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I Love Rock ’n’ Roll

If John Varvatos had been a better musician he might never have become a fashion designer. “I was in a band as a teenager, but I just wasn’t good enough,” he says with disarming honesty. Thankfully, music’s loss was fashion’s gain. After stints at Ralph Lauren and Calvin Klein, the designer set up his eponymous label in 2000, and quickly found a way to merge his two passions. Today, he is not just a leading name in menswear, but also one of the world’s foremost collectors of rock ’n’ roll memorabilia.


Varvatos grew up in Detroit, home of the Motown record label, yet it wasn’t just home-grown sounds that influenced him, but bands he heard on the radio, particularly the “British Invasion” – the Kinks, the Yardbirds and Led Zeppelin, all of whom have played an enduring role in his musical life. “I just got the Led Zeppelin Platinum record award for Led Zeppelin IV,” he says of the latest addition to his collection. “I also have a guitar signed by Led Zeppelin and gold albums given to me by Jimmy Page and Robert Plant. If my office was on fire, those would be the first things I’d grab.”


Like all the best collectors, Varvatos never aspired to collecting for collecting’s sake. “I just started buying music I loved,” he shrugs. He now owns around 20,000 records. So many, in fact, that they’re everywhere – in his stores, in a dedicated storage unit, and taking pride of place at his newly built house in upstate New York. But it’s not just vinyl he covets; his real foray into serious collecting began with photography: notably a black-and-white shot of Jimi Hendrix on stage at the Monterey Pop Festival, taken by Jim Marshall. Hendrix is still a huge draw for Varvatos. “He’s my guy,”


Although Varvatos doesn’t like to think of himself as a collector – “I’m just a fan,” – he’s always on the lookout for the next thing. Recently he tried, and failed, to get “the jacket that Jimi Hendrix wore at the Fillmore East [the rock venue where the artist’s famous live album was recorded]”. That late-1960s, early ’70s influence – skinny trousers, tailored suits with tight fitted jackets, and plenty of black – is still part of the Varvatos style today and what first inspired his love of fashion. “I think it’s timeless,” he says. “A leather jacket, slim-fit jeans or trousers – it really could belong to any era.”


His advertising campaigns are also often fronted by musicians, the most recent featuring LA band Vintage Trouble. And he even has his own record label, John Varvatos Records, launched in 2014. “I still love discovering new music,” he says. “And sharing these discoveries with other music lovers.” His West 17th Street office (pictured), a large-windowed warehouse space that sits alongside his fashion showroom, is testament to this passion. It’s a room that wouldn’t look out of place in a museum or rock ’n’ roll hall of fame, given the panoply of gold and platinum records that line the walls, not to mention the guitars and music memorabilia that fill every available space.


With his collection spread across the globe, it would be easy to lose track of it all, something Varvatos admits can happen. But he doesn’t mind, he says, because then “you rediscover things”. He adds: “Even when I think I’ve seen and heard it all, there’s always so much more to discover, the deeper I dig.”


Your address: The St. Regis New York


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John Varvatos in his Manhattan office 




Treasures of India

“I started with watches. Then it was cars. Now it’s art,” says Nirav Modi. He’s describing his progression as a collector, which has resulted in the superb array of artworks that adorn the Mumbai headquarters of his eponymous jewelry brand. Having recently opened stores in London and Manhattan, Modi has turned the jewelry house he launched in 2010 into a globally recognized contemporary Indian luxury brand. Like his jewelry, which is produced entirely in Mumbai, his art was created almost entirely in India, spanning the century between India’s struggle for independence and its current status as an economic powerhouse.


Today, the jeweler owns about 500 pieces of art – some of which are hung in the oceanfront duplex he shares with his wife and three children, and others at their beach house in Alibag, where fashionable Bombayites head for the weekend. Most of the collection, though, is kept at the company’s offices (designed by his mother, an interior designer) and displayed in rotation. Apart, that is, from a few works that never leave his own office: a sculpture of brass cowpats by the contemporary artist Subodh Gupta; Boy With Lemons, a painting by Amrita Sher-Gil, the bold female artist of the Twenties and Thirties sometimes described as India’s Frida Kahlo; and a haunting photographic portrait of Sher-Gil taken by her nephew, Vivan Sundaram.


