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LONDON — Hardy Amies, who dressed British royals and socialites for almost half a century and built a major licensed men’s wear business worldwide, died Thursday at his home in Langford, England. He was 93.
Amies died in his sleep, according to Peter Lumley, a friend of the designer’s who was his public relations man for 55 years.
Amies had not been directly involved in the firm that still bears his name for the last few years, even though he held the title of life president. The firm remains based in the men’s wear heartland of Savile Row, where Amies opened his own house in 1946.
While once promising to bequeath the company to his employees, he reversed that decision two years ago and sold it for an undisclosed sum to the-then Cardington Group PLC, which has since been renamed Luxury Brands Group.
The troubled state of the company perfectly illustrates the split nature of Amies’ career: in the U.K., he was known primarily as the couturier to Queen Elizabeth II, whom he began dressing in the Forties when she was still Princess Elizabeth. He also dressed a large swath of British society, the county ladies who might own 50,000 acres in Gloucestershire but didn’t want to advertise that fact on their backs during the day so went for discreet suits and simple dresses. At their endless balls and galas, however, all bets were off and the jewels came out of the safe to go with Amies’ dramatic taffeta or organza ballgowns — perfect for posing for a Cecil Beaton portrait (which many probably did).
However, overseas, particularly in the U.S. and Japan, his reputation was built on men’s wear about which, ironically, he always had much more to say than women’s wear.
And no one could ever accuse Amies of hesitating to express an opinion, which he would do in tones that smacked of Eton, Cambridge and country estates, even though he was born in north London, the son of a woman who worked at Lachasse in London. Amies trained as a dressmaker in Birmingham, at W.&T. Avery. He became head designer at Lachasse in 1933, moving to Worth (London) Ltd., six years later for a brief stint before serving in World War II in British intelligence. Despite a distinguished record, Amies rarely discussed his wartime experiences in Belgium, even in his two volumes of memoirs, “Just So Far,” in 1954 and “Still Here,” in 1984.
After opening his own house, Amies launched his rtw collection in 1950 and a licensed men’s line in 1962, one of the first British designers to do so. He also was one of the first men’s wear designers to expand aggressively in Japan and South Korea, as well as in the U.S. By the early Eighties, Amies’ licensed lines in the Far East stretched from men’s suits to bridal wear to gloves and he was earning millions in royalties.
While insisting when it came to women’s wear that, “I’m just a dressmaker,” (although he would expect his listener to object), Amies could talk for hours about the intricacies of men’s design. He himself perfectly captured the sartorial style of the English gentleman: impeccably knotted tie, discreet suits and tightly furled umbrella. Yet, in his time, his views often were well ahead of the pack. While he could proclaim with a perfectly straight face that, “No man should wear brown in town,” he also was one of the first designers to preach a more relaxed cut in men’s suits to account for the bigger muscles men were getting from exercising more.
“Come here, dear boy, and sit beside me,” was his general greeting at parties or lunch, and he immediately would want to know the latest gossip about society or fashion — but rarely offering any of his own apart from commenting on the style of the women and men in the room. “Look at her — doesn’t she look drea—dful,” he would opine, drawing out the word like a saber slash across the room. He then would cackle with glee at the feathers he had rustled.
Of course, many observers accused him of making the Queen look dreadful, too, a criticism he would naturally dispute. His claim was that the Queen wanted to look that way, since she had to wear bright colors to be visible to the entire crowd and also choose functional clothes that would stand up to a four-hour parade of Canadian Inuits or whatever native group she was visiting at that time.
Amies stopped going to the palace in the late Eighties, though, handing over the design reins to his then-design director Kenneth Fleetwood, who joined the house in 1952 and died in August 1996.
By that time, Amies was only visiting his office several days a week, spending most of his time at his Langford home, which was a former schoolhouse in the Cotswolds down the road from his sister’s home. The main attractions of the house were the needlepoint chairs and cushions, which Amies would sew himself, and the extensive rose gardens. He preferred Old English roses because of their scent, and could dismiss a particular type of rose with a wave of the hand and the put-down, “Oh, really…It’s so common.”
Amies bought more space for a rose garden and a tennis court. A longtime attendee at Wimbledon, Amies played the sport into his 80s. He insisted, even until the end, that, “I never lose.”