Esme Young, star of The Great British Sewing Bee goes behind the seams with her new book

From rubbing shoulder pads with Cher to a Carnival with Bowie, the designer’s life has never been dull

Esme Young, fashion designer and judge on The Great British Sewing Bee appears at this year's Borders Book Festival with her book, Behind the Seams. Pic: Sonam Tobgyal/PA.
Esme Young, fashion designer and judge on The Great British Sewing Bee appears at this year's Borders Book Festival with her book, Behind the Seams. Pic: Sonam Tobgyal/PA.

To fans of BBC One’s The Great British Sewing Bee Esme Young is a familiar face with her silver bob, flawless outfits and steal the show accessories. One of the gimlet eyed judges, alongside Scottish designer Patrick Grant, she has a keen eye for detail and if a contestant has attempted to hide a gaping hole with a big bow, or left a thread dangling, she will spot it.

But as her book Behind the Seams - My life in creativity, friendship and adventure, which recounts her 73 years at the forefront of fashion reveals, she’s a former wild child with shaved eyebrows and a mohican who values creativity and having a go above all else, and rocked many a frayed hem herself in her younger years.

She appears at the Borders Book Festival this week [Friday 17 June] with the book which is a riotous and life-affirming read with stories that begin from childhood with mischievous siblings that saw her mother locking her wardrobe and her father his car in a bid to keep them away, to tales from the Sixties, Seventies and Eighties of topless motorbiking and living in squats with her brothers in London, where Mick Jones of the Clash visited and Sid Vicious moved in. She paints a vivid picture of her years at the helm of the Swanky Modes boutique in London’s Camden (celebrated in song by Jarvis Cocker last year), where she partied as much as she cut patterns and artists, actors, musicians couldn’t get enough of their figure-hugging creations which have become part of fashion history. Then it’s on to her years as a costume designer for films, music videos and TV, rubbing shoulder pads with numerous celebrities including Bowie and Dustin Hoffman, Juliette Binoche and Cher, Madness and Barry Manilow, with holidays in Iran and Mexico and teaching Fashion at Central St Martins to finally to becoming queen bee on one of the nation’s favourite reality shows. Oh and she throws in top tips on pattern cutting and sewing as she goes.

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    Who does Young, who still lectures at Central St Martins when she’s not on TV, think will buy her book?

    “Well, it's gay men and middle aged women who watch the TV show, and for the book, well my students bought it and they’re mainly young women so maybe it’s a bigger group.”

    And has the students’ attitude towards her changed since they read the book with its tales of her fast and furious life Behind the Seams?

    “No. But I’m quite good at name dropping so they go, ‘Oh God, you worked with them! In fact there were lots of things I couldn't remember you know, and then they come into my head from time to time and I think ‘Oh god I should have put that in.’”

    Esme Young on BBC's The Great British Sewing Bee. Pic: BBC/Love Productions/James Stack

    While The Great British Sewing Bee’s bid to find Britain's best home sewer has been attracting audiences of five and six million since it started in 2013 - Young joined in 2016 - she doesn’t watch herself because doesn’t have a TV.

    “I’ve just got my computer so I watch the occasional drama thing on that, but I do sometimes see it to check my outfits because I don't want to wear the identical clothes I wore in the last series,” she says.

    After 40 years as a designer Young has a wardrobe full of clothes and doesn’t need or want to buy any more.

    “It's to do with sustainability but also I don't need more clothes. I have way too many. I think people buy lots of clothes for two reasons. One because some of them are so cheap, so you buy a T-shirt for £2 but often people don't wear them. And also I think it gives people a bit of a buzz, but it doesn't last very long.”

    Esme with the current sewers on the current series of BBC One's The Great British Sewing Bee. (L-R) Standing - Man Yee, Annie, Cristian, presenter Sara Pascoe, Brogan, Mitch, Marni. (L-R) Sitting centre - Steve, judges Patrick Grant and Esme Young, Debra. (L-R) Sitting on floor - Richy, Gill, Chichi, Angela. Pic: BBC/Love Productions/Mark Bourdi

    Born in Bedford in 1940, Young was influenced by a fashion conscious mother who introduced her to Jaeger, Biba, Mary Quant, Celia Birtwell and Ossie Clark, but with her daughter’s habit of customising, these were out of bounds. Instead Young turned to charity shops and began to sew, altering items to fit her petite stature and transform them into something unique.

