The Saatchi and Saatchi of pop

Within a week of release, Frankie Goes to Hollywood climbed straight to Number One in the album charts with Welcome to the Pleasure Dome. The controversial group played in Washington D.C. last Tuesday as the American presidential election results rolled in. They have been spotted at most society parties in London this year. Nothing that Frankie does is by accident.

It’s all part of the big hustle for success, masterminded by one of the most unlikely ‘shadows’ in the pop world. A two-year-old company XL Design, operating from a small office in the heart of London’s music industry, has become to pop what Saatchi and Saatchi are to politics.


The ‘packaging’ of Kim Wilde, Wham, Nik Kershaw and Nick Heyward is in the hands of a roly-poly 35 year old. Tom Watkins, managing director of XL, is the stars’ guru. He designs their record sleefves, makes their videos and supervises their ads. He even advises where they should live and be seen.

Frankie’s clever album-cover showing Picasso-style animals involved in an orgy, and the advertisements with a David Frost voice-over are all devised by XL Design.

Says Watkins: “We did not have to tell Holly Johnson or Paul Rutherford how to dress because they have got it together. The three other band members don’t really matter because no one really knows who they are.

“We told the group to be seen at every happening they could. Paul must have been to nearly every important event this year. We didn’t have to tell them which parties to go to – Holly and Paul knew instinctively. We do absolutely everything to promote bands, even telling them that they are living in the wrong part of London.

“It is no good living in Knightsbridge or Kensington because they are not credible areas. I would advise potential stars to live in Deptford, Peckham, Millwall or the Isle of Dogs.’

It is not just the new stars who come under the XL ‘insurance scheme’. They also take on performers whose careers have waned. But it all costs money.

The price was £10,000 for a fortnight to re-vamp sultry blonde singer Kim Wilde. XL designed a range of stunning leather outfits and made the video for her latest single The Second Time.

Watkins, who runs his empire dressed in baggy tee-shirt and jeans which barely conceal his ample bulk, says about the transformation of Kim Wilde: “When Kim’s record company sent her to see me she had no style. She was a jeans and tee-shirt girl, who never had the ability to put clothes together. Kim said she liked the sixties Batswoman and Barbarella style, so she had a number of outfits designed on those themes.”


We wrapped her in bandages for her video which was shot in a collapsed futurist set. We prodded and pushed her around, tucking bits of her in here and there, but in the end we got what we wanted.”

Pretty-boy star Nik Kershaw came to XL worried that he only attracted teeny-boppers. Says Watkins: “His manager put him into Gary Glitter-style clothes which made him look ridiculous, especially as he is only about five feet tall. He ended up looking like something between a trussed turkey and a mini-model. He never really wanted to be a teeny-bop idol. He was just made into one, so we had to reverse the process without losing any of his fans. We turned him into something more sophisticated – someone with credibility.”

In his Human Racing video, Nik Kershaw almost looks hunky and tough, which was achieved by putting him in simple but expensive clothes and clever shots.

The plastic boys of pop, Wham, even went to XL for advice. They were given a sleeker, more sophisticated-looking image, wearing smart Italian suits. XL also designed the graphics and shot their video.

Nick Heyward has always been a snappy dresser but Watkins advised him “to get away from the coy-boy-next-door image and change his musical direction.” Heyward’s new Warning Sign video sees a more adult star, singing a fast number in a bright red nightclub.

So who will be the equivalent of ‘Frankie’ next year? Watkins believes he already has them under his wing – Pet Shop Boys and Spelt Like This. He’s working on their image now!