Michele Hewitson Interview: Denise L'Estrange Corbet

Michele Hewitson Interview: Denise L'Estrange Corbet

World’s co-founder is a stranger to diplomacy, talks loudly and very fast and is never short of an opinion

Is Denise L’Estrange-Corbet bossy? I did hope so, because she looks bossy and I rather enjoy bossy sorts. They’re restful to be around because you can just sit there and let them do all the fussing about. She’s 5ft 2in (really, don’t ask. She’ll say she’s 5ft 9in, or 11 ), and all round surfaces and she was wearing a bossy sort of pin-striped jacket, from World, of course, and her slippers.

I could go to her house but we weren’t allowed to take any pictures of anything in it, except her, because she is “very protective of the house”, and, “you know I don’t dust”. I don’t know how I could have known any such thing, but it is true, she doesn’t. We could have coffee or tea, but only instant coffee because she only drinks instant. She said: “I’m not baking.”

Right, so that was all of the important stuff sorted. I don’t know why she won’t have the house photographed. Except for the dust it looks to me to be pretty much like her shops. This means that there are stuffed animals everywhere (there is a giraffe’s head in the hall which is so heavy the wall had to be reinforced before it could go up), and the rest of the space is taken up with … stuff. There is too much of it and it is too dotty to catalogue.

She blames her sort-of-former husband, Francis Hooper, for all the stuff. He brings it home, leaves it in the hall, and she finds a space for it, or bangs in a nail and sticks it on the wall.

I’d say they’d need a bigger house any minute.

She is the boss and co-founder of World – along with Hooper. He is her sort-of-former-husband because they have split up but still live in the same house (he has downstairs) and often have dinner together, with their daughter, Pebbles, who is still at home too.

They are still business partners in World. What is World? Shops, I’d have said, which sell clothes and … stuff. It is and it isn’t. The logo says World is “a factory of ideas and experiments”. Really it’s an extension of their lives and their house, so what they are really selling is the insides of their heads. This is a strange way to make a living, but not as airy-fairy as that makes it sound. They are obviously shrewd business people.

L’Estrange is, then, a fashion designer and business woman, an agony aunt of sorts (for canvas magazine), a regular on Radio New Zealand’s the Panel and in the gossip pages in which she is often pictured wearing a cheesy, red-lipsticked smile. It is a terrible smile, as fake as the one on a tiger which is about to eat you alive. I asked: What the hell is that smile? She claims it is her smile, but what rot. She says she doesn’t wear it at the supermarket so she puts it on “when she’s asked to smile”. She claims not to chase publicity, but obviously it can’t hurt.

She’s loud and talks a lot and very fast and she is never short of an opinion. She says that people are never in any doubt when she doesn’t like them. She can’t be bothered pretending, which is quite funny, really, given that she works in fashion – which is all about pretending, you’d think. If you go into one of her shops and she’s there and you try something on and your bum looks big in it, she’ll tell you. It is fair to say that diplomacy is not an idea she has ever experimented with.

World is not showing at this year’s Fashion Week, not for the first time. They had a big bash show the night before I saw her instead, at The Langham. They don’t have celebrities like “the weather girl” at their shows; they have people famous for doing things, like artist Reuben Paterson and drag queen Buckwheat. They are a bit snooty about this, or about weather girls, anyway. It’s one of the fun things, or the annoying things about them – depending on whether you are a weather girl or a drag queen perhaps. But I did wonder if she’d fallen out with the organisers of Fashion Week, because I imagine that she falls out with people as easily as she spoons in that disgusting instant coffee. But she said, no, she hadn’t, the timing was just wrong for them. But because she can never quite resist, she said she “wasn’t a fan of Myken’s ” This was not the same as falling out with her? “No! I just don’t get on with her.” What had she done? “How long have you got?”

Not long enough to listen to what is no doubt unprintable. Her daughter, Pebbles, says she is out of the dark ages because she doesn’t do Twitter or social media. But it is really just as well. God knows what trouble she’d get into. Most people at least pretend to rub along with people; it makes life easier. “I don’t see the point. I’m not two-faced.”

She has never gone in for the easy life. She was never offered the chance. She has always been loud and opinionated and wilful and punished for it. When she was a little girl, in London, her ghastly grandmother used to put her on the stairs and make her sit there all day and give her a kick when she went past. Her mother used to beat her, to try to break her will.

