“How would I describe myself?” ponders Justin de Villeneuve. He considers the question for some time, before breaking into a trademark grin that manages to express both delight and temerity. “I think ‘chancer’ just about covers it, doesn’t it?” Well, yes and no. It’s true that, in the course of his 78 years, de Villeneuve has done more than his fair share of ducking and diving, not to mention bobbing and weaving. But the word fails to capture the protean essence of a man who’s lived more lives than he’s had names. He’s been a boxer, a bodyguard, a bookmaker, a nudie-film salesman, an antique dealer, a hairdresser, a singer, an interior decorator, and most notably, a photographer.
‘Iconic’ is a wearily overused term today, but no other description seems fitting for the picture that de Villeneuve took for the cover of Pin Ups, David Bowie’s 1973 album. The bare-chested, pan-sticked, vermilion-haired Bowie stares the viewer down from his androgynous pomp, but it’s the mask-like face of the woman reclining on his shoulder that still catches de Villeneuve’s eye. He ‘discovered’ Twiggy in 1965 and spent the ensuing decade at her side, the Svengali-like figure who transformed a gawky Cockney teenager into the world’s first supermodel. “We were Twiggy and Justin,” he grins, “We came as a package. She deferred to me, and I devoted all my time and energy to her.” The percentage of de Villeneuve’s early fashion photography that stars Twiggy is a lasting testament to his devotion. “We were right at the centre of a scene, it’s true,” says de Villeneuve. “And I’d never taken a photo before and I didn’t know anything about or anyone in the fashion business. But, as far as success in any field goes, I’ve always believed that looking the part is just as, if not more important than being able to act the part.”
Born Nigel John Davies in Hackney, East London, to a bricklayer father and housewife mother, the future Justin de Villeneuve left school aged 15 and earned a living as a boxer under the name Tiger Davies (“my first soubriquet”). Having earned his stripes, the young Davies was employed by various East End villains as a bodyguard, auction barker, and all-purpose factotum, eventually ending up under the aegis of the Kray brothers. “Nothing dastardly,” he says, “just a bit of security here, a bit of merchandising there.” The most important lesson de Villeneuve took from Ron, Reg and their ilk was one of presentation. “The villains were the dressers then,” he says. “If you were a working-class Londoner, it was the villains’ look you aspired to.” Spending the lion’s share of his ill-gotten earnings in the mid-1950s on sharp garments from Soho boutiques, de Villeneuve says, “I didn’t have a home as such, but I always had my suits.”
His belief that appearances count for everything was confirmed when de Villeneuve catered Vidal Sassoon’s first wedding “with a load of dodgy wine that I’d knocked off, which tasted like paint stripper,” the posh labels that he’d affixed convincing grimacing guests that it really was charmingly presumptuous stuff. He also found himself hired as Vidal’s assistant. Still a teenager, he served as a dogsbody at Sassoon’s Bond Street premises under the moniker Christian St. Forget — “I thought you needed a poncy French name to work in hairdressing,” he says. It was at his friend Leonard’s salon, however, that de Villeneuve would encounter the woman who’d change his life.