She’s partied with David Bowie and the Sex Pistols, and designed for everyone from Dustin Hoffman to Grace Jones. In this riotous extract from her memoir, Sewing Bee’s ESME YOUNG reveals how she’s been at the cutting edge of fashion for over 50 years
My life has always been about creativity and fashion. When I was young, there was never any doubt in my mind that it was where my future lay. When I was studying at college, creating by day and partying by night, I didn’t want it to end. I wanted it to be my life for ever. Funnily enough, it turned out exactly that way…
A love of fashion is in my blood. My mother Patricia adored clothes and always looked stylish – something she was keen for me and my elder sister Fiona to emulate. She introduced me to Biba, Mary Quant, Celia Birtwell and Ossie Clark, planting a subconscious seed for my future path.
When I was a child, my clothes were often handmade. It was what most families did and there was always at least one person who was nifty with the sewing machine.
As the younger daughter, I had a lot of hand-me-downs so anything new was a treat. I still remember Mum buying me two outfits from Harrods: a Black Watch tartan wool dress with a bow around the waist, and a pink jumper with a pink and grey check skirt.
During my teens, my interest in clothes became an obsession and I began to experiment. I did a lot of rummaging in Mum’s wardrobe and would steal clothes she no longer wore in the hope that I wouldn’t get found out. But as soon as I started altering things, she knew exactly what I was up to and put a lock on her wardrobe door.
I turned to jumble sales for my fashion fix, keeping an eye out for anything I could transform. My mother hated the outfits I created and, on many occasions, would refuse to walk next to me in the street. Fiona remembers Mum being horrified when she came to meet me for lunch and I was wearing a tablecloth which I had turned into a long skirt and threaded ribbon around to create a waistband. I had a strong sense of my own style and I was not afraid to use it.
I found my calling when I went to St Martin’s School of Art (as it was then known, before merging with Central in 1989). We were on the cusp of the 1970s and, after the swinging, sexy 60s, our generation was trailblazing into the new decade in a streak of sequins and safety pins.
At St Martin’s I met Willie Walters, a fellow student, who introduced me to Melanie Langer. Mel was tall, beautiful and a brilliant organiser. None of us could find the sort of clothes we wanted to wear on the high street, so we decided to establish our own brand. Swanky Modes was born.
We were brave– or foolhardy – but we never questioned what we were doing, even though we had no money or business experience. We rented a shop in Camden in North London and put £50 each (today’s equivalent would be almost £600) into a pot to get our business off the ground. Not long after, we were joined by the fourth member of our collective, Judy Dewsbury, an expert pattern cutter.
Once we had a collection, Mel and I did our own PR and took our clothes to show magazine editors. As luck would have it, we caught the attention of Caroline Baker– the hugely respected fashion editor of Nova (and later of YOU). She picked out the transparent rainwear we’d made using shower-curtain fabric from 50s remnant stock. The world- famous photographer Helmut Newton was on the lookout for macs for a forthcoming fashion story ‘April Showers’, so, at Caroline’s request, I sketched pictures for him. I drew the macs with naked women underneath to show the detail of each transparent piece.
This was exactly how Newton ended up shooting them. The nudity caused a bit of a rumpus but when the issue came out in spring 1973, our rain mac collection was spread across four pages and everything went mad. It was the moment that really launched Swanky Modes. It was such a thrill to see people queuing outside our shop.
We were a small fashion house with a big attitude and often popped up in fashion magazines 19, Ritz (three pages of the model Marie Helvin in Swanky Modes, shot by David Bailey), Boulevard, Nova, i-D and The Face. We were one of the first labels to use Lycra in anything other than swimwear when we designed a range of Lycra disco dresses for our spring/summer 1978 ‘graffiti’ collection. They were a triumph and popular on dancefloors globally. When Grace Jones gave a newspaper interview to promote her 1977 album Portfolio, the journalist recorded her response to the dress she wore for the accompanying shoot: ‘She sees the dress –a tight Lycra creation, taut as a drum. She screams. She loves it.’ That was our ‘padlock’ dress, now in the Museum of London.
The documentary photographer Janette Beckman took a photo of us outside our shop. When I look at it now, I see four young women who built a successful business together without battling egos, tantrums, bullying – or men. We were a true collective. The way we worked was a brilliant example of the whole being greater than the sum of the parts. I think this is one of the reasons we were successful for so long and one of the things I am most proud of.
How’s that for girl power?
We played as hard as we worked. I started partying in 1965 and I didn’t really slow down until the mid-80s. The close connection between fashion and music was evident when I was at Cambridge Art College [before going on to St Martin’s], where fellow student Syd Barrett and his pal David Gilmour would spend lunchtimes writing music and jamming on their guitars.
