The Fashion Folk S02 ep4 : Caroline Charles, Charles Fashion, [London]
Interview with Caroline Charles
London can't boast many designers who began their careers in the sixties and are still creating with a great sense of style and a passion for their craft. She has shops strategically placed throughout the UK; key international stockists and licensees in Japan. She celebrated the 40th year of her business with a party in 2002 at the V & A and was also awarded an OBE for services to the British fashion industry
Caroline: I don’t quite know what the artisan word in the English really translates as but for me I
love the textiles with a real passion, any sort of fabrics, woven, embroidered, knitted, this time now
I’m just going into the period of heaven where all the fabric people come to me and I go to them.
Then, it’s like Christmas, they all arrive the fabrics, heaven. And so I make the clothes really out
of my love affair with the fabrics.
Caroline: My mother and my grandmother were passionate also about clothing. My grandmother
had couture clothes, London couture, although she had a house in the South of France, so she was
always, always beautifully dressed. My mother was a girl in Cairo and her social milieu was very,
very clothes orientated and she would go to Paris to a particular woman who sold the originals and
she would, because she was a very slender woman, she would have those. So the whole of my
household and the whole of my upbringing was about this.
Caroline: My great grandmother was called M… Dimitriadis and she came from Kios and she
married my great grandfather who was a cotton broker in the Sudan and a journalist for The Times
newspaper. My grandfather was head of customs in Alexandria and went between Alexandria and
Cairo, my mother was part of the 1930’s so it was absolutely in my upbringing. I had that sort of
education where you know you get sent to boarding school at six, unheard of now, seemed fine.
Emerged at 16, pretty dodgy now, allowed to go to art school immediately.
Caroline: And my ambition was to be in London because London was the centre of my world, still
the centre of my world, wonderful place. And I got to London and I was an apprentice to a
couturier here which was the best, he was called Michael Cherard.
Caroline: Car… Mary Quant, Courege, they all had the handwriting and Mary’s was divine and I
got a job there immediately, just as a humble salesperson.
Caroline: I think that Mary Quant was the freshest, the coolest, the cheekiest and made the best
clothes. She clearly understood that the young wanted something fresh. She was part of an arts,
Chelsea arts sort of movement, I don’t know that her technical skills had ever really had time to be
honed, but she certainly understood the cut. She understood the fabric and she understood how to
promote and how to do the fashion shows and she was wonderful to work with.
Caroline: You have to shock an audience into remembering your name. You have to associate with
the rudest pop star or the something or something, in order to be on that hook. But when you’ve got
there, not that anyone ever gets there but, when you’ve got a, when you’ve got a following, and I
have now, thank God, you don’t have to shock anybody, you can just show them what you do.
Caroline: A lot of her work actually took its essence from the 1920’s where there was a minimal
group, small group of affluent young girls who cut their hair like Louise Brooks bob and wore their
clothes relatively short, and based everything around the hip.
Caroline: Whatever went on in the studio was a mystery, I think it was Mary, I mean I never met
anybody and I worked there twice, who said I draw for Mary or I, I think Mary did it all, I think it
was Mary’s, yes, Mary’s baby, there were three of them, there was her husband who did the
promotion very amusing, Alexander, and there was a very clever man who did the money and that
Caroline: In ’63 I started yes, having been with Mary, and I’d had a little flirtation with
photography and I’d been an assistant to a fashion photographer and so we’d been at the Paris
shows and this and that, it was a very amusing time.
Caroline: And the Beatles started and I fell in with Brian Epstein and Brian Epstein said to me, I
manage the Beatles and I said, oh do you, in that naïve soft way, and he said, yes and I have people
that need dressing, I also, I want you to do some clothes with Ringo, he’s getting married, I want
you to do a whole trousseau of men’s clothes for him and then I have Cilla Black, I want you to
dress her, and I have oh I can’t remember. I did so many pop stars of that moment.
Caroline: Well I did get on the plane in Heathrow and behind me, this was a long time ago as we
were both at the back of the plane, was Bob Dylan, we somehow started to talk and I gave him my
sketchbook and he wrote you know, stuff in it for me and then we both got into a, some vehicle or
other, separately a bus I suppose we were all penniless, and we pulled up, I pulled up with my
companion at 4 Granister Park and in the next door, car that pulled up was Bob Dylan and we were
actually living one apartment above the other, it was so weird. I mean, I did a few men in those
days, like I did Rudolph Nureyev, that was very interesting, he was a beautiful creature who was
sort of very intense and marvellous.
