Tuesday, 9 October 2012

Summer of 63,Kings Road designing at Kiki Byrne

Quinton Crisp
Serge Matta's reference

 February  1963
 I  could not take my eyes off the man sitting opposite me . His  bouffant  hair was  dyed a vivid lavender,black Kohl outlined his  eyes and his lips had the remnants of  faded orange lipstick. It was not a pretty sight . I presumed he was an actor. I was so engrossed  that I nearly missed the stop for Sloane Square.I panicked,picked up my folio  and rushed to the door. He  pushed  past me, his arms at right angles to his waist, his hands gesticulating  angrily, clicking his tongue in annoyance as   my  art folio slid along the platform, the sketches flying everywhere.  A slight  embarrassed  smile flickered across his face as he bowed his head apologetically  seeing me on all fours scrambling to pick up the papers. I just about managed to salvage most of them and wished goodbye to the ones that followed the train down the tunnel.  It was not a great introduction to Chelsea. Thank God I had safely stored Serge Matta's reference in my bag  which I had bought at great expense in Paris just before I left. It was like a Victorian doctors bag.

Serge had kindly contacted Bruno Martinez to show me the ropes in Chelsea. Bruno was well connected and we had already met up in Paris during a fashion shoot. He  was a photographer and traveller.   We had arranged to meet in The Chelsea Kitchen in the Kings Road at mid day. I recognised him straight away puffing as usual on his Gauloise cigarette and camera slung haphazardly over his shoulder. After a few pleasantries we settled down to business. We both had a limited amount of time .  
  "In the Kings road you have two choices Kiki Byrne or Mary Quant  both almost next door to each other, don't bother with the rag trade. You will not survive it and they will hate you .  It's all happening in these two shops. I know that Kiki Byrne is looking for a designer, her talented  assistant/designer  has left. You might stand a chance. However do not mention them to each other , there is history , I warn you. Kiki worked for Quant before starting up her own shop just doors away of course it did not go down too well with the other side .  There are similarities however  Quant is an original whereas  Kiki is an elegant minimalist /stylist and revered  by her loyal clientele.   If you go to Quant you might end up making tea, she's hands on, a great designer but its all hers. "

"Oh Serge tried that tea business the first day I arrived at Maggy Rouff .  He took full advantage of my being "English " or so he thought "an English girl and tea brilliant " However I make appalling tea, my mother being American always made coffee and anyway I was banned from the kitchen at home.   I never drink  tea, it tastes like dust. He asked me once and never again. It had to be the best most expensive Earl Grey tea that I had been instructed to buy in a very smart shop just round the corner from Avenue Marceau. Stupidly   I put  the tea leaves in the tea pot after it was filled with water which probably had not boiled .   The tea leaves just floated to the  top and that's where they remained .  He was  furious, especially as he was entertaining a client who he wanted to impress. .  He never asked me again to make tea . Mind you it was an early lesson in life ....within reason never do a menial job well if you have no intention of continuing it. I had no desire to be either a tea girl or a girl Friday.My passion was to be designer ."

 Bruno looked disapproving "Not really the right attitude in London.Just because you have finished  4 years at  art school and just arrived from Paris.......  "he faded off "On the other hand you have a point.  That Paris thing ...work on it, push it. Impress them and name drop like hell. If Nicki is there it will impress him !But be careful the fashion business is full of invisible daggers ..never expose your back."
I went from feeling like  a scalded child to an experienced prima donna with just a little bit of fear.

