BLACK TIE TALES
My Fashion Odyssey
Fashion has played an enormous part in my own journey through life. I’ve spent three decades working in public relations and promotions involving prestige ready-to-wear designers and speciality retailers – studying their heritage, advising on their future and immersing myself at the very heart of international sales and prestige – the essence of the ‘business of fashion’, without all this I wouldn’t have absorbed the cultural DNA that has formed the backbone of my books. Referring to this essay as an ‘Odyssey’ seemed apposite. My career path has been a long, eventful and adventurous – occasionally tortuous – journey, so much so that when I stepped back in 1999 and was mulling over topics for the books I wanted to write, I toyed with the idea of penning a memoir called Black Tie & Tales. Tracing my own successes (and failures) in navigating the complex world of fashion foibles being an adventure in itself, I felt I was well positioned to pen some behind-the-scenes stories about the spectacular rise – and sometimes equally spectacular falls – of a few of the cast of characters in an industry that by the 1990’s had become a global force-field.
Given that fashion is a business full of rivalry, eccentricities and extravagant excesses – as well as being possessed of beauty, grace and glamour – it should have been a lush scenario for a writer to explore. Having worked on projects and events involving Hollywood stars; rock stars; sports stars; design stars – and the biggest royal star of all – Diana, Princess of Wales, the dramatis personae presented endless possibilities. And yet, it proved complex. The stories were too emotional. The truth is that for all the glitz and gloss, there has always been a darker and often lonely side to the business, riddled as it is by creative angst, vanity and jealousy, the whole obscured by an exquisite mask of bold pretence, often hiding the pain underneath. When American writer Kennedy Fraser wrote perceptively: ‘the fashion world’s a dangerous place, the most vulnerable don’t survive it’, she was absolutely right!
Being dropped – often on a whim – has long been an integral part of the system as the manufacturers behind ‘Designer Labels’ changed agencies – just as magazines changed editors as they all jostled aggressively for brand-building supremacy. Designers themselves often fared particularly badly. Some, rich in belief in their own self-importance, imploded – not helped by working in an industry awash with liquor and cocaine. Some simply faded away, their work eclipsed by new names. A few dropped out seeking solace in a different career and a quieter life, while others became hugely – staggeringly – rich. It is also all too easy to pass over the most terrible anguish of all, that of those in the creative community who died of Aids. Remembering the roll call of fallen talent is something I will touch on later in this essay, doing so from the personal stance of having lost friends – and clients – from the disease that tragically decimated swathes of the fashion world in the 1980’s.
In the end I decided against writing that book. From my personal perspective, the biggest problem in trying to balance the scales between explaining the quest for fame and fortune in a deeply competitive world and what is required to achieve it, is that you can’t write an expose unless you ‘tell everything’ – and there were things I didn’t want to tell. Time of course mellows memories and I have now decided it might be fun to jot (most) of them down. So, for those interested in my own personal adventure, here’s how it all began.
My earliest – if somewhat hazy – memories of a 1950’s childhood spent growing up with my older sister near Hampstead Heath, involve roses. Our father was a dab-hand at growing them and hovered anxiously as my mother enthusiastically waved secateurs to cut his precious blooms. Embedded in my memory bank, the rich scent of rose is one of my favourites to this day and I’m rarely without a vase of my own garden roses on my desk. Redoute’s rose prints – framed in pink of course – hang on my bathroom walls and amongst the clutter of bottles and jars on my dressing table you can always find Pure Essentials organic moisturising rose oil, Elemis rose cleansing balm and Bulgari’s shimmering bottle of Rose Goldea Eau de Parfum.
In a childhood quest to earn extra pocket money at the age of 9 or so, my artistic sister once picked the best blooms in the borders, bunched them up with ribbon and spent a busy morning selling them on the street corner for a shilling a posy. She did well – probably due to the hand painted card saying the funds were ‘for charity’. In reality, the cash went into her purse and it was a good scam until a neighbour alerted our mother who closed down the enterprise.
At what age are memories – scented or otherwise – irrevocably sealed in our psyche I wonder? Mine seem to start when I was around 6 and centre on my amazing maternal grandmother, undoubtedly the most enduring influence in my younger and teenage life. A superb professional cook (in a virtually all-male dominated food sector) my widowed grandmother manned the acclaimed kitchen and dining room at the prestigious West Hill Golf Club in Brookwood, Surrey. Our family spent most weekends there in the idyllic spot where my mother had grown up with her two brothers – practically living on the golf course – from where she had graduated playing golf better than most men, a fitting tribute to a club that was uniquely founded by a woman when wealthy widow Marguerite Lubbock commissioned the Course in 1907 in retaliation to the fact that no clubs in Surrey would let women play on a Sunday! It’s regarded as a beautiful golf-course to this day and we were lucky to be part of it for so long.
