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New Romantic
An aristocratic beauty with an elegantly nonchalant style of her own, Sophie Hamilton has translated her instinctive feel for vintage fashion into a new clothing label designed by a friend and busuness partner Charles Sebine. Sharon Walker meets the like-minded pair and gets a tour of the extraordinary family home in Northern Ireland that is Hamilton's constant inspiration.

Some women can be said to ‘dress well’; for others, this description falls hopelessly short: they possess a potent instinct for clothes. Sophie Hamilton is such a woman. The 36-year-old may not have a theatrical bent to compare to Amanda Harlech or Daphne Guinness, but she can be counted among those rare aristocratic creatures who exhibit the kind of free-thinking chic that cannot be learned. ‘I like things to be slightly off – not perfect,’ she says. ‘I’ve always mixed new with old.’ Hamilton spent several years parlaying her gift into selecting vintage pieces for the London outpost of LA vintage guru Cameron Silver’s Decades at Dover Street Market, and also selling clothing from her own concession at the Shop at Bluebird on the capital’s King’s Road. Now she has co-founded label Hamilton-Paris, inspired by her signature look of blouses – her favourites, a Seventies Yves Saint Laurent, a Bellville Sassoon inherited from her mother and a Thirties blouse in lilac silk from Portobello Road – worn with jeans. ‘There’s something quite punk about the way Sophie mixes up her look,’ the designer Charles Sebline, her friend and business partner, observes.

A meeting with Hamilton at her family home, Baronscourt – a Georgian neo classical mansion in County Tyrone, Northern Ireland – provides an abundance of clues as to how her aesthetic sense has blossomed. Her open-minded parents James and Sacha, the Duke and Duchess of Abercorn, moved to Baroncourt in the 1970s, and their masterstroke was to commission their friend, David Hicks, to give the place a new look. Hicks, known for his bold use of colour, did not tiptoe around the plasterwork and motifs from the likes of architectural heavyweights William Vitruvius Morrison and John Soane. Hence, midway through a tour, we find ourselves standing in a lime-green circular dining room, the plasterwork ceiling daubed in putty-grey paint; the carpet, a zany geometric pattern woven to Hicks’ design, looks like something out of A Clockwork Orange.

‘It was a brave thing to do to such an old house,’ Hamilton acknowledges, leading us into her favourite room, the library, where Hicks worked around the reds, purples and yellows from the Morrison stained-glass skylight above the staircase.

From outside, Baronscourt is no less breathtaking. As you reach the crest of Bessy Bell, the quaintly named hill overlooking the house, you see a lake, then beyond, the Republic of Ireland and the two mountains, Errigal and Muckish. Omagh, the site of the 1998 bombing, is the nearest town. ‘Growing up, it was such an extreme contrast – to be amidst beauty and tranquillity and yet outside, there was all this paranoia and fear, people checking under their cars for bombs.’

Six-foot-one, slender and with all this at her disposal, Hamilton could easily be rather grand. Instead, she is easy-going, and bubbles with all the enthusiasm of an X Factor contestant who can’t quite believe her luck. ‘My God, it lifts your spirits,’ she says of her family home. She visits her mother and father there every six weeks or so, living mainly in London’s Notting Hill. Today, wearing a prototype Hamilton-Paris chemise, skinny grey Topshop jeans and Sigerson Morrison eelskin pixie boots, the designer looks every inch the cool London rock chick.

Hamilton always loved fashion. She remembers staging a full catwalk show with lights, choreography – the works – aged 13 at school, to raise funds for Unicef (her mother was working for the organisation at the time). Nevertheless, there’s a robust quality to her that’s far from the archetypal fashion obsessive. As well as being a keen horsewoman, Hamilton enjoys fishing and loves to stroll among the poplar, beech and white birch woods at Baronscourt.

