Jenny Packham: Secrets of the red carpet designer

JENNY PACKHAM has dressed the world’s most famous women at crucial moments in their lives. She reveals how, with a sprinkling of sequins and the confidence to shine, anyone can look this glamorous. 

Helen Mirren, Reese Witherspoon, Uma Thurman, Cameron Diaz, Angelina Jolie, Emily Blunt… the list of designer Jenny Packham’s A-list clients is endless.

Not least her most famous customer of all: the Duchess of Cambridge, who has worn Jenny’s designs on multiple occasions, most notably for every photo call following the birth of her three children. What higher accolade could there be than being the stars’ go-to designer – who makes women look, and feel, their best?

Jenny at her New York Fashion Week Bridal Show. Photograph: Albert Urso / Getty Images

Even if you’re not familiar with the name Jenny Packham, you’ll know the dresses. Bond girl Caterina Murino dazzling in red in Die Another Day. Sandra Bullock wearing embellished pale-pink chiffon. Taylor Swift swathed in strapless yellow at the Golden Globes. Kate Hudson shimmering in sequins at a White House dinner. The Duchess of Cambridge sporting primrose yellow at Calgary Airport. Kate Winslet, pregnant and resplendent, in bespoke scarlet at the premiere of Labor Day. Adele wore Jenny Packham to collect her Oscar in 2013. Proof that her designs are effortlessly elegant and cut to flatter, not change, the female body because, as she says, she likes it ‘the way it is’. Perhaps it’s why so many women, including Andy Murray’s wife Kim Sears, choose to wear Jenny Packham on their wedding day.

But it’s not just the rich, famous or royalty who can benefit from Jenny’s expertise. In her new book How to Make a Dress, she draws on her decades in the fashion industry to share her insight into what makes great style. ‘Glamour,’ she writes, ‘can be created by all of us to enhance our own personal sense of style, and its empowering effect can boost our self-esteem. In lavishing ourselves with a touch of glitz we too can sparkle.’ Here’s what she’s learnt from 33 years in the industry…

Borrow the Queen’s savvy colour sense

The way we wear colour is a preoccupation for me. I enjoy women who wear colour well, those who can combine unexpected tones, artful prints and bold accessories. However, it is a skill, and it takes time to find your shades, match up flattering hues and have the willingness to experiment. A few years ago, I went to a tea party at Buckingham Palace. I had just nipped back for a second serving of cucumber sandwiches when I sensed a dip in the chatter. I turned to see Her Majesty appear on the horizon and found myself floundering behind a flock of feathered fascinators and straw trilbies. I didn’t make it to the front, and as the Queen and her entourage passed by, I caught only glimpses of her through the crowd‒slices of dove blue, jigsaw-like fragments of her dress, coat and hat that I would later piece together to make out the Queen. The Queen’s public wardrobe is a carousel of carefully curated shades worn entirely for the purpose of being ‘easy to spot’. The power of colour to leave an imprint on us is a styling technique learnt by political leaders, celebrities and royalty alike. For those in the public eye, a wardrobe of bold ensembles will demand our attention and improve their chances of being remembered.

Helen Mirren is effortlessly elegant in a long-sleeved gown at the Golden Globes. Photograph: Frederick M. Brown / Getty Images.

In those first moments of being seen, it is the colour we have chosen to wear that will encourage others to make assumptions about us. Therefore, it is common when I first meet a client to discuss a design that she will have a definite idea of the colour she wishes to wear, rather than a silhouette or fabric. I am no different: when I am asked to an occasion that requires me to ‘dress up’, colours instantly pop into my head as I contemplate the event. Then I step back to judge the appropriateness of my initial thoughts.

When in doubt, default to black

I feel safe in black, grounded and stylish, comfortable in the colour that says, ‘look at me, don’t look at me’. It is an easy shade to match, and I blend textures with different weaves and fibres: satin, crepe and lace.

A wardrobe of black provides a multitude of interchangeable possibilities and, as my style has shifted, I have simply added a new silhouette and utilised the adaptability of monotone classics.

Angeline Jolie makes an impact in bold black at the Screen Actors Guild Awards. Photograph: Steve Granitz / WireImage

Steal the spotlight in sequins

I’m not a minimalist designer – no one would say that. Embellishment has been an integral part of my creativity for more than three decades and is in the brand’s DNA. Looking back to when I started designing, I think I knew I had to find a way to get my work noticed, and so I began experimenting with texture. This attention-seeking ploy worked and I was hooked.

