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The Drapers Interview: Betty Jackson

Betty Jackson’s passion for fabrics and print has endured for 47 years, and the Drapers Lifetime Achievement winner is still firmly ensconced in the design studio.

Betty Jackson cropped

Betty Jackson

We never really thought anyone was going to come and buy it, so we hadn’t even got an order book - that was the silly thing,” says the ever-modest British design legend Betty Jackson of her debut collection.

The 35-piece range was unveiled for spring 1981 as part of a show - a precursor to London Fashion Week - held in a tent pitched in the car park of the Olympia exhibition centre in Kensington. “We sat there with this rail of clothes, on the sofa and table we had brought from home. Then it just went bonkers and berserk really.”

Jackson estimates she took orders worth around £100,000 (in 1980s money) for that first season from the likes of Harrods, Harvey Nichols, Liberty and Edinburgh indie Corniche.

And she hasn’t looked back. She was named British Designer of the Year in 1985, has designed collaborations with high street stalwarts including Marks & Spencer and Debenhams and has shaken the Queen’s “workman’s hands” twice to receive both an MBE and CBE for her service to the fashion industry.

And last month she added yet another honour to that list, as she was presented with the Lifetime Achievement Award at the Drapers Awards 2014.
“It was a bit overwhelming really,” she says humbly of the enthusiastic reception her award received on the night.

Speaking to Drapers just days after the event at her studio tucked away on a cobbled mews off London’s Westbourne Grove, she explains: “It’s great to be the first woman to get it and the first designer too. It means the industry is finally realising that design makes things better and that wasn’t always the case.

“I do feel finally there’s a much greater appreciation of the creative element, which is important. And that’s also why the industry is having a revival, because designers are bringing new things and that’s very exciting.”

She names Jonathan Saunders, Preen and Dries Van Noten as today’s designers she particularly admires. But the 65-year-old is not ready for retirement yet or preparing to step aside for these new design stars. Far from it.

Instead she reveals she is mulling the possibility of a small return to her own mainline label, which she ended in autumn 12. She is coy about the details, insisting it is just a thought, but if she does pursue it, it could be timed for autumn 15 and would only be sold online, rather than wholesaled.
“We are talking about it now with a few people, that I might do a small collection just online, like everybody else does, and just let a few people know about it. But I have no desire to go back to doing massive publicity. There’s a few nice ideas, and also I need something to wear!

“A lot of people were a bit upset when we stopped - there were a lot of diehard customers.”

But she stresses any new collection “has to be contained, I don’t want to do a massive great thing”, as she is enjoying her new-found freedom to visit art galleries and travel since ending the label that also occupied a flagship store on London’s Brompton Road for 21 years (from 1991 to 2012).

It’s easy to see why Jackson is interested in returning to the collection - design for her has always been about fabrics, and this love for luxurious materials and prints has never faded. “I still get hopelessly excited about the whole thing. That’s the weird thing, you’d think you would stop. The passion and excitement doesn’t change, you still feel exactly the same as when you saw your first beautiful fabric. I don’t think that ever goes away as a designer. When it does then it’s time to go play games on your computer.”

She adds: “I could at any point have done the collection and not shown it to anybody. I loved the creative aspect and the craft of it rather than having to do a fashion show - I didn’t like that bit at all.”

Born in Lancashire in 1949 to a manufacturing family - her father ran a shoe factory - it was back in 1967 during her foundation course at Rochdale College of Art, and in its library filled with antique cloths, that she discovered her passion for textiles.

“I probably fell in love there, that’s where I got the disease - there was no going back after that,” she reminisces. “The first day I knew it was the best thing as it just smelt so nice. Art colleges just have this smell and there’s just stuff going on - people drawing things on the floor with big pieces of brown paper. It was really exciting and fantastic.”

After three further years studying fashion and textiles at Birmingham College of Art, and a stint working as a freelance illustrator, Jackson moved to London in 1972, where she met emerging designer Wendy Dagworthy at a party and they “hit it off straight away”. Jackson went on to become her fashion assistant.

Dagworthy, a prominent British designer during the 1970s and 1980s, who was a co-founder of London Fashion Week and consulted for Jackson’s mainline in the 1990s, is full of praise for her life-long friend. “We had the same work ethics and both loved red lipstick,” she jokes. “You need to enjoy what you do and that’s what we shared. We have the same sense of humour - sometimes we just got into hysterics. She is an innovator so it was clear she would go on to be a great designer, without being a fashion victim.”