    “In those days you couldn't buy something to go out because it was too expensive and you couldn’t get what you wanted in the shops anyway, so we went to jumble sales. But I think now with all this stuff online, all so cheap, people think oh I can buy it to go out tonight. Although with some online companies going bust maybe more young people are actually adapting clothes and being more sustainable.

    “I remember as a teenager we used to alter things and change things, really badly. We’d just take chunks out of the back and didn't care. We just wanted to wear those things that night and didn't actually care how well they were sewn. It was just about how they looked.” How she looked was often “dressed as a peacock” according to her mother, who refused to walk beside her as favourite outfits included a children’s patchwork dressing gown paired with tartan scarf and straw bag.

    After going to Cambridge Art College, where she watched fellow students Pink Floyd play, she went on to study Graphic Design at Saint Martins in London, all the while sewing and creating bespoke clothing for herself and friends and on leaving opened a boutique in Camden, Swanky Modes, which became famous for its cutting edge designs. As Young puts it: After the Swinging Sexy Sixties our generation were trailblazing into the new decade in a streak of sequins and safety pins. Soho was at the heart”.

    Esme Young with fellow Sewing Bee judge Patrick Grant. Pic: BBC/Love Productions/James Stack

    Young learned on the job and honed her craft, becoming a talented pattern cutter and designer but she never lost her innovative roots and Swanky Modes were at the forefront of Seventies fashion in terms of using new materials, from car upholstery to plastic to Lycra. Their body hugging iconic Padlock dress was worn by Grace Jones and is now in the Museum of London, while Iman wore another for a Tia Maria advert, and the iconic Amorphous dress is in the V&A.

    “There was a real creative community in London at the time,” says Young. “Different genders, races, ages, a real mix. And it was great. Because we could squat. It was cheap to be in London. Now it's really really difficult for creative people and that’s sad.”

    With her love of a creative challenge it’s no surprise to learn that the part of Sewing Bee that Young likes best is the Transformation section, where the sewers are given 90 minutes to create a new garment from an existing one.

    “It’s the most creative challenge, to create something from a garment and it's a lot to do in a short space of time. It doesn't have to be beautifully made but it's got to be what we've asked them to do. For me it’s just about creativity. And the other thing that’s amazing is how they all help each other and become a community and learn from each other too, like my students too.”

    Being able to transform outfits and think on her feet is second nature to Young who remembers having to alter and remake Lycra rubber dresses for Luther Vandross’s backing singers on the spot after being given the wrong measurements, and hand sew each sequin onto Cher’s altered Yves Saint Laurent jacket after it turned out they weren’t in a strip, like the ones she was used to. Just diving in and “having a go” is a credo she has always applied to her life too, the latest example being joining a primetime TV show at almost 70.

    “With The Sewing Bee, somebody said you could do this, so I thought ‘well I’ll do it’. Even though I might be scared, I will go for things,” she says.

    Esme Young and Grayson Perry at The Victoria and Albert Museum Summer Party in 2017. Pic: Nick Harvey/Shutterstock

    “When you're young, you feel invulnerable and think anything is absolutely possible and you don't think about messing up. But there was a period in my life, probably in my 40s or 50s where I didn't feel quite like that. I don't think I was less inclined to go for it and take risks, but I was more aware about messing up. I'm not saying I didn't do things because I did, but now that I'm older I do feel more competent. I do make mistakes, but I'll try anyway.

    “Being current and relevant has nothing to do with how old you are. It is an attitude to the job and world you operate in, combined with a desire to keep learning.”

    Walking around London, Young is often recognised by fans of the programme, keen to take selfies with her and talk about the show.

