back in London. We all stayed up till 4am to watch it and it all seemed so absurd. The whole thing was just wonderfully bonkers.”
Despite their success, in his memoir he insists: “I come from a family where not so much showing off but blowing your own trumpet was probably just below murder on the list of things you couldn’t do. We’ve sort of developed a family motto, which was everybody hates a winner. And if you did play the giddy goat it was to make other people laugh rather than to further your own agenda.”
Last year Fennell bought back the company that bears his name from investors, four years after it went into administration, before moving into plush new premises in Chelsea Barracks earlier this year.
At the heart of his success, he credits wife Louise, a successful novelist who he met at a Mayfair rooftop party in 1977. She described their long relationship as: “Stumbling from crisis to laughter and joy. And then back to crisis again”.
“That’s pretty much true, yes,” agrees Fennell. “Although in the last ten to 20 years I think there have been fewer crises. But yes, Louise has been absolutely pivotal in everything I do and everything the whole family has done. She is immensely grounded, and she won’t take s*** from anyone.
“She has absolutely no airs, no graces. She can walk into a room with kings and princes as soon as vagabonds and be totally at home and both of the girls have inherited that from us.
“They’re at ease with most people and in most circumstances, and Louise has been there through thick and thin. We’ve had our ups and downs and even been dirt poor to the point we had our amenities off for a while but, in the words of Kris Kristofferson, “The going up must be worth the coming down”.”
The couple renewed their marriage vows in Las Vegas after 25 years, and with their 50th anniversary on the horizon, he is starting to consider options for their golden celebration.
“I’m trying to think of the most kitsch place we could think of after Vegas. Dollywood maybe? Nashville? Or even Blackpool at the height of the summer,” he smiles. “We could ride off into the sunset on the back of a donkey after watching Keith Harris and Orville. Is he still alive?”
Wherever they choose to celebrate, Fennell will not be hanging up his soldering iron just yet, and he is full of ambition.
“There’s still so much to do. There’s the novel, a symphony maybe. Houses to build. As long as I’ve got the energy I’ll carry on. The moment you let the old man in, you wither. Never let the old man in.”
I Fear For This Boy: Some Chapters Of Accidents by Theo Fennell (Mensch, £25) is out now. To order for £22.50 with free UK P&P, visit expressbookshop.com or call 020 3176 3832 See Theofennell.com for more information
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