Encounters: The Violinist Charlie Siem Strikes a High Note in Fashion

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Encounters: The Violinist Charlie Siem Strikes a High Note in Fashion

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Encounters

By ELIZABETH PATON

LONDON — His chiseled features have fronted a campaign for the British men’s brand Dunhill, smoldered in black-and-white advertisements for Giorgio Armani and Dior fragrances, and graced the pages of L’Uomo Vogue.

Fashion insiders were left breathless in January by his energetic catwalk performance at the Giambattista Valli show in Paris. And he drew more gasps two months later, appearing in the front row on the arm of Wendi Murdoch.

But this fashion It boy is neither a model nor an actor, neither a playboy nor a prince. Charlie Siem is one of the rising stars in classical music. British-born and educated at Eton College and Cambridge University, he is a violin virtuoso who has played with some of the world’s top orchestras, including the Royal Philharmonic and the London Symphony.

The 30-year-old, who began playing the violin at 3, regularly writes his own musical compositions and, aside from his fashion forays, has collaborated onstage with a host of pop and rock stars, including Lady Gaga, Bryan Adams and the Who.

Mr. Siem is intensely passionate when talking about classical music, and mildly bemused when pushed on being the subject of the fashion world’s fawning admiration. As he climbed into the back of a taxi on a misty afternoon here last month, he was pragmatic about the exposure fashion had given his flourishing career.

“It’s been a way of finding a whole new audience for my music,” he said outside his parents’ house on the fringes of Hyde Park, where he stays whenever he is in London. Wrapped in a cashmere sweater, instrument at his feet, Mr. Siem was on his way to collect a suit from his tailors in Mayfair before a concert later that evening.

“My first steps into fashion were five years ago, which was just when men’s wear brands started having an interest in using real people as models,” he said, as the car picked its way through leafy streets. “Having artists, musicians and personalities in campaigns is relatively mainstream now. But back then, I was definitely part of an early wave.”

Among his earliest admirers was Mr. Valli, who said he’d hoped to have Mr. Siem play at one of his shows for some time.

“He truly is an extraordinary character, unpredictable, eccentric, so timelessly chic,” Mr. Valli said. “Then finally, in January, along came the right collection, where the intensity of Charlie’s musical interpretation perfectly matched the tension of the silhouettes, sharp like the sound of the strings of his violin.”

Mr. Siem said that he has made many friends in the fashion world. But he added that they had also given him insight into the rather unpredictable and chaotic nature of the industry, one very different from the rigors of classical music.

“Everything I’ve ever been booked to do has been so last minute: 24 hours’ notice, sometimes less,” Mr. Siem said. “It is a bit odd, when you think about it, given how they are often spending millions of dollars on their marketing. Sometimes I do wonder, shouldn’t they be thinking about it all a little bit more? I am amazed at how it all always seems to come together.”

With a relentless travel schedule that has him on the road over 300 days a year, performing in countries like China, Mexico, Italy, Norway and the United States, not to mention hours of practice each day, it is hardly surprising that when it comes to what he wears onstage, Mr. Siem chooses decisively to think less.

“It’s just easier to wear the same thing, isn’t it?” he said. “A uniform of sorts. I needed something specifically engineered for all the movement that takes place during a performance. Trying to wear traditional suiting is virtually impossible. So I decided to design something myself.”

The car slowed outside the location of the Mayfair tailors who assisted him in the creation of said suit: dark navy trousers and a stand collar jacket that closes on both shoulders, removing the need for a shirt and tie.

Smaller than its peers on nearby Savile Row, Meyer & Mortimer is nevertheless renowned in the world of British custom tailoring for creating military and ceremonial attire since the 1790s.

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Amid its mahogany-paneled walls and swatches of tweeds and herringbones, worn leather sofas, bearskin hats and scarlet red brocaded jackets stood Mr. Siem, briskly trying things on.

A stylish powder blue double-breasted dinner jacket came and went. So, too, did the concert suit. It appeared to fit like a glove, the high neck concealing a bruise that exists permanently under the left side of his distinctive jaw, a battle wound from thousands upon thousands of hours playing his violin.

“Unfortunately there is a bit of a design fault with the concert suit,” he said with a furrow of his brow as it was packed at the counter. “There is this double layering of material now, you see, and the high neck means in foreign countries and under bright lights it becomes unbearably hot. I become like Niagara Falls, with great streams of sweat pouring down my face.”

Although he grinned, Mr. Siem certainly gives the sense that he is intensely devoted to his craft. He was born in London to a Norwegian businessman father and South African mother (neither of whom was musical) willing to support him in what he called “my immediate and all-encompassing obsession.” That said, they never let him attend a vocational school.

“With hindsight, I’m pleased they didn’t,” he said. “I never faced the pressures that come with that sort of life. By them making me keep my options open, I was forced to keep questioning and looking inside myself to make sure this was what I actually wanted to do. And I did. I can completely and wholeheartedly own that decision.”

Actually, fiddling does run in the family. Mr. Siem is a descendant of the 19th-century Norwegian violin virtuoso and composer Ole Bull, a wild musician who sold soap bars with his name on them and who built his own fairy-tale-style castle on an island where Mr. Siem played a concert last year.

“I was fascinated by him as a very shy child,” Mr. Seim said. “He was a wild character and supreme talent, and an amazing early self-promoter. He was a huge influence on how I thought about myself, how I could warm to the limelight and the path I became determined to take.”

Dusk had fallen as he climbed back into the taxi for a final journey, to the recital space in Hampstead, a wealthy neighborhood in the north of the city.

These days, he said, a classical musician is almost perceived as an interpreter of music that was written in the past. And his chosen role, as a violinist willing to straddle multiple genres and flirt with popular culture, has put him in the firing line of some purists.

“There are lots of elitists, I suppose, who are still slavishly devoted to a particular way of thinking about how classical music should be,” he said. “They can be incredibly judgmental about anything outside their idealized point of view.”

He stressed that he had learned powerful lessons from performing with pop stars. Never a natural performer, he saw firsthand the importance of connecting with the audience in a physical and visceral way.

“When you play Brahms or Beethoven, technically you really need to focus on pieces that are incredibly and exhaustively demanding,” Mr. Siem said. “Whereas with a pop song, musically there is no challenge at all. Most of them are only based around three or four chords.”

“With classical, the art is in the music,” he added. “But with pop, emotions and narratives can also be conveyed in the energy that you can create in that moment.”

Michal Nesterowicz, a leading conductor with whom Mr. Siem has performed regularly, called him an ambassador of classical music, with appeal beyond the traditional fan base. “He has a natural and limitless imagination, a crisp intensity to his sound regardless of environment dynamics and is a determined dreamer, full of humility towards music,” Mr. Nesterowicz said.

As the taxi pulled up to its destination, Mr. Siem went quiet for a moment, looking out of the window.

His existence, despite so often being surrounded by or performing to people, appears a rather solitary one. A handful of old friends from school remain in his life, but the challenges of finding and maintaining new relationships have proved substantial. He sees members of the so-called Charlie’s Angels, a fan club of middle-aged women who follow him around the world, far more regularly than his friends at home.

“It is all worth the sacrifice, not least as I was never especially social anyway,” he said with a dazzling smile. “My great love is my music. I will change what needs to be changed, do what needs to be done, go wherever I need to go in order to carry on.”

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