By Nina Zietman
There are those days when nothing happens. These days mainly involve back-to-back episodes of Come Dine With Me and too many Pot Noodles. Then, there are the days when things do happen. For me, it was a Sunday in June.
We bustled, en masse, into the White House hotel lobby in Chillington, Devon for our family holiday. As we carried our bags down the garden path, I spotted a very distinctive looking quiff and a pair of rectangular glasses in the distance. I tried to hiss discreetly at my sister, who instead stood there gawking at the figure seated on the terrace. It seems that our choice of hotel was the same as Gok Wan’s.
The White House is a ‘boutique hotel’, which could be described as ‘a bit like a B&B’. Except it is not at all. The White House far surpasses any hotel or B&B that I’ve ever encountered. As soon as you step through the white glass front door, you get the feeling that you’re staying at your friend’s country house for the weekend. Except, I don’t know many friends that own Georgian mansions. However, with only six bedrooms, two cosily furnished living rooms and a private garden, there was something about the White House that immediately makes you feel at home.
Despite being a Georgian house, there was none of the usual old-fashioned clutter littering the interior. Not a grandfather clock or mauve carpet in sight. Instead, the rooms are decked out in the latest modern designs; glittering pink chandeliers hang from the ceilings, each room with its own huge walk-in shower, retro patterned wallpaper and giant wooden bed. Downstairs, the squishy leather sofas invite you to cuddle up alongside the house dog, Jack, with a cup of Earl Grey and a copy of Vogue.
So, obviously, this is where Britain’s favourite half-Chinese stylist has chosen to sit and write his autobiography. I approached Gok at the bar, nervous and immediately wishing I’d changed out of my leggings and flip-flops. He was sat oh-so-casually sipping a Peroni, dressed in a soft Breton striped sweater and turned-up jeans, with a blanket over his knees. After a nervous, stumbling introduction (on my part), we sat comfortably in front of the open patio doors, discussing student life and style essentials. ‘How embarrassing! I’m wrapped in a blanket!’ he quipped as I took a quick snapshot. When asked what he would recommend for stylish students on a low budget, he immediately responded confidently, ‘Commit to one look. Don’t buy interchangeable pieces. And always go for classics’; it seems one expensive piece is worth a hundred H&M bargains. His favourite high street stores? ‘Topshop for innovation and Zara for tailoring, those are definitely two of my favourites”. He admits, however, a penchant for designers, Karl Lagerfeld in particular, who he tells me he interviewed once and thought he was “a really nice guy”.
Flitting between his properties in New York and London, Gok’s lifestyle is what every fashionista aspires towards. He confesses that the most he has ever spent on a handbag is a whopping £7000, ‘but it was Chanel, of course’, though his current favourite is his new dark Balenciaga in which he carries his essentials on his travels. ‘I always carry my iPhone and laptop’, along with 3 pairs of sunglasses, sunblock and ‘my Marchesa jacket – it seems to suit any locations I visit’.
Such luxury seems deserved, as Gok’s early life wasn’t exactly a breeze. Growing up as a half British, half Chinese teenager in Leicester in the 1970s, he spent most of his childhood and teenage years weighing 21 stone. His weight, along with being openly gay, meant that he was a surefire target for school bullies. Even into his university years, Gok struggled to get through his first year at Central School of Speech and Drama in London. ‘Whilst I was at Central, I didn’t have the same kind of privileged upbringing as the others on my course, so things were tough’ says Gok, ‘I was training in performing arts and worked in three bars and two restaurants that year’. It seems student life was not such a happy affair for Gok, ‘But it’s turned out alright now!’ he concludes brightly.
His personal style reflects his easy-going personality; simple, stylish outfits with a touch of turned up denim and loafers. And yes, even Gok Wan wears a bit of Jack Wills from time to time. When asked whose style he most admires, Gok firmly stated ‘Jonny Depp, I love his anti-establishment look’, and for women, ‘Florence Welch, she’s so outrageously creative’. Gok continued to tell me his celebrity encounters with Florence before she was famous, and all of a sudden, time was up. The Peroni glass was empty, and I’d kept him too long.
What struck me most about Gok was his unassuming presence; there was not whiff of snobbery about him. He was very happy to talk to me, despite the fact that I’d pounced on him in the middle of his holiday in Devon. In all honesty, a small part of me was wondering if an inner-Diana Ross was going to creep out from behind the rectangular specs. But in the whole three days that we stayed in the White House, Gok was nothing but warm, sociable and friendly. A much calmer version of the loud, brash, woman-prodding Gok we all know from Channel 4.
That evening, much to our dismay, my dad made his way over to chat to Gok. Oh god, we thought, please don’t let him bring up his Crocs. Five minutes later, he came back with a wry grin on his face. My dad had shown Gok his Crocs. He’d asked if they were going to make a come-back. Gok, politely said that they were never ‘in’.
Much to my embarrassment, we saw him at breakfast the next day. And the next. And the next. Nothing can be more surreal than eating your porridge, with Gok Wan munching on toast on the next table. To this day, my dad still tells the story of how he met Gok and asked him about his Crocs.