After almost 50 years in fashion, Rita Britton of Barnsley designer boutique Pollyanna is still passionate about creativity.
Anna Wintour’s great-grandfather was from Barnsley. I know she’s Jewish, but he was a vicar,” Rita Britton informs me as I prepare for our interview. With this 70-year-old ball of energy from the South Yorkshire town, you are never sure where the conversation might go next. “When I announced this spring I had to close Pollyanna, the leader of the council called me and asked what he could do to help keep us open. The shop has been that important to the town,” she reveals as we examine aspects of her 48-year career in fashion.
The shutters came down on Pollyanna in June (the website will close within the next three months), a couple of months after Britton had suffered a stroke and a brain haemorrhage on Easter Saturday while standing in the shop holding a cup of coffee. “I was watching the coffee spill like it was in slow motion,” she recalls, “because I’d lost the use of my arm and then the cup hit the floor.” Rushed to hospital, she found her chances of survival were greatly increased because she had not taken the blood-thinning agent she had been prescribed some time earlier due to a long-standing irregular heartbeat.
“If Rita had taken that, they’d never have stopped the bleeding in her brain, so it saved her life,” says Geoff, her husband and business partner of 42 years. “I always was a sparky little bugger and incredibly rebellious,” she helpfully, if unnecessarily, adds.
The legendary retailer was presented with the Lifetime Achievement accolade at the Drapers Independents Awards on September 17, and was in tears on stage as she received a standing ovation from the audience of 360 fashion folk. Today, as she plans her 71st birthday celebration for November 9, there is little sign of Britton slowing down. After nearly five decades of selling designer fashion, she is now occupied with Nomad, her own collection of luxurious womenswear. Wherever possible, she uses British fabric and has the garments made in British factories. She makes in small numbers, does not wholesale and never, ever, discounts.
“After my stroke, I had to re-evaluate my life and I realised that what I really liked to do was to create beautiful things. I’m a creative person and have been in denial about that most of my life,” she says in her undiluted Yorkshire accent.
Nomad is sold online via pollyanna.com, but when this closes it will be sold through its own dedicated site, nomadatelier.co.uk, due to launch before Christmas. More important is its following among Pollyanna’s extensive network of discerning and well-heeled women. It is a collection of simple and exquisite pieces, like an A-line grey overcoat in the luxurious Escorial merino wool that retails for about £1,600.
Excellence combined with practicality attracts Britton: “The thing about Pollyanna was that we always bought the most wearable items, even if we were buying from Yohji Yamamoto, Comme des Garçons and Issey Miyake.”
While she is modest about her achievements and the reputation of her singular boutique - a trait she puts down to her northern working-class upbringing - she is eager to remind Drapers that throughout the 1990s until Pollyanna’s closure, she was the only fashion retailer in the UK to stock that trio of Japanese designers in the same shop.
That was unimaginable when 15-year-old Rita England, the only child of Arthur, a lorry driver, and Rachael, an illiterate cleaner, went to work at the Star Paper Mill in Barnsley in the late 1950s. She spent nine years there and obviously has many happy memories of being one of the “lasses” checking reams of paper. “We were reading Lady Chatterley’s Lover, going to jazz clubs, reading Vogue, we were pretty cool. I just despair at society now - it’s really important for young people to educate themselves,” she asserts. A significant turning point came when the mill was taken over by a Finnish company in the mid-1960s. “When the new boss from Finland, Erik Orlander, always ate in the workers’ canteen instead of the (management) canteen, I realised what a class-ridden society we are in the UK. I’m a socialist by nature.”
The move from the paper mill to shop owning began in 1966 when Britton persuaded her father to drive her to London so she could buy from Mary Quant. Her first retail base was her grandma’s back bedroom, from where she sold to her friends at the mill.
Her first shop, on Shamble Street in Barnsley, opened in 1967 (although she and Geoff are often vague on precise dates). She called it Pollyanna, which she admits is “a bit of a hippy name”. Appropriately the eponymous heroine of the 1913 children’s novel by Eleanor H Porter, played by Hayley Mills in a 1960 Disney film, is remembered as a character who always maintains an optimistic outlook on life. The same could be said of Britton.
Inspired by her fascination for beautiful and creative things, that small first shop was succeeded by four other locations in Barnsley. Pollyanna’s final shop was a two-storey unit at 14-16 Market Hill - after moving into number 14 in 1991, it expanded into 16 in 1994. The premises is now the base for Nomad.