Hamilton describes her parents as ‘exceptional’. Her mother, the Duchess of Abercorn, 63, is a trained psychotherapist with Scots, Peruvian and Russian heritage – she is a descendant of the Russian literary giant Alexander Pushkin, and Tsar Nicholas I. Her father, who is 75, was an Ulster Unionist MP from 1964 to 1970. Now he runs the estate and looks after his varied business interests. ‘He’s more conventional than my mother, but still incredibly open,’ she says.

Growing up, Sophie and her brothers Jamie, 40, who helps her father run the estate, and Nicholas, 30, a photographer in New York, would join an eclectic mix of guests for lively dinners in the rotunda dining room. ‘There’s a huge energy in this house, and always the most fascinating people – from shamans and Benedictine monks to government people and literary types,’ says Hamilton. (The weekend after the Bazaar shoot, her mother is hosting a workshop on the spiritual symbolism in Dostoevsky’s work, bringing together an expert on the author from Cambridge with a Jungian analyst from Zurich, a Harvard philosopher, and an abbott and monks from Glenstal Abbey in County Limerick.)

It was one house guest, French actress and Givenchy muse Capucine – best known for her roles in the Peter Sellers movies The Pink Panther and What’s New Pussycat? – who gave the teenage Hamilton her start in fashion. Just 18 and fresh out of boarding school (favoured outfit: jewel-encrusted denim jacket, pillar-box red Kenzo velvet skating skirt and cowboy boots), Hamilton was introduced by Capucine to French fashion house Givenchy, where she had her first job in the accessories department in 1992, and worked under Hubert de Givenchy for two years. ‘I was very impressed by it all,’ she says. ‘Paris was so different from London. I’d walk over the Pont de l’Alma to the atelier on the Left Bank, and I was just bowled over by this wave of perfume – at eight o’clock in the morning.’

It was in Paris that she got to know Sebline, meeting him at his grandmother’s apartment after being encouraged by a mutual friend. ‘I remember looking through the spyhole in the door as she arrived,’ says Sebline on the phone from Paris, ‘and I was astounded by this girl’s height and beauty; she had this mane of dark hair and white skin.’ Sebline, then 18, now 34, left Paris shortly afterwards for Central Saint Martins. While a student, Vivienne Westwood invited him to work on her show, and she later helped him secure a job with Yves Saint Laurent, where he trained in couture. He went on to join Tom Ford’s creative team at Yves Saint Laurent Rive Gauche.

It was while he was working for Westwood that Sebline and Hamilton collaborated for the first time – on her Belle Epoquetheme 21st-birthday party. His major coup was scoring a fantastic sapphire Vivienne Westwood dress worn on the catwalk by Kate Moss for Hamilton’s mother to wear. ‘Charles is very particular, almost rarefied,’ says Hamilton. ‘He really appreciates beauty. He totally gets this house, particularly the David Hicks aspect. He’ll
notice things like the curtains, with graphic chocolate brown and orange borders.’ Sebline joins Hamilton at Baronscourt once or twice a year. ‘Baronscourt feels like a family home, not a grand country house,’ he says. ‘That’s what’s cool about it.’

When Hamilton asked Sebline to make her a blouse in autumn 2008, it was to prove a turning point. The Chameleon blouse, its lush colours inspired by the iconic Schiaparelli 1930s butterfly print, was finished with a doublesided tie, falling like a ribbon down the front of the blouse. ‘It was so beautiful, we knew we were onto something,’ says Hamilton. Spotting a gap in the market – it was always the blouses that sold first at her vintage concessions – Hamilton proposed a chic blouse-based collection. ‘Charles called back the next day to say, “Let’s do it.”’

Sebline, who is half-French, half-English, sees Hamilton-Paris as a similar combination of references. ‘The mixed-up look is English; the rigour and structure is French,’ he says, citing Loulou de la Falaise, the French-English YSL muse, as an inspiration. He regards their elegant blouses as ‘couture dresses cut off at the waist’.