In 1975 Jackson was offered her own fashion label at London collective and King’s Road boutique Quorum - Betty Jackson for Quorum - working alongside renowned designers Ossie Clark and Celia Birtwell , which gave her the first taste of large-scale production and international exposure.
By 1981 she was ready to go it alone with her husband and business partner David Cohen, and despite the crippling recession they fearlessly took the plunge. “It was just the Next thing to do really,” she explains casually. “In the middle of a recession everyone said ‘Oh no, don’t do it now, it will be a disaster’, but there you go, it wasn’t.”

She adds candidly: “There wasn’t a sense of building a business or having any idea of the longevity, except we also never ever thought we would fail either. It was just not an option.”

Jackson’s inspiration for her collections’ prints stemmed from her love of paintings. She pioneered the use of large prints so every garment cut would reflect a different section of the pattern, making each item “a bit like ready-to-wear couture” and setting her apart from other designers.

Her collections quickly took off as women, both domestically and globally, were attracted to her easy-to-wear designs. From 1982 Jackson recollects she was doing around 70% export, particularly to the US and department stores like Barneys, Saks, Bergdorf Goodman and Neiman Marcus.

Towards the end of the 1980s as US homegrown designers like Donna Karan, Tommy Hilfiger and Ralph Lauren sprang up, Jackson’s international focus turned to Japan, where her popularity helped her weather a second UK recession and three-day working weeks. At her label’s peak in the late 1980s, she estimates she had around 150 stockists globally.

However, over the years Jackson hasn’t just focused on her own collection; collaborations also form a key part of her work. In 2000 she was invited to help launch M&S’s more premium Autograph range and she has been designing her Betty Jackson Black collection for Designers at Debenhams for 10 years.

“I’m really in favour of designer collaborations on the high street as it can only be to good effect,” she says. “The designer brings something new and a different concept and perspective and the retailer brings exposure and the price. I’m not an elitist, I wish everything was affordable to all.”

Commenting on Jackson’s popularity, Debenhams group trading director Suzanne Harlow says: “Betty provides the Debenhams brand with a wealth of knowledge and credibility and it has been a pleasure working with her for the past decade.”

The spring 15 Betty Jackson Black range comprises flower patterns based on anemones and poppies, with a geisha feel featuring long culottes and matching T-shirts, and lightweight throw-on coats. For autumn Jackson says the focus will turn to folklore, which will “revive a bit of Fair Isle but in a more modern way” with “softer colours through a mist”.

With all this under her belt, Jackson is seen by many to be British fashion royalty - but she has also been in the company of genuine royalty.

The designer was awarded an MBE in 1987. She says, “I thought it was a tax return, because of the envelope. You get this thing from Downing Street, so I thought I’d done something seriously wrong.” Then in 2007 she “got an upgrade” to a CBE.

Speaking of her first audience with the Queen, Jackson admits her nerves mean she has forgotten much of what was said but describes her as “extraordinary”. “She’s got the most beautiful skin and workman’s hands - so that’s quite funny. They are quite square and a bit rough.”

With her in-depth knowledge of the industry, Jackson is now seeking to use this to help new entrants secure a foothold. She is part of a panel working with industry skills body Creative Skillset to accredit technical courses, aimed at searching through the “absolute jungle” of colleges and courses available to highlight those that really serve fashion businesses’ needs. This year the panel gave the new accreditation tick to seven out of 27 courses, and more will be assessed starting from March.

“It’s a flag-up for parents and for industry at the other end,” she explains. “It seemed to me that education and the industry were in a parallel universe; one was not dealing with the needs of the other. There was no collaboration. So I thought it was time to review it.”

On the design side she urges those leaving college to “make your mistakes elsewhere, find out about [the industry] first” before launching on their own.

“So many people have a brilliant couple of seasons and then fall by the wayside and I think they wouldn’t if they knew a bit more at the beginning.”

And her parting words of wisdom to those following in her footsteps: “Unless you have a strong statement you just get lost in the crowd. You have to be absolutely convinced about what you want and your philosophy and don’t waiver. Don’t be concerned about what anyone else is doing. If you think you have a story to tell then tell it as firmly as you can.”

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