Having grown up in Antwerp, where his family were diamond dealers, and visited the museums of Rome, Paris and Brussels with his mother, Modi says he was attracted to art from a young age. Although at home, “dinner table conversation was all about diamonds: diamonds bought, diamonds sold, diamonds cut”, as a young man he became obsessed with other objects of beauty. His first passion was watches – beginning with one he just had to have. “I spent my first six months’ wages on an IWC perpetual calendar watch,” he recalls, followed by a series of extraordinarily complicated models, from fine watchmakers such as Philippe Dufour. After that, he discovered cars – “mostly British” – although living in Mumbai, he points out with a wry smile, you don’t really get the chance to make the most of a high-performance automobile.


It was only in the Nineties that he started to collect art. “As I was living in India,” he says, “I was most influenced by the Indian modern art I was seeing around me.” Today, Indian art from 1850 until 1970 makes up the core of his collection, which now encompasses something close to a complete canon of artists of that period, and some of its greatest masters. Like most serious collectors, though, for Modi there’s always something missing, something more to add – including, he says, “a masterpiece by Tyeb Mehta” (one of the Bombay Progressive Artists’ Group who gained international recognition in the Sixties and Seventies).


According to Mallika Advani, the former head of Christie’s in India who has been Modi’s art adviser for many years, the jeweler is “the dream collector. He knows what he wants and how to work the primary market, but he’s also very good at auction.” He also has, she explains, a passionate desire to acquire key pieces that he believes will enhance his collection, enough knowledge to know when to buy a piece and when to wait, and what he’s missed out on, so he can try and buy it later.


The choice to display the collection – and rotate the display – at the semi-public space of his offices rather than at home is a deliberate one, Modi explains. “Art inspires me. There are pieces I’ve had on walls for years and suddenly I notice a nuance, despite having seen the works day in, day out. This quality of art is fascinating. I wanted to create an environment where more people would have the opportunity to be immersed in it.”


Your address: The St. Regis Mumbai


Life in the Fast Lane

Whisper it, but while Richard Mille founded the most revolutionary watch brand of recent years – with boutiques near numerous St. Regis hotels in cities from Jakarta to Beijing – his first passion has always been cars, as the extraordinary garage at his French château attests.


Crunching up the driveway towards Mille’s private residence near Rennes in France, I’m reminded of a scene from the pages of a Tintin comic book: in particular, Marlinspike Hall, home of the doughty Captain Haddock.


Like Marlinspike, perfect symmetry, manicured grandiosity and Louis XIII style are all present and correct at Monsieur Mille’s own château in northern France – right down to the surrounding lawns and sprawling parkland. The only difference between my cartoon fantasy and real life seems to be the owners themselves: one, a cartoon seadog; the other, a swarthy, urbane genius of modern watchmaking, who single-handedly breathed hi-tech life into a fusty old craft at the turn of the millennium.


On this visit, though, it isn’t the house I’ve come to see, nor the mind-bendingly complex tourbillon ticking away on his wrist; it’s the building just to the right of the sweeping driveway, just within the moat (yes, there’s a moat). Outwardly, it’s built in keeping with the château’s light brickwork and slate tiles. Inwardly, it’s packed to the brim with pure motorsport nirvana, with a few classic coupés thrown in for good measure.


When we enter, the first car crouched by our feet is Bruce McLaren’s original Formula One car of 1966 – one of only three “M2B” chassis models ever built. “If, when I created the company 15 years ago,” Mille says, “someone had told me that my watch brand would one day partner with McLaren, I wouldn’t have believed it. This car paved the way for 50 years of racing. I’m used to saying my main business is automobiles, and watchmaking is to help me pass the time!” he chuckles, as we venture inside, classic racer after classic racer revealing itself beneath the low oak beams – a Lotus 49B here, Matra MS5 there, a BRM P115 next to that. “For me, the racing machines always came first,” Mille explains.