When national newspapers began to write about the exceptional boutique in Barnsley from the late 1980s (Hilary Alexander of the Daily Telegraph was the first fashion editor to notice Pollyanna), there was often a patronising tone about how remarkable it was to find international designers like Issey Miyake in a northern mining town. “I once said to one of the writers, do you think wearing top-end collections is the prerogative only of Conservative voters?” recalls the feisty owner.
Her outstanding achievement was to provide a forum for top-end creative brands outside the capital. She recalls that designers like Yohji Yamamoto were very reluctant to sell anywhere outside their own London boutiques. In the 1980s, she managed to persuade the Japanese designer’s UK representative Corinne Neiderec - “a beautiful French girl; we got on very well” - that Pollyanna ought to stock his collection. It was soon after that she got a reputation for running one of the best fashion shops in the country.
Travelling around Europe, she was always on to emerging brands early. The list of suppliers is impressive (even though Britton admits she has forgotten more than she can remember). Jean Muir (her personal favourite), Katharine Hamnett, Paul Smith, YSL, Chrome Hearts, Donna Karan, Moschino, Romeo Gigli, No Name (the range from Carla Sozzani, owner of 10 Corso Como boutique in Milan), Vivienne Westwood, Pleats Please by Issey Miyake, Prada, Ben de Lisi, Dolce & Gabbana and Lanvin are just a few among the remarkable line-up. Menswear was also part of the mix for 20 years from about 1993, often looked after by her son Mark. (Her second son, John, is a photographer and shot all her publicity pictures. A third son, James, looked after the website and still runs the Nomad site).
She points out that 97% of her clients for these exclusive names were not from the local area as Barnsley’s proximity to the M1 made Pollyanna easily accessible from far and wide. “In the main my customers were strong, professional women, like prosecuting lawyers, business people and art lecturers, as well as mums. They were intelligent women with a sense of humour, not aggressive foot-stompers.”
She admits the 1990s were her favourite period and is unhappy at the way many once-purist creatives have followed a more commercial route in recent years. “I loved Alber Elbaz’s early work at Lanvin before he turned to tits-and-glitz, but today luxury brands are chasing the Russian, Arab and Chinese customer and that’s what they have to provide.”
Britton maintains that she “is not a business person”. “Pollyanna was about creativity, not about how much money I could make,” she says, but having a smart accountant for a husband clearly did not do any harm. Over lunch with Drapers, this likeable couple, who are clearly a close partnership, discuss Rita’s love of driving (she passed her test aged only 17 years and three months). “It was always the Aston Martin or the Ferrari you liked best, wasn’t it?” asks Geoff. Rita does all the driving these days in a Range Rover due to Geoff’s poor eyesight.
Slightly unconvincingly, Geoff says the business only “washed its face”, hitting turnover of around £1.5m from the mid-1990s until 2010, when the effects of the financial crash were felt. The pair admit it was a mistake to extend the Pollyanna concept to Glasgow in 1996, when they took over The Warehouse, the ambitious luxury store set up in 1978 by local retailer David Mullane. That experiment lasted only a costly couple of years. “Glasgow was too glitzy for us; they wanted me to sell Versace Jeans,” says Rita with a slightly horrified look.
Back in Barnsley, Pollyanna incorporated a cafe for about 20 years until it closed, which made the store even more of a local meeting point. It was also a magnet for fashion students, who wanted either to work there or just to get close to some of the most inventive clothes available. “I met Christopher Bailey of Burberry not long ago and I said it was odd we hadn’t met before. He had to remind me we had met in the store when he was a student. Apparently I gave him the last copy of one of our seasonal catalogues that were really popular.”
Pollyanna was also a training ground for a host of significant players who remain part of Britton’s worldwide network of contacts. These include James Gilchrist, who runs Comme des Garçons in New York; Freddie Fan, a buyer with Layers, the luxury store in South Molton Street; Flo Freeman, Rick Owens’ store manager in London; and Carlene Greer Cazza, who buys for a St Petersburg luxury retailer.
Despite her global reputation, Britton has always been a hometown girl. She received honorary degrees from the universities of Sheffield Hallam and Huddersfield, but is most proud of being granted the freedom of Barnsley in 2000: “We’ve always been an incredible part of the Barnsley community. People here are proud of me as one of the lasses who made good.”
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