Betty Jackson on 40 years as Debenhams’ designer

YOU’RE never more than six feet from a woman wearing Betty Jackson. You might not know, because her clothes don’t scream “Betty Jackson!”, but she’s one of the country’s most perennially popular designers and after 40 years at the top of her profession, she’s never gone out of fashion.

Designers Ben de Lisi, Betty Jackson, John Rocha and Jasper Conran. Picture: Getty
Designers Ben de Lisi, Betty Jackson, John Rocha and Jasper Conran. Picture: Getty

Easy, relaxed, strong and sexy in an understated way, her clothes are ubiquitous on the British high street. That black jacket your boss is wearing? Probably a Betty. The summer print dress on the girl opposite on the train – Betty. The winter coat you can’t wait to shrug on every autumn? Bet it’s a Betty.

“I have always thought clothes shouldn’t take over, that when someone walks in the room, you should say, ‘Gosh, she looks great’, not ‘That’s a great Christopher Kane or Jonathan Saunders’. It should be your coat that you wear how you want,” says the designer who today, as usual, is dressed in head-to-toe black. “I wear black most of the time, except sometimes I branch out into navy blue and in summer maybe grey.”

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The only colour is her trademark slash of red lipstick, created for her by her friend, make-up artist Barbara Daly. “It’s a slightly bluish red that she does for me. I’m really lucky. I have this stupid colour hair where I have to be careful. It was pink in the 1960s, blonde in the 1970s, dark in the 1990s and now it just comes out that colour, always hideous.”

Picture: Getty

Jackson has been working in fashion since the 1970s and dressed everyone from Princess Diana and Joanna Lumley to the girl next door. And in this fickle world, where youth and the next big thing grab the attention, her longevity is impressive. She’s been Separates Designer of the Year, British Designer of the Year and Contemporary Designer of the Year; she is a Fellow at the Royal College of Art, Birmingham University and University of Central Lancashire; and she is an MBE and CBE.

Every season Jackson designs 150 to 200 pieces for Debenhams, from clothes to homeware, and her Black range of womenswear walks straight out of the stores on the backs of women aged 18 to 80. Despite their popularity, there’s nothing lowest common denominator about Jackson’s clothes, for each item has been designed with a style icon in mind, from Catherine Deneuve to Charlotte Rampling, Chrissie Hynde to Cate Blanchett.

“It could be somebody you see at the bus stop, someone who inspires, and then it filters down into the collection. Last season was Charlotte Gainsbourg, Sylvie Guillem [the French ballet dancer], Helen Mirren and a slightly older person someone had seen. Some are beautiful, some not, but they’re someone our team admires. For each item we think, who would wear this? If the answer is no-one, it’s not in the collection,” she says.

“It’s also about what I would want to wear, which is the criteria I have had forever. I want to be comfortable in clothes. Everyone does. If you’re not comfortable you can’t feel sexy and confident. If you feel at ease then I have done my job. You are just wearing what you’re wearing. I hate people fiddling with what they have on. We are really busy and clothes have to work in lots of situations. We should put them on in the morning and go out in the evening in them. Just add earrings and different shoes. That’s what I do.”

Jackson also always wears her own clothes apart from a very old pair of Levi’s and the odd T-shirt, “because I’m lazy, honestly, it’s the easiest thing. I’m still wearing things that are ten years old so the shapes do stand up. A long time ago I used to wear extraordinary prints, patterns and mix it up. We were always quite flamboyant, but as time has gone on I want to be more and more anonymous.

“I love fashion but I want to do it my own way. Each season we do a new shape or colour, change the proportions, whether it’s an egg shape or a trapeze or long, men’s-style pants.”

This year, to mark 21 Years of Designers at Debenhams, a collection of 21 limited edition pieces has been created by Jackson and her designer stablemates, Ben de Lisi, Jasper Conran, Matthew Williamson, Julien Macdonald, John Rocha, Henry Holland and Patrick Grant.

“We’ve gone a bit more extreme on shapes and the fabric is a little better quality,” says Jackson, who has been designing for the high street giant since 2005. “It was lovely to be given free rein. And for the Black collection, this coming season, skirts and dresses will be longer at the hem and in the sleeve, and silhouettes longer and more flared.”

Despite being a fan of black, Jackson doesn’t stint on colour or print for others.

“Visual art has always been my inspiration. The thing with print started because I wanted to put art onto fabric. I went to the Matisse exhibition at Tate Modern this summer and his colour, boldness and silhouettes will come out in the next collection. And maybe some colour – Matisse red, blue or green, blocks of colour,” she says.

But don’t worry, there will still be plenty of black.

JACKSON was born in 1949 in Bacup, Lancashire, to Arthur, who owned a shoe factory, and Phyllis, a smartly turned out secretary occasionally mistaken for Ingrid Bergman. Rather than going to university, young Betty had designs on art school – she fancied Hornsey School of Art in London where a sit-in was under way. Her dad favoured Rochdale College five minutes down the road.

“If there had been any sex, drugs, rock and roll, he would have come and taken me home. But I walked in and knew I had found the right place. I fell in love with textiles and realised I wanted to design clothes.”

From Rochdale, Jackson went to study fashion at Birmingham College of Art, where the fabulously exotic Zandra Rhodes was blazing a trail across the fashion firmament and dropped in to teach, “looking like a parakeet. She was brilliant, amazing, inspiring.”

After college there was never any question of Jackson joining the family shoe firm, but she credits her father with giving her a sound business footing. She also has a penchant for glamorous footwear, especially Lanvin and Marni.

