Susanna Andrew finds out how a message of gratitude led to the fascinating friendship between fashion designer Susie Cave and photographer Deborah Smith.
A few years ago, when Kiwis could harmlessly pop across the ditch for a holiday, Deborah Smith got on a plane for a trip to Sydney, buckled up, sat back and began to watch a film. Soaring 36,000 feet above the Tasman, she found herself taking notes, overwhelmed with sadness and inextricably drawn to the couple in the film she was watching.
That film was One More Time with Feeling, a documentary which follows Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds recording the album Skeleton Tree in the wake of the tragic death of Nick and his wife Susie Cave’s 15-year-old son, Arthur, who fell from a cliff. The main subject is legendary rock star Nick, but it is the beautiful and somewhat reclusive Susie who the audience strains to see. A fashion designer and former supermodel, and the subject of some of the greatest love songs ever written, Susie keeps a shrouded presence in the film, maintaining her dignity and moving in and out of the shadows as the camera captures this shocking and unexpected rupture in their lives.
When the plane landed in Sydney, Deborah took out her phone and wrote a candid and heartfelt message to Susie, thanking her for her presence and generosity in sharing this great rawness. For Deborah, the film was one of the most powerful meditations on grief she’d seen.
“A platitude bypass” she calls it. At the end of the film, Nick says, “After a while, Susie and I decided to be happy. This happiness seemed to be an act of revenge, an act of defiance. To care about each other and others.”
Deborah never expected to hear back from Susie. She simply wanted to express her gratitude to this woman for allowing this piece of work into the world. A month or so later, Deborah’s phone pinged.
When I ask Susie Cave via email how a direct message from an unknown woman in New Zealand worked through the layers on her social media feed, she says, “It was probably a year after we had lost Arthur, and I saw a very moving series of posts on the Cloud Workshop Instagram using my husband’s record Skeleton Tree as a theme, to help young people deal with the loss of family members. I was very touched by the children and young people who had lost loved ones, but also by the generosity and tenacity of Cloud Workshop’s founder Deborah Smith.”
Skeleton Tree is an intensely personal, broken album, recorded at a time of overwhelming grief, and Susie loved the way Deborah had used Nick’s music as a way of assisting the children. She admits contacting Deborah was an unusual thing for her to do, as she is a very private person.
“But when you are grieving, you do unusual things,” Susie says. “I mean, grief is a kind of madness; we grievers can see it in others. I saw it in Deborah, that sort of raging force – part love, part fury – and I was compelled to call her.
“The work I saw her doing was very beautiful, with so much strength and integrity,” Susie continues. “It was a kind of lesson for me, right there, seeing how these young children coped. So I contacted Deb to say how much I admired the incredible work she did.”
To begin with, the pair communicated by text. Late at night in the frictionless world of the internet, they began to write to each other, and text messages soon evolved to emails. This is the story of a truly 21st-century friendship.
The power of grief
Deborah is the co-founder of Cloud Workshop, which runs art-based programmes for grieving children. She set up the organisation 13 years ago when she saw a need for something that wasn’t there.
“My beloved dad died of melanoma when I was 18,’’ she says. “It was brutal. There was no hospice back then, and he died at home. Therapy didn’t appear to exist. I just wanted to get away from the ‘hall of mirrors’ that was our grief and the confines of my small hometown.”
Deborah thinks she survived by going straight to university, followed by art school and delving into the world of music and politics. In retrospect, however, she believes the trauma bowled her youngest brother Tyrone. “He was a beautiful, sensitive kid, alert to everything, and he was only 12 when Dad died.”
There is a lot of evidence that supports the theory that life-shattering events affect children in ways that are not necessarily evident on the surface.
“People say kids are resilient, and they are – they cry one moment and want to play the next,” says Deborah. “But grief can crack them open just a little bit and that fracture means that they are vulnerable in a different way. It astonished me 13 years ago when I saw how little there was available for grieving young people to engage in.”
Grief is Deborah’s forte, her specialist subject; closure and completion are some of her most hated words. “Once a bereaved child, always a bereaved child,’’ she maintains. “It doesn’t mean you can’t have a wonderful life, but you need to feel understood and supported to integrate this trauma into your life.”
The idea behind Cloud Workshop was to give grieving children a space to come together and be with other kids who are in the same boat.
“We sometimes call it the Dead Parents Society – a club you never want to belong to,” Deborah says, adamant that the workshops be full of light and a certain amount of irreverence for death. “When it’s really dark, it’s useful to be alongside others and know that presence.”
