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VV Brown has high hopes. For starters, the 25-year-old pompadoured Londoner hopes to top the Billboard charts when her debut album, “Traveling Like the Light,” drops in February on Capitol Records. On top of that, Brown (whose first name is Vanessa) also wants to make inroads in the fashion industry with her new online clothing outpost, VV Vintage. And, oh yes, with all the spare time she’ll have, she hopes to land some ad campaigns with the help of her new contract with Select Model Management (her 5-foot, 10-inch frame should help matters).
If Brown’s reception in her native U.K., where her album was released earlier this year, is any indication, the singer-songwriter just might get her way. Thanks to her catchy retro-pop single “Crying Blood” (about a messy breakup), Brown spent this year hitting that country’s benchmarks for pop stardom. She was nominated for a BBC Sound of 2009 Award (an honor that went to another English female act, Little Boots), and performed on “Later With Jools Holland,” a mandatory stop for aspiring musical talent. This past summer, Brown continued her hot streak by making rounds on the music festival circuit, where she played top venues such as Glastonbury.
But music is only part of Brown’s package. At a time when pop stars are using teacups as accessories and leaving the house without pants, Brown has opted for a slightly more refined — though no less distinct — style. She describes her look as “Fifties glam couture,” though it’s actually made up of thrift store finds and the occasional ready-to-wear piece by houses that include Balenciaga, Viktor & Rolf and Chanel. “I’m like a Pollock painting,” explains Brown, “I just splash whatever on.” And then there is her trademark Fifties pinup hairdo, which Brown styles herself and claims she can achieve in less than 10 minutes. “It’s just evolved to this giant thing on my head,” she says with a laugh.
That try-this-at-home spirit inspired Brown to launch VV Vintage, an online shop, which went live in June. With all items retailing for less than $50, the site is stocked with the kind of mix-and-match pieces Brown would snap up at thrift stores. (Highlights include a Boy George-esque multicolored bow tie, a white Grecian-inspired evening gown and a Mod mint green short-sleeve blazer with white piping.) While a brick-and-mortar shop in London is in the works, it’s safe to say the project is still in the very early stages of development. “I’m happy if I sell one item a month,” says Brown, who also admits: “I’ve been really bad with the way it’s marketed.”
Perhaps all of the attention Brown has already received from the fashion industry will help business. In February, she scored a gig performing at the spring show of outré London designer Ashish Gupta, and appeared in a fashion spread in the May issue of British Vogue. Just last month, she performed during the Paris collections at an event hosted by Paco Rabanne, wearing one of the designer’s black-and-white disc capes from 1990.
“I think people respect when you are [an] individual and you have the ability to march to the beat of your own drum with your clothes,” says Brown of the fashion-focused attention. That’s certainly true in the case of Gupta, who booked Brown after she wore his design on her “Jools Holland” appearance. “I was blown away by [Brown] the first time I saw her [on TV],” recalls the designer. “I met up with her for coffee a few days later, and she was dressed in the most insane vintage dress with her hair up in her signature roll, and I remember thinking, ‘Oh my God. She is amazing.’”
And if that kind of effortless vintage style seems put on, fellow British chanteuse Estelle, who has known Brown for several years, insists it’s not. “The whole rockabilly thing — that’s really her,” she says. “VV didn’t just sit down and think of a gimmick.”
Brown insists the same goes for her self-described “doo-wop indie sound,” which has drawn obvious comparisons with Amy Winehouse and Duffy. “When you hear them, you are back in the Fifties,” she says. “But I’m doing something a little different. I am a huge fan of Grace Jones and David Bowie. But I was also raised in the gospel church. So I love the old gospel singers. And the sound of crackly vinyl, and things like that. They are all kind of inside my music, mixed together.” A multi-instrumentalist, Brown also uses unorthodox noise-makers, such as megaphones, and even experimented with Eighties video game sound effects on the “Crying Blood” track.
But Brown didn’t always have the opportunity to express her individuality. At 19, she packed her bags and left London for Los Angeles, where she recorded an R&B album under the name Vanessa. The project ended up going nowhere — something Brown is now grateful for. “I was young, impressionable and making a record that didn’t connect with who I truly was as a person,” she recalls. “I really hated that album.” Homesick, the singer eventually returned to London, where she began work on “Traveling Like the Light.” “I thought, ‘Well, let me try to make a record in a place I’m familiar with,’” she says. “Because I think it makes an honest record that will connect and translate all over the world.”