"Well I'll try Kiki Byrne first. Too shy to name drop ...unlike you Bruno but I have Serge's reference, that,s good enough.  This crazy man with lavender hair and made up to the hilts nearly  knocked me over  at Sloane Square. My folio went flying, some of the  sketches are marked, some I lost."
"Oh that will be Quinton Crisp. He's always mooching around Sloane Square. Dear Quinton as queer as a coot but quite harmless. "
" Really ." The most useful word in the dictionary.  I hoped  I sounded convincing as I had not got a clue who he was  or what he was talking about."queer as a coot" what in the hell did that mean?
" Kiki's  studio is just round the corner  behind Peter Jones , I'll show  you but I can't wait around . "
Bruno left me outside what looked like a garage with a reception room attached.
"Remember my advise La Verne."with that he was gone, his long army coat draped around his shoulders as he ran down the street .
There was an elegant  woman sat at a large  desk. I nervously  gave her my name and  asked if I could speak to Kiki Byrne concerning a design job .
She must have seen how nervous I was, smiling she picked up the phone . "I'll ring her at the shop , It's just down the Kings  Road. You might catch her. Make yourself at home. Here have a chocolate.  "
I politely refused. The last thing I wanted was my lips to be covered in chocolate whilst I was trying to impress. 
I was in luck Kiki had agreed to meet me at the shop . I raced past Bazaar , Mary Quants shop and there on the corner was Kiki's shop .It smacked of quirky elegance. It was a large spacious boutique.  A fish pond was centre stage in the shop.I scanned the clothes on the rails. They  were simple, almost  minimalist,  shift dresses  in safe elegant colours, black , navy and white.
 I was introduced to Kiki and her ex husband Niki Byrne.Kiki was tiny but  beautifully proportioned . Her  jet black hair was cut in a Vidal Sassoon bob. She had a slightly oriental look, not exactly beautiful but stylish, a face that lingered in your memory long after her departure. Her  husky voice had the traces of an American  accent.It was immediately obvious that she did not suffer fools lightly.  Her attire was simple and  understated.  Nicki  had a racing car business in fact if it was not for his cultured accent one would take him for a slippery  wide boy. Other times he was an atrocious snob always trying to impress. It was obvious from the beginning that they were no longer an item.  Frequent barbed comments confirmed this .   They flicked through my folio. I of course could not help noticing the black stains from the accident .  As soon as I said that I had worked in Paris Couture and showed them Serge's reference  their eyes lit up. Bruno was right .After a brief discussion I was offered the design job . I started the  following week .  As far as I remember I was paid £20 a week or thereabout. I never got round to visiting Bazaar that day ... or indeed any day whilst I was working with Kiki I did not dare. I had been warned .

 for Life Magazine whose caption read; 'Young designers clamber on Chelsea Embankment. First row from left to right: Mary Quant, 29, and her husband Alexander Plunket Greene, mustachioed Kenneth Sweet, 34. Behind are Jean Muir, 29, of Jane and Jane, Gerald McCann, 29, Kiki Byrne, 26, and David Sassoon, 29. Hanging from lamp-post Sally Tuffin, 25, Marion Foale, 24 and milliner James Wedge.'Photo by Parkinson
kiki byrne dress1963
My priority was to find  somewhere to live. After several disastrous addresses around Chelsea. I was thrown out of one for allowing an overnight "guest" my long standing boyfriend and the other of being a slut in the shared kitchen/bathroom.Yes it had a bath in the kitchen, really hygienic , I left an unwashed  cup on the draining board, disaster!    Eventually I managed to  find a room in Walpole Street just off the Kings Road.  It was a large, light  attic room  with  no kitchen facilities and a shared bathroom . When I say shared I mean it was shared by all the tenants in the house and a pay telephone in the hallway . There was one lavatory in the hall which was shared by everyone .I therefor installed a bucket in the room for emergencies .   It was £3 a week paid in advance, no deposit . Kay the  housekeeper,  interviewed me , a rather humourless  thin plain woman. There was no mention of  the  banning of   visitors male or female   which sounded promising . In the early 60,s   before anything was  arranged you were told in no uncertain terms that visitors were forbidden of the opposite sex  and definitely no overnight visitors .  You were also asked for key money which was not returnable which could be anything from £5 /£200. Rackman had not arrived in Chelsea but he had influenced the landlords. I was making arrangements to move in when I saw what I thought was a gentleman approach.  He was wearing a tweed jacket and corduroy trousers.
 It was only when "he" said "Kay darling , do introduce me to our new tenant " that I realised that he was a she and they were obviously a couple which they had no intention of hiding. Her name was Dounna. "If you are lucky you might even see Princess Margaret  ...she visits  quite frequently next door."(I never saw her )
I was allowed to decorate my room in any manner I wanted. It took me two days  to paint the room a sienna orange and cork one of the walls for a pin board .I loved living there . They were charming people. Not having a kitchen was not really a problem I eat mostly in the Chelsea Kitchen or the Chelsea Potter ,  or sometimes if I was invited I went to the Pheasantry, all  in the Kings Road. In fact there was a huge choice of eateries but of course I was governed by my purse .  The food was reasonable and  in pleasant surroundings.   They were all  frequented by the Chelsea set . The Kings road trail for Saturday tourists was trickling through but it was not at its height that would be another two years at least away when Granny takes a Trip and Hung on you the Chelsea Antique Market  arrived . Hippies tripping over their beautiful 1930,s chiffon dresses and flowers perched seductively in the hair  and silly bells tinkling round their neck ,or weekend dollies with there short mini skirts barely covering their underwear ,  as they flirted with the Ferrari's, AC cobras , Rolls Royce's , Bentley's, E types  and of course the  famous Mini that slowly cruised up the Kings road looking for talent. I will blog about this later ...my favourite period . 

