Helen's Story

by Helen Storey

by Helen Storey .

From the beginning, my belief in myself was fuelled by a need to find out what kind of a designer I really was. I had no idea what was in store. It was not so much naivety as an urge to follow the risk-taking, energetic side of my character.

In the past, I might have flung on any number of things appropriate for the Downing Street Reception for London Fashion Week, but it will need more thought this time. I have been sitting in an armchair for months. Throughout the winter I have sat quite still and am too familiar with the red brickwork of the house opposite my window. I have given up chasing the cats that crap on my sleeping garden. The guests at Number 10 will wear Seventies-looking shoes and Gucci tabards and hairdos which hover and stay.

Now I’m in my mid-30s, and everything has changed. What does it feel like when the need to run has gone? The driven part of me – the part that plunged into creating the Helen Storey name, that couldn’t wait to leave my miserable childhood education behind, to be in control – has gone. And during the time designated for me to come back and relaunch, fate and my need for stillness have precluded both. I now deal in the small, in the detail of pennies rather than the rounding up of thousands. I am down to collecting premier points from that supermarket and Income Support of £25 per week.

It’s during the day that I miss the part of me that I thought I knew: 11am in my local superstore is the magical time. The employed are away in offices somewhere. Mothers have their young to go ahead of them. And then there is me – and all the other long-term unemployed. I can tell you that Andrex costs £1.22 more than Somerfield’s basic range toilet tissue, that when I am feeling self-destructive you will find me shopping in Food Giant, and that a local shop whose largest sign in the window says ‘convert your jukebox’ has a business that survived longer than mine did.

This period is about nothing definite. It is a passing-through, a leaving-behind – a bungee jump on the inside. You could say I am working towards my freedom. You catch me, however, tossing my head violently from side to side, an old bone locked tight in my jaws. I growl beyond my known nature. I am not wrestling with failure; I am confronting my former omnipotence, the all-powerful part of me that created a label now no longer in existence.

I can shed it, drop it, or hold onto it. It’s taken months, but with not a design in sight, I can see my next season. It is smaller, a bit here, a bit there, no frills – not for profit alone, but a backable venture. It could be a play: a divided stage, backstage revealed, the catwalk out into the audience. I know the dialogue, the way we do it, but I still question the reason as to why. I have designed the set, know the cast is of 20, can sense which theatre and recognise that in this play lies the stuff of my years as a dancer and my years in fashion.

In my cupboard I have an old tabard. It is acid yellow and embroidered with diamanté up the back. If you wear it back to front, it gives the best-shaped breasts. With some boots left over from my last collection and my long hair, I just might, with a push, hover and stay.

When I first met Caroline Coates she was sitting in a small upstairs room behind a metal desk in the West End of London. I remember blonde hair, the colour purple and a conversation taking place on the phone; the person on the other end no doubt squirming under her powers of persuasion. She put the phone down and looked me straight in the eyes.

Caroline was a young woman from Yorkshire. She had maintained her northern ticket more successfully than I – a straight-forwardness and honesty that is too often complicated in the name of sophistication by some southerners. From the outset, she set about creating opportunities to build fashion-design companies, and this in a country where the textile trade rarely took any notice of us designers. It required enormous luck, coupled with day-and-night persuasion, to get a collection manufactured; and there was a fundamental disbelief that design in the hands of the creative could make money.

Set up in 1982, Amalgamated Talent was created to harness and capitalise on the talent pouring out of art schools and colleges. The idea was to coach students who wanted to set up their own business, to help them with costings, cash flows, banks, exporting, insurance, editing, manufacturing and finance. In her day, Caroline held the hands of up to 80 designers, equipping them with the skills that have seen the best of them come through to leading positions in some of the world’s largest firms – Coats Viyella, Calvin Klein and Marks & Spencer.

Starting out on my own was a reaction to dressing women I had nothing in common with (at Valentino and later at Belville Sassoon). The vision for the label was still located in glamour, but somewhere between Bruce Oldfield’s early work in the Eighties and the high street. It was an unconscious mix of myself and Biba, with edge.

From the beginning, my belief in myself was fuelled by a need to find out what kind of a designer I really was. I had no idea what was in store. It was not so much naivety as an urge to follow the risk-taking, energetic side of my character. In Caroline I recognised the strengths both of my mother and my father, at once nurturing and persuasive. The trust which rapidly built-up between us, combined with a practical need for partnership, gently convinced me that I was in the right place.

At the time of designing my first collection, I was still working at Belville Sassoon, making mad dashes between his world of taffeta and my other life in denim. Despite my accuracy at fulfilling the brief for the county ladies, I had a rougher, more experimental side. Denim was miles away from chiffon and I was drawn to a cloth I could beat up, bleach or rip. After my first meeting with Caroline, she had got me together with Wrangler to do a range that considered the roundness of women, and my first collection for Spring/Summer 1986 was a continuation of this theme.

