The knitwear designer on what she has learned in her 50-plus years in fashion.
You originally wanted to be a famous artist. So why did you opt for fashion instead?
When I first went to Walthamstow School of Art in the 1950s, I didn’t know there was such a thing as fashion. But people around me were specialising in it and after a while I thought, well, I’m not going to earn a living from art but I knew how to cut a pattern because my parents were both in the rag trade. I have no regrets.
In 1959, you were chosen for a degree course in the Fashion School at the Royal College of Art under Professor Janey Ironside, who also taught designers including Ossie Clark and Zandra Rhodes. What was the most important thing you learned?
To cut a beautiful shape. I loved tailoring and beautifully made clothes.
Is that where you met your future business partner Sally Tuffin?
I met Sally in Walthamstow in 1955. We’re still best mates. The two of you apparently shunned the popular Paris fashions of the time in favour of clothes that were more fun. Did you know then how successful that approach would be? Fashion at that time was looking like your mother: white gloves, matching shoes and handbag, hat, twin set and pearls. We did not like that at all. We loved couture: Balenciaga, Givenchy and Chanel. But, while we admired Paris fashion for its quality, it was still a little bit fuddy-duddy. We didn’t want to be making what was sold in that era. Mary Quant was the only one doing something different. Her husband and business partner Alexander Plunket Greene came and gave a talk at the college and Sally and I thought, if they can do it, so can we.
How did you and Sally end up going into business together under the Foale and Tuffin label?
We wanted to wear something totally different. We didn’t want to be in factories making boring, mumsy clothes. So we sat in our bedsits and produced a little collection, just as drawings. We showed them to Vanessa Denza [then a buyer for the 21 Shop at Woollands department store in Knightsbridge, she later founded Graduate Fashion Week and still works in designer head-hunting] and she said go away and make me one of these and one of those. Then she said make me three of each. Then she put them in the window and Vogue saw them and photographed them.
By 1963, you were running the label, which became known for its brightly coloured dresses, skirts and tops, from a shop on Carnaby Street. What were the challenges of doing this as two women?
They couldn’t believe it when we used to go and buy bolts of fabric, because it had always been middle-aged businessmen. Initially they didn’t want to sell to us but I think we charmed them.
Are there enough women running businesses now?
I don’t think there are ever enough women in business. You had a career break while you had children and then, in the early 1980s, decided to move into knitwear. Why? I had to earn some money. I only knew the basics of knitting but I had this idea in 1981 of making it tailored, with an exquisite finish. It took me a year to teach myself using books.
You went on to launch your knitwear company, Foale. How is the business doing now?
We have around eight or nine employees, who hand-sew and finish everything, and hundreds of local knitters. I still do the designing, colours, yarns, work out the patterns before they are sent to be knitted, and so on. It was a little business at first, but then Vanessa came along again. By this time she was an agent and had clients from New York who wanted to buy English hand-knits. It was very lucky. Now we produce two collections a year and a collection for Margaret Howell. I also do patterns for magazines and teach on a knitting course in the south of France.
How has fashion changed since you started out?
It’s horribly expensive for anything nice [her own sweaters wholesale for £130 to £180]. It’s become too fast. In London, I see hundreds and thousands of creations that don’t seem to have been made with any love or care. They are all doing the same thing. On the other hand, in the past year to 18 months, I’ve noticed that British designs and manufacturing have become more popular. The UK is more creative than anywhere else. I don’t know if that’s to do with the art schools - Japan and other countries may execute them better but we come up with the ideas.