LONDON — Tanya Sarne, founder of the British fashion label Ghost, doesn’t own an iron or ever visit the dry cleaner. On Ghost’s 20th anniversary, she is still preaching the gospel of fluid fabrics, unstructured shapes and clothing as comfortable as a pair of pajamas.
“When I started the company, I had tiny children and I needed clothes I could move around in,” says Sarne over a cup of coffee and a cigarette in her sunny showroom and offices in west London. “I also wanted to make clothes for women who were competing in a man’s world — but who didn’t want to wear suits.”
On a recent warm day, she’s dressed in a crinkly mauve drawstring top that slips now and again off one shoulder, and a fluid skirt.
Comfort has always been a priority for Sarne, who will bring the label back to New York Fashion Week with a show on Sept. 14 at Bryant Park. She still owns Ghost, which now has annual sales of about 25 million pounds, or $45 million at current exchange, and has expanded into product categories including jeans, eyewear, accessories, home items and beauty — there are now eight men’s and women’s fragrances made under license by Cosmopolitan Cosmetics. Next year, Ghost will unveil branded hosiery.
Sarne began her fashion career in 1978 selling sweatshirts, tracksuits and stretch drainpipe jeans under the Miz label. After splitting with her two business partners, she didn’t abandon her commitment to comfort and started working with viscose fabrics, which were all soft and machine washable.
In the early Eighties, the clothes’ novelty factor — coupled with a powerful dollar — fueled sales to U.S. department and independent stores. In the first few years of business, the bulk of Ghost’s sales were in the U.S., compared with 25 percent today. America is still her biggest market outside the U.K., which generates 60 percent of sales.
But while sales may have been booming, those first years weren’t all rosy: The viscose fabric shrank when it was washed and rarely absorbed dyes in the same manner twice, so the clothes always had an uneven color. “They had a certain charm, which you might, or might not, appreciate. Saks Fifth Avenue put my ra-ra skirts in their catalogue — and then never bought from me again because of the color problem,” Sarne said with a laugh.
Viscose crepe fabrics also tended to disintegrate when wet, so Sarne and her assistants were forced to sew up a lot of holes. “Our first production was an absolute nightmare — the quality was dreadful. I was washing and drying the fabrics and had clothes piled up on my stove when I should have been cooking for my kids. But we made it our quest to turn the fabric treatment into a science,” she said.
Joan Shepp, owner of the eponymous multibrand store in Philadelphia, said Ghost’s first designs were like nothing she’d ever seen before. “Tanya would dream up these lovely colors and her shapes fit every body. And the fabric! We were all like, ‘What is this fabric?’ Tanya’s personality also played a big part in those sales in the first years. You wanted to buy from her.”
Twenty years later, Shepp is still carrying Ghost, selling it alongside brands such as Yohji Yamamoto, Dries van Noten and Eskandar. “Ghost never had an age group — it was always about the body. And over the years, Tanya’s introduced so many new fabrics — velvet, lace, georgette. The eveningwear is beautiful. The quality is so amazing you’d think some of the pieces were couture.”
Sarne said it took her 10 years to refine the production and dyeing techniques, always working as a cottage industry with small factories across the U.K. She spent the following 10 years building the business. In 1995, she opened her first store on Hinde Street north of Oxford Street, followed by a flagship on Ledbury Road in 1997.
A year later, she opened stores in Paris and Los Angeles, where she spends much of her time. She launched the Ghost signature fragrance in 2000.
Sarne’s current in-house designer is Amy Roberts, who worked six years for John Galliano in Paris. She has had occasionally tempestuous relationships with her designers, who in the past have included Andrea Sargent, Susanne Deakin and Nicholas Knightly, who most recently was involved in the move to turn around the British label Mulberry. But, all along, Sarne has insisted she doesn’t consider herself a designer.
“That’s one reason I never wanted my name on the label. I’d be embarrassed to call it after myself,” said Sarne, adding that the tendency to remain behind the scenes runs in the family. “My father was a foreign correspondent and later a ghostwriter for African presidents.”
She said Lynne Franks, the legendary London p.r. person who was the model for Eddy in “Absolutely Fabulous,” told her a fashion company without a designer name wouldn’t have a ghost of a chance. “She told me I’d never get the press behind me if I didn’t use my name.”
Twenty years later, Sarne has proven her point. “I am most proud of surviving,” she said without hesitation.
Sarne’s Ghost is one of the few British labels from the London boom of the Eighties that has survived. Along the way, she’s seen such names as BodyMap, Workers for Freedom, Copperwheat Blundell and even her own, secondary label, Seraph, fall by the wayside. In the past, she’s railed against the difficulties of building a major fashion business in England and has switched showing between London and New York on several occasions.
And now that her business appears to be a definite survivor, Sarne said her goal is to spend more time away from Ghost. “I want to run around with my grandson, read, play tennis, write — and sleep. I never really got any sleep over these years.”