The living proof

Celebrating half a century in fashion, Caroline Charles talks to Stephanie Smith about her beautiful, wearable designs.

Caroline Charles with Mick Jagger and Chrisse Shrimpton and pictured in 1964, below.
Caroline Charles with Mick Jagger and Chrisse Shrimpton and pictured in 1964, below.

Caroline Charles says: “I am not person who writes ‘Dear Diary’ every night, but the appointments diaries somehow got saved and stored. Very useful. I’m not that tidy really.”

Very useful indeed, because Caroline’s notes, scrapbooks, cuttings and photographs have been transformed into a book to celebrate her 50 years in the fashion business, presenting snapshots of her travels around the world, meeting, and dressing, the famous and iconic.

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The 1980s was a decade to remember for the house of Caroline Charles.

“What happened to us was we dressed the Princess of Wales,” says Caroline. “She came quite a lot and wore lots of our things. Her mother was a customer, and she just brought her one day when she was engaged and said ‘Diana needs some clothes’, and Diana did need some clothes.

“They were young enough for her, but they were formal enough so she knew she could get out of a car and not crease up – it’s a bit like her daughter-in-law now.”

The patronage of a British princess opened new markets for the business.

“As a result of the Princess of Wales, Japan started to look at London and they chose us and we went throughout the ‘80s and early ‘90s to Japan all the time. They liked the little fit of Caroline Charles, they liked the fabrics, they liked the association with royalty – they liked all the stuff they like now. We went on with our handwriting of clothes you could actually wear in lovely fabrics that made you feel good, which is really the trick of being a dress designer.”

Caroline is in Harrogate to host a fashion luncheon at Betty’s. Her boutique in the town in the most northerly of her six shops, the others being in London, Cheltenham, Tunbridge Wells, Wilmslow and Exeter. She is showing off her spring/summer 13 collection, pictured here. It’s all very tropical,” she says.

“I thought we deserve to be really cheered up and I did not make a single navy blue serious suit. It’s all mango and lime and magenta and violet and I just calmed it down with a bit of black and white. I had in mind that people would go on holiday and to occasions and walk the dog – that’s sort of my ethic really, to make clothes that women would like to wear and would find useful.”

Caroline’s training and introduction to the world of fashion is the stuff of a past land and time.

“First of all, it wasn’t a disgrace to leave school at 16. It was easy to go to art school. I really wanted to be an apprentice, as I loved sewing and making, so I went and worked in the couture houses of London for a year, which was very very interesting, because I learned how everything was made, where the zips came from.

“And then after that, Mary Quant was a goddess and I got a job with her – and to this day the clothes are outstanding, things and everybody in this room would love, right now. From her I learned sharp silhouettes. She didn’t do stunts, but she had a wit about her.”

So Caroline put together her own portfolio of skills, working for a fashion photographer where she learned the value of image, sales while at Mary Quant, and her dress-making skills. “It wasn’t a great plan,” she says.

“I used to sew at night for money, because I hadn’t got any, and go dancing a lot because you could, so it was good. I never felt anything but excited by the whole thing.”

At 21, she was in New York, part of the Swinging London set. “New York/Los Angeles were really interested in London. They realised we had the music, that was the nub, the music and the fashion. The way we did the shows with the band on stage and the fact that I dressed Ringo Starr and Cilla and so on, it completely excited the Americans. They were more conservative than we were at that stage – they didn’t have short, short skirts.”

So which was her favourite decade? “I like every day,” she says. “I recommend being a dress designer. They may not make lots of money, or they might, but is extremely interesting, always.”

Her inspiration comes from everywhere, she says, especially travelling, books and the cinema. At 70, she is still successful, heading up her team of 50 at Caroline Charles. Her two grown-up children are not involved in the business. “My husband does organically sound, keep-the-world green marketing work, so I am a sole trader,” she says.

“They have all been incredibly supportive and like to come backstage before the show and after.”

She has a home in London and in Hampshire and, when not working, likes to dig her garden, see her children, read, draw and cook – “all the normal things,” she says.

The biggest change in fashion that she has seen in her half century in the business is the emergence of the High Street.

“In the Sixties there was C&A, which was the equivalent sort of, of Primark, and there was possibly Debenhams, but now the High Street employs the best designers in the world and has the best of everything and has become major, major,” she says.

“The other thing is the business of a brand. You and I would never have a bag with something written on it... now with the Chinese the Arabs and so on, they want to establish that they have something of another culture and so the brand has become very, very major.”

Is that a good thing? “It’s just a thing” she says. “You don’t have to play.”

Still doing her own thing and still relevant – after 50 years as a “dress designer”, as she quaintly calls herself, Caroline Charles is a lesson in how to survive and be successful in the fickle business that is fashion. And she has done it all simply by being herself.

Twitter: @yorkshirefashQ

All spring/summer ’13 collection available now at Caroline Charles, Montpellier Street in Harrogate and at www.carolinecharles.