One day  Donna and Kay  invited me to a club in Brammerton Street just off the kings Road  which I had never heard of ."Everyone knows The Gateways !" Kay said in horror at my ignorance.  "We'll meet you there. Just mention my name at the door. " I decided to invite my new boyfriend David  it was to be our first date. He was rather a straight architect . I had been introduced to him by an up and coming architect Peter Cook who was  at art school  with me .   Kay and Donna  duly met us at the door . It was obvious from the beginning that I had made a disastrous mistake . "Why did you bring him ?" she hissed in my ear. "well I suppose they will let him in, they don't encourage it .I'll have a word with Gina ." I was bemused as I thought that David was quite respectable .  We clambered down the dark staircase  to the basement. As soon as the door opened  the cigarette  smoke hit me.It almost blinded me and then I saw exactly what she meant. I witnessed girls dancing cheek to cheek, some embracing with an enthusiastic passion. I realised that the  Gateways was a lesbian club. I had bought my new boyfriend to a lesbian club on my first date how cool is that! David raised his eyebrows stifling a nervous giggle. He could hardly contain himself  when this rather butch lady immediately asked me to dance. I looked at Kay for assistance  but she silently lifted her finger pointing to the dance floor meaning I had to go. I was absolutely terrified. Remember that I was a young country girl  just starting out , not sophisticated , and I had never witnessed homosexuality in the raw . In 1963 it was still illegal. In Paris of course I was aware of homosexuals but I had never attended  a homosexual club.   I am sure if Craig Ravel Horward of Strictly Come Dancing fame   was judging me at the time he would say " Daaaahling! deeeesaaaster ! body language so frigid one would think she was a leper " Of course I wasn't homophobic I was just inexperienced and naive. I soon adapted to the situation and took in the atmosphere .
gateways club Brammerton Street Chelsea

girls dancing in the Gateways
I saw the women some elegantly dressed in exquisite male  lounge suits as they propped themselves up at the bar, a cigarette seductively burning in their hands, as they scanned the smokey atmosphere for talent . Lounge Lizards they certainly were. It set bells ringing in my creative mind. I wanted to design androgynous  collection but I knew that I would need an excellent tailor. It had to be perfectly tailored.
My first day at the studio,behind Peter Jones  was mind blowing.  Niki Byrne introduced me to a terrifyingly grand girl who was Kiki's loyal secretary  "  Let me introduce you to   Serena Fass , she was one of the last debutantes who was  presented to the Queen  and hobnobs with the  Indian  maharajahs  , so be careful. "   he proudly announced.
I wasn't sure whether to curtsy or laugh... was it a joke or was he really serious ....he was serious and no I did not curtsy .  I was just  a suburban  innocent in Chelsea taking it all in. At that time I doubt if I even knew what a debutant was. The studio was teaming with Sloanes , one almost had to have a pedigree to work there. I'm sure they only took me on because I had worked in Haute Couture in Paris .
  I was  sat at my table sketching away, when a young woman poked her head round the door , she seemed familiar but I could not place her.
 "Must have a pee .....fuck !" she almost shouted as she raced through . "Is Kiki in ?" I could not believe my ears , this way of communicating was completely alien to me.
"Who is she I mouthed to Serena? "
"Sara Miles ...she has just made a film   the Servant, its showing now ,very successful.Pinter wrote the script.  Kiki makes lots of clothes for her. " she replied nonchalantly when she was out of ear shot.Her voice was not dissimilar to a rather bored Sergeant major. She terrified me in the beginning.
Kiki Byrne's business appeared to run on celebrities.   Georgia Browne (singer) , Lionel Bart
(musicals ), Grace Coddington Model turned fashion journalist)  Marit Allen and  Clare  Rendlesham(fashion journalist) , Kay Kendal (Actress) Rex Harrison(actor) ,Noel Harrison(singer and son of Rex Harrison) Susanna York(Actress) , Samantha Eggar , Sara Miles /James Fox (actors romantically linked )  The list goes on for ever but one couple  stands out amongst them all who epitomized the decadent 60,s and that was Christine Keeler and Mandy Rice Davies . Christine Keeler was  the one customer that Kiki wished to do without "I don't want that fucking whore wearing my clothes in court " she screamed on the day of the trial.However on one of her appearances she did indeed wear one of her dresses

