|Serge Matta's reference|
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 .
|kiki byrne dress1963|
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|
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|
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 ."
"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.
"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