I was unable to gain access to the heavy-duty machinery which gives denim its authenticity, so I decided to take it in the opposite direction and produce denim which was feminine. I designed jeans that fitted into the waist and hung just right, low on the hips, using the material’s fraying qualities to the full. I created shift-dresses and jeans constructed inside-out. Macy’s of New York bought my Pompidou Centre collection – just five orders, but it was enough of a taste to hurl me forwards towards the next collection.

In those days you just did it – launched yourself into a catwalk show, a creative coming out. My first catwalk show, ‘Rage’, marked the beginning. It received as much praise as it did damnation: from ‘what Britain’s been waiting for’ to ‘an apocalyptic mess’. But liked or disliked – along with many of the big British names on the move: Hamnett, Galliano, Westwood and Ozbek – ‘Rage’ made a noise at a time when a certain stillness was in the air.

Putting the collection together was a nightmare. I soon realised that what sells would put the audience to sleep and that the newsworthy, edgy stuff would be impractical and unprofitable to manufacture. I learned fast the first time around, and my lesson paid off by the time the next season arrived. For ‘Rage’, in a room which could comfortably hold two, there were, at one point, ten people cutting patterns, sewing, divorcing, styling, casting models and having supposedly secret affairs. A tension I could bring nowhere near the surface almost had me over the edge. Invariably, there is always too much in a first catwalk show. The need to yell rather than simply announce is a seemingly unavoidable urge, especially in the young.

My second catwalk collection, ‘Present Times’ (1991), by contrast, was designed and worked on in a large rented space in Kingly Street, London W1. Up three flights of stairs, a tight team produced what I still consider to be my best work.

One collection will always be emerging as the previous one is being manufactured. The one that is being creatively finished still demands a great deal of attention after the event. ‘Rage’ was being manufactured in Cornwall as ‘Present Times’ was being developed in London.

I was new to this game of trying to please both buyers and press. ‘Rage’ was virtually impossible to manufacture. By the time we had satisfied every buyer’s individual wishes on an order, there were more than 160 styles and the company simply could not produce them. Our mistake was to even attempt it. We had created something somewhere between ready-to-wear and couture. As the chaos of ‘Rage’ continued, I used all the mistakes I had made in it to keep ‘Present Times’ clean and straightforward.

The energy of ‘Present Times’ relied on instinct. The previous collection was styled beyond recognition. In this one, the clothes alone told me what to do, when to leave them, when they needed some edge. I felt for couture, I missed its possibilities, the arts and crafts and support that must surround a designer for their life to be real. So I turned to what was to hand. Council rubbish bags became a ball skirt, floating with a static and flow only polythene and net can attain.

The animal heads which prompted so much coverage in the press were the result of a long evening’s discussion with my husband, Ron – my rambling partner in life’s more creative moments. He claims the idea was his, and I, indisputably, that it was mine. (In the past, there have been times during these brain-storming sessions when the only point on which we could agree was that the other’s recollection was wrong.)

The hair was by Vidal Sassoon, the 20 girls split between shaven heads and locks of coiffured abundance; the make-up, a moon-dust and blood-lipped creation, by Lesley Chilkes. I worked with Shelleys on the loafers, which floated on clear Perspex wedges. Throughout the collection, commercialism lent itself inventively – and, perhaps, rarely – to the experimental.

Backstage after ‘Present Times’, those people who make or break you queued to congratulate me. As each unexpected face fought its way towards me, I knew I had got it right. During that year, and as a result of that particular collection, I was voted Most Innovative Designer Of The Year, and was nominated for Designer Of The Year. It was 1991 and the only way was up.

Four years later, designed in three days and completed in seven weeks, ‘Edith’s Sisters’ (Autumn/Winter 1995) was a collection which would never be produced. Unknown to us, it was to be our last show, put on in an Underground tunnel in South Kensington – the same passage which used to ferry a bored four-year-old girl to the museums.

In an unspoken sense, Coates and Storey was on its last legs. This became apparent not by a gradual lack of interest (as one imagines would arise near an end), but rather by a total commitment from the whole team to do it as well as we could.

As befits the spirit in which Caroline and I had tackled everything, the venue was full of reasons why not to. The first of these was a requirement to keep the tunnel open to the public until two hours before the show. To gauge the impact of this, bear in mind that the alternative tent venues, 200 feet above us, took eight days to erect in order to accomplish the same purpose. I willed this one to happen, grovelling and scraping, pre-empting every reason under the sun why they wouldn’t want to do it. We had three weeks’ notice – an interesting exercise in the interpretation of proceeding with haste. There was not much in common between this tiny fashion company and London Transport.

Having worked out who the action men were at LT, Caroline and our show producers, Nick and Cameron, sat down to work out if it was all possible. The catwalk was three minutes walk long. The audience could be dozing by the time outfit number one had returned, and the abilities of even the best girls to shine would be stretched. In acknowledgment of this, we decided to have two changing rooms, one at either end: outfit one at the Science Museum, outfit two at the Natural History.

