My Stylish Life: Celia Birtwell

12/10/2011 17:19 | Updated 22 May 2015
Celia Birtwell receives her CBECelia Birtwell receiving her CBE for services to the fashion industry earlier today. Photo:PA

Did you always know that you wanted to be a designer?

I think it's all I can really do. When I was a child the first thing I did were drawings of figures which I've never really grown out of. I was a bit of a daydreamer at 'real' school, but then I went to art school at quite a young age, and I met people like myself and thought: 'Yes. This is great. This is where I want to be.' I've always been interested in fashion and the way people look, I think it's just part of me.

I can't make clothes and I don't have a great knowledge of the technical aspect of design – that's where Ossie (Clark) was so brilliant - he was three dimensional, I'm two dimensional. My mother always sewed for my sisters, but I couldn't possibly sew, I'm too impatient! Ossie once tried to show me how to put a zip on a skirt and I think I threw it in the fire. So that wasn't for me.

What would you be doing if you weren't a designer?

I used to say I'd have a florist shop if I wasn't a designer, but then I thought; 'but what if they died before I sold them? How would I make it work? What would I do with them?' So perhaps not! I'm quite into gardening at the moment, but that's possibly a sign of my age – I've got quite a pretty garden at home. That takes up time. And I'm always arranging things, so I think that's what I'll always do. I can't bare rooms with electric lightbulbs and ugly things from the ceilings, I get very upset about that. Where are their eyes? I'm quite shocked at how many people are un-visual. If you had to loose anything, any part of you, then the eyes would have to be the last to go. To see is everything. It's a marvelous world out there if you actually look. But a lot of people don't look very much.

Who would you class as your style icons?

Always Coco Chanel. But in history there's been so many people, like Travis Banton and Adrian who designed The Wizard of Oz. All those 30s black-and-white films, the clothes are just sublime. In a way I hark back to that, and although its very different to today, the influences are still there. It's a constant wheel of change. I really admire the people who go to vintage shops and wear head-to-toe 40s with the big hats, but it's a full time job. Where do you find the time? The most important thing is comfort and a bit of style.

Which designers do you love at the moment?

I like Sarah Burton, I think she's quite clever and quite understated, and I thought Catherine's wedding dress was really very beautiful. Her look is so different to McQueen, much healthier, I think, and I like the prettiness.I saw about 10 frocks that she did in her first Paris show and they were very, very nice. I always like Agnes B because that's what I wear all the time – and she only uses a few prints. I also like Sonia Rykiel. She doesn't look over her shoulder, its so refreshing.

I'm also a fan of Pucci at the moment, a couple of things they've done recently have been very interesting. There's a lot of trash out there at the moment though, isn't there? Like Victoria Beckham, I'm not really a fan of what she's done. Her first collection was very beautifully structured, but her most recent collection left me cold I'm afraid.

Where do you look to for inspiration, and what inspires you creatively?

If I don't know what I'm doing I tend to go to the V&A Museum quite a bit, particularly for homeware, because it's full of the most fabulous patterns that the world has to offer. I find inspiration comes in really weird ways, you can be walking down the street and see something that catches your eye. I'm always looking. Nature plays a big part, you can't beat nature for shapes and patterns. I also love paintings and going to exhibitions - I'm a big Picasso fan and a big Matisse fan. Inspiration can come and look at you whenever it feels like. But I always try and do something new.

The mixing of prints in different proportions is probably one of my signature looks, because I think it makes the body more interesting than just one dimension of print. That's one of my little tricks.

What do you make of modern designers' use of print, and the way that print has evolved?

It goes round in circles, the hard-edged prints you see now are slightly 50s in feel. Erdem was a student at the Royal College and the seamstress that Ossie used called Kathleen Coleman trained him, and she has one of my fabrics in her house. And she rang me once and said, I've got this young designer, he's really good and he'd like to use one of your prints. And I really like the way he uses prints.

What would you say has been your career highlight?

