Diana's Designer is Set to Dress the Masses

Couturier Bruce Oldfield speaks about his first ever collection for the high street - and the importance of sleeves.

Published: 31st August 2015 09:22 AM  |   Last Updated: 31st August 2015 09:22 AM   |  A+A-

LONDON: Bruce Oldfield is peering through the French windows of his office in Beauchamp Place in Knightsbridge, one of London's most affluent streets and within touching distance of Harrods. "Oh, look!" exclaims the 65-year-old couture designer, clapping his hands, as his border terrier, Boo, does battle with a Dyson vacuum cleaner.

From his second-floor office, Oldfield can see into his house across the road, as well as through the windows of his nearby couture and bridalwear store. "Everything is here, right in the centre of things. I'm surrounded by gorgeousness," he says, standing next to a pinboard fixed with fabric samples.

For decades, Oldfield has lived and worked, pattern-cutting and bringing his designs to life, virtually from under one roof. But, for the first time since he launched his eponymous label in 1975, Oldfield's world is about to get a whole lot bigger.

On Friday, the society designer, who has dressed Diana, Princess of Wales and the Duchess of Cornwall, launches a 60-piece collection for John Lewis. Bruce by Bruce Oldfield will be his first collaboration, the first time his clothes will be available online, and the first of many lines for the store. He will supply John Lewis with two collections a year - quite a change for someone who has previously admitted selling just 15 bridal dresses a year.

Until now, unless you were royalty, a Hollywood star or had easy access to several platinum credit cards, your wardrobe was unlikely to have been stuffed with Oldfield's bespoke creations, whose price tags tend to start in four figures. His high-street collection, by contrast, will have skirts, tops, coats and dresses from pounds 59.

So why is he branching out now to the masses?

"Doing a collaboration has been mooted and spoken about over the years," he says. "It never really happened because I wasn't that interested. But it just seemed right this time."

The sartorial stars aligned prior to John Lewis's 150th anniversary last year, when Oldfield was asked to do a one-off design for the store's birthday. "I said, 'Why don't we do an entire collection? Surely that makes more sense.' That's the kind of person I am. I take no prisoners."

After 40 years on his own, perhaps a change of gear was to be expected.

"Now I'm 65, I don't want to be running up and down the high street touting for business. I've set my stall out in John Lewis, and it would be quite nice if we could develop it into different areas." Those areas may stream into accessories, homeware and menswear - more new ground for Oldfield - if he has his way.

Today he is dressed in a beige jacket, smart polo top and white Converse shoes; a mixture of Armani and "Ralphie baby" (Ralph Lauren).

He is charming and chatty, and emanates a kind of old-world glamour. He doesn't, I suspect, suffer fools, and he pointedly bats away questions that sail too close to his private life or high-profile clients (a list that has included Catherine Zeta-Jones, Sienna Miller and Jemima Khan).

He shows me to an upstairs sample room, where his John Lewis collection is strung over rails and on mannequins. It's elegant and muted. What would Diana, Princess of Wales - whom he styled for more than a decade - have made of it?

"I think she would be delighted. I think she would be in [John Lewis] going, 'Oh! I wish I had daughters!'?" he says.

At face value, the two labels seem a good fit. Both are staid, quintessentially British brands.

"I stand for quality, and I'm relatively conservative," explains Oldfield. "I'm timeless, and I like things that are classical and you can pull out of your wardrobe in five years' time and they'll still be relevant. I am slightly horrified, I have to say, by the susceptibility of some people to buy c---."

As he is "uninterested" in fads, he declares: "I am not a fashion person, I'm not that interested in fashion. But I love clothes. I love clothes that fit and that look good." For this reason, he also believes women over a certain age should wear sleeves. "I like sleeves, I think sleeves are sexy and elegant. It's a generational thing. I guess I look at my own arms and think, 'Darling, over 50, get a sleeve'."

For every sale of the John Lewis little black dress (a pounds 160 sleeveless - shock! - silk shift that he has christened the Little Bruce Dress), Oldfield is donating pounds 20 to Barnardo's, the children's charity of which he is vice president. After a childhood split between foster care and a children's home in Ripon, North Yorkshire, it is a cause close to his heart.

Oldfield was born to an unmarried Irish mother and a Jamaican boxer, but he never met them. Until the age of 13, he was looked after by his foster mother, Violet, who worked as a dressmaker and first piqued his interest in sewing. "We were very poor - without doubt," he says. "We really did make do and mend."

Four more foster children arrived over the years, and Oldfield made clothes for his sisters' Sindy dolls. At 13, he became a "bad boy", shoplifting, fighting and generally throwing his prepubescent weight about. He was moved to a Barnardo's home, and enrolled in a grammar school. "It was sad leaving Violet, but good for me, too. It makes you very tough."

Oldfield trained as a teacher, before switching to pursue his love of textiles at St Martin's School of Art and Design, funded by a loan from Barnardo's. The charity stepped in once more with another loan when he launched his ready-to-wear label in 1975 and, without them, he's not sure we would be talking now. Oldfield says the charity was "extremely instrumental" in his success.

Today, he faces a different kind of challenge - dressing shapely women: "Straight up and down is very easy. My craft has always been accentuating the bits you want to accentuate and camouflaging the other bits."

From his days of partying with Jerry Hall and Marie Helvin, his life has taken something of a sedate turn. "I don't drink, I don't smoke, I don't do drugs - I don't do much, actually. People say, 'God, your life must be so boring.' I say, look, through my twenties, thirties, forties and fifties, I drank like a fish, smoked like a chimney and was out all night. I did it all, I truly did. Nowadays, that doesn't rock my boat. I love my dogs, I love being in bed early, I get up at 6am every morning. It is just different."

Instead, he contents himself with playing the piano or watching television ("No, I don't watch The Great British Sewing Bee"). He is also looking for a house in the country.

But when I ask about the recent law change allowing gay marriages and whether he might soon settle down, down come the shutters. "We don't talk about the state of my [love] life," he says. "Good heavens, no! It would frighten off my customers."

And might his loyal followers be upset now that his patterns, cuts and atelier techniques will be replicated for a tenth of the price?

"There might be a few noses put out of joint," he says, "but I sell so few dresses, it doesn't matter."

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