Hamilton runs the business from London, while Sebline handles the lion’s share of the design work and manufacturing from Paris. Now in its second season, the label is stocked in discerning boutiques in most fashion capitals, including Browns in London, Maria Luisa in Paris and Kirna Zabete in New York. Browns buying director Erin Mullaney observes that Hamilton-Paris fills a hitherto unoccupied niche. ‘There are so many great trousers out there, but we were having trouble finding the perfect blouse to go with them – until we found Sophie.’ French stylist Camille Bidault-Waddington is a fan, as is cosmetics brand Sisley’s Christine d’Ornano, and de la Falaise herself. ‘I think the clothes are very pretty,’ says de la Falaise. ‘I like the colours, the materials, the twists… it’s very lighthearted and fun to wear – all very charming and slightly irresistible.’

Photographs by Christopher Sturman. Styled by Kim Hersov

The current collection of 30 pieces, including dresses, skirts, coats, jackets and trousers, as well as the signature blouse, are potent reminders of the creative synergy of Hamilton and Sebline, who talk on the phone and email every day. But though they share similar tastes, the pair possess very different personalities. Sebline eats, sleeps and breathes work; Hamilton is much more relaxed. On the shoot, they exhibit the platonic closeness of two people who have known each other all their lives. (Hamilton, who’s currently single, was previously married to war correspondent Anthony Loyd.) ‘We have a strong sense of each other,’ says Sebline. ‘I think of her body and what she might want to show and not show. Sophie will say, “I want a low neckline – the neckline is very important this season,” and I will interpret that.’

Hamilton’s own effortless grace defines the Hamilton-Paris aesthetic. Silver describes her as ‘elegant, smart, funny, and wonderfully tall’. When a friend introduced them, he soon realised that her keen eye could prove an asset to his own business. ‘I think of Sophie as taking the looks of the 1920s through to the 1940s and making them modern. She is drawn to romantic fabrics; I was always afraid of lace, until I met her.’

At Baronscourt, Hamilton is surrounded by intrigues from centuries past. In the long gallery, Hamilton points out a Reynolds of her ancestor, John Hamilton, swathed in an enormous fur coat and Cossack hat. ‘He drowned at sea,’ she says, ‘still wearing that coat.’

Then there is the Thomas Lawrence portrait of Nelson’s mistress, Emma Hamilton – who joined the family when she married William Hamilton in 1791 – hanging in the hall. ‘They went to live in Naples, and that’s where she met Nelson,’ says Hamilton. Everywhere you look, vases spill over with creamy, white and peach datura, the handi work of Baronscourt’s head gardener, Larry Monteith. ‘They are hallu cinogenic,’ Hamilton says impishly. ‘Datura was well known as an ingredient of love potions and witches’ brews. One droplet from the flower and you’d be tripping.’ Magic, in its most playful sense, is a recurring fascination for Hamilton. Last season, one Hamilton-Paris blouse took its inspiration from Puck, the mischievous fairy from A Midsummer Night’s Dream. ‘Our childhoods were quite fantastical. My mother really encouraged the imagination,’ says Hamilton. Lady Abercorn would tell them of a benign witch called Aggie, who haunted a cedar tree near the lakes and would leave the children sweets. ‘That was my mother’s way of embracing the dark side, so we wouldn’t be frightened. But I still couldn’t go to certain parts of the house after teatime; I was terrified of ghosts.’ There is still one bedroom she genuinely believes is haunted.

Back in the library, Hamilton rifles, sharp-eyed, through rails of clothes brought by the Bazaar team, and pairs a Hamilton-Paris cerise blouse with a pair of extra-lean black leather trousers from French label Stouls. It’s an inspired combination, lending the blouse a tough, amped-up sex appeal.

Seeing her silhouetted against these tomato-red walls, something clicks – the way Sebline and Hamilton have updated rarefied couture elements is reminiscent of how Hicks threw his jaw-dropping colours onto the elegant plasterwork at Baronscourt. There’s a respect for the past, but it is entirely unprecious. And it just works. Hamilton Paris (

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