Interview with fashion designer Betty Jackson


Betty Jackson, the legendary British designer, has rejoined the designing team at Debenhams to create their first must-have jewellery line. The range, which forms part of her ‘Betty Jackson. Black’ line for the high street store, fuses resin, perspex and metals with chunky chains and grosgrain ribbon to create a collection of contemporary statement jewellery. We caught up with Betty in the gorgeous Junior Deluxe Suite of the Soho Hotel on Tuesday afternoon to discuss her new collection, her career and her success.

This isn’t the first time you have collaborated with Debenhams , you also created the ‘Betty Jackson. Black’ line of clothing and homeware for the store , how did the partnership between the two of you first come about?
They just asked. We just thought, ‘that’d be quite good’ and I’d already been working with somebody else , another big company on the high street , and that contract had just come to an end and literally it was the day after when Debenhams phoned and we went in to meet and it’s been great. They’re great people to work with and because they had this stable of designers as well – that was another thing I was bit worried about as well, they had lots of them and I thought, ‘how am I going to make a difference here?’ But I think their choice of designers is great and I think we all have a different voice. They’re very careful about keeping it to the personality of the designer, and I think that they work really hard on that , we all have our own little team and it gets really competitive, which is great. It began with the clothes and then moved onto homes maybe 18 months after and then the jewellery thing was natural, it’s such a big thing now. I think its great to change an outfit by changing a necklace and putting on earrings – its a fantastic thing so it was a great opportunity.

Can you tell us about your new jewellery collection and talk us through the key pieces , do you have any favourites?
I love the two metal ones, I love the cluster necklace because its sort of sparkly and I love the fact that you can get a bracelet as well. Then these ones I think are great to wear with even just a T-shirt, if you put this lovely metally-beady thing on it just completely changes it. And then there’s a whole other section with ribbon ties and gold pearls that are obviously dressier but still look gorgeous with the simplest of dresses. And I do think in times now that people maybe aren’t going to go and buy a whole new outfit but want to get that sort of ‘newness’ without spending a fortune and this is an obvious way to do it. Its a small collection, there’s more delicate pieces as well, and nothing very precious so you can wear and then chuck it away if you want to, but we’re going to introduce a few more elements. I love all this new resin stuff that’s happening, it looks really modern and exciting and its very light, you can forget that its on. We’re going to do a few wooden pieces as well for next spring, but I think as a starting block I’m really thrilled with it, I think it’s very exciting.

What was your inspiration behind the collection? Art and prints are elements that have inspired your clothing designs throughout your career , is this something that extends itself to your jewellery, too?
I think so, I think it’s sort of purposeful , I mean, I hate things that are just non functional, I suppose. But it is purposeful, if you’re going to wear it, the larger pieces are going to be noticed and that was quite important for a first one. On the clothing line we do very well with jersey shift dresses and the dresses that can take you to any occasion so it was important that these pieces complimented the clothing.

For people like us who don’t know much about the process of designing jewellery – is your design process different when you design jewellery compared to when you design clothes?
Yes. I know nothing also , I just know what I like and what I don’t like. We started off with colour and ‘what do we want this to be?’ and whether we wanted it to be sparkly or whether we wanted it to be metal or resin. The company that we’re working for and the Debenhams lot showed me all these things and I said, ‘I think we should go this way’. And it was very much a collaboration, I certainly didn’t draw these pieces up, but it organically grew by their expertise and actually what I wanted as far as colour and shine or not shine. And then they made some pieces for me to see and it was just so obvious how it grew , if there was a gorgeous bead that we could do that necklace with and then a jangly bracelet to go with , it was just so obvious when you saw things, and it grew like that really.

Which do you prefer to design , do you have a favourite?
No, I think they’re linked really. It’s such an exciting thing to actually take the clothing onto another stage and give something else that adds something to it , that’s what is so great about it, it adds another dimension. We are budget priced in Debenhams and its very important that it stays available to all, but there are things that maybe people cant afford until they receive a pay packet, and this is a way of sticking something up quite inexpensively that actually makes you feel good. And it transforms an outfit and allows you to feel a bit more modern and a bit more up to date, and that’s what it’s about really.

