Dean Aslett – let’s call him Mr Safety Pin – is not a household name but, as a celebrity stylist, he has literally pinned the most famous people on the planet into their frocks.
One of his most vivid memories (and who would forget this) is of being on his hands and knees in front of Diana, Princess of Wales, at Kensington Palace, adjusting the skirt of her gown.
‘That was a moment,’ Aslett recalls. ‘She’d been in her jogging bottoms when I arrived but put the dress on and I was checking the length.
‘I needed her to put these strappy shoes on so I said: “Just lean on my back”, so she did, for balance. Odd where you end up, in life.’
Stranger still that Aslett – ‘an ordinary Croydon boy, even though I wanted to tell Princess Diana I lived in Chelsea’ – would one day end up helping her son make sartorial choices.
Circa 2005, he would be working as head of personal shopping at Selfridges and one of his most famous customers was Prince William.
This year marks the 30th anniversary of the premiere of the film Four Weddings And A Funeral, when Liz Hurley wore THAT dress
Dean Aslett played a pivotal part in the premiere. At the time, he was head of womenswear for the Versace store in London
‘I’d take him round so he could do his Christmas shopping. I’d get a call from Special Branch, then meet him in the car park and bring him in through the back entrance. He was nothing like his mother, not as friendly and much more serious – an old head in young clothes, really.’
Dare we ask what the Prince bought? Caviar, crystal, monogrammed towels?
‘The royals are funny about their Christmas presents. There was nothing bling about them, and nothing was very expensive. I can’t say too much but it was mostly CDs and DVDs, things you’d buy yourself.
‘I do remember one year he bought his grandmother, the Queen, a box set of Dr Who. The Doctor was Christopher Eccleston then.’
Blingier, by far, were Aslett’s fashion days. He worked for Versace in an era when celebrities not only paid for their clothes (‘nowadays, celebs expect them all for free,’ he says, appalled) but paid for them in cash.
‘When I was at Versace, Elton John would come in with his manager John Reid, who’d have a suitcase of cash chained or cufflinked to his arm. One time there was £45,000 in there.
‘They did get a discount – Elton got 35 per cent off – but he spent an outrageous amount. He bought three of everything, one for each home. Once I had to fly to Atlanta to take something he needed, and return the same night.’
Elton wasn’t even his biggest diva client. That award would go to actress Joan Collins.
‘The ultimate diva,’ he says. ‘You had to be careful with Joan. She was a scary one, formidable.
‘She had the mouth of Marilyn Monroe but the eyes of Caligula. And that tongue was so sharp you worried she’d cut her own neck with it. I was on the receiving end of it a few times.
‘Once, in Barbados, we were at dinner and I was sitting beside my friend and former boss, the designer Antony Price.
Aslett’s boss informed him that Hugh Grant had contacted them, in a panic, asking if Versace could lend his then-girlfriend, the then unknown actress called Liz Hurley, a frock for that evening
Liz Hurley squeezed her curves into a little black number, seemingly held together with hope and 24 giant safety pins – and a star was born
Aslett said the dress fitted Hurley perfectly, ‘which was just as well, because there wouldn’t have been time to make adjustments’
‘Joan decided she wanted to be next to him. “Move. Move, right now,” she said. She could be incredibly rude. I ended up slumming it next to Lord and Lady Bamford, which wasn’t the worst outcome, but that was Joan.’
While we will return to Aslett’s rather delicious showbiz shopping revelations, the reason for this interview is that this year marks the 30th anniversary of the premiere of the film Four Weddings And A Funeral, an event in which Aslett (and some giant safety pins) played a pivotal part.
At the time, he was head of womenswear for the Versace store in London when his boss informed him that the actor Hugh Grant had contacted them, in a panic, asking if Versace could lend his then-girlfriend, an unknown actress called Liz Hurley, a frock for that evening.
They were due to attend the premiere of his new movie and Grant suggested that Versace might want to help boost British cinema.
Aslett sniffs. ‘In those days, we didn’t just lend out dresses like that, and she was a nobody, but I do remember he asked us to send something over to them.
‘I said it wasn’t possible because of the time constraints, and also there was a limit to what we could lend without them having to buy it.
‘Anyway, I invited them in and had to steer her through the shop floor, trying to politely say she couldn’t have any of those dresses because she’d have to pay for them. Then we got her into that dress – and the rest is history.’
