Amanda Wakeley is the go-to designer for the world’s most stylish women, including the Duchess of Cambridge. She talks to Stephanie Smith about bouncing back and making women look amazing
Give me three minutes,” says Amanda Wakeley, disappearing into the fitting rooms to rebalance her stress levels after spending the last half hour attempting to negotiate Leeds city centre’s notorious one-way system, with the “help” of her sat nav. “All I could see was a figure of eight,” she says. “I hate being lost and I hate being late.”
She keeps to her word (well, almost) and is ready to be photographed within 10 minutes.
Friendly, funny and open, there’s no fashion-queening it from Amanda Wakeley, despite the fact that, for two decades, her show-stopping gowns have been the go-to style saviours of the world’s highest profile fashion queens, both Hollywood royalty and the House of Windsor variety, gasped at on catwalks and at premieres as they adorn stars including Angelina Jolie, Beyoncé, Helen Mirren and Catherine Zeta Jones. Princess Diana loved her designs and it’s a legacy that seems to be continuing with her daughter-in-law Kate, Duchess of Cambridge, with fashionistas both impressed and intrigued that she has been spotted with increasing frequency wearing Amanda Wakeley.
Model tall, with tumbling blonde locks and ice-blue eyes, Wakeley herself cuts an imposing figure and, dressed today simply in skinny jeans and gorgeously fitted blue jacket (her own), she is the quintessential advertisement for her own label, whether it’s the pared-down sports-influenced lines of this spring’s daywear range, or showing off the knock-out potential of her elegantly stunning evening wear.
Her gowns combines fantasy with accessibility – heavenly, goddess-like, but something women of all ages and sizes can imagine wearing. This is precisely what she wants to achieve, she says: “I want them to be believable, understandable, wearable, but intensely glamorous and make you feel like a goddess for the day, or wherever you are going, whether it’s your wedding day or to a special event.
“Or indeed to the office. I want you to be enthused with confidence, because your body looks as good as it’s going to look, because the clothes are cut well, and because of the details – everything is lined in silk, so it feels delicious on you, and so I think it always makes you walk a bit taller, look skinnier and sexier, and I don’t know any women who doesn’t want a little bit of that.”
Her designs are known, sought out indeed, because of the way they fit and flatter the shapes of real women.
“I am a woman designing for women, so I think that instantly is a help to me. Not that I am designing the whole a collection for myself, but it always helps.”
Born in 1962, the daughter of Sir John Wakeley, a prominent surgeon, and Lady June Wakeley, a physiotherapist, Amanda Wakeley was educated at Cheltenham Ladies’ College.
As a designer she is self-taught, and proud of it. “It’s a real deep intuition. I am always following my gut instinct. That’s how I first started when I was not even a toddler. It was intuitively taking vintage pieces to pieces and looking at how they were made and customising them, and having fun with them, and being brave with them.
“Both my grandmothers were very glamorous, as is my mother. They both travelled a lot and they donated their wonderful bits and pieces into the dressing up box, so that’s probably where it comes from.”
As open as she prefers to be, she can’t talk about Kate Middleton. “It’s very sensitive,” she says, wincing when asked. But it must be deeply gratifying to see the UK’s most currently scrutinised, and broadly admired, fashion icon choosing to wear Amanda Wakeley, particularly after the lengthy struggles Wakeley has endured to keep her own name.
Her fight began following her divorce from Australian property developer Neil Gillon, who controlled the shares, and told her in 2000 that he was selling. The company then passed from hand to hand and, although she remained creative director, she was really just an employee. In 2008, the company was sold off again and she was told she was not needed. Fortunately, Wakeley had the vocal support of fashion friends including Vogue editor Alexandra Shulman. In 2009, with the help of financial entrepreneur Hugh Morrison, her romantic partner and business partner, she bought back the name and brand she had not owned for 10 years.
It’s been an experience, and one she can draw upon for her inspirational talks and guest speeches.
“You know, the last few years have been such a journey and I’ve learned a lot of lessons,” she says. “We do a lot of small events in our own store, pulling together business women, city women, and I’ll talk about my journey, just briefly, and the amount of knowing nods that you get ...
“I am very honest about it, and why not share that journey? I’ve got nothing to be embarrassed or ashamed about. This is what’s happened and it’s quite nice to be able to share it.” If she were launching her label today, one senses she would do it all rather differently. “Actually, I look back and I think, Jesus, 21 years ago ... if I’d known … you sort of do it through blissful ignorance, I guess, or arrogance that you can just do it, and I look back now, and actually it was quite a brave thing to do. I didn’t even think about not doing it.”
Wakeley is in Leeds for a tea party at Harvey Nichols in her honour, introducing her spring/summer range and meeting and greeting customers.
“It’s always fantastic when Angelina Jolie chooses to wear Amanda Wakeley on the red carpet, especially in London,” she says, “but I get an enormous amount of pleasure out of doing events like these and actually meeting the customer. My customer may have a big job in the City or may have a business or may not work at all, but it’s always about working with the customer and understanding a bit about her lifestyle and how the collection can fit in with that.”
Unlike most red carpet queens, customers come in all shapes and sizes. “We dress a lot of 12-14s, but then we also have a lot of calling for size 6-8s, so all the way across the board.”
Bridal is a major part of the business, and it’s often the first time loyal customers experience the brand first-hand. The recession, she says, means it’s more important than ever to offer something extra-special.
“Customers come to Amanda Wakeley because they know there is a lasting quality to the clothes and so I think that’s really helped us. But I think that service has to be outstanding, There’s a lot of beautiful product out there, so it has to be served with knowledge and warmth.”
It’s gratifying too, she says, to see that Amanda Wakeley vintage, that is, her designs from previous seasons, are also brought out and chosen for red carpet wear. “We are in the process of cataloguing the vintage pieces that I have got and that’s lovely because it’s a real archive to draw on.”
Overall, British fashion is gaining global momentum, Wakeley says. “It’s always had momentum from the likes of the Burberrys of this world, but it’s great to see the younger crew coming on through.
“They’ve got some very strong businesses, too, and I think they’ve very well supported by the British Fashion Council. It’s good to see.”
Back in charge of her own label for three years now, there has been restructuring, growth, investment in a new website and e-store, and the launch of a range of jewellery with Ernest Jones. “There are a lot of very exciting projects coming up,” she says. “I think the British High Street is better than any High Street in the world – the innovation is incredible.”
Amanda Wakeley is available at Harvey Nichols Leeds and at www.amandawakeley.com.