Personally, I preferred being in the ‘Downton Abbey’ style kitchen with its giant scrubbed pine table and wall-to-wall range cookers where I learned about cooking rather than golf. When helping out in the silver pantry I was allowed to mix Colmans mustard powder with warm water and fill the blue glass liners of the silver mustard pots. Sometimes I weighed ingredients for pastry, destined for the vast steak & kidney pie – double tray-bake size – which was my grandmother’s ‘signature lunch dish’ at West Hill, or for her apple pie laced with cinnamon. But far and away my favourite job was unwrapping the Fullers Walnut Cakes which were delivered from their Guildford Bakery for club teas and our own family tea served every day on the dot of 4.30 p.m. The experience of the dozen years or so I spent under my grandmother’s tutelage has left me with the ability to cook for 20 – or even 30 – at any one time; a fondness for saffron yellow and truly deep mourning at the closure of the famous Fullers Bakery circa 1973.
My grandmother, Bertha Bedson, photographed at West Hill Golf Club
My parents met during the war when my father – already serving in the Scots Guards – was stationed at nearby Pirbright. Just 16 when the war started my mother trained as a nurse and in 1941 joined the WAAF. She rarely talked about her role in the War but I do know she was profoundly affected by the traumatised state of many of the young men she helped. They married in January 1944 – both in uniform – with a reception afterwards at West Hill and a few all too brief days spent in Looe in Cornwall on Honeymoon.
My mother wearing her pre-uniform clothes.
My mother in her WAAF Uniform in about 1942
My parents on their wedding day January 1944
Post-war, and living in London, my father first joined the police force, a job he didn’t enjoy. Instead, asked by a golfing friend to use his sales skills on the very latest new plastic products, my father joined ICI. I have zero knowledge as to how well he promoted Bakelite (other than owning a cult black cigarette box which I’ve since inherited) but I do know he became a star member of the ‘Plastics Industry Golfing Society’ known as the P.I.G.S. The upshot of this was a cluster of silver tankards, salvers and other paraphernalia won in competitions and all of which required some serious polishing. My mother’s best friend was a fashion editor who co-ordinated sample sales of designer cocktail dresses – mostly bought by my mother it seems – who as I recall had a gorgeous wardrobe of ‘evening wear’ suitable for the many golfing dinner dances she twirled off to attend with my father.
On the left my father’s boss Cyril Last sitting next to my mother.
Entertaining was a big part of their life-style with the catch that culinary skills had failed to pass from mother to daughter and my mother could barely boil an egg! Her signature dinner party dish was something to do with tinned tuna and bottled anchovy sauce – but nobody seemed to mind. She cha-cha-cha’d like a dream, played great Canasta and was fun and flirtatious company. Her sophisticated social life was severely curtailed when my father changed his job, this time heading to the Midlands to work in the world of Machine Tools. As an émigré from London’s urbane world, in 1959 she found herself unhappily re-located to the provincial countryside in Nottinghamshire. Not a hunting, shooting or fishing person she relied on her golf skills which given she played a mean game, didn’t always endear her to other golfing wives. Along the way she forged a friendship with the only other modernist in the village, a lady called Mary Shaw. Mrs Shaw – as I vividly recall – had white-blond hair, a penchant for capri pants, wore very large pearls (possibly real) and had a divine drawing room with a white poppet bead dividing curtain (definitely plastic) that separated the dining and ‘lounging’ area. I loved those poppet beads and the way they swooshed when pulled on a flexi chain! Mrs Shaw’s house had white carpets, an enviable hi-fi system and clipped box balls in the garden. Mary and my mother listened to Johnny Ray discs, made cocktails (I imagine gin gimlets) and played cards to while away the afternoons.
Constantly on trend with whatever the looks, books and films of the 1950’s and early 1960’s were, enduring memories of my mother involve being taken to her ‘must see’ films like A Summer Place, That Touch of Mink and Cleopatra, entirely regardless as to their suitability for my age! She encouraged me to read H.E. Bates’ The Darling Buds of May (reckoning it was perfect sex-education for a 12 year old girl) and didn’t mind in the slightest if I listened to Radio Luxembourg while doing my homework.