To a point. We all know that Liz Hurley squeezed her curves into a little black number, seemingly held together with hope and 24 giant safety pins – and a star was born.
‘She was all over the papers, she got the Estee Lauder campaign. Her career took off. None of it would have happened without that dress,’ says Aslett.
He adds that, for many years, he was quietly proud of his own unsung role. That dress not only made Hurley a star, it made Versace a must-wear brand with a whole new clientele.
‘I mean it was pure happenstance. She only ended up with that dress because it was one of the few press samples we had, and it was really only there because most people weren’t the right shape for it, and it had a tricky zip.
‘But it fitted Liz Hurley perfectly, which was just as well, because there wouldn’t have been time to make adjustments.
‘I don’t think it would have been the one they would have chosen either. I think she would have preferred an Amanda Wakeley. We were at the bottom of the list as no-one else would lend to them.’
Out of interest, did he like the dress? ‘Well, I don’t want to be disingenuous, but let’s just say I wouldn’t have gravitated towards that safety pin collection. At that time Versace had gone very . . . common denominator, brash, sexy.
Gianni Versace (left) with Joan Collins at the opening of the new Versace store in London in May, 1992
Sir Elton John wpuld ocme in to the Versace store with his manager John Reid (left), ‘who’d have a suitcase of cash chained or cufflinked to his arm’
‘A bit too sexy, if you ask me. More lady-of-the-night. He [Gianni Versace] could do very elegant, but this was a different direction.’
But Hurley did look hot in it. ‘Oh, amazing. It fitted like a glove. When she came out of the fitting room Hugh Grant raised an eyebrow, in a “This is a risqué dress” sort of way. But they went with it. As I say, they didn’t have much choice.’
At the time he thought Liz was quite sweet. Less so Hugh Grant, who, he claims, took a phone call while Liz was busy in the dressing room (presumably it took a while, what with those safety pins).
‘I’m afraid Hugh Grant’s behaviour then was absolutely appalling. He was prancing around, hopping from foot to foot, on one of those brick mobile phones.
‘He was shouting “F***, F***, F***” into it. I don’t know what the conversation was about but it wasn’t a way to behave in an atelier showroom that looked after Princess Diana. If a customer came in and witnessed that…
‘He was a bit intimidating. I was 23 but if I was the age I am now, I’d have thrown him out.’
What irks Aslett is that, in the years since, another version of what happened that day has been told.
He’s particularly peeved that the accounts given by Hurley and Grant suggest the dress was sent to them by Versace in a carrier bag and tried on in a casual way at their modest flat, which didn’t have a full-length mirror.
An affront to the fashion expert who remembers mirrors everywhere!
‘It is true that the dress left our shop in a white carrier bag. I’d been going to put it in one of our black bags, with a velvet ribbon but my boss said, “You’ve done enough for them. Just put it in a bag”.
‘But the fitting was most definitely done in the shop. And Hugh Grant was definitely there because his behaviour always coloured my view of him.’
Yet, another account from Hurley does reference going into the shop. Perhaps there is just some misremembering here?
Aslett cites a more recent interview where Hurley said that at the time no one in England had heard of Versace.
‘Ludicrous! Why is she trying to reframe this story? Versace was the most famous designer in the world.’
What a lot to unpick, and what a fascinating illustration of how, as the Queen once said, recollections may vary.
However, what is indisputable is that Aslett has had the most extraordinary life.
The son of a mechanical engineer, he reckons he got his showbiz side from his mum, who ran a dance school.
Aslett dressed everyone from members of Duran Duran (pictured) to European royals, with some A-listers easier to deal with than others
Another highlight from this era was meeting David Bowie. ‘He said “Hello, I’m David”. He wasn’t Star Man. He was just an ordinary guy from Bromley’
He’s also met David Beckham who he described as a ‘really nice guy. Down to earth. Has never changed’
He and his identical twin brother did dabble in entertainment as children, both working as models for magazines and TV adverts, ‘one for Carnation milk’.
His first break into the fashion world came when he was taken on by designer Antony Price.
‘One of the things I did, that others on the shop floor didn’t, was learn to pin, which proved to be so valuable. When clients came in for fittings, I could help.’
Price was feted as an image-maker as much as a designer, but had old school construction standards (‘Exquisite. There were no zip issues in his dresses. They could have been engineered by Brunel’).
