SIR HARDY AMIES
Hardy Amies was born in London in 1909-2003. After studying languages in France and Germany he trained as a weighing-machine salesman in Birmingham before entering the world of design. In the 1930s he rose to become one of Britain’s leading couturiers. During the war he served as an intelligence officer in the SEO and in 1946 he founded his own fashion house. His salon is one of the few left in Britain to rival the great dress houses of Paris. He is dressmaker by appointment to Queen Elizabeth and he was knighted in 1989.
I interviewed him in 1991 and here is the substance of what he told me then.
In your autobiography you record that there was no marked display of affection in your childhood. Was that something you were aware of at the time or did it occur to you only on mature reflection?
I was never ware of it. I have the feeling of having had loving parents who were not demonstrative; I have no feeling of ever having been deprived of affection.
Were they ambitious for you?
Yes, my mother particularly so – and fortunately she lived just long enough to see the glimmering of the first success.
Yet in your book you make a point of avoiding discussing the relationship with your mother. Why is that?
I don’t know. I actually got on better with her than I did with my father, though he was a most affectionate man, and we didn’t get on badly by any means, but in the long run he wasn’t very bright, and she was brighter. My mother had what is laughingly called taste – of course it was restricted to suburban taste, her life being very circumscribed. She was a village girl, but because of the years that she’d spent in a court dressmaker’s she could recognize a real lady, and how she behaved, and she respected that.
Your brother who was Down’s Syndrome ‘coloured your childhood’ as you put it. Did you resent the amount of attention and care he required?
Not in anyway whatsoever. It’s only looking back that I realize that it must have been a tremendous strain on my mother and on the resources of my father. But I wasn’t conscious of that at the time, and I never had any feelings of disappointment. We loved him – Down’s Syndrome children are always loveable – and later I inherited responsibility for him when my parents died, but by that time he had been in a home for several years.
You left the family circle at the first opportunity, and though you insist there was nothing ‘unpleasant’ about your upbringing, one has the impression that yours was not a very happy childhood…
I was certainly pursued by lack of money, but although that imposed huge restrictions, we were not on the poverty line. Overall, I think we were happy.
Your mother’s death seems to have been a terrible blow. What are your memories of that time?
She had been ill with cancer for so long that there was an element of relief; it was only afterwards that I was moved.
Your father remarried within a short time, and both you and your sister seem to have disapproved of his second wife. Why was that?
Although she was a goodhearted woman she was socially very inferior to our standards, which is an awfully snobbish thing to say, but it’s true. As in most families the daughter is closer to the father, and so my sister minded more than I did. She was at first jealous of this really hideous woman. She was so ugly apart from anything else.
Then why did he marry her?
I wouldn’t care to go into the details. I now realize that my father was a very sexy man, and obviously she had certain tricks which satisfied him.
You are very close to your sister Rosemary…is she the most important person in your life?
Yes. I’m six years older than she is, rather bossy, and frankly, much cleverer than she is, something she has always admitted herself. There are strains which are difficult to articulate. I am very conscious of my responsibility towards her, but one of the difficulties is that she is, I think, sexless, in the sense of not really being interested in sex, although she has had sentimental attachments to women. Consequently, she’s never really understood my life which perplexes her still. It’s difficult for her to accept that I have male friends, though there are some who have always been in my life and with them she had made friends, I’m happy to say.
She hates it when people call you effeminate.
Yes. I am able to laugh at it, because I’m not really effeminate at all. In fact I would loathe to be a woman. Another difficulty is that she accuses me of not liking women; and that is true to an extent. I like them as artistic figures, as a sculptor likes his clay, but on the whole I despise their minds.
So you feel more comfortable in the presence of men.
Yes. It’s not that I don’t want women in my life – I’m very happy to have them around. But we’re in danger of getting on to sex, which I said we weren’t going to talk about.
In the early 1930s when you were in Germany you were a great enthusiast for Hitler – like, of course, a great many other people then, before the direction of his interests became clear. Were you very disillusioned?
The disillusionment came gradually. The family with whom I stayed welcomed Hitler as a saviour of the middle classes and the aristocracy, and I simply went along with them and didn’t question their judgement. A much greater influence in my life at that time was the manager of the local factory, a north German, an extremely orderly man, who, I now realize, was very attracted to me. He was an intelligent, politically clear-thinking man, who favoured the Nazis to begin with, but changed in the course of events, and by the time I left he was very disillusioned.