 Mandy Rise Davis and Christine Keeler going to court

 Life was like that at Kiki Byrne ...lots of sketching...not a lot of manufacturing, total chaos , the air was often blue with swearing , and a lot of celebrities passing through the door demanding far too much  for often too little . One day I arrived at the shop to find the pond flooded and the  goldfish dead  on the carpet ..no doubt some party went on.There was always a threat of illegal drug taking but I certainly did not witness any of it .     However the shop,  usually looked immaculate  the styling elegant and that is why KIKI  became a legend in the Kings Road  and attracted the "IN Crowd "

  In many ways her approach to designing was not dissimilar to Serge Matta, however I have to say sometimes her lack of design detail became monotonous. There were only so many shift dresses that customers would buy. Of course there were some suits but she was mostly known for her simple shift dresses ,even Barbara Hulanicki commented on them .   The cloths she used were of the highest quality , wool crepes , garigue tweeds woven cottons all simply cut with just a minor detail , a crochet collar or a frilled sleeve a Mongolian fur collar, beautiful pearl button or stylish covered buttons. Her detailing was faultless indeed it was her signature.   Perhaps one of her most stunning dresses was a white  heavy cotton lace shift . 
 Her cutter  was my least favourite person and we definitely did not get on .    It is rather unfair to compare  her cutter  to the Parisian tailors and cutters, they were from the old school of tailoring moulding a suit into shape with their clever hands  toiling and cutting like a true artists which they were of course .  It is an impression that has never left me. The relationship between cutter a/tailor /machinist and the designer is of the utmost importance. They have to respect each other and communicate on a design level . It's almost like a  sexless marriage .   If there is no bonding/communication,  like a  marriage, divorce is the only answer. Bullying is out of the question and destroys the design ethics.Sadly bullying is not uncommon in certain workrooms particularly between a new  designer and an established  cutter and it can work both ways . I have seen designers resorted to tears through the behaviour of workroom staff and visa versa. In Paris there was utmost respect for both workrooms and designers. We worked together as a loyal family.   Now I realise that if you are new to the company it has to be a slow seduction to get them on your side even if it is through gritted teeth. I was too inexperienced to deal with it.

The name Brown John (BJ) cropped up time and time again. He rarely visited the shop, however when he did he had a charisma that was unmissable.  He was Kiki's lover but there was a serious drug problem (heroin) with this amazingly talented man . He designed the titles for From Russia With Love and Gold finger , a much respected graphic designer who was revered by everyone involved in graphics.   It must have been a traumatic time for Kiki even though she said casually in various interviews "Well you could get heroin on the national health then . " It is never easy to live with a drug addict, the mood swings and the paranoia . I am sure that to a certain extent his activity affected her running of the shop.  They were an exotic couple , two amazingly talented people who reached the top and eventually lost it all. B.J died in 1970 ravaged by his drug use . 

 1963  early summer. A new  financial manager appeared on the scene, his name escapes me.He was involved with  The Apron Strings , a private gaming club in the Fulham Road  a favoured haunt of English nobility and their ladies.  It was obvious that there were financial problems  but it was quite obvious that the new manager was not the answer, it certainly did not save the day.  Eventually the shop was acquired by Jaeger. I had been given notice to quit that day . I was sad to see a talented designer lose her livelihood , however I knew that it was inevitable. I actually felt that I was wasted there .   A retail business is time consuming allows little freedom and absorbs huge amounts of cash.

I was sitting in my attic feeling worried and depressed  when I heard Kay's voice  shout up at me ,"Larrrverne telooophone."