“He made horrible furry slippers for M&S, churning out thousands of them. He wasn’t interested in hierarchy and treated his staff all the same. That was the lasting lesson I learned from him. He said the man who fired up the boiler was the most important man in the whole factory.”

A horrific car accident in her final year meant Jackson was laid up for 18 months, but was able to illustrate knitting patterns. This led to freelance magazine illustration and a move to London, where she joined forces with Wendy Dagworthy, who dressed Roxy Music. Then she was picked up by the hip 1960s label, Quorum, and worked alongside the legendary Ossie Clark and Celia Birtwell.

“It was a very opportunistic time and we were part of something very creative. Living in London, we had pink hair and David Bowie was happening, it was the place to be. If you’re a designer you soak up the zeitgeist and the product you create is a big mix of that and your interpretation. Right now maybe we’re looking for a bit of security and next season we’re wrapped up in mixed texture, chunky woolly things, with bouclé and jacquard. You have to be optimistic and clothes should be joyful, a bit of magic.”

Jackson experienced her own bit of magic on holiday in Majorca in 1981 when she met a handsome young Frenchman called David Cohen in a bar.

“He couldn’t speak English but was most insistent. He arrived in London the following week. Bizarre. He’s followed me ever since. At that time Quorum was splitting up and he said why don’t you do it for yourself? He joined the business and invested in it, although we spent it in the first three weeks.”

Betty Jackson Ltd soon became a success, with Jackson one of the go-to designers of the 1980s, opening a flagship store in Brompton Road in 1991. In their heyday the company turnover was more than £5 million and they were invited to a 10 Downing Street fashion pack reception in 1984 by Margaret Thatcher. Jackson arrived with Katharine Hamnett wearing the “85 per cent don’t want Pershing” T-shirt that caused the prime minister to scream.

“I wasn’t a huge supporter, which was upsetting because you wanted to support a woman at the top. She was interested in us selling so much to the US, and she did emphasise design, but she wasn’t interested in manufacturing or how we were going to make it. She wasn’t interested in fashion – she only had that blue suit,” says Jackson.

Princess Diana, on the other hand, did love fashion and Jackson was one of the designers she championed, although Jackson never capitalised on the connection. The royal connection came full circle when her friend Joanna Lumley wore a Betty Jackson suit to Charles and Camilla’s wedding in 2005, the actress having worn her designs as Patsy on Absolutely Fabulous.

“We had a moment or two with Diana but I have never talked about who came to us. It makes me uncomfortable giving a list of people. It’s not good for publicity, but I don’t care. You should make your own decisions and not watch someone tripping up a red carpet. Would wearing this change you into this person? You’re not the same size, shape, skin colour, don’t have the same lifestyle,” she says.

Jackson is well placed to talk about size, shape and body image since she had her leg amputated when she was six. Birth complications meant it hadn’t grown properly and her parents made the difficult decision to amputate.

“It must have been agony for them, shattering. But they were brilliant, never made any concessions and I was never told to be careful. I was very mobile, rode a horse and danced. The accident when I was 21 messed it up and after that I used a stick. I always wanted it never to be the first thing people thought as it never was when I was a child,” she says.

“People think the fashion world is full of glamorous, graceful people, none of which I am. I’m an odd one to be doing the job I do. I may be deficient in the leg division, to quote Peter Cook and Dudley Moore, but I use my brain. Maybe I’m more aware of people’s inadequacies…” she corrects herself, “not inadequacies, differences, but it’s something I have had all my life. People are imperfect. Everyone has big ears, flimsy hair or a big bum. You have to celebrate the imperfections or deal with it.

“There have been people who have had a problem with the fact I’m disabled, but life is too short to deal with them. They find it difficult to cope with because it’s ugly or not graceful. So either I have overcompensated. Or I don’t give a shit. You are what you are, you should celebrate what you can do, not what you can’t.”

Part of Jackson’s strength has been her strong marriage and business partnership with Cohen.

“It’s wonderful having somebody that you can rely on,” she says. “It’s not been plain sailing because sometimes we’ve disagreed and he gets the sharp end of the stick because he has to sort out the money, while I get the nice bit.”

Despite continued offers to buy them out, the pair always resisted, refusing to do a Jil Sander or Nicole Farhi and sell the name.

“We were offered lots of money several times, but always wanted to keep control. I’m not sure if we made the right decision, but we decided to keep it small. It was tricky and the Nineties were a terrible decade, but we got through it. It would be very odd to sell my name. I’m me.”

In 2011 Jackson decided to take time out to spend with their two children Pascale, 29, and Oliver, 27, and she stopped producing her own collections. Pascale is a PR in New York for jeweller Alexis Bittar, and Oliver is an actor who has appeared in BBC1’s Lark Rise To Candleford and Mr Selfridge, as well as starring opposite Cynthia Nixon in the mini-series World Without End.

“I felt the need to get off the treadmill. We went to India, then Miami, and we visit Pascale in New York, and we’re in France in the summer. The company is dormant, but I might do a small collection again, very quietly, secretly… maybe in 2015.”

When she’s not designing, she might sneak off to the cinema with her girlfriends, or take one of them shopping and act as their personal stylist in Debenhams. You might even spot her rifling her collection, although she doubts it.

“I can be standing there by a huge photo of me and people don’t bat an eyelid. And when I go to pay for anything and use a card with my name on it, they still ask me if I’m a frequent shopper. But that’s so great, I love that. I’m not sure people think I’m still alive at all.”

But she is. Alive and kicking.

Twitter: @JanetChristie2

Betty Jackson Black and the 21 Years of Designers at Debenhams Collection, is available at Debenhams now (