What does Designer fashion mean to you? Does it mean your “designer jeans” have a well-known brand name, or that Valentino himself actually designed them? Is a “designer handbag” simply an expensive one, or one that has its own muse? One of our Board members Linde Carr started off as a fashion designer in the 1970s, and we met at her lovely Notting Hill Housing flat to talk about it.
Linde went to Hornsey School of Art and was lucky to be taught by Brian Harris who was part of the David Hockney circle, and at the end of the first year she focused on fashion design. Her final show, at Chelsea Town Hall, on the Kings Road, included an all-black collection with brightly coloured linings, and tailoring. “My favourite? This dress and cape with an emerald-green lining.”
After graduating Linde and five other graduates, encouraged by Shelagh Brown, set up a Designer’s collective known as the Queen Street Studios, named after their location in Covent Garden. They had a huge studio, let for £15 a week, over a club called Blitz. This meant they were at the centre of things. The club clientel included the Kemps and Spandau Ballet, Adrian George, Bill Cotton from the BBC, “lots of the “In” people came there and they would see us and our clothes and beg us to sell them an item, or make them something specific”, she says. She draws out one of her cuttings from 19 or one of the youthful fashion magazines of the day. “This one, unbelievably, was made out of inter lining, the stuff you use to make a coat warmer.” I express surprise because this is non-woven fabric that will not stand up to wear unless it is attached to something else. “That was punk. They didn’t care if the clothes got holes in them. That was sort of the idea”. She shows me a feature from The Sun where she made an outfit from two string vests, some marabou, a length of ribbon and a vat of red dye. In two hours flat, to meet the deadline.
“Ralph Halpin, from Topshop, contacted us, and asked us if we could design for Topshop. I made a black fitted, button fronted dress with a pleated sleeve that just flew out of the store. I once went down there on a Saturday and saw lots of girls changing into my dress that they had just bought and walking out in it. It was amazing.” I ask her to explain how a designer would work with big shops like Topshop. “We designed and made up samples of the dresses and they chose the styles, then they were manufactured, usually in the Midlands in Asian-owned firms, very quickly. We would normally get 10p for each dress sold, as the designer. Sometimes a bit more – up to 30p – but it was usually just 10p. If they sold a lot you could make quite a lot of money.”
Linde has stacks of cuttings from Newspapers, youth magazines, fanzines, Vogue, Nova, 19 and lots of other major titles.
“We were all about the textiles, being quite inventive as we were buying in the UK and we needed to find low-cost options. This track suit in yellow terry towelling was so radical at the time. It got into Vogue. We also bought fabrics that were meant for packing grain and other industrial materials, and fabric meant for furnishing, and worked with them because they were cheaper.”
“Fashion Week had just started in London and one of my designs really took off and got featured in the daily papers. I used a linen sacking for the jacket, a furnishing chintz for the blouse, an unbleached cotton for the skirt and lace, bound with bias binding for the waist coat and underskirt. The layers, the cream colouring for outwear, this was all novel at the time.” I ask Linde “Who is Johny?”. “Oh, the photographer” Linde replies. “We used our friends and flat mates as models and we could always find a photographer who would take pictures for free. They could put our clothes in their portfolios, and if the picture was published they would get paid”
“Our success was sweet, but short-lived. Manufacturing was gradually exported to India and although I carried on working with various companies for a while I didn’t like what was happening. Everything was cut throat, the men who controlled the industry just sucked the life and ideas out of talented young designers. It was pretty exploitative really. Many of the designers, including several much more famous than me – Ossie Clark, Bill Gibb and many others – never made much money. That went to the backers. I would say if you ended up with owning your own home at the end of all this you were bloody lucky.”
Linde shows me a photograph of herself at the time. She looks intelligent, determined and is dressed in an interesting tied together dress. “I was drunk! But I don’t drink anymore. I wish, if I had my time again, that I had done a proper degree, like law or surveying, and just done fashion for fun.”