Have you ever taken a serious interest in politics since then? Have you ever joined a political party?
No. I’m only interested from the outside. Our local MP is Douglas Hurd, and I go to his meetings out of politeness to him. Also, before the last election I couldn’t bear the thought of the socialists winning, so I wanted to give him all the help I could.
I doubt whether it’s generally known that you were part of the special forces during the last year. That would seem improbable to those with stereotypical ideas of a dress designer. Did you enjoy that period of your life?
Not really. I considered myself lucky to have spent the major part of the war in a branch of the War Office in London. Unless I was on duty, which was about once a month, I had every Sunday and half of Saturday free and was generally home by 6’oclock. This enabled me to keep my hand in the dressmaking world. I still suffer from a bad conscience from that time, however, since I think I ought to have resigned because I didn’t believe in what I was doing. I didn’t think the idea of dropping parachutists into occupied countries was working; I suspected always that we were so infiltrated that we dropped people straight into enemy hands. I considered the whole operation tremendously amateurish and I started to feel quite cynical about things.
Did you always want to be a dressmaker?
No, I never thought about it. It always seemed something so remote from out lives, in spite of my mother. And in those days there were no designers in England; clothes were bought in Paris. It wasn’t until I had an offer from the husband of my mother’s boss that I suddenly thought, my God, this of course is what I want to do.
I imagine that a lot of people not in the business regard dress design as a frivolous affair. Does that bother you?
No. I am not aware that people regard it in that way. On the contrary, they are always amazed to hear about how much I earn for the country. At the time I joined the profession it was becoming socially acceptable, so I profited from that development.
How on earth did you manage to set up any sort of business, let alone a fashion house, at a time of such terrible austerity?
The war was a long time starting and it was a long time finishing. Churchill wanted unconditional surrender, which horrified me in view of my German connections. But during the time it dragged on I had the chance to lay down plans. I felt no guilt, since I didn’t take any hours off, just my full allowance of free time. Then my darling stepmother gave me a thousand pounds, which was quite a lot of money in those days. I had ten thousand pounds when I started, and we made ten thousand pounds profit during the first year. There was actually no feeling of austerity; everybody wanted new clothes. The Americans were the ones who really encouraged us, because they were on my doorstep before we even had the clothes – in fact they bought them form paper patterns. I opened on 1 February 1946, and by April I was in America at their expense.
In an interview with Richard Rosenfeld you used terms like ‘smarty pants’ with some affection and talked about the ‘gentry’. Did you feel very conscious of social divisions when you began? You appeared to adore the smart set.
Yes, I knew that I had to get on. Looking back, I learned the language of English upper class just as I’d learned German and French. The London upper class is like a club and I am always amazed when I am admitted as a member. And I’m so very pleased, because one meets much more interesting people. Sometimes I see others in the same business and I think, how naff you are. I’m not naff, but I easily could have been.
You describe yourself as a self-confessed snob. Have you no qualms about that at all?
No. I am a staunch supporter of the class system. I uphold it out of conviction; it’s the best of England, no question about it.
Don’t you have a commercial incentive to say that?
Of course, the commercial side suits me very well, but there are two more important reasons. Firstly I have a happier life for being a snob because I have a wide circle of friends, and the top people are far more interesting than the bottom people. Secondly, I’m very keen on English history and have an above average knowledge of it, certainly above average for a dressmaker. I have also lived in Germany, and I am perfectly at home in France, and I know how much both these countries would love to have a queen. The French and German aristocracies are clubs within themselves; they are self-supporting, but there’s no top.
So you’re a great supporter of the monarchy?
I would die for it. I really would take out a gun and go and shoot people if they ever threatened it. It’s one of our most precious assets. To destroy it would be the most wicked thing. I say this not just because I admire the present Queen. I would still support the monarchy even if we had a bad queen, heaven forfend that we did. It’s the idea I defend; primogeniture is order – it’s God.
You design dresses for the Queen. How important is that to you?
I’m really a supplier, a fournisseur, a furnisher of clothing to her. She accepts my advice if it suits her to do so. Her guiding principle in ordering clothes is that they shall be appropriate to the occasion for which she wants them. Not that she has explained all that to me – it’s something I sense. She has supremely good manners.
You clearly have great admiration for her.
Enormous, and for many reasons – her politeness, the order of her mind, the way the palace is run, the way she has never failed to keep an appointment.
I suppose there is a sense in which the fashion business depends on a certain sort of snobbery, on the urge to be differently and better dressed than others.
