Jenny Packham is a study in understated elegance. Her designs might be equal parts dazzle and drama, but the lady behind the fanciful creations prefers a simpler personal aesthetic.
When we meet in her airy, whitewashed studio in London, she is smartly dressed in what she calls her uniform: a black button down shirt and A-line skirt, the kind of outfit that helps one blend seamlessly into the background. Unlike her designs, which regularly adorn royal castles and red carpets, there is nothing showy about the designer, and the juxtaposition is refreshingly authentic.
“I don’t design for myself,” Packham explains in a soft English accent. “I think I project a lot of my aesthetic on to the garments and I create colourful, ornate collections. My house is very colourful, but this is me,” she says before humbly confiding she only wore an Art Deco-inspired necklace because she was expecting my visit.
“Designing, for me, is an out-of-body experience. Some designers do very well designing for women like themselves, and if I was designing a women’s wear day collection, I’d think more about myself, but the women I design for are far more glamorous than myself. They are going to amazing things that I don’t go to.”
After 26 years at the forefront of the fashion industry, Packham has more than earned the right to wear whatever she wants. She started her eponymous line with Matthew Anderson, her partner (in both business and life), back in 1988. The two met in college, while she was studying fashion and he was studying sculpture.
“I was very keen on having my own label and business, and we both wanted to do something very independent, so we thought of doing a collection, and it just started like that, really.” The first ten years proved to be a steep learning curve, but building a globally recognised label has been full of plenty of interesting undulations.
The couple also had two children along the way, Georgia, 20, and Isabella, 16. “We started out at the end of that gluttonous period just as the recession hit. We were two young people who had nothing, no property, our parents weren’t backing us up, but one of our first loans from the bank was €30,000 and that was just in one afternoon; it was so easy, but then all of a sudden it became very hard.”
Recalling the early days of her business puts Packham in a reflective mood: “When I look at designers now, I see that there’s a lot of support when you’re starting out; people like to be involved in that start-up situation, but it’s when you get the orders that you need to put some money behind it and you’re not sure if you’re going to get paid – then it’s difficult for people to keep going.
You see a lot of businesses start up and get the support at the beginning, but they need it all along the way, and I think they’ve developed that very well here [in England]. There’s infrastructure for that now.”
Working on a worldwide scale means that political and environmental events can impact business hugely, and Packham cites the occupation of Kuwait, recent events in Egypt, the Ukraine and the Middle East as challenges the business has had to face in terms of customer base.
“What you do is you try to spread yourself out so that when these things happen, it will balance out. In one way, it’s great that we have an international business and we’re not too focused on one particular area, but at the same time, we do suffer knocks when those things happen. You have to be very aware of them.”
After endless requests (read: incessant begging) from loyal customers to do wedding gowns, the designer launched a bridal line twelve years ago, which currently makes up about 50 per cent of overall business. “I’d had some experience of the bridal business when I was at college, and knew it wasn’t easy. You commit to the project and you have to deliver, and it’s not something to be undertaken lightly.
It’s quite different from a design point of view as well. Each dress has to have a certain amount of integrity and something special about it. I think we acknowledged that it was a different model from a business point of view.”
Jenny Packham Bridal has seen much success on this side of the water and the designer is very grateful for her loyal customer base. “We have had a very good bridal business in Ireland for years. Sharon Hoey has supported us in her boutique, and that’s been very good for us.”
Although the bridal label has presented new challenges, Packham has managed to achieve a great synergy between that and her eveningwear. It’s the designer’s show-stopping eveningwear that has brought me to her elegant showroom today, as her label has just launched in Brown Thomas, bringing her fairytale creations to Irish customers looking for a standout piece that will make them look and feel incredible.
“I’m really excited about the launch in Brown Thomas. I’m looking forward to going over and seeing it,” she reveals, adding she’s noted a renewed interest in eveningwear at the moment.
“The last show we did in New York, we did quite big dresses, which is unusual for us. When I woke up the next day, I thought, ‘Jenny you’ve done hooped petticoats, what the hell’ ? But actually, all the pictures were of those dresses, and I find that really interesting. I think that signifies a move towards a new glamour. I’m quite excited about that, and I think Irish people like glamorous dressing.”
The designer credits the red carpet with influencing the trend towards more look-at-me choices. “Everyone wants their red carpet moment for themselves. They want to dress up,” she says. “We are, very gradually, coming out of recession, and I think that always influences fashion. When times are hard, they say skirts go up and lipstick gets brighter, and I think there is that sort of mood.”
Jenny’s designs have seen many red carpet moments of their own over the years as the brand’s popularity with starlets and stylists remains unabated.
“Last week, we were getting some dresses ready to send out to Taylor Swift, and Helen Mirren’s stylist called. I thought, that’s quite a difference of customers,” she says laughing, before quickly adding, “… Oh, and Lady Gaga. They all rang the same week!”
Kate Middleton’s clear love of the label has been an incredible endorsement for the brand, but Packham is too much of a lady to discuss her royal (and loyal) customer; she openly gushes, however, about dressing actress Anna Gunn.
“I’d spent the whole winter watching Breaking Bad, so I was thrilled I managed to link with her. I was still thinking of her as Skyler and wanted to lift her spirits as well,” she says, laughing. “And obviously working with Kate Winslet was wonderful because I’m a big fan of hers. We’ve had a long relationship with Dita Von Teese and Angelina Jolie.”
The designer has had a PR company in LA for the last twelve years, so was perfectly positioned when the red carpet exposure phenomenon really kicked off.
“We’ve grown with it, but also for me, it was a learning curve of gaining experience of what will make someone look good on the red carpet, and that is quite specific. It’s quite stressful for these celebrities. It’s not just the people on the carpet looking at them, it’s the whole world, and they are also looking at our work, so I’ve got to make it work very much for them.”
She may dress modern starlets, but old Hollywood informs a lot of Packham’s occasion wear, with her most recent collection (of the hooped petticoat variety) inspired by Marilyn Monroe.
“I’ve always been interested in eveningwear, and it probably did come from the films I watched when I was young. Marilyn Monroe this season was really interesting because I thought she’s such an obvious inspiration that actually it seemed a little weird to pick her. Every day, you see her somewhere, and she has been gone for 60 years. Who else has achieved that? It’s quite amazing.”
The designer met collectors of the starlet’s vintage gowns and even visited Monroe’s bungalow in The Beverly Hills Hotel. “The more you know about her, the more you realise she was the master of her own image. She wore very timeless things and was fortunate enough that the photographs taken of her were very strong. We took a lot of colour combinations of what she was wearing and things that were in the background, like the Technicolor imagery, and brought them into the collections.”
The result is a celebration of womanly curves, classically styled, and includes ball gowns in both A-line and column shapes with palm-leaf print and beaded embellishments. It’s grown-up glamour with a refined twist. Does she feel pressure to stick closely with her brand’s DNA? “No, I think you have to make sure that you challenge yourself,” she replies directly.
“You do have to keep moving forward, and I know it looks like I always do beaded eveningwear, but we bring in new fabrics, new silhouettes and this season, we did a different length. You have to keep it moving. However fashion-conscious a woman is, whether she wears Comme des Garcons all day, when it comes to eveningwear, the criteria is very clear’she wants to look elegant and glamorous. Rather than staying true to the brand, I want to stay true to the customers and move with them as they go.”