My mother wearing one of her favourite yellow cotton sundresses.
As a young teenage Grammar school girl, clothes amongst my pony-club obsessed friends mainly involved jodhpurs and hacking jackets. Although I enjoyed riding, I was unusual in preferring Honey magazine to Horse & Hound, and so, circa 1964 when the fashion team from Honey did a regional tour inviting volunteers amongst readers to model, I responded like a shot. Honey – the brainchild of journalist/editor Audrey Slaughter (who went on to become Anna Wintour’s step-mother) and whose alumni included Eve Pollard and later Glenda Bailey – the latter now editor in chief of Harper’s Bazaar in America – was a magazine I loved. Excited to be chosen – and with my mother’s blessing to skip school, I did a shoot involving a Bonnie & Clyde beret, a tweed mini-coat and rather a lot of false eyelashes. Sadly my copy of the magazine has long vanished as has my only print of the picture. Aged 14 I had a typically slip-shod approach to memorabilia. Now I am a hoarder!
We used to go to Aldeburgh on holiday and I’m on the stony beach in a yellow gingham dress from Wallis Shops circa 1964.
Although I enjoyed fashion – sending off to the newly opened Biba shop in Abingdon Road for a chocolate brown pin-striped flannel dress which I wore until it literally fell to pieces – it didn’t dominate my dreams. Instead what occupied every waking day was my yearning to be an actress. This was no idle fantasy. In nearby Nottingham, actor-manager John Neville (joined for a while in the 1960’s by the celebrated Peter Ustinov) had signed to take charge of Artistic direction at the newly opened, ultra-modern Playhouse Theatre where, inspired by our school’s avant-garde English teacher – an admirer of Mr Neville’s – I spent time at their Youth Theatre workshops. The excitement when Mr Neville and his entourage arrived at a school production and enthused about my performance left me weak with hope for a future on the stage.
Standing stage left, trying not to fidget…..
The play was George Bernard Shaw’s ‘You Never Can Tell’.
Making the curtsy was harder than it looks
Better yet, theatre legend Sir Donal Wolfit’s elderly sister played the organ in our village Church and her brother, visiting from time to time, became charmed by my hero worship. ‘Throw your voice young lady’ he would say when I was invited to read for him. ‘they will need to hear you at the back’.
It wasn’t to be. At the point I entered the fifth form for our O’ Level year, my grand plan hit the buffers. Our headmistress held stringent views that ‘acting was a hobby and not a profession’. This meant I was forbidden to produce or act in the play that year (only fourth or junior sixth years allowed) and urged to ‘get good exam results, to join the sixth form and to study for University where no doubt I could ‘join a dramatic society’. Sulking through the spring and summer of 1966 – the year of David Hemmings in Blow Up, Terence Stamp in Modesty Blaise, Donovan’s Sunshine Superman and Time Magazine’s feature on what they so emotively called ‘Swinging London’ – I was endlessly out, sometimes heading over to Sheffield to the Mojo Club, or enjoying the saxophones at the local jazz club – even taking the door money at the Retford Folk music club run by my aforementioned English teacher from school! Occasionally I would hitch a lift to London to join my sister who had moved out, staying with her in Kensington and going to the Troubadour in Earls Court. In the meantime I developed a huge fondness for Motown, Soul and my own favourite playlist included the Marvelettes ‘Don’t Mess With Bill’, the Elgins ‘Heaven Must Have Sent You’; the Four Tops ‘I’ll be There’ and ‘How Sweet It Is (to be loved by you)’ by Jr Walker and the All Stars. One flick onto Youtube to listen to any of those and I’m 16 again.
Photographed in the autumn of ’67 when I was 17 and heading to London.
The result of all this frivolity and rebellion was inevitable. With my exam results failing to hit the required target for Sixth Form entry the choice was stark. I could stay on and re-sit, or leave. My mother was sympathetic. Knowing I hadn’t given up on drama, she diverted me to a year’s Secretarial course at the (excellent) local Technical College in Worksop saying: ‘acting is such a precarious profession darling, so at least this way you’ll have something to fall back on’. Resentment faded when I fell in love with shorthand and typing. I gained super-fast speeds and still type at a dizzying rate. A short sojourn working for a local lawyer gave me enough office background – and cash – to make the move to London and so in the autumn of 1967 I packed my bags and left home.