There is a fantastic interview with our favourite designer Jenny Packham in the London Evening Standard, which makes for excellent reading if you’re one of her fans! The article focuses on the amazing year and a half she has had since starting to design for the Duchess of Cambridge. Here it is printed in full, it seemed a shame to leave any of it out.
Jenny Packham on dressing the Duchess of Cambridge
In 18 months a London designer has transformed herself into the future Queen’s favourite — and thanks to the “Kate effect’, business is up 40 per cent. Hermione Eyre gets the measure of Jenny Packham
Jenny Packham usually receives notes of thanks from brides whose dream dress she has created, but now she is designing for the Duchess of Cambridge she has received a rather different type of letter. “I had a little handwritten letter from a lady in Wisconsin passionately criticising me for the primrose yellow shift dress I made for the duchess,” says Packham. “She said didn’t I know about putting weights around the bottom of a hem, so it can’t blow up?”
The duchess wore the dress at an airport while touring north America, and the wind blowing up the runway revealed rather too much of the royal legs. “Well, I didn’t know it was going to be worn on a windy runway,” laughs Packham. “But I did think maybe in future I will put in more weighting, just in case…”
When the Duchess of Cambridge wants to plan a world-tour wardrobe, or even possibly fancies a little retail therapy, the designer she is most likely to visit, these days, is Packham. Her flagship boutique in Mayfair is well worth leaving Kensginton Palace for. It’s a boudoir full of scented candles, flowers and faux-zebra-skin ottomans and hand-painted floral De Gournay wallpaper.
It used to be a bank, and all the money that was once stored there has rematerialised into dainty racks of sequined evening gowns costing £2,000 to £3,000 each, as well as maribou feather shrugs and glittering diamanté headdresses.
Behind the old cashier’s mahogany partition are the changing rooms, and beyond them, safer and more private still is a former vault, windowless and cosy, with a big mirror and Hollywood lights. “This is where the magic happens,” says a smiling member of Packham’s staff. I think by this she might mean “where the duchess tries things on”.
Southampton-born Packham has been in the business for 24 years, slowly building up a following for her feminine, flattering occasion wear. It isn’t high fashion — American Vogue editor-in-chief Anna Wintour didn’t attend her New York Fashion Week showcase this month — but it is well beloved by women looking for timeless gowns that feel good to wear. “I don’t feel the need to be quirky or avant garde,” says Packham. “I’m just showing beautiful, glamorous clothing in a way that I hope will show how it could be worn.”
Her bridal designs are much sought-after — there was a craze, three years ago, for the “Elizabeth”, the white bejewelled creation Elizabeth Hurley wore to marry Arun Nayar — but Packham’s eveningwear is increasingly seen on A-listers including Kate Winslet and Angelina Jolie and the brand is expanding into outlets all over the US. “Over the past year and a half our business has grown by 40 per cent,” she says.
This is surely due in part to the royal seal of approval, but though Packham proudly displays pictures in-store of the duchess wearing her designs, most of those she has worn recently are bespoke and will never be available to the public. “We’re not Reiss,” she laughs.
Last year the duchess chose a rose pearlescent Packham evening dress for her first public engagement as a married woman and this summer, at a pre-Olympic gala at the Royal Albert Hall, she wore a stunning lace gown in teal — “Emerald green!” cries Packham. She is firm that she isn’t going to talk about the duchess but can’t stop herself: “Everyone said it was teal, but I don’t know where that came from. It was emerald, verging on peacock. With a matching bespoke clutch in that very specific colour.”
Packham has noticed an increasing demand for accessories made from the same material as the dress — could a new mood of formality be catching on, inspired by Kate’s perfectly turned-out look?
“Yes, I think there is a new interest in glamorous dressing in this country — we just need more black-tie occasions. A lot of my designs are inspired by the 1930s, when people were fabulous at dressing up. Then it just all kind of fell away. But people are definitely getting better at finding not just the dress but the accessories, finding out what works together, building up a wardrobe. These things take time, and there’s an art to it, and you have to plan ahead.”
THE duchess is a model on that score, even wearing an orchid-print dress to an orchid-naming ceremony in Singapore’s botanical gardens. The occasion had special significance since one of the blooms was named after the late Princess Diana, who had been intending to see the orchid at the time she died.
The dress Kate wore was by Packham, with a hand-painted orchid design by De Gournay, clearly a house favourite. “A dress is an emotional thing to make,” says Packham. “You’ve got to fall in love with it, and not just with the dress — the whole process of designing it has to be a good experience. If I don’t see an emotional response to a dress, then I think something’s wrong.”
While training in fashion at St Martins, she met her partner Matthew Anderson, who was studying at Central (the two colleges are now merged as Central St Martins). They set up the company together, share a home together in Hampstead and have had two children, Georgina, 18, and Isabella, 14 — but they have never married. She’s always the bridal designer, never the bride, even though she shares her business as well as her home life with him. “We thought it was probably quite enough,” she says.
But Anderson might just be the secret weapon that gives her dresses that especially flattering quality. He is, let’s face it, one of a relatively small minority of straight men who work in fashion. When I ask if he brings a man’s eye to her work, she laughs. “It’s always the same with guys. They’re not particularly into shift dresses, are they? He always likes the more shapely designs, I suppose. He loves what we do, and obviously we’re both very creative people and that’s always been very helpful to me.”
It’s undeniably been a great year for Packham. A dress she made for Sandra Bullock is included at the current V&A eveningwear exhibition. And Jolie paid her the ultimate compliment: not just wearing one of her dresses, but asking to keep it. She selected a burnished-gold long-sleeved dress from her spring/summer 2012 collection, posed in it at a premiere, and then asked if she could have it for her daughter to wear when she was older. “That was really nice when you think how many dresses Angelina has got,” says Packham proudly.
As well as making a demure and formal wardrobe for the Duchess of Cambridge, she has also created a costume for burlesque artist Dita Von Teese. “Dita started wearing our evening gowns about three years ago, and then this year we made an outfit for one of her performances. It’s quite technical — we had to make as many layers as possible.” Well, quite — otherwise the show would be over far too soon. “She wasn’t stripping on this occasion,” explains Jenny. “It was a Cointreau event at the Beverly Hills Hotel. We did a wonderful Jean Harlow-style Tropicana outfit with Swarovski crystal orchids and a Carmen Miranda headdress. It was a pool party and she performed with two amazing parrots and a team of synchronised swimmers.”
From the royal to the risqué, Packham sums it all up discreetly: “This past year and a half has been great for challenges.”
Credit : London Evening Standard.
To view some of Jenny’s fabulous bridal designs, see Jenny Packham Bridal Gowns at High Society.
See Jenny Packham Bridal Accessories to order online at High Society Bride.