I don’t think there’s an urge of any consequence. Our customers simply want to be comfortable and correctly dressed for the occasion. There is sometimes a competitive element, most evident when mothers are choosing a dress for their daughter, and want it to be better than the one they saw on their friend’s daughter. But the competitiveness is not so strong in their ordinary buying; in many cases they don’t want to stand out, they just want to be comfortably acceptable.
You have promoted an ‘English style’. What do you think are its characteristics?
The main characteristics of the English style is that it has to have something to do with the country. A well-dressed, well-bred English-woman is at her best when she looks as though she has either just come up from the country or is just going back there. Urban clothes are better made by the French. Another feature is a certain nonchalance – a word invented in my studio. We abhor the dressed-up look, and we’re not good at what is called dead chic – mort chic – that’s not our line of country. There also has to be a curious timelessness about English clothes, because it’s not good style to wear a new dress. My favourite duchess gave a very important private ball for which she wore a twenty-five-year-old dress. She had a new dress made by me for the servants’ ball which took place the day before so the servants could not say that her grace was wearing an old dress. But for her own proper ball she wore an old dress and she looked marvellous. That is English style at its best.
Do you think of your designs as artworks? After all, they are clearly works of the imagination…
Absolutely not. I look on them as the work of an artisan. I don’t like going to museums where they have collections of garments which have usually been designed for one particular occasion, then put away. My clothes are worn out and do not appear in museums.
I suppose dress designing is so personal a service that you become closely acquainted with some of your customers, a bit like a portrait painter…
That’s not quite true. I have seen very few of my customers over forty years. Don’t forget the structure of the house which dictates that clients are seen by a vendeuse who does more than just sell; she serves the customer and waits on her and guides her through all the fittings, and very often becomes her friend. I like to retire and leave it to her. It is also a question of using up time and energy; I love to see my customers, but if my business were based on their always having to see me, I’d have been dead years ago. I don’t even see the Queen anymore
I have always wondered quite how it is that fashions change in the way they do. It never seems to be the case that things are suddenly and radically different. Do you think there is some sort of revolutionary law which governs it?
Fashion changes much less than you think. The idea of it changing is one promoted by newspapers which find it a very good way of filling a page. The women I know, not only my own customers but in my life generally, change the length of their skirts by perhaps one inch per season. Good expensive clothes for ladies don’t actually date. I recently went to a very high-class wedding in Scotland and saw five different women wearing coats which were ten years old. I felt proud of that.
And they looked smart?
They looked correct. There is a difference. It’s a difference the Queen understands; she knows being too smart implies something hard. The Duchess of Windsor on the other hand is dressed too smartly.
You said once that you can always tell when a lady’s got style – ‘You have only to see her in her underclothes to appreciate that.’ Perhaps you’ve been luckier than I have, but how else can you tell…I mean, what constitutes style?
I think the word is insouciance. You must never show that you are impressed by your own clothes, or have that ‘Don’t I look wonderful?’ expression. You must never be conquered by your clothes; style is to be master of your clothes. When you see women in their underwear they must be immaculate. I take a rather old-fashioned view since most ladies of great style nowadays wear Marks and Spencer underwear, but I prefer the undergarment to be of beautiful quality, superbly hand-made, and extremely plain. Frilly underclothes constitute extremely bad style.
There are now design schools and indeed art schools with sections devoted to clothes design. Do you think it is actually possible for the industry to sustain the current numbers of designers?
No. A very wise question. Firstly I deplore the fact that there are design departments in art schools; it gives them quite the wrong idea, because clothes design is not art, it’s craftmanship. They even give degrees now which is totally idiotic. In my view a dress is not a dress until it has been sold; before that it’s just a rough sketch, a suggestion. There must be the desire for a woman to possess it, to pay money for it, and that philosophy is sadly lacking in the art schools. Secondly there has definitely been a decline in the teaching of craft. There should be more prizes for craftmanship rather than design. What we lack are trained craftsmen and craftswomen, not designers. There are too many designers.
Fashion will I suppose become more and more international, especially with the advent of the Common Market at the end of this year. Will there be room for distinctive national differences? Indeed, is it possible now to see that a particular dress is French or Italian?
If it looks vulgar it has a good chance of being Italian as distinct from French. But that is an unattractive remark.
You have been outspoken, if not scathing, about women in design. Why is it that there are so few well-known women designers? One would have thought that they were the obvious source for ideas and yet many of the more famous designers seem to be men.