Much of the 70s was one big social. The flat above the shop was our hub, and we would often throw impromptu gatherings. One night the Sex Pistols turned up without incident (unusually). Another night, Suggs, the lead singer from Madness, shimmied up the drainpipe dressed as a cowboy because we’d forgotten our door keys. Our then assistant Anne (aka singer Bette Bright) was so impressed, she later married him.
Wherever we went, we went as a posse, as our partners came too. Our party outfits were often more shocking than stylish: we wore make-up, glitter, jewels around our eyes and big Afro wigs of silver foil with eyelashes to match. We loved an out-of-town party and would head off in our van. When my youngest brother Jeremy was at the University of Oxford, he invited us to come to Sunday formal dinner at his college, St Edmund Hall. We turned up, looking glamorous and outrageous, and attracted quite a bit of interest. The next day, the vice principal asked, ‘Mr Young, who were your guests at dinner last night?’
In the mid-80s another friend held legendary Notting Hill Carnival open house parties. Anyone was invited – including, one notable year, David Bowie. I sat next to him on the windowsill and we watched the carnival and chatted. At one point, someone walked past on the street and looked up and shouted, ‘Oh my God!’ at the sight of Bowie. I thought they might pass out with the shock, David gave them a big wave.
One of the jobs I loved at Swanky Modes was costume design and making pieces for commercials and pop videos. I was in my element and enjoyed the focus of working on one garment after years of pulling entire collections together. It was natural progression when I started working on making garments for films. Two of our former assistants at Swanky Modes, Rachael Fleming and Steven Noble, became esteemed film costume designers and employed me on many of their projects.
I made a cheesecloth shirt for Leonardo DiCaprio in The Beach, a ‘fur’ coat for Scarlett Johansson in Under the Skin, and for Bridget Jones’s Diary, I made the infamous bunny outfit Renée Zellweger wears in the party scene. Renée kept telling me to make it tighter (she wanted to look bigger than she was for the character) and by the end, she couldn’t sit down in it. I met her again, years later, for costume fittings on Bridget Jones’s Baby and The Great British Sewing Bee was on TV. Renée said she loved it.
The only time I was a little starstruck was when I did a costume fitting with Dustin Hoffman for Last Chance Harvey. I tried to maintain a professional composure but I was in awe. At the wrap party, I shimmied along, hair teased into a beehive. Imagine my surprise when Dustin insisted on dancing with me. He grabbed my hands and spun me round. I think we must have cleared the dancefloor with our crazy moves. My beehive was not the same afterwards.
What links these experiences, people and garments are my scissors and my sewing machine. When Juliette Binoche was cast as a seamstress in Anthony Minghella’s film Breaking and Entering, she came to my studio. Afterwards she said one of the most important things she had learnt was how sewing sent me into my own little world.
It’s funny how things come full circle. In 2000, I found myself back at Central Saint Martins as a senior lecturer on the BA Print course.
I could have taken it easy but then I took on what has been arguably the biggest challenge and adventure of my career, as a judge on The Sewing Bee. It’s wonderful that I had the opportunity to start a new career when I was nearly 70.
I have no problem being in front of the camera, as long as I’m doing something I’m confident about. On the very first show, I commented on a garment one of the contestants had made, asking the model to turn around before saying, ‘Oh well, it’s very sexy on her a*se.’ The producers called it a ‘spitting-out-your-tea moment’.
Working with [fellow judge] Patrick Grant is one of the joys of being part of the show. We share a green room and I playa lot of music – 80s, soul and reggae, things I can dance to– at what Patrick says is an ‘ear-splitting volume’. He turns it down while I’m not looking but I think he rather likes it because he now has a playlist of my tunes.
The production team asked if I had any requirements. I couldn’t think of a single thing so they put a basket of sweets in the room. They take out the strawberry flavour because they know they’re not my favourite. That’s my idea of spoilt.
I’m over 70 but I’ll have to keep working until I drop because I don’t have any pension that would allow me to sail off into the sunset.
Not that I’m complaining. It’s a cliché, but working with generation after generation of fresh-faced students has kept me young at heart. I feel no different from the girl who plunged headfirst into the fashion industry half a century ago. I’m still the same –I continue to search out new challenges, listen more than I talk, learn something every day and spend time with the people who matter.
Life changes but I am totally and utterly myself. I can’t pretend to be anyone else at this stage of my life. I can only be me.
Behind the Seams by Esme Young will be published by Bonner on 14 April, price £18.99*
*TO ORDER A COPY FOR £16.14 UNTIL 17 APRIL, GO TO MAILSHOP.CO.UK/BOOKS OR CALL 020 3176 2937. FREE UK DELIVERY ON ORDERS OVER £20. COPYRIGHT AND COURTESY HELMUT NEWTON FOUNDATION, WILLIE CHRISTIE, MARK BOURDILLON, REX/SHUTTERSTOCK, JANETTE BECKMAN, LOVE PRODUCTIONS 2020/ROSIE GEIGER, AIDAN SYNNOTT