Doyenne of style Rita Britton talks to Sheena Hastings about a steam train, a painting and her beloved Barnsley Town Hall as part of the My Life in Three Objects series.
WHEN Rita Britton was a young child in the late 1940s, she and her parents lived at her grandmother’s house in Barnsley.
There was an outside loo, cooking was done in the front room fireplace and they washed themselves in a tin bath.
But this is not a story of success rising out of miserable beginnings. Looking back from the vantage point of her - unbelievable to look at her - 75 years, Rita views her childhood as “pure magic”.
She was an only child who was never lonely, surrounded as she was by little cousins and doting adults, including strong women who encouraged her to be whatever she wanted to be.
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She failed the 11-plus, left school at 15 and worked in a paper mill for nine years with a bright bunch of girls, some of whom are still friends today.
In 1966 she ditched paper and began selling Mary Quant clothes to friends from her gran’s house before opening a small boutique called Pollyanna.
Over the decades it grew into an iconic four-floor emporium in Market Hill, with its own art gallery and cafe.
She became the only retailer in the UK who brought together under one roof the great luminaries of avant-garde Japanese design Yohji Yamamoto, Comme des Garçons and Issey Miyake alongside other high-end, uber cool labels.
Customers flocked - from Yorkshire, yes, but the majority from way beyond its borders. The clothes and accessories were understated, undeniably luxurious in their fabric and crafting, but always practical.
Rita’s success brought a thrill to Barnsley, and her unwavering loyalty to the town that made her meant Barnsley loved her back.
The merry-go-round of London/Paris/Milan fashion weeks never adulterated either her Barnsley accent or her commonsensical attitude.
Britton has always maintained her work is about enduring style, and argues that something intelligently designed and well made in high quality materials is sustainable.
“You buy fewer clothes and look after them better, and you might also pass them to the next generation. People should be aware that when they buy something cheap it might be a 10-year-old in India who’s manufacturing it.
“And if you argue that it’s good for his family that he earns money, well it would be better if the big boys who are making the profit out of his labour paid him a correct wage.
“We’d eventually get used to paying the correct price for a garment, paying pay more but buying less. He gets paid more and less would be going into landfill. A perfect world.”
Her accountant husband Geoff, assistant James Nightingale, three sons, and a young team with great ideas have always enabled Britton’s work, which has been fulsomely recognised even by those who once doubted style existed north of the M25. In 2014 Drapers honoured her with its lifetime achievement award.
Shortly afterwards she suffered a stroke, followed by a heart attack. She recovered remarkably quickly, but was forced to reassess her life. Something had to give - and Pollyanna closed.
“It was killing me, simple as that,” says Rita. “I had enjoyed it for many years, but towards the end I was working seven days a week to stand still and wearing myself out.
“I’d always been more of a creative person than business person, and I realised the thing I’d enjoyed most for a long time was designing for my own Nomad label, which sold well alongside everything else.”
Within months of bouncing back Rita Britton was up and running with Nomad Atelier, based in a renovated tobacco warehouse close to the old Pollyanna building.
Her collections of beautiful, simple pieces have a flavour of free-flowing Japanese inventiveness, but with a twist provided by how Rita herself likes to dress.
“I have a few favourite things, including maybe three pairs of my favourite ‘paperbag’ gabardine or wool trousers, a couple of washed silk shirts an Egg skirt (a long, relaxed puffball shape), and cashmere sweaters. It’s important to me to feel that clothes never wear me.”
This is style for women who like to take long strides, not totter along the street.
When asked to choose three objects that tell stories about her life, it’s not that much of a surprise to learn that the answer is quirky, and ’objects’ as such aren’t important to her.
“I don’t even have many clothes, nor much personal stuff generally. My ‘objects’ are my memories.”
So the important, influential ‘objects’ that evoke memories are a steam train, the late American abstract impressionist artist Jackson Pollock - and Barnsley Town Hall.
“I’ve always felt an affinity with engineering, and think well-designed clothing made with precision have a lot in common with the work of the great engineers, “ says Rita.
Going back nearly 70 years, in the school holidays little Rita and a cousin were allowed to tag along with their gran, who cleaned the offices at Barnsley’s two railway stations.
“We’d sneak off to the shunting sheds, where these beautiful creatures had been put to bed, and every now and again they’d make this wonderful, sighing ‘shoom’ sound.
“I thought they were exquisite, not just for how they looked, but because they were practical and could take me on my holidays to Blackpool. Those trains were the first thing that that made me think about design.”
Her career has led her to associate with others who have run businesses in Yorkshire, such as Sheffield’s Sir Norman Adsetts and the late and visionary Jonathan Silver, who regenerated Salt’s Mill in Saltaire near Bradford.
Rita likes to quote Sir Norman. “‘He says he’s never met a man he wasn’t prepared to like. I feel that’s a good attitude to life.”
When it comes to Jackson Pollock as an influence in her life, Rita says his art represents a lesson learned from her eldest son Mark, who studied art in the US.
“He and I would argue about abstract impressionism, which I used to call rubbish - especially Jackson Pollock.
“He’d say: ‘Mum, why do you think art is only a cow in a stream with a branch hanging overhead?’”
During a working trip to New York, she agreed to go with Mark to the Museum of Modern Art. Overhearing a fascinating commentary on some of the paintings by an elderly man talking to a friend, she followed him.
“Eventually I asked him if he’d mind me continuing to follow him, so that I could hear more. He turned out to be influential gallery owner Michael Sonnabend.”
That day helped to change Rita’s mind completely about modern art, and she and Sonnabend became firm friends who’d lunch together when she was in town.
“If Mark hadn’t been determined to make me appreciate the art, explaining that it was all about emotional response as much as anything, I’d have missed out on a lot. I realised how much you can learn from the young.”
In 2000, in recognition of her contribution to the town, Rita Britton was made a Freeman of Barnsley.
“When they rang me to say they’d like to offer me the freedom, I said I would accept it - but it was about people like my mum, my aunt and all the unsung heroes behind me. I was only there because of what they made me believe.”
As a child she’d seen the luminous facade of Barnsley Town Hall as a fairytale palace. Stepping inside it was unthinkable for someone like her. Today she is a cherished dinner guest, celebrated once a year alongside the likes of cricket legend Harold ‘Dickie’ Bird.
Her parting words are heartfelt: “For me, it’s not about what I’ve done for Barnsley, but what Barnsley has done for me.”