But which car came first? When did his collection start to snowball? “My first-ever car was a rusty old Peugeot,” he says, with trademark gusto. “I was a student at the time, full of dreams and testosterone. The car didn’t really fit my ideals nor my lifestyle! But a ‘collection’? Does it start when you have two or three cars?” he ponders out loud. “I really don’t know, to be honest. I suppose it became serious when I started paying big money for some cars, like my ’67 BRM.”


His collection is not all F1, though. Picking our way around the heart of his artfully cluttered man-cave, it’s clear that Mille’s favorite era is what he refers to as the “golden period” of Le Mans: the heyday of the 24-hour endurance race, from the mid-1960s to ’70s. (A preference underscored by his Porsche 907 and 908/3, not to mention an original Ford GT40 – the famed American “Ferrari Killer” that occupies every petrolhead’s fantasy collection – all squeezed into his garage’s workshop area.)


“Squeezed” being the operative word. Without building another annex and further upsetting Marlinspike’s symmetry, surely something has to give? “I wouldn’t sell anything in my collection now,” he says. “I’d rather perform hara-kiri!”


And his next purchase? “I’d rather not say,” he grins, sliding the doors home emphatically, “because if I do, and you publish it, the price will be even higher when I find it!”



Mapping History

“What you have to understand is that, for me, map collecting isn’t a casual hobby,” says Nicolò Rubelli, with a laugh. “It’s a disease, an addiction. If I see a map shop, there is no way I can pass it by. I have to go in.”


Rubelli, the fifth generation to run the eponymous textiles company founded by his great-grandfather in 1889, is not only a proud Italian but a proud Venetian. Even as a boy, he says, he appreciated the “incredible privilege” of being one of only about 60,000 permanent residents able to explore Venice’s streets and its bridges, its domes and its bell towers whenever he liked. When, at the age of 17, his father gave him an antique map of the north of Italy, he was hooked. “I loved the idea that, although the map was created in 1648, so much of the city and the area around it still looked the same,” he says. “It gave me a new way of looking at my home.”


For the aspiring architect, who went on to become an engineer, maps were not only a means by which to examine the make-up of the city but to understand the artistic sensibility of that period. “If you look at certain German maps of Venice, for instance,” he explains, “all the bell towers have pointed spires, because the map-makers had reinterpreted the city according to what they thought was beautiful at the time. Most of the publishers in Nuremberg had never been outside Germany, so often the maps they printed were embellished or fictitious – and that’s fascinating.”


Since he was given his first map three decades ago, the company CEO, whose fabrics adorn interiors including Buckingham Palace in London, the Bolshoi Theatre in Moscow, the Vanderbilt mansion in New York and St. Regis hotels in Rome and Florence, has amassed around 180 maps, printed between 1500 and the late 19th century.


Unlike many collectors, Rubelli doesn’t believe in hiding his printed treasures in drawers or darkened rooms. Each is mounted on white paper so its edge can be seen, then framed simply in wood, and hung “in a giant jigsaw puzzle” in rooms shaded from bright light during the week and opened up for his enjoyment on weekends. One of his most precious maps is also one of the earliest ever printed – in 1500, by Jacopo de’ Barbari. “He went from bell tower to bell tower above the city to draw it, so it’s a perspective view. What’s incredible is that it’s obviously Venice. Certain things aren’t there, like the [Santa Maria della] Salute church, which is beside my house and whose dome I can see from my window. But so much of what we see hasn’t changed at all.”


