Clothes You Could Di For From Conran
LONDON 1985 — Advancing at a stately pace through a packed reception at Lancaster House here recently, the Princess of Wales suddenly stopped, beamed with pleasure, broke into a delighted laugh and said, “Why, Jasper, you`ve cut your hair.“ The object of this royal scrutiny, a handsome young man of 25, sported a bowl-shaped thatch of blond hair, which he promptly tossed forward in a brief, courtly bow to the princess.
It was the sort of casual exchange that might pass between friends, but Jasper Conran, one of the hottest and most successful of London`s young designers, is loath to elaborate or capitalize upon his sartorial relationship with Princess Diana.
He is equally loath to take advantage of his own illustrious family name. He is a son of the internationally known retailing magnate Sir Terence Conran, whose home furnishings empire extends throughout the world. He also is a son of the even-better known Shirley Conran, whose deliciously racy best-selling novels “Lace“ and “Lace II“ have also recently lathered up Americans in made-for-TV-movie versions.
But Jasper Conran has done very well all by himself, thank you. A serious, stylish young man who bears an uncanny resemblance to Peter O`Toole, Conran has already had his own business for eight years and he will proudly tell you he got it the old-fashioned way: He worked for it.
He knew what he wanted to do early, dropping out of boarding school at 15 to enroll in the fashion program at Parsons School of Design in New York. “I was the youngest student they ever had,“ he says, a statement Parsons officials confirm, to the best of their knowlege.
He was never graduated, however. After a few years, the academic discipline began to grate (“I started out as the blue-eyed boy but I became what they called a `disruptive influence` “) and he was impatient to start designing. He left Parsons, designed for Fiorucci and then returned to London, where he began designing special items for adventurous specialty stores, such as Henri Bendel in New York and Alan Bilzerian in Boston.
At 17, he borrowed money from a bank and formed his own business. “From then on, things grew quite quickly and things got very tough,“ he says, citing such problems as how to produce $6,000 worth of orders on $3,000 worth of ready cash. “I never missed a payroll, but I never paid myself for three years.“ And he never took money from his parents. “I wouldn`t do that for the world,“ he says, sitting in the new, sleek, airy, white showroom he designed on Great Marlborough Street here.
Conran`s clothes got a royal boost when they began appearing on the regal back of Princess Diana, who started wearing Conran designs just after her engagement. Conran, who is deeply reluctant to exploit his favored position at Buckingham Palace, has to be coaxed into talking about the princess; when he does do it, he insists that a reporter`s tape recorder be switched off.
“She`s so charming, nice and friendly,“ beams Conran, who speaks affectionately of the princess, who often favors his suits. There are certain guidelines one follows when dressing royalty, he notes.
“She has to wear color, because in a crowd she has to be able to be seen. And she can`t wear black, unless it`s a funeral, or purple, because purple is reserved for the High Church. It`s a royal tradition,“ he explains solemnly. “There are certain tartans she can`t wear, because they`re not her tartans. Her clothes have to really, truly work for her.“
In this, Diana is the ideal client for Jasper Conran. In fact, she is the sort of woman he had in mind from the start.
“He was 16 years old when we started working with him,“ says Be Bilzerian, who, with her husband, Alan, operates the Boston store that bears their name, one of the savviest upscale retailers on the East Coast. “He had an image of a very sophisticated, elegant, working woman who had a career, who was active–a very efficient-looking woman. It was actually my personal condition at the time–working, traveling.
“And his clothes are refined to the extreme. You feel very luxurious, really good about wearing them. But they are very simply done, so you don`t look flashy.“
“To me,“ says Ellin Saltzman, vice president and fashion director for Saks Fifth Avenue, “Jasper Conran makes marvelously understated fashion that is similar to American designer sportswear. I think he has very good workmanship and a flair that is less basic than American designer sportswear.
Conran wool coat, Viv Knowlands hat
Indeed, Conran`s clothes stress quality fabrics–such as good wools, cashmere and silk–and quality construction, still a rare commodity among young English designers. “Just because I`m in England doesn`t make me cute. I realize that I sell to people who also buy from Armani and other top designers. You`ve got to be on a par with those people. You`ve got to present the same quality, and you`ve got to be able to deliver,“ he says. His designs offer a strikingly clean, trick-free look that he likes to call classic with a twist.
This fall, however, along with the sleek, elegantly versatile looks his clients have come to expect, he surprised them with whimsical, playful touches such as a black leather minidress, black jackets sporting mink lapels dyed fuchsia, red, emerald and orange and the rather arresting combination of lacy black bras worn under bright ruffled blouses in sheer chiffon.
“I like the fact that I did things that were sexy, fun and a little silly,“ he says, smiling at the thought. A visitor mentions his gambit with the unmentionables. He lifts his chin, looks straight back and announces,
“I`m selling those chiffon blouses with the black bras. A lot. To Florida. Can you see the chicks strolling up and down with the poodles? It`s so tasteless that it`s all right.“
Conran believes this season also marks his transition, in the perception of international retailers, from a tasty garnish (“I don`t think they`re looking at me as a one-season wonder“) to a full-fledged entree. “Until this season, people bought just pieces. This is the first season people are buying the whole collection. This is a very important time for me.“
Conran`s business has almost doubled in the last two years. This year, he expects to generate more than $2 million in sales. About 65 percent of that represents exports, a large proportion of which goes to the United States. Conran is intent on broadening his U.S. distribution.
As is the case in England, he is carried primarily by top specialty chains here, such as Saks, Ann Taylor and Bonwit Teller.
Ironically, one of the very reasons he appeals so much to American retailers may also be an obstacle in the way of his penetration of major U.S. department stores. The breezy look and solid quality of Conran`s ready-to-wear reminds many retailers of top American designer sportswear. Indeed, his prices, from about $130 to $1,500, fall into the same line. As a result, when dollars are tight U.S. department store retailers with this perception will take the homegrown over the import every time.
But there is a difference, Be Bilzerian says: “No matter how you look at it, he still has a very European flavor. It shows up in the fabrics he uses (primarily English) and the shapes he makes.“ In any case, she adds, “I think Jasper`s sophistication is beyond the mass market.“
But Conran`s American client list is growing fast, his new men`s collection is doing well and, in general, business is good. “Well, yes,“ he muses, “but I`m not about to become complacent. Now, I`ve got to follow it up.“
Jasper Conran: Clothes You Could Di For; Chicago Tribune; June 1985.
Lisa Anderson, Fashion Writer
Photos copyrighted to original owners;
Used here for entertainment value only