LONDON – In a town known for its buzzing young talent and fleeting fashion careers, Jenny Packham is a survivor.
She has been in business for more than three decades, specializing in bridal and red carpet dressing with clients including the Duchess of Cambridge, Dita Von Teese, Kate Winslet, Phoebe Waller-Bridge and Adele.
She’s not a press darling here – she’s been around too long for that – but she has a solid client base in the UK, US and China; a chic boutique in Mayfair in London and showed off its latest Fall / Winter 2021 collection, filled with glitter, feathery plush and old Hollywood glamor, on the Paris schedule this week.
Packham has successfully weathered the COVID-19 storm that has forced many other designer businesses to close, and has worked with China throughout the lockdown. And she’s gearing up for an influx of wedding orders and second-hand clothes as life returns to sort of normal.
Her survival skills aren’t just professional, however, and her memoir, “How to Make a Dress” (Ebury Press), which is published March 4, makes this clear. There she takes a candid and intimate look at fashion, family – and life – and is able to see herself, her work and those around her from a refreshing and ironic distance.
She speaks openly about separating from her husband, business partner and father of her two adult daughters, Mathew Anderson (they reunite later), and writes fantastic letters berating her detractors, including Alexandra Shulman, former editor-in-chief of British Vogue. , and Prince Andrew.
She also reveals how angry and hurt she was when a bus full of London Fashion Week reporters chose at the last minute to attend a Burberry after party instead of her show (which featured a techno group she had flown in from Berlin) leaving one front row blatantly empty.
“‘Well, that was a disaster,'” she told Anderson on the way home. “I’m never going to show (in London) again.” Her husband responded by slapping his foot on the accelerator, “and we walked home in stony silence,” she wrote.
Packham was serious and she moved the show to New York City six months later, picking up customers from department stores, dressing celebrities on the red carpet and even getting the name recorded in “Gossip Girl,” guest actress Elizabeth Hurley stating : “I leave. at a Jenny Packham fashion show.
The book is also teeming with British self-mockery and open recognition of its own failures, fashion catastrophes and embarrassing moments from celebrities including Leonardo DiCaprio.
Having asked to take a photo with him at a BAFTA tea party in Beverly Hills – she waits for what seems like forever for an answer.
“As the slow seconds passed, I started to get this feeling of ‘Titanic’ – I was sinking, into an abyss of shame,” she wrote. DiCaprio eventually agreed to pose, although Packham said she couldn’t bear to look at the photo for six months, she was so embarrassed by his starstruck behavior.
There have been a few self-made track failures. Packham remembers being too excited about a collection she created and inspired by Sergei Diaghilev and the Ballets Russes.
A professional ballet dancer opened the show which featured a stellar lineup of models including Lily Cole, Jade Parfitt, Erin O’Connor and Yasmin Le Bon. Charlotte Tilbury and Eugene Souleiman, respectively, did the makeup and hairstyle.
“The magical snowflakes started to fall and the lead dancer took to the stage, pointe, weightless and sylphonic… Looking towards the range of mannequins, I realized… this collection was really bad. Somehow, the styles had just drifted. I shivered; my fate was sealed and I felt a cold front enter, ”she wrote.
There was more bad news to come. Packham rushed to buy the papers the next morning, hoping the show had somehow been forgotten, “but scanning the lower shelves I saw her on the cover of The Mirror. Yasmin Le Bon wearing the crimson puffball (minidress) and the headline… ‘Does my Bon look big in there?’ ‘
The book is also packed with career highs and an honest look at the design process. “For years, I held the components of my work in my hands and often inadvertently brought them home, waking up to find crystals and pins lying next to me in the bed,” Packham writes. .
She loves a challenge too, relishing the moment burlesque performer Von Teese walks into Claridge’s in one of her intricate and personalized designs.
“I congratulate myself on having merged the Ming Dynasty with film noir, while still managing to give a secret nod to the art of striptease,” Packham writes of Von Teese’s dress. “The curtain of cascading crystals sparkles against her back, sending a wave of excitement across the room, and I decide to take another sip of my cocktail.
She writes fondly about her supportive and inspiring parents, and her older brother, naturalist, TV presenter and author Chris Packham, whose ultra-organized closet she dissects, finding fleece jackets, mountaineering gear – and plenty by Prada.
Packham is quietly spoken, a self-proclaimed introvert, and doesn’t gush during interviews, which is why the book is so revealing. In a video interview, she said the writing came naturally.
“As soon as I started things came out – and I just ran with it. I think being genuine is the most important thing for me, actually. I was like ‘I’m just going to write it from my perspective’ how is it for me, my experience, “said the designer.
She wrote the book in 2019, on planes, in hotel rooms, in her local London cafe, “and even during business meetings – sometimes I wouldn’t know what they were talking about,” she says. with a smile.
Writing the book, she added, “reinvigorated my love for all that I have spent my life doing. I have a great job and I feel really excited.
When asked how her business has been able to thrive for so long in a city that can be so brutal for designers, she said having a niche product is essential.
“Making dresses for special occasions, there has always been a place for that. The pandemic presents us with probably the greatest challenge of all time because events have been postponed – but this is the first time this has happened in 33 years, ”she said.
“I also think being international means that if the business is not doing well (in one region), you can sort of bypass it. You are not tied to a single market. And I think Mathew and I are very determined. He’s a great businessman, and we come together and get things done.
Packham also worked closely with clients, including Net-a-porter and Farfetch, throughout the lockdown, creating more exclusive capsules and mini-collections for them.
She said business was booming the week before its flagship Mayfair shutdown last November. “I think people are commanding forward for events that may or may not happen, and maybe they’re treating themselves too,” Packham said.
China, she added, has thrived – it has dressed brides, VIPs and influencers from its Beijing and Shanghai stores throughout the lockdown.
“It’s a slow burn with China, and I think you really have to be prepared to invest, and know that it takes time for them to understand the brand,” said Packham, who is also looking to reestablish their presence. in Russia.
When asked about the bridal business, she believes COVID-19 has taken a new direction.
“I’m really expecting a change in bridal fashion because this year we’re seeing a number of girls getting married pretty quickly. I think they’re always going to want the experience of walking into the store and welcoming their family there, but I think the focus on a wedding is going to change slightly, ”Packham said.
“Being with your friends and family is going to feel very special to you and I think the dresses maybe could get a little more fashion oriented as the accent will come off a bit on the dress and that very special thing in it. ‘be with people. I think you might see a new kind of fashion come out of it, like something a little more relaxed.
“As a designer, I feel like I have a little more leeway to launch things, which can be a bit of a surprise, and I’m sure they’re going to be interested. I think there’s going to be a bit of letting go, and really living the moment in marriage.
Packham sees a shining world after the lockdown. “I think it’s a very exciting time in the arts, because there will be an explosion of creativity, a urge to go in a different direction. I feel pretty free as a designer because at the moment I feel like I can be a lot more experimental, I think clients are also ready to change and do something different.