    “It’s such a positive programme that when people stop me in the street, they’ll tell me how they really enjoy it. Because it’s not about where people come from, what gender they are, what colour they are; it’s to do with their talent. And also, the people who stop me will quite often be middle aged women, saying “Is Patrick Grant as nice as he seems?” and I find that hilarious. He is of course, but they've obviously got a soft spot for him. I’m not surprised because he’s so handsome.”

    For her own part, Young is rarely stage struck or overwhelmed by glamour or fame, something she puts down to being partially deaf until ‘glue ear’ was diagnosed when she was seven and relieved with the removal of her tonsils and adenoids, as well as being sent to boarding school when she was five. Of that experience she says it made her “emotionally detached and self-reliant, a blessing and a curse.

    “I was never bothered by what other people think or how they behave towards me or worried about celebrities or any of that stuff. I don’t feel nervous,” she says.

    So when she found herself sitting beside David Bowie on a windowsill at a party watching the Notting Hill Carnival she was relatively unfazed.

    “It was very nice,” she says. “He was very nice. Not snotty at all you know, just very nice.”

    They talked about his suit, of course they did, which Young had identified as being Italian, like his shoes.

    “I was thinking about that the other day,” she says. “It was more like suits that young men wear today, tight fitting that have one button and slimmer trousers. Much slimmer than Savile Row and traditional English suits. I think it was the late 80s or mid 80s? I can't quite remember,” she says.

    Similarly, when Juliette Binoche came to watch her sew, cut and create as research for playing a seamstress in Anthony Minghella’s 2006 film Breaking and Entering, Young forgot about the actress sitting quietly in the corner observing, and lost herself in the creative process. Binoche said afterwards one of the most important things she had learnt was how sewing sent Young into her own little world.

    “I don’t think I’m aware of doing that, but it’s because you're solving problems, you’ve got to work all this out, do this and that and the other. With pattern cutting, you’re making 2D into something 3D so you have to be able to see that in your head.”

    The thread that runs through Young’s life and experiences is always her creativity, her talent for costume seeing her make costumes for Trainspotting, Leonardo DiCaprio in The Beach (2000), Scarlett Johansson in Under The Skin (2013), the bunny suit for Renee Zellweger in Bridget Jones’s Diary (2001) and all of the shirts in Captain Corelli’s Mandolin, among, many others.

    Ask Young which of the celebrities she has met has been a surprise and she responds:

    “Well nobody surprised me. I don't feel scared of celebrities and you know everyone has been very nice to me. So the only one that I was slightly in awe of for two seconds was Dustin Hoffman. Slightly. But you know, that's my generation. He was an absolute icon to us.”

    The pair met at the wrap party for Last Chance Harvey in 2008, for which she made costumes, and it turned out he liked dancing, including with Young.

    “Yes, he had a jolly good dance. He obviously loved dancing,” she says, not unlike herself and they “cleared the floor with their crazy moves”.

    Does she ever look back on her life and wish she’d spent less time partying?

    “No. No!” she laughs.

    Or regret some of her more hair-raising escapades, such as joining her siblings to be driven around at night by her brother Chris, who hadn’t passed his driving test, in the ‘borrowed’ family car, when their parents were asleep?

    “Well, it was fun going out at night in the car, but when I think about it now, it’s like bloody hell. No driving licence,” she says, still laughing at the memory, although she does point out in the book that the night time driving ended when Chris spun the car on a bend and they called a halt.

    The child who was at her happiest lost in art and creating and who always knew she would never follow a conventional path has created a life and career from her passion and is still embracing new challenges as she hit the road with her book, continuing to approach life “with the intention of living it, saying yes to as many experiences as possible and rarely giving much thought to what people think or say.”

    Esme Young appears at the borders Book Festival with Behind the Seams, on Friday 17 June, 7:45 pm, £13 | £11,

    Behind the Seams - My Life in Creativity, Friendship and Adventure by Esme Young, published by Blink, Hardback £18.99, also available in eBook and Audio.

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    Behind The Seams by Esme Young, is published by Blink Publishing. Pic: PA