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Betty Jackson

Once considered a radical, the designer’s timeless pieces made her a member of British fashion royalty, but as a new footwear and accessories line shows, she can still challenge preconceptions

The entrance to Betty Jackson’s west London studio speaks volumes about the British designer and her brand. Unless you know it’s there - the only sign from the street is for the garage next door - you could easily miss it. “Did you walk past?” she says apologetically. “It’s so us, we don’t really shout about we do.”

It is this low-key approach that has endeared Jackson and her timeless designs to women of all ages over the past three decades, but it can also be something of a burden, she admits. Like the entrance to her studio, some people can overlook the brand. Either they don’t know about it at all or they have an outmoded view. “Tunics,” she sighs, “for large people.

We were saddled with that for a while.” To compound the problem, her clothes don’t date and they last forever, so people don’t need to keep coming back.

“People come and say proudly: ‘I bought this dress, it must have been seven years ago.’ And you think ‘right, that’s great, but how am I supposed to pay the rent now? Please come by and buy another one’. And they’re just ‘oh, it’s so fantastic, I just changed the buttons and everybody asks where I got it from’, and you think ‘oh really, now stop’,” she laughs.

Just like her customers, Jackson is proud of the longevity of her designs. It is just that she wishes people would come and take a look at how the brand has moved on. “People have a very fixed idea of the sort of thing that we do,” she explains. “All I want them to do is come and have a look and then they’re up to date.”

For autumn 09, she is giving buyers the perfect reason to take a fresh look. In recent years, Jackson has been quietly selling footwear and accessories from her Brompton Cross store in west London. Gradually, her stockists asked to sell the shoes, prompting her to launch a wholesale footwear and accessories line this season.

“Brompton Cross is a fantastic barometer. It’s one tiny flagship store but we just repeat and repeat and repeat on the small accessories. It felt silly really not to [launch a separate collection]. It seems people want to buy into the brand in that way.”

The collection features about 15 different styles of footwear in seven colourways (the palette includes black, chestnut brown, primrose, emerald, red, blush pink, grey and lilac), bags, belts, small leather goods and jewellery. It is all produced in the Betty Jackson brand’s typically offbeat style of unexpected colour and texture combinations with surprising details.

Footwear ranges from heeled punched suede shoe boots to practical yet quirky flat loafers, in crocodile, suede, leather and fabric finishes. Jewellery includes the brand’s now signature embellished bibs as well as brooches fashioned from army badges decorated with semi-precious stones.

Accessible quality

While quality remains high - shoes are handmade in Istanbul or Spain and jewellery is finished in London - pricing has been kept accessible. “The price point will be affordable for the Betty Jackson Two [diffusion line] customers as well, so we’re targeting independent retailers and department stores,” explains sales manager Vincent Frayssinet.

“At the moment we’re focusing only on the UK for the launch but it is something that will grow internationally. Footwear starts at £65, which is about £180 retail, so we’re in the same range as Marc by Marc Jacobs and Marni, which is fantastic.”

Prices for bags start at £80 with jewellery from £45, while belts and keyrings start from £25 and £26 respectively. As well as potentially appealing to Jackson’s existing UK stockist base (made up of 25 mainline and 85 diffusion line accounts), the accessories will also give Jackson the chance to dip her toe into etail for the first time by selling accessories on the brand’s website. “We’re going to tentatively start selling online for spring with a view to doing it properly by next season,” she says.

Jackson is hesitant about selling the clothes online herself, but etailer My-Wardrobe has stocked her ready-to-wear collection and footwear since launching in 2006.

“As such an established and respected name within British fashion, Betty Jackson is a very important brand for us and her following grows season after season,” says My-Wardrobe founder and chief executive Sarah Curran. “The amazing footwear collection, which gets better each season, really appeals to the fashion-forward 20-something while the ready-to-wear appeals to an older customer.”

At the time of Drapers’ visit, Jackson is putting the finishing touches to her autumn 09 collection for London Fashion Week. The colour palette mimics that of the accessories and Jackson is continuing with the themes of “controlled volume” and opposing textures.

“There is a little bit of a surrealist touch. We’ve been playing with tucks and folds for a while, but I do like the fact that volume is controlled by a tuck and you don’t know it’s there until you move in it,” she explains.

She finds it difficult to describe her signature aesthetic. “I want to say ease and comfort but that doesn’t sound sexy. But you can’t be sexy unless you’re easy and comfortable,” she says. What she does not do is pander to trends and celebrity culture. She has famous customers, but would never say who and is mystified as to why women need to have their fashion choices validated by celebrities. “Women have gone bonkers. It’s so stupid, why can’t you make your own mind up?”

It is all a far cry from when Jackson showed at the first LFW in 1984, in a car park at the Olympia exhibition centre, when she was considered cutting edge. “We were completely radical. Of course, you move on because you develop as a designer and want to do different things. The economic and political situation changes, and as a designer you don’t work in a vacuum,” she explains.

Besides, you can’t be a bright young thing forever, which is a challenge a number of today’s designers face. “What London will have to do is look after the people who have moved on from that young cutting edge. The industry comes across and sees it and then it just goes and buys in New York, Milan and Paris. It doesn’t leave a big fat 30 grand order with all these young kids,” she says.

A visiting professor at the Royal College of Art, Jackson has tutored and mentored many of the bright young things currently setting London abuzz, and seems more keen to promote their interests than her own.

That said, she did take a stand at trade show Pure London this season to promote Betty Jackson Two and the new accessories line, and a press release has been produced. “This is us being aggressive,” she laughs, handing over the press release. “This is the aggressive launch.” And by her low-key standards, maybe it is.

CV

  • 2009 Launches accessories line
  • 2007 Awarded CBE
  • 2005 Launches Betty Jackson Black for Designers at Debenhams
  • 2004 Launches Betty Jackson Two
  • 2000 Designs the Autograph collection for M&S
  • 1999 Becomes visiting professor to Royal College of Art
  • 1991 Opens Brompton Cross store
  • 1987 Awarded MBE
  • 1985 Named British Designer of the Year
  • 1984 Shows at first LFW
  • 1981 Launches Betty Jackson label

Q&A

Which other designers do you admire and do you wear any other designers’ clothes?
I’m very boring about what I wear. I only wear me and it’s why we’ve always got black in the range. There are lots of young designers I love - Danielle Scutt, Richard Nicholl, Emma Cook, Jonathan Saunders and Markus Lupfer. Erdem is doing great things and he’ll do well too because he’s got the chat. You can’t not fall in love with him because he’s so lovely.

You’ve received many accolades, including an MBE and CBE, but what has been the proudest moment of your career?
I did Desert Island Discs and I almost think meeting [presenter] Sue Lawley was better than meeting the Queen because she was so grand. I had so many letters after I did it
and I love it myself - I’m a complete Radio 4 addict. Afterwards, I thought ‘right, I can retire now’. It was such good fun and she was so professional. Designer of the Year is great because it’s voted for by the industry.

Which retailers do you admire?
Browns continues to be fabulous. It has always been awesome, even when I started my label in 1981. It has become much friendlier; it used to be quite scary. That’s closely followed by Matches. But I do think US retailers have got that attention to detail as far as service is concerned. Stella McCartney’s place in New York is just fabulous, although of course she’s not American.

Apart from fashion, what would be your dream job?
I would be a sculptor. I draw but I’m a bit pathetic. I always say I’m going to work four days a week and do some art but I’m so lazy. When I’m on my own I find one million other things to do. If I didn’t have a team that requires my attention, I’d be hopeless. People whip me into shape.

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