Cloud Workshop has a loyal collection of volunteers from all walks of life – artists, designers, doctors, teachers, mothers, students and therapists. Deborah initially started working out of the local hospice with her co-founder Melissa Anderson Scott, and staged workshops in places like art galleries and community halls until she was gifted a permanent space by her friends Sharon and Neil Finn within their Auckland music studio. The Finns are long-time supporters of Cloud Workshop and always ensure the Christmas parties are very special.
All of Deborah’s art projects for kids are unique. Some have become staples, such as the Joseph Cornell boxes, which are narrative dioramas – small assemblages of assorted things placed in shallow boxes. Deborah has become obsessed with finding things for her workshops, often triggered by what’s happening in the art world, which she then teases out and narrows down to fit a few hours of work capable of holding the attention of the children and teenagers. It is pretty obvious she loves the work very much.
Susie returns my emails, and I’m aware she prefers the shadows to the limelight. A few years ago she launched her fashion label The Vampire’s Wife with the motto “to make things beautiful by making beautiful things”. Her designs are late-Victorian inspired, both romantic and gothic; maxi dresses belonging to another era yet deeply modern, made with the lightest Liberty fabrics, with structured sleeves hoarding nostalgia. I ask Susie about the paradigm of wearing clothes that are so bold, yet not wanting to be seen.
“The dress is armour,” she explains. “I feel I can retreat behind one of my dresses, hide inside them, but when I want to walk into a room and take over the place, they have that power too.”
Earlier this year, The Guardian profiled Susie’s success and name-checked a suite of rich and famous women who wear her clothes – an impressive A-list including the Duchess of Cambridge, Kate Moss, Sienna Miller and Tilda Swinton. Vogue has named one of her dresses “the dress of the decade”. It’s a kind of luxurious fame that most designers dream of, but Susie is not your usual presence on fashion’s runway. She’s a cool other player, curious and stylish, and with a penchant for a well-dressed cat. On her Instagram feed, a squirrel has taken up residence in her home in London. She calls him Chaos.
I wonder if it’s strange for her to know that her marriage to Nick Cave is one of those fairy tales that bring comfort to the jaded. The image of the two of them together in the media appears both quaint and devotional. When I ask the standard questions such as “What are you grateful for right now?” and “What are you loving right now?” Susie’s answers come back plain: “My husband” and “the squirrel”.
When Susie accompanied her husband to New Zealand on tour a few of years ago, she and Deborah met in person for the first time, at Hotel DeBrett’s Housebar.
“Susie walked in, sat down and pulled out a bronze bunny from her handbag,” recalls Deborah. “It was a gift acknowledging my brother Tyrone who had died several months earlier. There may have been tears.”
The pair talked for an hour, bonding over children’s books, fragments of writing that drive them both wild, small dogs and loss. Then they headed to Maungakiekie/One Tree Hill to drink more tea and talk inside a special tree.
The next day Susie attended a workshop with the children at Cloud. They were so besotted, Snow White may as well have turned up. About halfway through the session, Nick walked in.
“It was a total surprise, nobody knew he was coming,” says Deborah. “He just turned up, sat down and started making things with the kids. We introduced him as Susie’s boyfriend. The children were kind to him, but it was Susie they were enchanted by.”
In 2019, when Cloud Workshop teamed up with London organisation Slow Group to run a summer workshop, Susie went along armed with research, images, exquisite fabrics and trimmings, and her friend Bella Freud, a fellow fashion designer.
“There’s something otherworldly about her, yet absolutely clear and strong too,” Deborah says of Susie. “She’s courageous.”
There’s something otherworldly about her, yet absolutely clear and strong too. She’s courageous
Both women have impressive children’s book collections fossicked from second-hand dealers and fairs. Susie recalls looking for books in an Australian bookshop for her sons, who were very young at the time, and discovering The Faraway Tree by Enid Blyton.
“I loved the illustrations of the clothes the little boys wore and I tried to dress my boys in those colours too,” Susie says.
Everything used by The Vampire’s Wife is recycled and sustainable. Scraps from Tilda Swinton’s red carpet gown ended up in the fabric box at Cloud Workshop, and when Florence + the Machine toured New Zealand, Susie jumped on the phone and organised a bunch of free concert tickets for some of the kids. She sees connections like the weave of fabric holding everything together.
I ask Susie how she sees the role of fashion in the world. “Some people see fashion as a lesser form,” she says. “It’s only fashion and fashion is not everything, but in my view it’s a way of placing yourself in the world, of inhabiting the world, of being beautiful in the world. Beyond that, there are our actions. Small acts of kindness have a huge impact, and this is what I saw in Cloud Workshop – a deep and necessary kindness.”
IMAGES VIA NICK CAVE, NICHOLAS STEVENS, SØLVE SUNDSBØ