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LONDON — When Caroline Charles began her design career, London had just begun to swing, The Beatles had been around for two years, Mary Quant was the high priestess of street style and a dress that cost $40 was considered highly expensive.
That was then. Now, Charles is one of London fashion’s few survivors of that era, celebrating 40 years in business and still looking forward to doing her next collection.
“Every season there’s a new bit of fun — new fabrics, new technology. It’s a complete addiction for me. No other industry or trade has new material every six months,” said Charles during an anniversary party at the Victoria & Albert museum in November. “It’s so nice. I’ve never understood why people retire and give it up. It’s no tougher than any other business and it’s much more fun.”
In the U.S., Caroline Charles sells at Neiman Marcus, Wilkes Bashford and Harari in Los Angeles. Her company’s annual sales are approximately $16 million, the bulk of which — like those of so many British designers — are in Japan through a licensing deal with Itochu. The Charles collection now spans everything from ready-to-wear to bridal to home furnishings.
“If you go to Japan, you’ll find there are three English designers consumers immediately think of: Alexander McQueen, Paul Smith and Caroline Charles,” said Nicholas Coleridge, chairman of the British Fashion Council, who presented the designer with a lifetime achievement award at her anniversary party.
Coleridge called her career sensational. “For a British designer to last 40 years successfully is almost unique. And she was ahead of her time. Twenty-five years before Versace and Tommy Hilfiger were dressing the music industry, Caroline was making jackets for Ringo Starr and Mick Jagger.”
Charles broke into the industry picking up pins and dressing models for Norman Norell, and later got a job as a saleswoman for Mary Quant at her Knightsbridge store. She designed in her spare time, and eventually, in typical London designer style, turned her apartment into a design studio. She was selling to private clients, and to Harrods and partying like mad at Annabel’s, the Saddle Room and Ad Lib.
“We danced like mad in those days. You know — the Twist and the Madison,” giggles Charles, whose apparent shyness and soft-spoken demeanor hide an inquisitive business mind coupled with a wry wit.
Jean Shrimpton’s sister, Chrissy, was Charles’ house model and receptionist, and she was dating Mick Jagger at the time, which was clearly a boon. In addition to Jagger, her celebrity clients have included Rudolf Nureyev, Barbra Streisand, Dionne Warwick and the late Princess Margaret. In 1964, she made her U.S. debut at Macy’s, at the height of Brit-mania. WWD called her “astonishingly self-possessed and radiant, with composure and self-confidence,” and hailed her as a swinging member of London’s young fashion cult, who was “fiercely devoted to a Ladylike Look.”
In the Seventies, Charles’ youthful and feminine designs gave way to more hippie-inspired looks. “I discovered old textiles through the hippie clothes route, and would use old trimmings and ribbons. I also went to India for my printing and embroidering,” she said over tea one morning at her shop on Beauchamp Place. The Caroline Charles look in those years was about tiered skirts, gypsy clothes and satin tops.
In the early Eighties, Lady Diana Spencer came to call just after she became engaged to Prince Charles. “She was adorable and easy to dress, and there were about five or six designers working with her at the time — and she made us all famous,” Charles said. “I made her peasant skirts, little tartan jackets with puff sleeves, and short black skirts paired with bright, tailored jackets.”
Her collections, like Charles herself, are still fiercely feminine, and many have couture-quality detailing. Her spring 2003 collection, shown in London in September, has beaded jackets that will retail for $632, tweed skirts for $440 and stretch cotton trousers for $312.
“She makes impact pieces, special jackets and coats that you know you’re going to keep for a long time,” said Peta-Gene Goodman, chief operating officer of AGA Group, the buying office for Neiman Marcus, Bergdorf Goodman, Lane Crawford and Holt Renfrew in London. “Her tapestry embroideries, jeweled and beaded coats and jackets have incredible workmanship and a classic style. The nice thing about Caroline is her consistency and loyal client following.”
So what does Charles have in store for the next four decades?
“I’d like to do men’s wear, jackets made out of textured fabrics rather than grey flannel suits or linen ones. They’ll be discreet and special,” she said. “And I think I want to establish a store in New York. Something small and perfect. It’s time to put a marker down there.”