50 shades of fashion

Caroline Charles has been at the forefront of British fashion since the sixties and, 50 years on, shows no sign of slowing down. Kent Life caught up with her in Tunbridge Wells

50 shades of fashion

Caroline Charles has been at the forefront of British fashion since the sixties and, 50 years on, shows no sign of slowing down. Kent Life caught up with her in Tunbridge Wells  

She’s dressed everyone from the Rolling Stones to Diana, Princess of Wales and Nicole Kidman and is currently stepping (a tad reluctantly) into the limelight to celebrate her 50th anniversary as one of London’s leading designers.

Caroline Charles - 50 Years in Fashion, is a glossy hard-back diary illustrating the last half century through photos and sketches, press cuttings and diary extracts. It’s a fascinating journey through the decades and it seems only fitting that I meet up with its author in the Tunbridge Wells boutique that bears her name.

Wearing her trademark black jacket and trousers – her own design, naturally (she never wears anything else), with cropped auburn hair and no trace of make-up, Caroline is an ageless figure, petite, softly spoken and much happier to let her designs speak for her than address an audience.

But an adoring group of invited customers has gathered in the High Street shop, many sporting vintage Caroline Charles, most of a certain age and all definitely ladies who lunch – and they all want to hear her speak, ask her advice, and go away with a signed copy of her fashion bible.

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Leafing through the book, Caroline recalls that heady decade when it all began: “There were only about 10 of us doing collections in the sixties and we got taken up very quickly by not only the Americans but also the French. It was a very exciting period.

“Like all young designers we depended on the press because we had nobody to take our pictures and no money even if we did, so all this photography at the beginning of the book is definitely scrapbook – it’s come out of our press cuttings.

“The Americans - who were ready for a bit of a change, as was Britain - took up Swinging London and we did tours of the States, lots of film stuff. We had a really good time and sold zillions of clothes.”

She adds: “We didn’t know much, but we had taste and certainly an eye for a nice bit of fabric and we could sew, so come the seventies when everything slightly went hippy and there were a lot of political ups and downs, we majored in very soft clothes, just really pretty clothes that did us proud.

“We were consultants to Marks & Spencer, which saw my mother regularly going to M&S at Marble Arch and putting the things I’d designed at the front – why she wasn’t arrested I’ll never ever know! But that was great fun, to see women on the street dressed in clothes you’d had a hand in. 

“By the time the eighties came round it was no longer soft and romantic, it was all shoulders and glamour. We worked a lot in Switzerland with sequin manufacturers and we had the Princess of Wales as a customer, so that was a terrific plus and in her wake the Japanese arrived, in the same way the Americans had.

“In the nineties the Japanese business went on and on – Emma Thompson won an Oscar and a BAFTA and bought our clothes, which was just what we wanted.

I had a terrifying moment at the V&A when I had to speak to mark our 40th anniversary, in front of 350 people – and by the 2000s I’d got an OBE, which I felt very guilty taking but I knew my mother would have been pleased. The Queen had asked us to design the official scarf to mark the 40th anniversary of Her accession, so that might have helped.”

So what about this century, how has she adapted and kept such a loyal clientele? “Over the last 10 years or so we’ve managed to make treasures for people – they tell me if they’ve worn it for a special occasion and don’t have another in the offing, then they hang it on the side of the cupboard so they can see it. And I know that feeling,” says Caroline.

I ask her if she has a favourite decade, but she tells me: “I’m very much in the day. I start with the fabric people, who know I’m a soft sell, then I go travelling to see people who can’t come to me and I work with our designers, weavers and specialist printers.”

And as for her favourite designers, Caroline cites Erdem, the young Canadian-born, British-Turkish fashion designer – and Victoria Beckham (“I love what she does, she’s a very clever girl”), and thinks the Duchess of Cambridge “looks wonderful – she’s tall, she’s slim and she smiles – she’s definitely someone the nation admires.”

Generations admire you too, Caroline, and will be relieved to know that you show absolutely no sign of slowing down. “I love what I do, it’s such a joyous job,” she says simply. “Life is good.’


50 Years in Fashion, by Caroline Charles

Hardcover, 256 pages �45, published by ACC Editions

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