Her father was a drunk who beat her mother and who eventually died, just as her parents were about to get back together after years apart. He died an idiotic and horrible death after going on a binge, somehow cutting himself so badly that he bled to death. She hadn’t seen him since she was 3 and, at 15, and ready to fly back to New Zealand (her mother had fled back to England) with a reunited family, she romanticised the idea of a father. She tried to kill herself. She has bad bouts of depression, still, and has just had the dose of her “nut pills” increased. She wrote a book about all of this – and quite a bit more, which the lawyers took out.

She is, or so I think, really quite sane compared to the rest of her family who were real – and horrible – nutters. I said: Are they all mad? “Oh, they’re eccentric!” she said, merrily. Her grandmother used to sit in the lounge in her fur coat and long fur gloves while everyone else froze because she refused to turn on the heating. That might be neither mad nor eccentric but simply mean.

The bits the lawyers excised from her book were beyond any of that. They were about incest and infanticide. She told me all about the infanticide, but as the alleged baby killer is still very much alive, I can’t repeat any of it. As for the incest, I didn’t dare ask.

She holds very definite views on child abusers – she has very definite views on everything – and that is that they should be hanged or shot. (She’s a right winger but wouldn’t tell me how she votes because “that would be personal”. That would be personal! Honestly, that would be about the least private thing she could have told me.) Her grandmother was certainly abusive, and seemed to delight in thinking up ways to be awful to her including starving her all day then making her an enormous meal at night. She says she is addicted to food; you can see why she might be a bit weird about it. She says her mother’s theory was that her grandmother hated her because she looked like her father and she hated him and decided “I was my father reincarnated”.

Should her grandmother have been shot? “Yeah.” And her mother? “Oh, well, I should say sexual abusers.” She wasn’t sexually abused. “No. I could have been.” What on earth does she mean? “I could have been. A neighbour invited me into his house to go to bed with him when I was about 6. And I said no. He used to shoot pigeons and his wife used to beat their children within an inch of their lives.”

You can see that living in a house with a giraffe’s head on the wall and an elephant’s foot by the fireplace, when you are a vegetarian, is an absolutely normal way to live your life when you grew up surrounded by freaks and creeps as she did.

It might even, comparatively, be normal to go on living in the same house as your husband, years after you’ve separated. All of her friends say it’s weird but she says it’s much nicer than having to get a flatmate.

“I’d be forever shouting at a flatmate.” I asked her loads of questions about their relationship and I still have no idea why they bothered splitting up other than she thinks she had some sort of mid-life crisis. She wanted her “freedom”, but that seems to consist of watching crime telly and Antiques Roadshow and sometimes going to a film on her own. I thought she’d gone through a phase a few years ago of swimming long distances to lose weight, but she says it was never about that, it was about fitness.

Anyway, she no longer swims, but does some strange thing involving heavy-duty machines which vibrate while you stand on them, holding poses. This is terrifically good for you, apparently, and also you only have to do it for 10 minutes every other day. Also, you don’t sweat and you don’t have to walk around in a gym “without shoes on, where other people have been. No!” She says she isn’t trying to lose weight with the vibrating device either. She’s not fussed about her weight. “No, it was never about losing weight.” Well, good! I like the idea of her trotting about, all 5ft 2in of her, round as a button, bossing those tall, thin models. I bet she does too.

She hasn’t been out on a date because, she says, she’s 52 and where do you meet people at 52? Besides, nobody’s asked her. She intimidates men, her friends tell her. She says she doesn’t understand this, and perhaps she really doesn’t.

Despite the props, she’s not noticeably eccentric. Even living in the same house as her ex-husband makes sense, actually. She no longer speaks to her mother (who said her book was a pack of lies) and her wider family think she’s got ideas above her station. When she was made a Member of the NZ Order of Merit, some of them said, “Oh, she’s just making it up.” So why not live with the person who you love and trust and is proud of you, even if you no longer want to be married to them? And, really, she wouldn’t be easy to live with. She’s brave and stroppy and vulnerable, and she talks some dreadful nonsense, with enviable self-belief.

And she really is awfully bossy. As I don’t have to live with her, I can admire all of these things from a distance.

She’s certainly never dull.

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