“I’m not a fashionista,” says Rita Britton. “I was always quite suspicious of people in my industry.”
Not a fashionista, but definitely a dedicated and visionary leader of fashion, Rita Britton put Barnsley and Yorkshire on the international style map with her boutique Pollyanna, which she opened in 1967.
In the 1980s, she brought emerging, avant-garde, international labels to the North for the first time, persuading the likes of Issey Miyake, Yohji Yamamoto and Comme des Garcons to sell outside of London.
Customers came from across the UK and the world, increasingly to buy Rita’s own collection, Nomad, which she launched in the late nineties.
The label’s creative director and muse, Rita has always done fashion her own way. Straight-talking, opinionated and funny, dressed in her own distinctive signature pieces, she is a walking, talking advocate for intelligent statement design, beautiful materials and quality crafting.
Only three per cent of Pollyanna’s fashion customers were local, but the store also had a cafe which became a favourite Barnsley eaterie and meeting place. And Barnsley, Yorkshire and the fashion industry have appreciated and recognised her contributions to their culture, character and vibrancy.
In 1998, she was Yorkshire Woman of the Year. Barnsley made her a Freeman of the Town in 2000, and she has honorary doctorates from Sheffield Hallam and Huddersfield universities. In September 2014, aged 70, she was awarded a Lifetime Achievement Award by Drapers.
But in June of that year, Rita had closed Pollyanna after a stroke and a brain haemorrhage, followed not long after by a heart attack. When she had recovered, which she did remarkably quickly and well, she knew a re-evaluation was needed.
“I was lying there in bed, thinking, something’s got to go, it’s killing me. And that something was Pollyanna. But I’ve always loved being very much involved with designing Nomad.”
She decided to focus on her own label, but needed a new venue. So, she moved just around the corner to George Yard, where she poured her creative energy into the restoration of The Tobacco Warehouse, a Georgian storage building. In 2015, it opened as a beautiful shop and showroom for Nomad Atelier, plus an art gallery (Yorkshire home and garden designers The Dyehouse feature there) and, on the ground floor, a cafe, Quintessential Kitchen, opened by its master chef Martin Blake. Again, this has become a popular Barnsley eaterie and place to gather. It’s where we meet for lunch before Rita gives me a tour.
Rita and her husband, Geoff (they have three grown-up sons), still own the Pollyanna building, which is being converted into cafes. “When we first closed it, I couldn’t go in. Now this is home and I love being here. I’m really enjoying myself. One of the things I learned about myself was that I’m not a business person, I’m a creative person. The business side of it, I’m sure, would never have survived if I hadn’t married an accountant husband.”
Nomad Atelier is doing well, with a loyal global clientele who adore its simple but striking, beautifully designed and made pieces, which can be tailored to their own proportions. Contemporary, wearable, co-ordinating, practical, they include sandwashed silk shirts and loose print dresses, easy double-breasted jackets and harem pants, and Rita’s signature Egg skirt, a long, relaxed puffball shape, which comes in a variety of materials including linen, tweed and gabardine.
“The daftest thing in the world is having rail-to-rail linen on a day like this,” she says. “We have got three of the coldest months still to hit us, and yet there will be people forced into having rails of linen. We will start manufacturing our linen in a month, so by the time it gets on the rails, we will be looking at the end of April, beginning of May, which is when it should be.
“In the interim, we do silk. If you buy a white shirt in washed silk, you can wear it with jeans, you can wear it under a business suit, you can wear it on holiday. We use something called Royal Gabardine from Bradford, which, when you look at our weather is perfect, because you can wear it with a white T-shirt in June, or, like I’ve got my gaberdine skirt on this morning, with a cashmere sweater and thick tights and socks.”
The clothes are designed, pattern cut and made in Barnsley using the finest fabrics the world has to offer, including many by Joshua Ellis in Batley.
“When I walk into Premier Vision in Paris, well, at Charles de Gaulle airport, it blows me away. It’s row after row after row of the best fabrics. You can go from silks to linens to cashmere, everything you could possibly want. We looked at linen from Northern Ireland, Southern Ireland, Italian and Japanese. There’s a whole section just devoted to leather. It’s like being Charlie in the Chocolate Factory. Where do I start?”
Make no mistake, this is investment dressing. Rita does not do sales, which she believes is killing the industry. “I used to start off in the early days with 25 per cent discount, and we’d have people queueing at the door. Now people are discounting 70 per cent, but the one thing we have never done (with Nomad) is discounting. Never.”
The right time, she says, is now for Nomad. “I sometimes beat myself up about the fact of how old I am, but then, hey ho, how old’s Lagerfeld, how old’s Donald Trump?”
Now she is looking at launching menswear with James Nightingale, her assistant.
“We have certain men who still shop with us, whom we virtually couture it for,” she says. “They tend to be mainly in the arts. They’re not 25, they don’t want tight trousers and jackets.”
Rita has always nurtured and collaborated with talented young people. “You look at our designers now, and there’s not much youth coming through – it’s good for us because we get bright kids.
She’s great friends with the designer Ben de Lisi and once gave Burberry’s Christopher Bailey a catalogue he was looking at when he came into Pollyanna as a student – a fact he reminded her of when they met again a few years ago.
“The job has allowed me to meet some amazing people. I once had tea with Wedgie Benn in the House of Commons. I met him at Northern College when he came to give a talk. He had the twinkliest blue eyes. I went over, and he looked up and me and he said, ‘And you are?’, and I said ‘Rita Britton’, and he said, ‘Pollyanna’.”
Rita shows no signs of slowing down. “It’s all too interesting for me,” she says. Hard work, too. “People think if you’re floating off to Paris six times a year and you’re doing the shows, oh, what a wonderful, glamorous life you lead. But it’s not so.”
She’s a grafter, not a fashionista. A visionary, pioneer, muse and legend. Long may she reign.
Nomad Atelier is at The Tobacco Warehouse, George Yard, Barnsley, or you can visit www.nomadatelier.co.uk