Rita Britton has always been ahead of the curve. Long before Covid, she had already perfected the lockdown look – easy, well-cut clothes in luxurious premium fabrics, beautifully made by skilled Yorkshire makers.
“We need the luxury, especially now, but not the luxury that holds us back and stops us from doing what we have got to do, because we are wearing four-inch heels,” she says, with characteristic bluntness.
Lockdown has been a period of reflection for this legendary fashion designer, shopkeeper and muse, who put Barnsley on the fashion map in 1967 when she opened her Pollyanna boutique. It closed in 2014, after Rita survived a brain haemorrhage and a heart attack. In September that year, aged 70, she was awarded a Lifetime Achievement Award by Drapers. Then, eschewing any notion of retirement, she restored the Tobacco Warehouse in George Yard, Barnsley, and opened it as Nomad Atelier in 2015.
Throughout lockdown, Rita, who lives near Barnsley with her husband, Geoff (they have three grown-up sons), went into the store to dispatch orders, made in isolation by one of her skilled local pattern cutters and machinists – women who used to work in South Yorkshire’s manufacturing industry.
“It has been incredible for me because it has allowed me to breathe and decide the next step,” she says. “It has been a very creative period.”
The result is Perfect Atelier, a diffusion collection that espouses the same values of minimalism, quality and ease as the main Nomad range, but with cheaper price points achieved by using fabrics that are still premium but less costly than those used for Nomad. Created to be wearable, washable, workable and luxurious, there are about 30 pieces, including easy weekend pants, artfully cut and crafted in premium cotton jersey, printed silk skirts, Japanese cotton sweaters, nylon parka, cropped wrap-style jeans, and pieces made in gaberdine from Bradford.
David Sinclair, head of visual arts and engagement at the Civic in Barnsley, designed the prints for the collection, which were printed on silk by Adamley Textiles in Macclesfield.
“David, he truly is a talent to be reckoned with,” says Rita. He has also curated the aptly named Jasper Pedyo Perfect Imperfects exhibition currently running at the Civic, which forms the backdrop to the shoot featured here. Minimalist, modernist pop artist Pedyo is a graduate of Leeds Arts University’s Fine Art course and is Zimbabwe-born and Barnsley-based.
David says it was refreshing working with Rita and her creative team. “It was a great experience designing the prints that would fit in with the aesthetic of the brand and play the concept of ‘perfect’. They ended up using all the prints I designed, so I’m very pleased. I’m now working on a new tartan inspired print for the Nomad range.”
Rita says the name Perfect was chosen to be playfully tongue-in-cheek. “We’ve always been inspired by Japanese designers such as Comme des Garcons and Yohji Yamamoto who found beauty in imperfections, the Japanese philosophy of wabi-sabi.
“We have always said that we design for a mentality rather than a particular age range. It’s people with an appreciation for Japanese design aesthetics, expert quality and clean-cut clothing.
“The white parka is already a bestseller. It’s practical. It’s white but it wipes down, it’s cool in summer and warm in winter, in breathable fabric.”
The top floor of the Tobacco Warehouse is the studio and Perfect showroom for customers to see before they order their size online. Nomad is on the second floor, and there will be food available but only for customers.
“A lot of people travel to us,” says Rita, who works at the shop with her “Mother Superior” of 30 years, Judy Wilkinson Sedgewick, and creative assistant James Nightingale. “Before the pandemic it almost turned into a club, but that doesn’t mean an exclusive club because the people come from all walks of life. People come in not just to look at the clothes or buy the clothes, they come in for a natter, or to talk about what problems they have got. At the end of the day we are Barnsley girls and boys.
“Life will not return to how it was before the pandemic,” she says. “People are still going to want to be responsible with how they socialise and people are still going to want to keep some of the aspects of lockdown life that have become paradoxically liberating.
“Lockdown had alleviated a lot of the toxicity of keeping up with every new trend, and the pressure of having to buy a different outfit for every occasion.
“The seasons have gone. I can remember when I was in Pollyanna and it could be 80 degrees outside, but you were still getting your winter stock in. All that has gone.
“It has been a really exciting time. I feel that the world has caught up with us.”
*Nomad Atelier is at George Yard, Barnsley, and Perfect is available online at www.perfectatelier.co.uk.
Jasper Pedyo’s exhibition Perfect Imperfects is at Barnsley Civic until July 17. www.barnsleycivic.co.uk