He dressed everyone from members of Duran Duran to European royals, with some A-listers easier to deal with than others.
‘Jonny Mathis was the dream. He came in, bought a suit and ordered half a dozen more, in different fabrics. We had them shipped out to him in Honolulu.’
It was here Aslett got to help dress his idol, singer Bryan Ferry. ‘A proper gent. I was in awe, but he was amazing. I remember playing football with his kids in his garden.’
Another highlight from this era was meeting David Bowie. ‘He said “Hello, I’m David”. He wasn’t Star Man. He was just an ordinary guy from Bromley.’
From Antony Price, Aslett moved to Versace. ‘Very bling. It was all Elton and sheiks with money stuffed in Sainsbury’s carrier bags.’
Then he moved to Gucci, then to a parallel career as a personal shopper and stylist in Selfridges. Where, as well as helping Prince William buy TV box sets, he met his old friend Liz Hurley.
‘She said, “Where do I know you from, darling?” and I said “I’m Dean. I put you in that dress”. Her face just fell. It would have been nice to get a hug, but she just went cold.’
Also cold was Margaret Thatcher. Hold on, Dean. You pinned Mrs T? ‘Oh no, I didn’t dress her, I went to a function at 10 Downing Street with Antony Price, but I don’t think she liked people in the fashion industry.’
He thinks she particularly didn’t like gay men in fashion, which he was. ‘A lot of women do flirt, but that doesn’t work on queens, and it didn’t work on us.’
Whizzing through Aslett’s career is like a revision course in celebrity culture. He remembers the 1990s, when footballers of the day ‘the Graeme Sounesses and Paul Inces’ bought Versace, ‘by the bucketload’.
One of his most vivid memories is of being on his hands and knees in front of Diana, Princess of Wales, at Kensington Palace, adjusting the skirt of her gown
Circa 2005, he would be working as head of personal shopping at Selfridges and one of his most famous customers was Prince William
‘It’s funny because now the footballers are pop stars, but then they were a bit naff. A lot didn’t even get discounts.’
Then a certain footballer called David Beckham came on the scene ‘and everything changed’. Has he met him? Of course he has.
‘Really nice guy. Down to earth. Has never changed.’ Victoria? ‘I first remember her coming in the Gucci store in about 1996, wearing this long leather coat, like you’d get off a market stall. But both she and David were very nice to me.
‘I did meet her a few years later and she had become… rather grand, a bit Anna Wintour. Dark sunglasses. People do change. You see that a lot.’
Aslett must have seen some dubious behaviour, too. We can’t name the star whose cheque bounced when she tried to buy shoes. Or the serial returner-of-goods (who is a national treasure).
‘Versace never did returns but she’d come in with things she’d bought in Milan and we’d have to return them. We suspected they’d been worn.
‘Once, in my personal shopper days, she asked me to send her a dress then sent it back saying it wasn’t right. I opened OK! magazine a few weeks later, and there she was wearing it.’
You get the sense the fashion world rather chewed Aslett up and spat him out. He still works occasionally as a stylist but has returned to his first love, music, which he insists isn’t as unusual as it seems.
‘It was the music that got me into fashion in the first place,’ he says.
His irritation at how that world has changed can’t have been helped by the shocking murder of Gianni Versace by the serial killer Andrew Cunanan, who then took his own life.
Aslett and Versace weren’t friends, but, by chance, Aslett happened to be in Miami on holiday in 1997 and bumped into Gianni in a cinema foyer.
‘One of those random coincidences. He couldn’t place me. I said “Dean, from the London store!” and he went “La Deana!”. He had this thing about feminising names.
‘We chatted and he said I should come round the next weekend for an aperitif. The next day, in my hotel, I put on the news and there it was on the screen. Gianni Versace dead.’
He gave witness statements to the FBI. He shakes his head at the conspiracy theories that have run wild since.
‘I don’t know about any of that. I’m a man who sells dresses and fits glamorous women in them.’
He’s still a dab hand with those pins, too. We end with him recalling the society wedding where he had to descend the stairs of the Dorchester Hotel behind a bride and do an emergency repair in situ, as the cameras snapped.
‘It was a close call. Her mother had said she would slap me if anything went wrong but the bride was wearing this cropped, back-to-front jacket and the button had come off.
‘If it had fallen off her, she would have trampled on it, or we could all have fallen down the stairs.’ He shudders. What saved the day? A trusty safety pin, of course.