David Emanuel on his early career, British fashion and a Royal he'd love to design for
PUBLISHED: 10:46 26 April 2016 | UPDATED: 12:21 26 April 2016
Maureen McLean catches up with couturier David Emanuel in the perfect setting of the Macdonald Windsor Hotel overlooking Windsor Castle
Is it right that meeting Royal dressmaker Hardy Amies spurred you on in your early career?
“Yes, I took my portfolio to Hardy Amies and worked for him during summer holidays. That’s where I learnt how a couture house is run. I was fascinated by sketches of designs for Her Majesty the Queen. In the second year Mr Amies came into the studio and said: “Why don’t you design something?” So I decided to design a coat out of white mohair.
I returned to Cardiff and was thrilled that it was to feature in Vogue magazine under the Hardy Amies label. My love for Royal fashion grew – I adored the suits, day wear, gloves and hats designed by Hardy Amies and vintage Norman Hartnell gowns. We were also inspired by designs on the runway, including those by Calvin Klein, Valentino, YSL and Donna Karen. Before long we jumped in with both feet and set up Emanuel.”
Tell us about success in those early days.
“Our first Royal clients were HRH Princess Michael of Kent and HRH The Duchess of Kent. For many years we designed dresses for The Duchess of Kent when she attended Wimbledon each summer as well as foreign tour wardrobes. To deal with the good old English weather she would always have one dress, with a suit in reserve. She’s a lovely, charming and elegant lady.
We also designed for a number of European Royals and had a collection stocked in Browns South Molton Street as well as Harvey Nichols.
Our studio was opposite Claridges. We had a floor for ready to wear and on our top floor we designed couture garments. One of the first models in our salon, who became a client, was Marie Helvin, who later married photographer David Bailey. As our business grew I recall Bianca Jagger calling us, saying: “I hear you do wonderful dresses.” Bianca told her friend Carolina Herrera about us, and so we dressed her as a private client, too. Anna Harvey, the then Vogue fashion editor, came to our very first show at our tiny showroom and we ended up with five pages in Vogue.”
And the then Lady Diana Spencer arrived?
“Yes, we were working with beauty editor Felicity Clark at Vogue doing a shoot about English Roses. We designed a pale pink silk chiffon blouse with a bow. At the time, fashion editor Anna Harvey was advising Lady Diana on her wardrobe. Lady Diana saw this blouse at the photoshoot, liked it, and then became a client.
We were thrilled that she wore the same design for a photograph taken by Lord Snowden and published in Vogue in February 1981 as her official engagement picture.
After that we designed other outfits for Lady Diana and then got a call from her asking us: “Would you do me the honour of making by wedding gown?”
Sworn to secrecy, we started researching historic Royal wedding gowns. We wanted British silk and so worked with Lullingstone Silk Farm. We ordered a roll of white silk as well as one of ivory silk. We also bought bags of antique lace and ribbons from Phillips Auctioneers. Our research showed that the longest train on a Royal wedding dress had been 20 feet, so we decided to go for one of 25 feet! We had three meetings with Lady Diana, looking at designs for her dress including the bodice, style of sleeve, frills and lace. We were called by Buckingham Palace to say it was to be formally announced that we were the wedding dress designers. The first thing I did was to head to Oxford Street and buy black out blinds, as in no time at all we had photographers on the roofs of the buildings opposite trying to take photographs through our windows!
Most of us can remember exactly where we were and what we were doing on 29th July 1981 when Lady Diana Spencer married HRH The Prince of Wales. There’s no doubt about it, Princess Diana’s wedding dress has to be one of the most famous dresses ever.”
Who else would you like to design for?
“There’s one Royal that I would really love to dress and that is Her Majesty the Queen. My favourite colours on her are blues and yellows. My favourite outfit was the soft pleated coat and dress she wore at the wedding of Prince Charles and Lady Diana Spencer. Her Majesty looks so elegant in her formal gowns, pearls, diamond drop earrings, tiaras and diamond brooches. She has established an iconic look, and I believe she is beyond fashion. She stands alone whether she is in formal attire or cashmere, twin sets, or pleated skirt and headscarf whilst attending, say, Royal Windsor Horse Show.
What makes British fashion so great?
“We are so creative and have the best street fashion. Overseas designers look to our students to join them as design assistants. Ready to wear that sells is key – couture is the icing on the cake.”
Tell us about a commission you’ve greatly enjoyed.
“Eight years ago I was thrown a challenge by high street chain Bon Marché. Women over 50 just weren’t being considered – clothes were all so beige. The David Emanuel Collection at Bon Marché is available online and in stores. Women can now find colours, shapes and fashion suitable for their ages. It’s about having the print and design at a price that’s affordable.”
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