Passion for fashion

St Albans Abbey - the longest catwalk in the world?

St Albans Abbey - the longest catwalk in the world? - Credit: Archant

St Albans has become a leading light in the county for fashion. With its many boutiques and high-street stores as well as designers and its own fashion week, the city is awash with style. Kiran Reynolds meets four women pushing things forward

Chloe James collection at St Albans Fashion Show

Chloe James collection at St Albans Fashion Show - Credit: Archant

The fashion show director

St Albans stands out primarily for being a cathedral city so when Ellena Ophira realised there wasn’t anything in place to celebrate the city’s ‘excellent fashion and beauty offerings’, she managed to secure the imposing abbey as a venue to promote ‘stylish living in the suburbs’ at her creation, St Albans Fashion Week.

Now in it’s third year (the event takes place again in the last week of October), SAFW as it’s known last year saw 30 events and three catwalk shows. The spectacular cathedral show – with possibly the world’s longest fashion show front row, along the nave (pictured right) – was ‘everyone’s favourite event’, says Ophira. Tickets for the abbey event sold out in three days.

The festival director adds that events during SAFW such as the Super Shopping Saturday, where St Albans retailers offer discounts, have also helped to boost tourism and commerce in the city.

At this year’s fashion week, Ophira is aiming to dedicate more time ‘to the budding creative talent in the area’ and to showcase more upcoming and cutting- edge designers alongside the city’s boutique and high-street retailers.

‘The fashion landscape is certainly changing in St Albans – it’s smartened up,’ Ophira says. ‘Our independents are everything good boutiques ought to be and we’re lucky to have some excellent brands on our high street,’

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With St Albans being home to many commuters to London and people who have moved out from the capital, Ophira, who trained at the London School of Fashion and now runs her own PR company, says the city is shifting in nature. ‘Its fashion landscape is changing to suit what they are used to in the big city.’

The boutique retailer

Donna Nichol, owner of Chloe James fashion and lifestyle boutique, knew that she and her business partner Maria Allen would be filling a gap in the St Albans high-street offering when they opened their shop selling clothing, jewellery, interior style and gifts in 2010. The ‘vibrant mix of people’, including those moving from London for ‘a better quality of life’ along with a constant influx of students, provides Chloe James with a large customer base and excellent opportunities says Nichol.

Based over two floors of one of the city’s ‘quirky’ Tudor building, Chloe James has been likened to ‘a petite version of Liberty’, she says.

When buying collections, she keeps in mind ‘a balance of style, quality and price, reflecting the needs of the community’ who ‘know what’s on trend and what they’re looking for’. On keeping ahead of the increasing competition on the St Albans scene, Nichol explains, ‘We just make sure we’re different. Because our business covers such a variety of products, the shop is always evolving.’

Being involved in St Albans Fashion Week since it began, Chloe James collections (pictured overleaf) have been shown at the cathedral every year. Nichol also organises the boutique’s own sell-out fashion shows twice a year, which have raised more than £15,000 for local charities.

The fashion designer

After graduating with a degree in fashion and textiles, 21-year-old Emma Hughes of Abbots Langley set up women’s-wear knitwear label ECH – inspired by birds of paradise. ‘But instead of the usual bright colours associated with the birds, I went for a more sleek and sophisticated look,’ she explains, ‘Focusing on dark blues, purples and metallic.’

Her clothes are also inventive in their use of materials and construction. ‘I like to use a variety of textured yarns and weights, and incorporate knitting techniques like macramé and fringing within my work,’ she adds.

Hughes showcased her creations at St Albans Fashion Week’s cathedral catwalk, taking the honour of closing the show. The event gave her a big boost, she says: ‘After showcasing my collection at SAFW, I made valuable contacts with potential buyers who were interested in commissioning me to create bespoke pieces.’

Currently interning as an archive assistant at Vivienne Westwood, Hughes says she has learnt a lot about ‘being behind the scenes’ in the fashion industry, which his helping the development and progression of her own fashion brand. Having the opportunity to study Vivienne Westwood collections dating back to the early 1990s is a great inspiration, she says. ‘It proves to me how much I really love fashion and drives me to make a real success of my label.’

The fashion stylist

Amanda Slader hosts ‘luncheon styling events’ to groups of women during St Albans Fashion Week and describes them as fun and interactive, as well as a confidence booster for women to try out new looks.

A stylist at John Lewis in Welwyn, where she manages the personal styling and womenswear team, she and her group choose collections from the department store to showcase on the catwalk shows during SAFW.

Slader adds that the level of service in the city’s boutiques is particularly high, and St Albans has blossomed in terms of its fashion offering, with shops that are ‘amazingly diverse with prices to suit all budgets, which encourages women more than ever before to try something different’.

With clients ‘much more open to new ideas, including embracing the power of accessories’, Slader says those who attend her styling luncheons leave with a greater understanding of ‘their bodyshape and colouring and know which brands are designed to fit them’. She adds, ‘Great styling makes for great wellbeing in all aspects of life.’

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