Today, having run out of wall space, Rubelli tries to buy books of maps (“which are pretty much the same price as single maps”); he has also bought a single terracotta globe, designed by Giò Ponti for porcelain maker Richard Ginori in 1929. “It’s the one exception to my rule, this globe: normally I don’t collect them because they don’t usually feature Venice, they’re overpriced, and I don’t collect 20th-century maps. But I love Giò Ponti’s work, and we have many of his drawings in textiles in our collection. So when I found this at a market in Padua, I just had to have it.”


Images: Contour by Getty


Artistic Alchemy

In a visionary body of work, rich in symbolism and pathos, California-based artist Hung Liu connects history to the present, East to West, mundanity to beauty. Dripping with immediacy, as if the artist has just put down the brush, her paintings of anonymous figures adapted from historical photographs are timeless, yet paradoxically anchored to the past, infused with a nuanced narrative and layers of psychological insight.


Born in China in 1948, Liu came of age during the Cultural Revolution. After high school, she was sent to the countryside where she spent four years working in the fields. There, she photographed and drew workers and their families. This was a formative experience for the young artist, who went on to portray ordinary people as the subjects of much of her work.


Following her early studies as a mural painter at the Central Academy of Fine Arts, one of China’s leading art schools, in 1984 Liu emigrated to America to pursue a graduate program in visual arts at the University of California San Diego. Today, from her hometown of Oakland in California, she re-contextualizes snippets of history that may not be lost, but have perhaps been forgotten. “I’ve come to think of these subjects as ghosts I ‘summon’ from the grainy, chemical surfaces of the photographic past,” she says. “That’s kind of going backwards technologically, from a newer medium to an older one, but mineral pigments on canvas can be very physical, bringing the image forward into the present in a vivid, present-tense way. There’s some kind of alchemy here, although I think of myself less as an advocate or guardian, more as a witch.”


On a visit to China in 1991, Liu found a treasure trove of studio photographs of 19th-century Chinese prostitutes, which became references for a series of riveting multimedia works. A series called Dandelions, meanwhile, is based on photographs she took on a road trip, the flowers often blown up to the size of the human figure. And the subjects of American Exodus, on show this fall at the Nancy Hoffman Gallery in New York City, are based on images of migrants from America’s Depression era that she found in the Dorothea Lange archive at the Oakland Museum of California.


In a Wall Street Journal review of her 2013 Oakland Museum of California retrospective, Summoning Ghosts: The Art of Hung Liu, critic David Littlejohn referred to Hung Liu as “the greatest Chinese painter in the U.S.”. Her art, which is represented in the permanent collection of The Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York, not only mirrors the unique duality of her extraordinary life experience, straddling two cultures, but transcends the boundaries of time.


Hung Liu: American Exodus is showing at the Nancy Hoffman Gallery in New York City until October 22, 2016


Your address: The St. Regis New York



Crane Dance, 2011
The delicate cloud of circling cranes in this work has a profound underlying significance. “In China, cranes are considered auspicious, and are associated with the imperial palace and heaven,” says Hung Liu (below). “This woman is from a photo, circa 1865, by the American John Thompson. The juxtaposition of her hand with the cranes suggests the vast space between the imperial court and working peasants.”





Dandelion 11, 2015
“The woman and the flower are both ornamental, but the dandelion is mostly blown away. It suggests to me the unpredictable course of one’s life, no matter how ornamented one is,” says Liu.



National Treasures

Edythe Broad clearly remembers buying her first artwork. “It was a Picasso print, on a school trip. I saw it, I liked it and I bought it. The excitement was like someone had hit me in the stomach. But then, I’m like that: buying for me is an emotional process. Eli’s the smart one.”


More than six decades later, Edythe and her husband Eli, the American property developer and philanthropist, own so many works of art that last summer they opened a $140m museum in the heart of downtown Los Angeles to house them. Today, The Broad, an elegant white space a few doors from the Frank Gehry-designed Walt Disney Hall, houses more than 2,000 artworks amassed by the couple since the 1960s. 