Did you ever fall in love with some of these people? Honestly?
Caroline: Well one day I was in Tom Jones’ apartment with him, alone, in New York measuring
him for a suit and it was only afterwards I thought, there were a lot of women who would have
liked to have been there, that’s quite interesting, but very often with great sex symbols, they’ve
very ordinary, nice people you know Mick Jagger is a very nice guy, funny.
Caroline: About 1967 was a watershed time, a lot of sitting about on cushions and you know that
sort of thing and we all made robes and looser things that drifted around and it really started here
with a designer called Thea Porter bringing beautiful bridal robes from the Lebanon, which I
suppose she’d bought from the families who were refugees of something, which should never
probably have left the Lebanon, but we just thought they were absolutely wonderful and Liz Taylor
and all these beautiful film stars of course looked marvellous in them. Anyway, I went into that era
happier because it was just more textile based.
Caroline: Your wearing a Monks garment, I often wear nun’s garments, they are wonderful shapes
that have lasted centuries and there was an ease of movement, there’s, it’s very good for the
different climates and they can be made in very plain clothes like the monks or they can be made
incredibly elaborate as some Indian princesses would do.
Caroline: And then the 80’s came and it swung back to tailoring, little, tiny, tight jackets maybe
little sleeves, soft skirts to start with and then short skirts again, and at that point the Princess of
Wales came here and that was very exciting for the media, for us
Did you do a lot of work for her?
Caroline: Yes, lots, yes. Lots and lots.
Caroline: If you are a front line fashion designer, they come or their stylers come, or their
management come, somebody comes and says can we this, can we that. And nowadays there can
be from Helen Miren to some child I mean it’s a very big spectrum of stars.
But do you do them personally, do you do couture for them or do you?
Caroline: No, no, no.
Basically they come to the shop and look
Caroline: They come and they, the stylist puts it together we help them. Although I was trained in
couture, I’m never that bothered about getting into somebody’s private life about what they think, I
like to do it and let them sort out their private lives.
Caroline: Before you’ve finished the collection that you’re about to put on the catwalk, you get
this urge for the next season, it’s like endlessly being pregnant and so you start thinking and you
think oh I mustn’t look, I mustn’t think about that yet. My eye, you know, if I’m thinking about
green, everywhere is green, green all the time and so if I’m thinking about red, I see it everywhere,
the colour is the starting point and you can have a ménage of many, you can have a real speciality
but I do know, because I’ve stayed in business so long, is that you cannot just have white.
Caroline: The reason that we’re here paying the rent is because people buy expensive clothes to
celebrate their daughter’s wedding, their wedding, and somebody’s opera, something, something
and mostly, I mean they will buy black because they have the jewellery, but they will also want
Caroline: I usually do a group of shapes which I will put into plain fabrics and then I will do
masses of draping on a stand and I like to wait for the fabric, I never want to put the fabric into a
shape that doesn’t suit it.
Caroline: Well I see the silhouette as essentially sideways, so I need to see that everything about
her goes in the direction that most women’s bodies need things to go and how the face is framed
through the neck, that’s very, very important.
Caroline: I see Britain as a nation who are not show offs, they have a few footballers and a few pop
stars, but basically they don’t talk about money. They have enormous houses and acres of land,
they’d rather be telling you that their racehorse came in second, they’d rather be telling you that
their child has become a nun, they’d rather be telling you all sorts of things, you know when I
arrive in New York I have to sit at dinners and I have to say I am a success, whereas in England I
never tell anybody what I do, at all, why would I? And I don’t talk like we are talking because it’s
not the way of it. America is about saying I’m a success, Italy is about having part of the industry
that’s part of my nation, and France is deluxe. France is little gigis.
Caroline: Well I went to dinner at the House of Lords last week and I sat next to Benjamin
Brittan’s nephew and he talked all about Benjamin Brittan music and Alber and Suffolk and he
looked at me and he said, my married name was on a card, and said and what do you do? And I
said oh I’m a dress designer. And he said so how do you compare yourself with that person, that
OFFICIAL WEBSITE: Caroline Charles, Charles Fashion, London