Men are objective, women are not – about clothes, or indeed anything else. The one outstanding exception was Chanel, and it is extraordinary how her influence is still felt today. But she had a man’s mind and was very disciplined in her designs. Also a designer of high-class expensive clothes cannot exist alone; he has to have a team with him, and this is what is forgotten by most people, and certainly not appreciated by the press. I am here today at the age of eighty-three because I have support, and in three years’ time my house will have been fifty years in existence. I am the boss, and men make better bosses than women do. Because we’re more intelligent.
Twenty years ago you were saying that couture business was really finished; it was too labour intensive to make any money. But it still seems to be going. How long do you think such business might continue?
Well, we lose money at the moment, but if we are clever enough to earn in other fields, in licensing fees, in design labels, and in using our studio intelligently, then I think we will win through.
Have you ever designed clothes to be provocative?
Not consciously. They are sometimes seductive, but not provocative. If a dress is too sexy it’s a bad dress, I’ve always said.
At one point you sold a considerable share in your business to Debenham’s only to buy it back again later on. Why did you feel it was necessary to do that? Did they try and control your creative output?
No, they didn’t do that. The disadvantage was essentially in having new bosses, in fact in having bosses at all, since I’d always been totally independent. When they bought us they promised to do two things: one was to help launch a women’s ready-to-wear business which would have had the marvellous platform of Debenhams’s sixty shops; secondly they were going to launch a proper scent business – but they did neither. And in addition we had the aggravation of being bossed by them. There was blatant jealousy towards me, and it was also quite clear to them that they couldn’t control me. Though I had no shares in the business most of the contracts were in my name – Japan, for example, would never have given contract to Debenham’s, the would only give it to Hardy Amies. This irked them, but in the end it always comes down to personalities, and the personalities at Debenham’s were inferior. When it all came to a head and they wanted me to do something which I wouldn’t do, they said – and the words still ring in my ears – ‘If you don’t do this, Hardy, we’ll cut you up into little pieces,’ meaning they would destroy me. I thought it was time to part company, so a favourable price was arranged and I bought myself back.
The recession continues to bite despite all the government talks. I imagine that the fashion business must feel the force of that very early…
When there is a recession people buy wisely. If a woman is prepared to spend £2,500 on a suit, she knows she is buying the best possible value. So the recession hits shoddier merchandise than ours. We suffer a little bit, but my retail figures for the last year are down only ten per cent, which is not too bad, and the overseas revenue is up.
You never married. Was that a conscious decision or was it just that the right circumstances never occurred?
It never occurred to me that I would marry. I did once get engaged to a girl, but I cannot think why; it certainly wasn’t because I wanted to go to bed with her. I thought perhaps she would make a good wife to me, but she was sensible enough to say no. I have been quite content and self-contained in the way I have lived, and I’ve never felt lonely for one minute. I have my sister, and I love having friends around. Ken Fleetwood who has been with me for forty-two years and is now the design director of my business comes to my country house fifty weekends out of fifty-two. We are not lovers, but he is like a son to me in the broadest sense.
Abut three years ago I interviewed Harold Acton who is a confirmed bachelor, but when I asked him if he had ever desired a woman, he said that he had, and indeed had a penchant for oriental women. Have you ever desired a woman?
No. I’m tremendously physical but I can’t say I have ever desired a woman. I love flesh, I’m very tactile, very ‘MTF’ – Must Touch Flesh. I actually love touching women for the pleasure of it, to hold their hands, to stroke their arms, and I love beautiful women. It gives me immense pleasure to dress a woman to perfection. You can’t do it to a man because he just looks a pratt, a bloody fool. So curiously enough whilst I am obviously attracted to men more than I am to women, I still think it is idiotic to dress a man. I’ve always said a man should order his clothes with intelligence, put them on with care and then forget all about them.
You have, I believe, made arrangements to leave your fashion house to your employees. Certainly a very generous gesture, but I wonder if you have ever regretted not having had children to come after you?
It never crossed my mind. In fact I’m very grateful I haven’t got children. The children of men in the dress business all seem to want to be lawyers or bankers, they never want to follow their fathers. When I see the trouble and responsibilities that children bring, I don’t regret not having had children for one moment.
How would you sum up your recipe for success?