The Duchess of Cambridge shines in silver in Paris. Photograph: Dominic Lipinski / PA

Take sequins, for example. They are a simple way to create shine by adding small foil or plastic sewable discs. Easily applied, they can be attached to a style to add instant sparkle, and in a bright light they become resplendent. They are classless, timeless, have a multicultural appeal and are an indispensable ingredient in creating glamorous fabrics. While embellishment is not exclusively worn on important occasions, it is at these times that it shines the brightest, reflecting the desire to be acknowledged and respected.

Find inspiration any time, anywhere

Our very first show at New York Fashion Week for spring/summer 2011 was inspired by the decadence of the 1930s. After I took my bow, I waited anxiously in the wings to find out if I had managed to catch the imagination of my new audience. Had they come with me to my glamorous English garden party?

Not long after, the actress Emma Roberts wore the platinum beaded backless sheath to a premiere in LA; Glee star Jayma Mays looked pretty in peachy chiffon at the Screen Actors Guild Awards and Sandra Bullock wore a one-shouldered beaded tulle dress to the Golden Globes. The Duchess of Cambridge’s first Jenny Packham dress was also from this collection – a sequined sheath for the ARK tenth anniversary gala.

The Duchess of Cambridge in the aspen gown at a gala reception for the London Olympics. Photograph: Max Mumby/Indigo/Getty Images

It’s the same when I design a bridal collection – each dress must have its own divine inspiration to create both the drama and excitement the bride desires. In the back row of a concert in Majorca, I doodled a lace-backed gown with a draped chiffon bodice, copying the sleeve detail from the blouse of a woman three rows in front. The Aspen gown became a bestseller and in 2012 the Duchess of Cambridge wore a teal version to the London Olympics gala reception at the Royal Albert Hall.

Consider every detail

Actresses take their time to perfect their look. To be ‘red-carpet ready’ means being prepared to be scrutinised by the world’s press, who will sharpen their focus on your every angle, bulge and wrinkle. Each detail is crucial, from the curvature of the seams to the swoop of a neckline.

Taylor Swift stuns in a yellow number. Photograph: Kevin Mazur / Getty Images

Have a reserve frock

I never assume a dress is going to be worn on the red carpet. I know what can happen ‒ because I do it too. I have a dress waiting: shoes, clutch bag and jewellery, I even know the shade of lipstick I will wear. Twenty minutes before the taxi arrives, I zip up the dress, slip into the heels and clip on the earrings. I’m ready. I look in the mirror – and then I get changed. Somehow my mood and look have become discordant, and I feel uncomfortable. Panic ensues as I try out new combinations and fling my discarded skins about the room. My husband Mathew waits in the street for the taxi, just as I declare, ‘I have absolutely nothing to wear.’

A gown fit for a Titanic star… in just four days

How Jenny beat the clock to create Kate Winslet’s dazzling dress (below)

In March 2012 Kate was top of my must-dress list and I was prepared to pull out all the stops for the gown she would wear to the Royal Albert Hall premiere of Titanic 3D. I had just four days. A dress of this kind would normally take weeks or months. Luckily, Kate would be in town in the lead-up to the premiere and available for a fitting. To be able to have just one fitting with a celebrity client is rare, even with a bespoke piece. Early on Saturday morning we arrived at Kate’s hotel in Covent Garden. She slipped into one of the sample garments we had made overnight – a black stretch crepe gown with a plunging neckline.

Kate Winslet in the black crepe dress that was made in record time for the London premiere of Titanic 3D. Photograph: Dave M. Benett / Getty Images

As soon as she tried it on, we knew it was the one. My head pattern cutter Simon then nipped and tucked the dress while Kate kept a watchful eye on her reflection. She is a professional and knows only too well that every detail is crucial. Three machinists worked that evening to finish the dress ready for the final fitting, while Simon fastidiously checked the pieces against Kate’s dress dummy. On the day of the premiere as I unfastened the gown ready for Kate to try, you could have heard a pin drop. But as I glanced at her reflection in the mirror Kate looked good, very good. However, it’s never guaranteed that a star will wear your design, even at this stage. Later, we waited in the roped-off area, watching the red carpet at the Royal Albert Hall. I saw her golden hair first, the cherry lips and her sparkling smile, then the reassuring glimpse of a silvery sleeve and a dash of black – Kate was wearing my dress!

This is an edited extract from How to Make a Dress: Adventures in the Art of Style by Jenny Packham (Ebury, £22). To order a copy for £18.70 until 14 March go to or call 020 3308 9193. Free UK delivery on orders over £20.