The first “serious work” they bought, Edythe recalls, was by Van Gogh. “But the more we looked at art, the more we enjoyed contemporary pieces. So, we exchanged it for a Rauschenberg.” 


Today their contemporary art collection includes works by 200 of the world’s biggest names, including Damien Hirst, Andreas Gursky, Jasper Johns, William Kentridge, Barbara Kruger, Charles Ray, Ed Ruscha, Cy Twombly and Andy Warhol. What’s impressive is not just the number of important works they have but how many by the same artists. Today, they own the largest collections of works by Cindy Sherman, Jeff Koons, Roy Lichtenstein (outside the Lichtenstein Foundation) and Joseph Beuys. 


This, says the museum’s director/chief curator Joanne Heyler, is because “Eli and Edythe have been collecting for more than 50 years, and have known many of the artists. They’ve been friends with Jeff Koons, Roy Lichtenstein, Cindy Sherman – so they have access to many of their finest works. When Eli first bought Basquiats, he understood that they were more than just graffiti; he’d met the artist when he was living in a basement.” 


Although initially the couple bought art for their own pleasure, their collection has now been put in trust for the nation. “We feel it’s important for people to have access to works that reflect our times, so they have a greater understanding of what’s happening around them,” says Eli. “Art is a mirror that reflects the world. We want people to be able to look into that mirror and get a better picture of what’s going on – whether it’s Barbara Kruger’s Your Body Is A Battleground or photographs of the Missouri riots.”


To ensure that the collection remains current, the Broads buy about one new work a week. “It’s a passion and an addiction we’ve had for 30 years,” Eli admits. “Thankfully, we’re privileged enough to keep doing it. By opening The Broad, our hope is that others can enjoy what we have too.”


Unlike many other American institutions, entrance to The Broad is free, and will always be so, thanks to a substantial endowment created by the couple. That, says Eli, “really makes us proud. It’s a great feeling knowing that everyone has access to something that we love.”


The Broad, 221 South Grand Avenue, Los Angeles (




All That Jazz

Singer-songwriter Jamie Cullum’s obsession with jazz began when he saw The Fabulous Baker Boys. He was a 15-year-old piano prodigy at the time and had just started to get paid gigs in hotels. It didn’t matter that they were in Swindon, a small English town not noted for its rich jazz heritage. Teenage Jamie was just like his hero in the movie, the brilliant jazz pianist Jack Baker, though considerably less tortured.


Now 36, Cullum laughs this off as youthful folly. “When you’re a teenager, you grab on to certain icons to help you through the crippling nature of what it is actually to be a teenager,” he says. But in many ways he is still living the teenage dream. An acclaimed jazz pianist, he has released six albums and tours the world with his band. And this spring, he began a series of gigs Baker would have killed for: The Jazz Legends at St. Regis Series, an intimate set of live performances at St. Regis hotels around the world. Throughout the Jazz Age, the rooftop ballroom at The St. Regis New York played host to many of the jazz world’s biggest names, from Count Basie to Buddy Rich. Cullum has curated playlists and booked local acts to play alongside him as he celebrates St. Regis’ musical legacy.


Much of Cullum’s encyclopedic knowledge of jazz comes from his compulsive record-buying habit. “I’m almost permanently on the lookout for new sounds,” he says. As a teenager he dug everything from grunge to hip hop, but also loved to mine charity shops for old records. “I started picking up jazz albums by artists like Herbie Hancock, Charlie Parker and Thelonious Monk almost by accident. If there was a hip-looking dude in a kaftan holding a saxophone on the cover, that usually worked for me!”


This is how he acquired many of his favorite albums, such as Duke Ellington’s Money Jungle, which has “the rawness of a punk record”. He now owns somewhere between 5,000 and 8,000 records, as well as about 5,000 CDs. “I’ve cut it down a little bit, but it’s actually quite a modest amount,” he says. “I know people with 15,000 vinyls, easily.”