This seemed to work until the day of the show. The make-up and hair were toi be done at the Polish Club up the road and the girls would be ferried down to the tunnel to the appropriate changing-room before the audience came in. To complicate things, we had to do two shows back-to-back. The first, with separate clothes in it, was for our sponsors, Alfa Romeo, and the second was for the fashion pack in general.

Many friends and employees from the past seemed spontaneously to re-emerge to help: Chantal and Liz Friend, buyers we hadn’t seen for years; Gapu and Kevin from Untitled; the model Michelle Paradis from my first show. ‘Edith’s Sisters’ was summoning up the best of the past for a curtain call.

When you are not a major design house, things like the perfectly sized shoe for every girl in every colour for every outfit can be a problem. I had known Helen Bailey for many years, and on this day she was assisting. Once down the tunnel, and having sorted some of the clothes on the rails, she gave me one of those don’t-panic-but-I-think-we’ve-really-fucked-up looks.

‘What? Tell me what.’

‘I can’t,’ she said.

‘Tell me, for Chrissake.’

She looked at all the accessory bags, packed perfectly, labelled beautifully with model and outfit number, running order, and which end of the tunnel they should be in.

‘What? I still don’t get it,’ I said.

‘The shoes,’ she persisted. ‘The jewellery. How can it be in both changing rooms at the same time? She can’t just say “excuse me” and leg it down the other end to get them.’ The punch landed.

‘Fuck!’ Five second gap. ‘Fuck!’ Another gap. ‘Fuck! Quick, split the bags.’

‘Split the bags how?’ she said calmly

‘Just split them.’

‘Can’t,’ she said. ‘We have to work out where each girl will be, in what outfit, at what part of the show, and split everything up into bags – which we don’t have – accordingly.’

With only one hour to go and four models lost, Naomi at the airport with her bag nicked and the other assistants unaware of the mess, drinking back vodka at the Polish Club, I panicked. I couldn’t think how to bring any order to what we had to do.

Someone stuck their head around the cordoned-off end off the tunnel where we were and said cheerfully, ‘The tunnel’s flooding.’

Rather hurt at my reply, they disappeared. The tunnel was dry when we started the show.

Only a matter of seconds later another head came through.
‘Naomi can’t get here.’

This I just ignored. I threw a look like vomit at Nick. He covered his face with the running order for the third time and I told him to go away, find a corner and change it yet again.

‘Don’t even ask,’ I said. ‘Just do what you think is best.’

As he left the area, pulling back the curtain with a great whoosh of anxiety, a giant and overwhelming stink of urine came blowing in.

Bailey and I just looked at each other.

‘Suzy Menkes,’ she said. ‘You can just see it, can’t you?’

Someone was sent out to replace the water that had been sucked up by another somebody to spray away the stench.

Bailey finally realised I had reached my end and she became an angel. She threw her halo like a Frisbee the length of the tunnel. She told me to go to the Polish Club and get some vodka down me, which I did. When I returned, she smiled. My little world was back in order.

I stroked the clothes, each one hanging where they ought to be, tapped the odd heel to sit next to its patent partner and waited. Looking down at myself, having not been aware of what I looked like for the past 48 hours, I realised I was grubby: jeans with no socks and a T-shirt. I had to do something about it. I disappeared into a corner and came out in velvet.

The Alfa show went well and even changing the outfits went remarkably smoothly. However, unknown to me, backstage, our puddle of rising water had blown the lights at the Natural History end. A gentleman from London Transport grabbed a plate-sized torch, stood on a chair and flashed it inadvertently on to the bare backside of a model.

Mark had watched the first show and came towards me.

‘Well?’ I pleaded desperately. ‘Well, what was it like?’

‘Needs work,’ he said gruffly.

‘Needs work?’ I repeated. There was only half an hour between this one and the next.

‘What work?’

‘Get Nicholas and Cameron,’ he demanded.

From time to time Mark and I would spark an idea. Cocooned only by a few other opinions, we occasionally came across something that excited us and that, when least expected, would blow others away.

I had designed many of the features in the collection over, under and around the bum, not a new concept in itself. But Mark and Caroline can spot the things I miss just because my ideas spill out without effort. The lace-and-flesh dress with no back at all was one of those drawings that was a natural conclusion to a string of commercial ones behind it. Stupid and without reason is okay if there are ten others that aren’t and have.

My nerves about using it were calmed by Mark’s comment: ‘tell them an old queen told you to do it.’

Following the show, the debate was astonishing. Bums everywhere – in cartoons John Major’s crevice was displayed; on the radio Desmond Morris backed up my instinct for them; and on TV the breakfast crowd giggled at them.

The last show was close to how it should have been, the right faces backstage once again. It can never be thought of as perfect or final – in some ways it wasn’t even in keeping with the general direction: that would be to admit you have finished. I haven’t.

Pulled towards the next something, I feel catwalks are not right any more. The tunnel was on the way to somewhere else, but I have yet to arrive.

Originally published in The Guardian Weekend, 14 September 1996, p.30-35