Let’s cast our minds back to where it all began for you. When did you first get into the fashion industry and how did it come about?
Oh, I’m a complete charlaton! I went to art college, came out of art college, met this girl who was already doing it called Wendy, started to work with her , well, that’s not quite true, I went to fashion college so I suppose I decided then. But the first thing that inspired me was colour and fabric and I love the touch of things , I love whether it’s soft or hard, and I absolutely love putting fabrics and textures together, which again comes back to jewellery , how the piece feels in your hands and that’s all very important really. It grew , I was an illustrator at first, and then I went to work with Wendy, and then went to work at Quorum which was a company that had Ossie Clark in it, and then we started our own company in 1981 , ages ago, it was the last century for God’s sake!

You mentioned Ossie Clark there , you designed under him in the 70′s , what was it like to work with such an iconic figure in British fashion? Has it influenced your career as a designer at all?
So frightening, he didn’t speak to me for the first six months, he absolutely refused to. It was so frightening, where he was it was so big and grand, but we became quite good friends. He had the fourth studio , massive with glass and light and everything and I was stuck in the back by the loo’s next to one tiny window which was on a brick wall, so you had to know your place. But it was such an exciting thing and then eventually he decided that I wasn’t the threat or I was worth talking to, and he’d march in and say, ‘Oh my god I’ve just done this thing you’ve got to come and see it!’ and it was great. He forgot to work though, that’s the problem, and it’s a danger, I think, if you forget. I remember David Hockney once saying Ossie was a genius, which he undoubtedly was, but he just forgot to work. He got caught up, which is an easy thing to do , to get caught up in the whole event and you forget to think and forget to design because you can be easily distracted. I think that’s what happened really, but he was definitely a genius.

You launched your own label in 1981 with your husband , what’s it been like working together over the years?
You’ve read your notes! Oh, well, we’re on a different floor so we don’t speak during the day. In the beginning we argued liked mad but it’s worked really well. He has his bit which is the hideous bit , the finance and the organisation and the computer stuff, and he organises that, and I do the nice bit. When you work with somebody like that, you make a plan and you make the plan together. We always knew what we wanted to do and in which direction, and we always knew to keep it really small and controllable because we could have sold out millions of times to bigger companies and been taken over, but we always refused because we wanted it not to take over completely. Of course it has, but we have a life as well which is important, I think, otherwise you’d drive yourself mad. But it is a difficulty, you do know that the support is there and that actually you’re going to resolve an argument , if you storm out and slam the door you’ve got to come back and look at them the next morning. I think the first five years were incredibly volatile, but it’s been an exciting thing as well and I couldn’t have done it without him , it’s not the sort of thing you can do on your own, you’ve got to have a team and he has the team.

Talking of the 80′s, the decade is particularly prominent in fashion at the moment with the return of the bold silhouette and big shoulders , something which you featured a lot of in your S/S10 show in London this year. As someone who has witnessed this the first time around and is now seeing trends come around for a second time, how do you think fashion has evolved over the years? Do you still see the same approaches to design today as you did when you first started?
Well, actually yes you do, and we start with colour and fabric always. The silhouette evolves in a different way , I think it is slightly different because when you’ve lived through one thing the first time around the last thing you want to do is do it in the same way another time because it’s boring. It’s important that you take the references, though, and you put a modern twist on it by using different fabrics or different techniques, or you wear it in a different way or it’s a different proportion. I think it’s great to have references to the past as long as you do something new with it; there was a jacket in the collection which actually came from 1986, it was a vintage piece, and there was the suspender dress that we did , we found the pattern and re-cut it. It’s so funny because they’ve both been really successful , we say it’s a vintage piece and there’s some clients who remember it they’ve been buying for so long! But what we do is we show it in a different way. Before when we had the big shoulder jackets you’d actually wear an ankle length skirt with it, or a massive pair of trousers, whereas this time we’ve put it over a mini skirt or a party dress and it changes the whole thing , it’s been reinvented and that’s what makes it so exciting.

What for you is exciting in fashion now?
There’s a lot of great young British designers I think, really exciting British designers, and London is so good at that, it’s such a free, wonderful place to work and anything is possible here, I think. There’s quite a few that I think are really doing great things with different references and different things going on. I’m sure it’s still hard for them, but nevertheless, I think it’s almost easier because there’s internet access , like music now, it’s on the web before they’ve unplugged the music system, and I think that’s a brilliant thing because it means you can get your message globally within minutes. Having said that, there’s an awful lot of people trying to do great things, so I think it’s quite hard to establish yourself with something different today , there’s so much choice out there I’m sure everybody finds that quite difficult, but it’s their time, they should be able to do it.