He is not one to pay hundreds of dollars for rarities – if you know where to look, you don’t have to. And thanks to all the touring, Cullum has gotten to know many of the world’s best record shops. So where’s good? “In Paris, there’s a place called Oldies but Goodies. It’s the best store for old records in the world: a floor-to-ceiling library. America has a lot of good ones, too. Like Joe’s Record Paradise in Washington – for rock, rockabilly, jazz, hip hop… all the good stuff. When I’m in New York, I spend the most at Colony Records in Midtown, not too far from The St. Regis New York. Or Bleecker Street Records, another amazing one for collectors.”


One question remains. How much does his habit cost him a month? “Mmmmm, that’s a hard one!” he laughs. “I couldn’t even guess.”


Your address: The St. Regis Washington, D.C.; The St. Regis New York


Gentleman Racer

Goodwood House might have remained just another of England’s lesser-known stately homes were it not for the fact that its present incumbent, the entrepreneurial Earl of March and Kinrara, has put it well and truly on the map as the site of the Festival of Speed and Revival events which attract car enthusiasts from all corners of the globe. But while visitors to the interior of the rambling 17th-century property get an impressive display of Sèvres porcelain, furniture by William Kent and paintings by Canaletto and Stubbs, they are seldom privy to the contents of Lord March’s office, which is crammed to the ceiling with an eclectic mix of the sort of car and motorcycle-related trinkets that are commonly known
as “automobilia”.


Lord March began the collection in the 1970s. “My grandfather, the aristocrat-turned-racing driver Freddie March, used to send copies of Veteran and Vintage magazines to me at school, and one of the things I’m most attached to comes from that time of my life,” he says. “It’s a copy of The Treasury of the Automobile by the American cartoonist Ralph Stein, which was one of the first of the big, full-color car books to be published during the 1960s. I used to love the pictures of great cars such as Type 35 Bugattis, and I’d spend hours doing drawings of them. “My grandfather was a very good model-maker. He made lots of models of cars and aircraft, some of which I still have. I’m also trying to collect all of the original Goodwood motor-racing-event posters produced when he originally operated the circuit between 1948 and 1966.”


One of the pieces Lord March most cherishes is also one of the smallest: a trophy in the form of a cigarette lighter engraved with the image of a horse. “My grandfather won it when the Lancia Car Club staged the first hill climb event at Goodwood in 1936. It represents the start of motorsport at Goodwood, which makes it very special. I also have his tattered silk scarf and armband from his racing days, and a lovely Roy Nockolds pencil drawing showing him winning the Brooklands Double Twelve in 1934.”


But it is since the first Festival of Speed 21 years ago that his collection has really taken off. “People just give me things,” he says. “I have hundreds of model cars, dozens of crash helmets. One of my favorites is the helmet worn by the great American driver Dan Gurney when he was racing Ford GT40s. It is incredibly flimsy. “I also have a couple of Stetsons which were gifts from famous drivers. One came from Jim Hall, co-founder of the 1960s racing firm Chaparral, who presented it to me after I became one of relatively few people to drive one of the cars. The other belonged to the legendary NASCAR racer Richard Petty – it’s massive and decorated with strange animal bones and bits of fur. It’s possibly the maddest thing in the whole house.”


The 2015 Goodwood Festival of Speed takes place June 25 to 28 2015, and the Revival, September 11 to 13 2015, in Sussex, England.

