In January 1982, Arabella Pollen, daughter of Sotheby’s then vice-chairman, Peregrine Pollen, became part of the Namara Group. Arabella’s project was to launch a fashion company under her own name, with my financial backing and the full resources of Namara at her disposal. Though Arabella possessed no formal qualifications in dressmaking or design, I could see she had ability and drive. She combined beauty with energy and her elegance and poise were enhanced by her piercing blue eyes. She was, moreover, being helped in her adventure by one of the rising stars at Vogue magazine, Sophie Hicks – today a well-known architect. I was very taken with Arabella, and although fashion was not an area on which I had set my sights, I was carried away by her aura. It was overwhelmingly seductive. She was every man’s dream: youthful, zestful and self-assured. There was also that indefinable quality about her that made a man wish to protect her and gave him the impression that she needed him when it was in fact not the case; nevertheless the sensation was gratifying.
She took over my old office at Wellington Court and the process of promoting Arabella started in earnest. I was determined to make her a household name. The strategy was to establish Arabella as the fashion designer for the young – the new generation of hopefuls who formed the nucleus of a trendy society with their boundless ambition and natural savoir-faire. Arabella’s beau, Patrick Benson, was referred to by Tatler as her chief button-sewer, whereas he was in fact a multi-talented artist whose many sketches provided her with inspiration. Sandra Marr, Viscountess Weir’s daughter, was listed in the team as head mannequin, and the indefatigable Sophie Hicks was chief adviser. In due course, a young lady with a lisp, Kathryn Ireland, was appointed special publicity person cum personal assistant.
Katherine was a great operator and a real go-getter. At one point, however, I felt that her influence on Arabella sometimes veered from the positive to the reckless, diverting Arabella towards more recreational pursuits. No doubt I was being over-protective, worried that, because of her youth, she might be led seriously off course. Following through from those early days, Katherine has since moved on to become the hottest property in Hollywood, running her own interior-design company that caters mainly for the stars.
Arabella’s rise to prominence happened in no time at all. Among her clients she was soon counting Princess Diana, a fashion icon of her day, and a large majority of the Sloane Rangers who graced the London social scene in that époque.
When I asked her to contribute her memories of that period for inclusion in my volume of autobiography, Fulfilment & Betrayal, she supplied the following which well captures our special time together:
Growing a Business
By Arabella Pollen
When Naim called me out of the blue one day to ask whether I would write something for his memoir, my initial reaction was panic. I have almost zero recall of my twelve-year stint in the fashion business, maybe because it was a long time ago, or maybe it’s the onset of premature Alzheimer’s. Either way, only the barest threads of memory remain: the up-all-nights and the seven days a week, the brilliance and dedication of my studio workforce. OK, so there was that two-year commute to Paris – Fashion Aid, of course, and the craziness of the Studio 54 shows – but almost all the rest of it, the people, the parties, the excitement, tears, triumphs and disappointments, have merged into one great kaleidoscopic blur stored somewhere deep inside my head. Not Naim, though. Naim Attallah is not a person you forget.
We met in 1980. I was nineteen and a year out of school. I had spent the first six months of that year working odd jobs in advertising and the latter part of it holed up in a crumbling mill in France with a Super 8 movie camera, earnestly attempting to write, shoot and direct a satire on the business. This high-falutin project left me profoundly broke and I was eventually forced to return to London, engage with the real world and look around for a way to make ends meet. Having crashed through my A-levels with a spectacular mix of bad behaviour and complacency, the only asset I had of any real value was a cupboard full of textiles which I’d collected over the years and – for reasons that still escape me – I decided to make clothes out of them. This resulted in a small collection, mostly constructed from stiff and itchy Hebridean tweeds, which somehow caught the attention of an editor at Vogue magazine, and before very much time had passed I found myself sitting in the air-conditioned offices of Namara in Poland Street, clutching a portfolio between my knees. ‘If he likes you,’ the Vogue editor had said, ‘he’ll be back.’
Quite what I was expecting in a publisher who might be interested in starting a fashion business with me, I can’t say. Certainly Naim Attallah was not it. First of all, he was extraordinary looking: tall, broad, enormous hands, odd-shaped ears. He was a Palestinian ‘Mr Potato Head’, but with a charming face and rather beautiful eyes that folded into multiple creases when he smiled. There was his voice: versatile in its range, capable of soaring and dipping through several octaves whenever he became excited. There was his manner: utterly disarming, every gesture expansive. On top of all there, there were his clothes: flamboyant, foreign, yet, conversely, impeccably English. Something bright flashed as he seized my hand. A piece of jewellery, a silk tie? I don’t know. There was just so much detail to take in. All I remember is that he gripped my arm, launched forth with great enthusiasm on a variety of seemingly unconnected topics, flipped through my portfolio, and the deal was done.
Later that day, I walked slowly out of the Notting Hill tube station and blinked disbelievingly into the afternoon light. I had a job. More than a job, I was about to have my own business. I assumed he was mad, certifiably insane. But what I came to understand was that Naim didn’t believe in business plans or spreadsheets. He believed in people, and once he put his faith in you, it was absolute.
Some of us are dreamers, some are thinkers. Naim is a doer, a nurturer of talent and ideas. Together we put down roots and grew a business. God knows, neither of us knew what we were doing, but we muddled through. It was a lot of fun. We had more than our share of success and I loved how proud that made him.
Random things stick in my mind from those days, like Naim’s zeal for cats, not the kittycat variety but animal skins, oil paintings and two enormous white and gold china tigers – maybe kept at Namara, maybe perched on a white rug at his house in Mayfair. I remember the window of our Knightsbridge offices shattering when the Hyde Park bomb exploded. I recently found a gold egg on a chain he gave me from Asprey, which I wore for a while, then temporarily mislaid. I remember the other girls downstairs, bluestocking and studious, working for some mysterious outfit called The Women’s Press.
Naim and I would have lunch together. These were three-course affairs, cooked by someone pretty with a cordon-bleu diploma and served with great style. We talked about everything – his myriad of ventures – film, theatre, art. We talked about Palestine, women, publishing, food, love. He was endearing, passionate, funny, enthusiastic, and just a little bit mad. There wasn’t a soul who knew him who didn’t imitate his delighted shriek of a greeting when you walked into a room. We all took to answering phones ‘in the style of Naim’. I think he probably knew. I suspect he kind of liked it. He was happiest being the sun around which lots of interesting people revolved.
From time to time we argued. Then he was infuriating, bombastic, stubborn, arrogant – but so, of course, was I. I was always in a hurry. I wanted Pollen Inc. to be bigger and better. I wanted success and recognition. I wanted greater financing, higher turnover, more staff. He was slower; and a lot wiser. When the time came for us to head off in different directions, I’m pretty sure I was the one who behaved badly, a touch furtively, unsure quite how to approach the matter, while Naim behaved, as usual, like a gentleman. Twenty years later I still count on Naim’s loyalty and friendship. When I wrote my first book, a truly dire spoof on the fashion business, it was Naim who, with great generosity of spirit, was the first to review it. We still have lunch from time to time. The cordon-bleu days might have gone, but the panache remains. Naim’s enthusiasm and passion for life have never faltered. I am always more pleased than I can say to see him – and I wear my gold Asprey’s egg a lot.