The catwalk shows of Ossie's were pretty sensational. You'd get shivers down your spine when you went to one of those because they were real 'happenings.' The girls were beautiful, there was fabulous music, and I think in my memory they take some beating really. He was brilliant. But his designs are very much for younger people. I've seen people my age wearing vintage Ossie and thought oh dear. You can't wear frills and flutter past a certain age, you have to behave yourself and be a bit clever about your styling.

How did it feel when you found out you'd been awarded a CBE?

I'd been away for the weekend and got back home and my boyfriend Andy said I'd got a letter from the Cabinet office - which was either going to be dreadful or wonderful. So we opened it and I couldn't quite get my head round it. I thought it was a joke! I had to keep it secret for about two months, but I was pretty good with that. So what with that and then my new book, it's been a good year.

So what made you decided to publish your own book now? Tell us a bit about it.

People kept telling me I should do a book, a little insight into my life, and how it's unfolded, they way I work and the people I've come across. So I did. We originally thought it would take a year but in fact it took two because there was a lot of to-ing and fro-ing. Dominic Lutyens has written it, and he's such a fun person so we had a lot of good times sat around the kitchen table, and of course in glamorous restaurants and hotels too!

It's in three parts: the early years being a beatnik in Manchester, and then my 60s life, my 70s life and Ossie Clark, and being a muse for him (which I never anticipated) and then the third part is opening my shop and working here for 20 years.

So it was a labour of love?

You could say it was a labour of love. Because I'm a designer I didn't want anyone else to design it, but the publisher did lots of the pictures and sketches that look as though they they've just been thrown on the page which I love. Some of it was a chore but on the whole it was fun. Because I'd never done it before we made a tiny practice book and I stuck it together, so it is a labour of love in that respect because its very personal. I'm not realy a very public person but you have to do it for marketing and to help sell the book.

What else are you working on? Any other design collaborations in the pipeline?

I've done high street collaborations - Topshop was the important one, the one that I'm most proud of. It was in about 2000 that I thought I'd quite like to do something with fashion again. Working with Ossie was unique, and you won't replace that – but after working with homeware in the shop, which is a lot quieter and slower and more gentile, I decided it was time to do something with fashion again. Topshop enabled me to became involved with a new, younger audience which was nice and turned the old wheel round to the present. And I find fashion comes naturally very easy to me, I find home different – its got a different set of rules.

Now I'd really like to do something more for my generation, which isn't quite so young! But I did really want to see the Jil Sander for Uniqlo collection, I thought that looked really good.

When I got my CBE I wanted to go and buy some really nice cards, so I went to Smythson, and they were lovely but granted, expensive. But I think that's the sort of thing I want to be doing now, perhaps some stationary – but more high end. We're talking to a few people at the moment but have nothing finalised. I've said no to a couple that weren't quite right; this time I want to do something that I'm really really proud of, something a bit special. So we'll see...

Would you say you were a perfectionist?

About my work yes, I'm quite fussy about my work. And I like going to the printers, and playing on their tables and experimenting with colour. I'm quite hands on, with the homeware I used to spend two days a week at the printers, to check they weren't messing it up! I used to get upset by things going wrong, so I thought the only way to deal with it was to be there.

What's the one item you can't live without?

Practically speaking, I have to have my carbon rollers, because my hair's a real nightmare! I can't do without them, they are a real necessity. Everywhere I go, they have to go in my case, along with all the different adaptors.

What's been your most extravagant purchase?

A lovely vintage bracelet by Miriam Haskell, an American jewellery designer. It was a few hundred pounds and it's actually a little bit broken now which is sad, but it's beautiful and made of pearls and glass, and was designed in the 40s. That's the most expensive one I ever bought, it's quite a thick band so you could only wear it for a special occasion. I love that period of vintage jewellery.

So what's next for Celia Birtwell?

Who knows? I might go to bed for a year. Just do nothing! Maybe some pottering about in the garden. It's been a bit of a rollercoaster year with the CBE in the middle of it all, and plodding along with the book. The book was quite a plod for a long time, and then of course we ran out of time and we were scrabbling around at the end to get it finished. That's always the way!

My Stylish Life: Celia Birtwell Celia on her new book: "You could say it was a labour of love." Photo: Amazon

Celia Birtwell's new book is out now, priced £30, available to buy at Amazon.

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