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Warhol Wizard

“Picasso was the greatest artist in the first half of the 20th century, Andy Warhol in the second.” That’s the typically blunt opinion of Peter Brant, billionaire industrialist, entrepreneur and art collector, and his money has followed his mouth. Brant, 66, won’t specify how many Warhols he owns, but it’s in the hundreds, and he has thousands of other contemporary American artworks, by Jeff Koons, Jean-Michel Basquiat, Richard Prince… In a land of art collectors, he’s one of the best connected and grandest.
Brant, whose fortune derives from newsprint, lives in Greenwich, Connecticut, with his second wife, the former supermodel Stephanie Seymour. In 2009 he started The Brant Foundation to share his inventory, and this year he showed 130 Warhols – the result of a collecting career that began in 1967. “I was about 19 when I first bought a Warhol Soup Can drawing,” he says impassively, pointing out that he was following in parental footsteps. “My father [Murray Brant] collected classical paintings and Old Masters.” Another life-changing moment came on the slopes of St. Moritz. “As a teenager I met the art dealer Bruno Bischofberger while skiing,” Brant says. “He introduced me to [Warhol’s dealer] Leo Castelli.” Hooked, Brant then met Warhol in 1968, “just after he’d been shot”, and became a friend of the artist. “Although Andy was avant-garde, he was never interested in drugs or the self-destructive. He was a voyeur, interested in people.” Brant even produced a couple of Warhol films in the Seventies, L’Amour and Bad, and was surprised to find out how famous the artist was in Europe. So he kept buying Warhols, with the odd hiatus when he attended to horseracing and polo, and has remained true to his friend. While some reckon that his celebrity paintings squandered talent, Brant refutes this.
“I like all Andy’s work, particularly his pictures from the early Sixties,” he says. He’s proud of Licorice Marilyn (1962) and Shot Blue Marilyn (1964), both on show at the Foundation. Brant, who now owns Interview, the magazine Warhol founded, also learnt the art of acquisition from Warhol. “Andy was the quintessential collector,” he says. “We shared a taste in antique furniture and went on buying trips to Paris.” Warhol snapped up everything, from Art-Deco chairs to cookie jars. Contemporary art has enjoyed a bull market recently. Is it over? “On the contrary, I think it’s a better time than ever,” Brant says. “People say ‘You were lucky to live through those times.’ But art has never been more 
appreciated than now.” So look around, he exhorts. Find the new Andy.

The Brant Foundation Art Study Center, 941 North Street, Greenwich, Connecticut; By appointment

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King of Neon

Bracey's backyard in East London – christened “God’s Own Junk Yard” – is like Las Vegas’s Neon Boneyard in miniature: a four-decade jumble of industrial metal, discarded advertising signage, architectural salvage and, as he says, random letters that had been earmarked for recycling. His is a family trade – his father made neon signs, and Bracey has been beguiled by the art since he was a boy. The Londoner collects anything to do with old signs, and some of it he lovingly incorporates into new works of his own. “I might drag out an ‘L’ from a Planet Hollywood sign and an ‘O’ from the Trocadero and go on to spell out ‘LOVE’ on a backing board from an old First World War barracks,” he explains, describing the creative process. “I put it all together with old neon and bulbs, and then I fall in love with it. It’s carved from my heart.”


Other pieces he collects for the pure love of this vintage craft,
traveling the world to pick over old junkyards and secondhand shops. “I never throw anything away. I have loads of old signs my dad made for fairgrounds and circuses in the 1950s and 1960s, and then there are vintage American signs I found on road trips on Route 66,” he says.


Discarded neon from circuses, carnivals, end-of-the-pier joints,
London’s theaterland and Chinatown fill four warehouses across the city. Which has made Bracey the go-to guy as collector, artist and dealer when film companies want to recreate period sets for their productions. Batman’s Gotham City was propped with some of Bracey’s prized vintage signs, and Stanley Kubrick borrowed a few pieces and commissioned some new neon for Eyes Wide Shut. Vogue has shot fashion in his yard, and the artist Grayson Perry decorated a party with some neon that originally came from an old clip joint in London’s Soho.


These days, his own neon and colored-bulb artworks are garnering him a reputation internationally, with high-profile collectors such as Lady Gaga, Elton John and Mark Zuckerberg buying his pieces. At an exhibition of his work last winter, he showed one piece made from a weathered old metal stepladder, its surface thick with paint and plaster marks. He’d attached the words “Stairway to Heaven” in cool white scripted neon on its steps. “I’ve had the ladder for years and years,” he says, “I knew it would be useful one day.”