The boat that rocks: on the water with Mat Whitley
“Who lives in a house like this” is definitely a question you’d find yourself pondering if you somehow came to be snooping around this Notting Hill narrowboat, with or without Loyd Grossman in tow. The answer? Cabaret director and travelling tailor Mat Whitley.
The first clue is what Mat describes as the ‘walk-through wardrobe’: two rails crammed with bold and beautiful suits that line the entrance to his floating abode. The second is the eclectic, somewhat theatrical interior, which Mat and his former girlfriend, Poodle, relished decorating when they first moved onto the houseboat 10 years ago.
“We were living in a flat down the road prior this, and we’d been given notice. I remembered that a friend of mine had a boat, and it turned out that it was available,” says Mat, founder of London variety show Medium Rare and tailoring brand Whitley. “The moment I saw it, I knew we had to live here. My friend said to me that he thought we’d last two weeks.”
A decade later, the novelty has yet to wear off and Mat can’t imagine living anywhere else. “The reality is so much better than I could possibly have imagined,” he says. Very much intrigued, we found ourselves a comfy spot by the little woodburning stove and settled in for a chat.
What’s the best thing about living on a boat?
Well, for starters, you can go to any fabric shop and pick out the most expensive material you can find, ask for a metre, and that’s your curtains sorted. Also I loved paring everything down to the bare essentials while still living in comfort. I mean, really, how much do you need? I only have around four plates now, as you can’t seat more than four people in here at a time.
And how do you find life on the water?
I’m a bit jammy in that I have a permanent mooring, so we don’t have a nomadic lifestyle. The people on the other side of the canal have to move their boats every two weeks or so, which must be a lot tougher. But there’s nothing like waking up to the water, and the birdlife. It sounds silly, but over the years, you see the all ducks have babies, and the moorhens have babies… well, the moorhens actually kill most of their babies because they’re not very nice.
Don’t tell us that! Really?
Yes. Vicious, vicious birds. There was a nest on the canal a bit further down, and if any unsuspecting other creature swam past, they’d go straight for them. Even the swans.
We did not know that about moorhens. Other than avian infanticide, are there any other downsides to living here?
No, not really. I don’t miss living on dry land at all. If I had lots of money, I think I’d just buy a bigger boat.
And we’ve heard this has a reputation as a bit of a party boat…
It has been. We used to take her out for what we called the ‘bateau d’amour’ cruises in the summer. We’d head west of here to a grassy area where we’d moor up and project films. I’d put up lanterns and, because I produce cabaret shows, I had some pallets, which we used for seating. It was the only way we could entertain really.
Yes, tell us about cabaret. How did that come about?
Well I’ve been running events in the area for a long time, from a Super 8 film club to a night called Three Cherry Jackpot. I hate the expression ‘pop up’ but I guess that’s what it was. We were open from the beginning of September until Christmas and it cost £20 to become a member. I think I’ve done around 12 different clubs in the Notting Hill area in that format, where we’d have performers, films, a dinner and a disco.
Was there anything about like that at the time?
There was no space for strange performers, no. Not anything that wasn’t mainstream. I’m not talking about avant-garde, just quirky and funny. I wanted it to be accessible.
So this was the beginning of Medium Rare?
Yes. We got a bit of sponsorship from a film company, so we could set up in an Edwardian music hall in Shepherd’s Bush. My idea of entertainment is dinner and a show, so that’s what we did. Speakeasy style. That’s how it started, 20 years ago. It’s been extraordinary.
And the tailoring? How did you get into that?
Some years ago, Poodle and I went to Tangier and discovered that it was a hub for artisans and craftspeople, particularly tailors. I’m partial to a suit, so I had one made. I came back to England and somebody said, “I love your suit, where did you get that? I want one!” And the penny dropped.
Did you have to retrain?
I don’t have any formal training, so we thought we’d concentrate on what we were good at and leave the tailors to do their work. We source the fabrics, and then meet with clients to discuss and measure up. I used to travel to clients or work out of my club in Soho. However, I’ve very recently taken a little office down the road. I say office, more of a den of iniquity and/or bar.
Book us in. Do you have a favourite suit?
I think it’s probably the first one I had made in Tangier, which is in a whacky, colourful tweed. And I love French workwear, which is more unstructured and also washable. Suits can be highly practical in that respect. The great thing about having a three-piece suit is that you feel warm and contained, even when you take your jacket off. And it does elevate one from the humdrum, and from the jeans look.
Do you ever wear jeans?
I haven’t owned a pair of jeans since about 1985.
A strong decade for denim. Are there any great Whitley clients you can tell us about?
The maître d’ at Quo Vadis, Jon Spiteri, is a dear friend of mine. He was wearing one of my suits and Ian Wright came in for lunch and admired it. Ian then called me up, which I thought must be a prank as I’m an Arsenal fan and I couldn’t quite believe it. Anyway, I ended up making a few suits for Ian, and subsequently Tony Adams. I remember sitting having lunch with Ian and Tony and thinking, “Is this really happening?”
That’s the kind of occasion when you really need someone you know to walk past. So, what do you do when you’re not tailoring or organising variety shows?
I quite like being at home really. But I do like to burn the candle a little… and I love dancing.
Who doesn’t? Where do you go?
Well, the boat has just enough space to dance. The other night I came back and I put on ‘Stop Making Sense’, which I’ve watched about 400 times, and danced for about two hours. David Byrne is just amazing.
Smiling at the image of a besuited Mat dancing around his boat to Talking Heads in the wee small hours, we bid him farewell and hopped back onto dry land, keeping our eyes peeled for those murderous moorhens.
For sartorial inspiration, and perhaps some new threads, head to Whitley, where you’ll spot the likes of Hugh Bonneville and Ian Wright looking dapper in Mat’s bespoke creations.
All dressed up and nowhere to go? Look no further than Medium Rare, home of the ‘weird, wild and supremely talented’. We’ll see you there.