It was Betty Boyd "LaVerne... Jaeger were here today. One of the directors saw your sketches on the wall and they were very impressed . They want to meet you as soon as Possible . You have to make an appointment to see Geoffrey Gilbert. He's the Managing Director ."

I could not believe what I was hearing . All those sketches that I had drawn week after week were going to some use after all.
"Are you sure ?"
"yes ! he saw the sketches of your trouser suits and those op art shift dresses  and asked me who drew them . I gave a brief history about you. They want to meet you . Ring them straight away . I've got the job of managing the Kings Road shop. We would love to have you on board . "

"I hope the cutter is not coming as well . I could not work with him , the pathetic sycophant. As soon as Kiki is around he is as nice as pie and when she,s away he behaves like shit .Can't even cut a piece of cake. What about Kiki ? "

"Definitely not La Verne. now forget him !  They have there own tailors. They want a young trendy designer .... they really are interested  . Now ring them. OH and  Kiki is out of the picture .  "
Even I was surprised to find myself at Chenies Street , the huge offices of Jaeger  . I took the lift to the first floor or was it the third I no longer remember.I wandered round the corridors looking for the managing directors office . A man was prancing up and down in the corridor  wearing what looked like a red padded  boiler  suit .  He was doing knee bends .
"What do you think of this ?" he said he said pointing to his padded red suit ."
 I actually thought he looked like a fat father Christmas. I just smiled, a little flustered .
"Sorry,I.m in a rush .  I have an appointment with Geoffrey Gilbert. "
"Oh I'll take you there ."
"Thank you."
 "Do you sail." he said pulling at his boiler suit ."I'm checking this out for Cowes week ."
"Yes ! " I exaggerated . In actual fact I sailed with Nigel Bamfoth and it was his boat but I could not manage it on my own .
We arrived at the office . I began to feel uncomfortable. He still hovered around me in the office and there was no sign of Geoffrey Gilbert.
"Where do you sail ?"
"Pool harbour....Sorry but I really must observe my appointment with Geoffrey Gilbert "
"Great we like sailors , Vernon Stratton, our advertising genius , represented England. Sailed a Finn. He has his old boat moored at Pool . What do you sail ?"
"A graduate ...I really ..."
 " Now sit yourself down I am Geoffrey Gilbert and you must beLa Verne Preston. Can't bare that name, we will have to change that."
I thought that I had walked into a mad house it was the strangest interview I had ever had.
"They called me Lybalule in Paris." I said helpfully .
"Right that does it . I shall call you Lee. Does that suit you ."
I nodded my head and smiled shyly . Although he was the craziest managing director I had ever met, I liked the man , we got on well. Infact I always liked him .
" I want you to meet Bob Schulz he is the Young Jaeger designer. You will be working together.  Now when can you start."
"Immediately . "
"O.K I'll just call him in."
Bob appeared in the office. After my introduction which was extremely frosty on Bob,s side. Bob  left and never returned to Jaeger. Young Jaeger was his baby and he had no intention of sharing it .  He was a brilliant designer and actually deserved far better treatment . He was the one that actually put Young Jaeger together, after Jean Muir left , at the very beginning designing a clever young and trendy range away from the classic knitwear/jersey wear  and tweeds of the Old Jaeger look.   However history had  only repeated itself for when Jean Muir came up with the name Young Jaeger in 6o's she expected to design the whole range herself .  She immediately left when Bob Shultz was employed to assist her. I note in the   archives that Bob Shultz has been airbrushed out of Jaeger  which is grossly unfair and indeed untrue. It is strange how history repeats itself.
I  bumped into Bob Schulz in Sloane Street a few days later . I actually apologised about the situation . He gave me some use full advise"never take things for granted, Jaeger is full of surprises,be prepared and be carefull of your back. He wants complete control .........."I heard the echo of  Bruno's voice and it made me shiver. 
"Who?"I asked
"Wait and see ....it won't be long before you find out . " 
 I was given the job of the  Young Jaeger designer aged 21 years old . Little did I know but I would be treated in the same way two years hence . History has habit of repeating itself . My next blog will be about my time with Jaeger and the meeting with Radio Caroline.
NB Bob Shultz died in 2008 RIP


  1. What amazing stuff, we knew you came from a Fashion background but this is a complete revelation!!