A Life in Fashion
By age twelve, I was designing my own extraordinary clothes. I loved hand-painting onto fabrics and working with leather and suede. During a spell in Rome, as a young post-graduate portrait painter, I was scouted, whilst wearing my own design, by the couture house of Sorelle Fontana, who dressed Audrey Hepburn, Ava Gardener, Claudia Cardinale, Gina Lollobrigida and, later, Jackie Kennedy. Painting fabrics and designing embroideries for their sumptuous gowns sent me in a new direction.
From the early 1960s, I was a successful fashion designer, creating twice-yearly collections from my airy design and production base in Lancashire. Throughout my career, I was a genuine British innovator, pioneering a trend for intricate, imaginatively-tailored couture leather and suede pieces, as well as hand-painted wedding and evening gowns. I dressed many celebrities along the way and frequently spotted my designs in film and TV productions.
Retail aficionados of my designs included specialist boutiques and high-end department stores, among them Harrods, Henri Bendel, Neiman Marcus, Sak’s Fifth Avenue and Bloomingdale’s.
Talk about being in the right place at the right time. Liverpool in the 1960s was something else. While my old friends The Beatles topped the charts, my atelier in Bold Street produced intricate and highly inventive couture creations in leather and suede for celebrities, trendsetters and influencers. I developed an array of signature hand-finishes, including geometric patchwork, vermicelli ruffles, braiding and – my personal favourite - hand-cut “lace” detailing (this was years before laser-cutting became available).
I have always loved making hats and caps; the 1960s were no exception. My most surreal commission was a collection of new cabin crew uniforms for Sabena (the national airline of Belgium) where A-line pastel leather mini skirts were teamed with matching pillbox hats.
One of my favourite and most creative decades, the 1970s was big on romance. I created hundreds of one-off wedding gowns, many of were hand-painted with botanicals, from lily-of-the-valley to orchids and clematis, or embellished with spectacular antique beaded panels scavenged from flea markets and vintage stores.
I was also “discovered in Bloomingdale’s” (WWD’s words, not mine!) by a head buyer who happened to be chatting to the owner of a leisure and sleepwear brand called Contessa. “That’s what we need!” she exclaimed. “Let’s find out who she’s wearing.” I designed fabrics and appliqué templates based on icons and fairytales; this was a wonderful role that saw me overseeing production on Caribbean islands – a dream come true.
The 1970s also saw me combining leather and suede with beautiful wool prints from Liberty and Soieries Nouveautés or Swiss embroidered fabrics.
In the 1980s, responding to demand from the top department stores and specialist boutiques, I scaled up production and started to produce twice-yearly collections of occasion-wear, which I showed at London Fashion Week and privately at the Savoy.
I sourced beautiful silk prints in Italy and France, as well as luscious and eye-wateringly expensive embroidered Swiss fabrics and worked with artisanal beading specialists such as Hand & Lock in London.
My designs sold brilliantly throughout the UK for weddings and Royal Ascot in particular; my secondary market in the US was almost as big, with Saks Fifth Avenue, Nieman Marcus and Henri Bendel among my American retailers and my tertiary market was the Middle East (particularly Kuwait and KSA).
The 1990s saw rapid growth with more stockists coming onstream who appreciated the fact that I was a real woman (with curves) designing for other real women. Somehow my cutting, draping and boning, combined with superb quality materials, always managed to make the the wearers look at least one size smaller.
I rediscovered my love of hand painted fabrics and incorporated all manner of influences – from Etruscan to1930s Art Deco – into fabric designs.
I also worked with the legendary textile artistto transform his wonderful designs into fabulous wearable art.