I’ve worked hard, not desperately hard, but I’ve always done my duty and I have a conscience about not doing the right thing. I have also had an amazing amount of luck. Perhaps the most significant factor was my three years on the road as a salesman selling weighing machines; it was not a very happy existence, but I did it and created an aura of orderliness and of dutifulness which somehow stood me in good stead. If I hadn’t done my duty with this rotten job I would never have got the good one.
I understand Molyneux was your god, why is that?
Firstly because he was an Englishman, secondly he had extremely good taste in clothes. He believed in simplicity, as I do. All good clothes are totally unfussy. The first dress I ever saw of his was the simplest possible garment that just buttoned up the front, but it was absolutely impeccably made in beige linen with black buttons. And I learned that lesson and I follow it to this day. Although I can’t draw, I have a gift of being able to see a garment from a piece of cloth. There are glib designers, little boys wo can draw, make a little sketch, but they never seriously think of it, as I do. When I’m working on an article I think about it all the time, and then it takes me ten minutes to write it, because it’s already written in my head. Although I don’t want to compare myself with a genius, this is exactly what Mozart did. On the way to Prague he was thinking about what he was going to write when he got there, and then he sat down and wrote the overture to Don Giovanni in ten minutes.
How important is a beautiful face for the success of a dress?
A beautiful face helps tremendously, but the real challenge for the designer is to give a woman grace; it’s what I call honouring cloth – you mustn’t foul it up. No seam is ever attractive, so you must have a minimum of seams, then you have to achieve a certain skill of disguise. A woman of a certain age does not have an attractive bosom, and anyway to show the bosom too markedly is common; to disguise is very important. Then you indicate the waist by the position of the buttons, rather than by nipping it in – the cloth must not be fucked up.
At the age of eighty-three you seem very fit. What is your secret?
Homeopathy is very important in my life. I’m not fanatical about it but I will use a homeopathic remedy if I possibly can. I haven’t taken an aspirin for fifty years. And tennis is a very good cosmetic. I play an hour’s tennis on Saturday and Sunday, and for the rest of the week people tell me how well I look.
I read somewhere that you’re not in the least afraid of death.
No. You’re just going into nothing, so why should you be frightened of nothing? I don’t believe in an afterlife. I believe in the existence of God, but it could have been any other name – nature, for example, or order. I think there’s something that was put into our minds, and the question is, why the fuck are we here? I don’t know the answer, but there is something we want to order, but the order is gone when you’re dead, totally gone. And I don’t mind it. I was meant to have a life, not a death.
A lot of people who are not religious in their youth, trend to become more religious with advancing years.
I don’t have that feeling at all. My sister, being six years younger, thinks I’m going to die before her, and she would like to have a funeral for me. I quite agree, because I don’t know of any other way of doing it. These non-denominational affairs are too awful for words. I’d rather have the whole thing, incense and choir, the lot. But this is nothing to do with fear, nothing to do with getting on the right side of God, not remotely.
And nothing to do with conviction?
No. It’s toujours la politesse. It’s good manners.
You were knighted in 1989. After the long association with the royal family did you not think this was a somewhat belated honour?
No. It never crossed my mind. I still think it’s the biggest stroke of luck. Queen Victoria founded the Royal Victorian Order for services to the sovereign. I don’t think she ever intended it for dressmakers.
You’ve had two books published now. Has that been a rewarding experience?
Publishers have one serious fault and this it that they never read anything. [Laughs.] You just know they haven’t read the bloody book. George Weidenfeld is quite an inspiring man to help you make a book, but I don’t think he’s terribly interested. In any case I think my books are pretty dull in the end because they’ve got so many tactful omissions. Men should never have women editors because they don’t understand how men’s minds work. Diana Mosley was so funny when she said apropos of publishers that they all keep a troupe of Nigerians in their cupboards and when they edit a book they bring one out of the cupboard and give her a stub pencil. Women always bring in irrelevances. They’re illogical creatures. Even Mrs Thatcher is a typical example, quite illogical, doesn’t follow it through. She also imitates an upper-class voice which is the biggest grating thing that anybody can do. The voice is the key to the class system in England; once a man or woman opens his or her mouth you know what his or her class is. True scots accents, or Lancashire, or Manchester, they’re lovely; what is awful is the whine, the Walthamstow whine.
You’re a very emotional man. Have you ever fallen madly in love?
Oh yes…every week, mostly with the milkman. [Laughs.]
How would you like to be remembered?
I would like people to say, oh we miss him, he was such fun. I like laughing with people more than anything in the world. Life is a joke, a big joke.