From Refugee to The Queen's Glovemaker
- Credit: Alamy Stock Photo
Cornelia Katz escaped Nazi-occupied Vienna and fled to London where she began making gloves with scraps of leather she'd carried with her in a suitcase. Worn by celebrities and the Queen, the luxury brand now has a Royal Warrant and is run by her daughter Genevieve James
Inside a collection of small farm buildings in the middle of the East Sussex countryside, expert seamstresses are hard at work crafting the delicate Cornelia James gloves that grace the hands of royalty.
Set just outside the village of Ripe, the former dairy barn, which bears a Coat of Arms displaying the Royal Warrant as glove manufacturers by appointment to the Queen, is a very low-key setting for a world-renowned luxury brand that has accessorised the monarch since 1947 and has made gloves for other members of the Royal Family including the Duchess of Cambridge, Princess Anne, and Princess Diana.
Here, the team of seamstresses, today including Ellie Jackson, Catherine Pougault and Milena Stefanova, sit at their sewing machines, each making a pair of gloves from start to finish so she 'owns' it. They sign the label that tells the customer who made them before they are carefully packed in a light cockpit green box, and tied with a ribbon to post off to their new owners.
A few steps away is a small building resembling a shed, where Genevieve James, the daughter of the company’s founder Cornelia James, and her husband Andrew Lawson run the company with Freddie, 33, one of their three children.
Genevieve is passionate about the products, laying out styles and colours to show each exquisite detail, her hand fluttering over a bow or a button. There are day gloves, dress gloves, gloves in tulle, silk and satin, summer gloves, opera gloves, cashmere gloves, bridal gloves, and gloves in leather, merino wool and velvet.
Reverently, she holds up the sumptuous ‘Hermione’ opera gloves in pearl satin that were worn by Queen Charlotte, played by Golda Rosheuvel, in the hit Netflix series Bridgerton, the racy romp set in Regency London. The Duchess of Hastings, played by Phoebe Dynevor, also wore Cornelia James gloves in one the famous scene where she danced with the dashing Duke of Hastings, played by Regé-Jean Page.
There are the gloves loved by pop stars such as Madonna, Lady Gaga and Rihanna, those modelled in photoshoots by actors including Tilda Swinton, Helena Bonham Carter, Nicole Kidman and even Benedict Cumberbatch, and those with starring roles in other period dramas such as Downton Abbey and The Crown.
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The Queen has probably worn Cornelia James gloves to many key Royal occasions and it is more than likely that she will be wearing a pair of her favourite classics this month as she celebrates her Platinum Jubilee, when she is expected to attend the Trooping of the Colour and The Derby at Epsom Downs.
'The Queen has an iconic style all of her own and the gloves are an essential element in that,' says Genevieve. 'The white gloved hand at the window of her black car is indelibly imprinted on the consciousness of the nation.'
Those many occasions have spanned the entirety of the Queen’s long reign, starting with a Royal Tour to New Zealand and Australia in 1953, the year of her coronation, but it was the most recent that was perhaps the most poignant: the memorial service for her late husband, the Duke of Edinburgh, which took place at Westminster Abbey in March this year.
It was also the occasion where the Duchess of Cambridge was seen carrying a pair of the brand’s ‘Imogen’ merino wool gloves, which feature a bow on the cuff. Since 2012, she has been seen in Cornelia James gloves on a number of public engagements and her patronage has created a somewhat surprising foreign fan base for Cornelia James.
'Thanks to bloggers who write about what the Duchess of Cambridge wears, a lot of our customers are in the US,' says Genevieve. 'She is really popular and the Americans are nuts about the Royal Family, so we have a big audience there, with about 60 per cent of our online sales going to the US. We sell a lot in Virginia and New York but the really big one is Dallas in Texas. Dallas loves our gloves. Jersey cotton and a lighter weight Swiss cotton do very well there, because the gloves are light and breathable.'
The international success of the brand is all the more remarkable because it began when a Jewish refugee fled Nazi-occupied Vienna and found fame and fortune as glovemaker to the Queen.
Cornelia Katz was born in Vienna to a middle class family and studied fashion design at the Vienna Academy of Fine Arts. After Nazi Germany occupied Austria, she first went to Paris and then arrived in England in 1939 as a refugee carrying nothing but a suitcase full of pieces of brightly coloured leather.