Are there any designers, past or present, that you would have liked to work with?
I think I’m too grumpy for that! I’ve never really thought about a collaboration, nobody’s ever asked me that before. There’s lots of people that I think do great things, but then sometimes they do great things, sometimes you’re maybe not so inspired by the next collection. We don’t spend a lot of time looking at other people , one is aware, of course, at fashion week when you look at Milan and you see what’s happening in Paris and you look at your favourites in New York, but we don’t spend an awful lot of time looking because there’s so much to do as far as we’re concerned. We’re already working on next season and you get inspired all over again , you’ve got no time to look at anybody else. You get infused by your own attitude and your own product, and that’s what you concentrate on.

Dare we mention it, the current economic crisis we are faced with at the moment has undoubtedly had an affect on fashion , we’ve seen high end designers such as Escada and Christian Lacroix face administration , but this is something that on appearance, at least, doesn’t seem to have affected you. What’s the secret to your success?
Well I think the guy who’s in charge of the finance! I think because we’re so small and because we can be quite flexible, but of course it’s affected us too, of course it’s tricky. If you went to our little shop in Brompton Cross they’d tell you that people are buying two things not four, and people are putting things on hold and coming back, and it’s absolutely across the board very definitely. But it isn’t anything that we can’t weather because we’ve known it was coming. We did, like everybody else, fall off a cliff last November when everything stopped and that was quite frightening, but within two weeks everybody got a hold of themselves and started to think again. People won’t stop buying things, I think we’re in the second stage now where people are still losing their jobs, tragically, and there will be a knock on effect of that, but the thing is we’re small enough to be able to be flexible and cope with it, and we’ve had a very successful few years so we’re not in any danger, and it won’t last forever. And thinking about the Debenhams range, it’s fantastic , we’ve beaten plan for the last four or five weeks, it’s extraordinary, and we’ve beaten plan by a huge percentage , it’s so encouraging that people are coming in. You have to think harder, you have to do better, you have to do lovely things that people that want. In a way, the recessions do weed out , not that I’m suggesting Christian Lacroix needed to be weeded out, it’s really terrible , but it will weed out a lot of people who shouldn’t be there and maybe make people work a bit harder.

Speaking of your success, you were made CBE not so long ago, how was that for you to receive one of Britain’s biggest honours?
I know, it’s so extraordinary, it’s a really lovely thing and to go there and get it , she’s so great, and it was quite a thing really, I was exceedingly pleased. It’s a very funny thing because you get this letter with this official address on and you think, ‘Oh god, I haven’t paid my tax!’. It’s so beautifully done , the queen has it in writing, it’s just fabulous, and when you go to get it it’s just such a lovely thing. We went for lunch afterwards , you’re only allowed to take so many people, my children and my husband came , and we went for lunch at the Ivy and then went on to Claridges bar and I don’t remember anything after that, apparently I had to be airlifted out of Claridges bar, so I behaved very badly towards the end of the day. But it’s a fabulous thing to go up and have her pin it on you, it’s great. The palace needs big redecoration though.

Finally, do you have any fashion advice or styling tips you could give to our readers? If we invest in one thing this season, what should it be?
I think the simplest things are often the best, and if we’re talking about winter, I’d get a dress. I think it does a lot of things, a dress, and I think you should get a slightly bigger dress and one that you can either put a belt around, or wear it loose, or put something underneath, or put a cardigan over, or you wear it with nothing except great jewellery. I think what you need to do is make clothes just more versatile, they need to do at least three things: they need to be ok for going to the supermarket, they need to be ok if you’ve got a job to do and you’ve got to go to the office, and they need to be ok if you’re going on a hot date or meeting a friend in a bar or going to listen to some music. They need to do all these things, and I think at the moment a dress does that, so I’d go and find a great dress.

Betty’s 93 piece jewellery collection for Debenhams is available in stores nationwide and online at Debenhams, now – trust us, it’s absolutely gorgeous.

Betty Jackson. Black

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