Bespoke couturier Jillian Welch makes her Great Yorkshire Show debut this year - and will dress ‘sporting soprano’ Lizzie Jones for her appearance. She talks to Stephanie Smith about a career making sure the dress fits to perfection. Pictures by Charlotte Graham.
Make no mistake, a custom-made outfit is a commitment, a collaborative project between customer and creator, one that involves several fittings – and sometimes a huge leap of faith.
Jillian Welch, whose bespoke design atelier is on the outskirts of Harrogate town centre, knows this. “It’s about the person,” she says. “They have to want to be part of that process, because it can be quite hard to get clothes made. They have to see it in a dreadful state. It’s stepping off a cliff to say ‘make me something’ the first time.”
Jillian guides her customers through three and more fittings before the final outfit – often a dress for a mother of the bride or groom, perhaps with matching coat or jacket – achieves perfection.
“If they are making mistakes, like short sleeves, I say ‘I’ll cut it a bit longer and you can choose’. It works very well and I have a huge number of regular customers,” she says. “They are really appreciative and we have a good time. I try to get people into being designed for their figure. I usually ask what sort of budget they have got. People are very reluctant, sometimes, to say. My experience is that everybody wants a £1,200 dress for £400. I say ‘tell me what your budget is, tell me a range, and tell me what you want, and I will try to put those two together’.”
Born in Doncaster, Jillian grew up in Hemsworth and started making clothes when she was eight after watching her mother. “I’m just a little bit obsessed by it,” she says. “My mother used to say that sewing is a labour of love, and she would only do it for her own and my cousin.”
Aged 12, Jillian was making clothes for herself and her sister. “Fabric was cheap in Yorkshire and I used to make patterns out of newspaper because we didn’t have much money. Any kid in the neighbourhood who got a new dress, I used to borrow it off them and trace it, and me and my sister would have one the next week.”
At 17, she went to London and started working as a sample maker for design companies in the Great Portland Street area. “At that time there were millions of design companies all around and they were all doing well,” she says. Within a few years she had been headhunted by Zandra Rhodes’ ready to wear brand. She met and married Julian, who is half-Canadian, but they began to tire of London life and when her new motorbike was stolen, they decided to move across the Pond to Toronto. Jillian began working for a design company in the fashion district of Spadina Avenue, and continued to make her own designs, not least for herself. To make space in her apartment, she told all her female friends and acquaintances that she was selling her clothes and was inundated. “And then I thought, ‘yeah, I can sell these clothes’,” she says.
She set up her own business, Jillian Welch Design, creating a studio in her apartment. “After the first three months, I never had a free moment,” she says. To meet orders, she taught Julian to sew, too, something he continues to do to this day. “He hand sews all the buttons at the shop. He’s a beautiful sewer,” Jillian says.
After 10 years, restless once more, they moved across Canada to Victoria. Jillian Welch Design was now well established and soon was stocked in shops there and in Edmonton, Calgary and Vancouver. In all, the couple stayed in Canada for 33 years, until 2012 when they returned to the UK. It was, says Jillian, “just on a whim. I was feeling creatively stuck”.
They chose Harrogate for both their home and Jillian’s first standalone shop. “We drove around and thought it seemed like a nice place,” she says.
Instantly she found a gap in the market and has built up her business purely by word of mouth ever since. “My customers aren’t size 10 17-year-olds,” she says. “They are probably 35 to 65, but I have very funky 80-year-olds. I don’t do any standard sizing.
“People who run in certain circles, they come to me and their friends come to me when one of their children is getting married.”
A mother of the bride outfit might cost anywhere from £400 to £1,800. Inside the shop are rails of dresses, coats, jackets and skirts that clients can try on and choose. “Because we alter for free, I don’t finish a lot of dresses. They can see before they buy or they can get something different,” says Jillian.
She also has more casual pieces such as tops starting from £40, but again everything is fitted. “I wouldn’t feel good about selling somebody something that didn’t fit them,” says Jillian. She can make dresses and coats bigger by adding a panel. She adores fabrics and chooses them from British wholesalers and all over, including on eBay. “I look for an emotion,” she says. “Give me all the silk in the world. Even if it’s a funky fabric, it’s got to be quality.”
For the Great Yorkshire Show, Jillian has designed a collection of ballgowns and is busy creating a gown for ‘sporting soprano’ Lizzie Jones to wear for a celebrity special show. “When I was in Canada I did a huge amount of gown work. Prom there is 18. When you design a gown like that, you have to make sure they will look good in it, because if they don’t, they’ll forget whose idea it was.”
Jillian Welch Design is at 7-9 Westmoreland Street, Harrogate, tel: 01423 313231, www.jillianwelch.co.uk, Instagram and Facebook: jillianwelchdesign. Shop open Tuesday and Saturday, 10am-5pm, all other times by appointment.
WHAT YOU NEED TO KNOW ABOUT THE GREAT YORKSHIRE SHOW
The 161st Great Yorkshire Show will be held from July 9 to 11 at the Great Yorkshire Showground in Harrogate.
The fashion show will be produced by Bernadette Gledhill with hair and make-up by students from the White Rose Beauty Colleges from across Yorkshire.
The Kuoni Catwalk will take place each day at 11am, 12.30pm, 2.30pm and 4pm, with a one-off celebrity special on July 9 at 2.30pm.
Tickets for the show are on sale at https://greatyorkshireshow.co.uk/ticket-information/
All the action from the Kuoni Catwalk will be on Twitter @greatyorkshow #KuoniCatwalk #GYSfashion