As an internee, she taught occupational therapy to soldiers showing them how to use their hands, and in 1940 she met and married Jack Burnett James. To earn a living, she began designing gloves using the leather she had brought with her from Vienna, which became very popular as an affordable accessory that added a vital splash of colour to dreary post-war clothes.
'At the time, there was no money for clothing fabrics but a pair of gloves could transform your outfit by adding colour,' explains Genevieve. 'She was very clever.'
Cornelia suddenly became well-known after her gloves became fashion essentials, and when royal couturier Norman Hartnell was invited to make the wedding gown and going-away outfit for the then Princess Elizabeth for her wedding to the then Lieutenant Philip Mountbatten in 1947, he asked Cornelia to make the gloves for her trousseau. It marked the beginning of her long association with the Royal Family, culminating in 1979 when she was granted the Royal Warrant, a recognition of excellence consistently achieved and a mark of British excellence recognised all over the world.
The national recognition of the brand was cemented after the Royal wedding when Vogue magazine profiled her as 'the colour queen of England', with Cornelia now supplying couturiers and leading stores. She also established her first workshop, in Davigdor Road in Hove, in 1947, and later a factory in a former dairy farm in Brighton.
'Business boomed after that,' Genevieve says. 'In the 1950s, gloves were an essential item of daily attire, and they really were the golden years of the glove industry. My mother had 250 machinists working for her, many of them outworkers. She was quite daunting, apparently, and had a heavy Austrian accent.'
As well as running the business, Cornelia and Jack also had a family. In 1948, their son Peter James, now the bestselling author of crime fiction and creator of the character Detective Superintendent Roy Grace, was born, and seven years later Genevieve came along.
'There were actually four of us,' reveals Genevieve. 'We lost two - I had a twin who died, and in between me and Peter there was a little girl who died from a hole in the heart when she was one and a half. Today, they would have been saved but in those days that wasn’t how it was. Today, I would have had my twin and my sister.'
She added, 'When I was little, my mother kept her Jewishness to herself - I didn’t even know she was Jewish until I was 12. I think there was a feeling of shame. My father would never allow us to have a German nanny. Peter was bullied at school for being Jewish.'
In 1998, a year before Cornelia died, Genevieve and Peter took her back to Vienna. 'We reminisced about everything that had happened,' Genevieve says. 'There was this appetite with me to know more and I wanted to see the Jewish Museum in Vienna but it happened to be closed. We came away with such a feeling of sadness.' After Cornelia died, Genevieve discovered unopened boxes of items that had come from the family home in Vienna.
'She had kept all these beautiful things, like tablecloths, all wrapped in tissue paper and I never knew they were there. None of the things had been used.'
The family lived in a large Edwardian house in Withdean Road in Brighton, but following school, Genevieve didn’t automatically go straight into the business. 'I wanted to do something on my own because I was just learning that she was quite fierce, so I went to Paris, where I attended art college in the evenings and during the day I worked in tourism, and when I came back I thought I could do something with scarves in the business.'
Genevieve, a designer who lives in Chiddingly, has been with the business ever since, retaining her mother’s original designs for the gloves but updating them with details such as bows, buttons and relaunching them in beautiful fabrics.
'I love the gloves she designed,' she says. 'It’s not fashion, it’s style. Good style never dates. The thing about gloves is that they’re never going to be the main story of an outfit - they are transformational. Imagine the image of Audrey Hepburn in that little black dress with the gloves - without the gloves, it’s just a little black dress. Gloves can turn WAGs into ladies.'
Her own favourite gloves are the ‘Desdemona’, a very understated pure silk jersey glove with buttons and a feature called a mousquetaire, a space at the inner wrist for easy removal of the hand of the glove, a style featured in The Crown.
But Genevieve is busy getting ready to launch a new, unique glove. A passionate skier, she has designed a black and white ladies’ real leather ski mitten in soft pink, using possum fur sourced from roadkill in New Zealand, which will be launched by the beginning of September.
And for the first time, she is launching a collection of men’s gloves. It will include a men’s version of the ski mitten, called ‘James’ and made from deerskin, along with three other designs. 'I’ve always wanted to go into this market because lots of women go on our website so I thought why don’t we do something for that female audience that wants to buy something for their husbands?'
Will new products signal a change in leadership at the top? 'At some point, the third generation of the family will run it,' says Genevieve. 'Freddie will take over. But not yet. We still have much to do.'