Amanda Wakeley is passionate about creating beautiful clothes for busy women
On a crisp cold winter afternoon Amanda Wakeley sweeps into the restaurant at Edinburgh’s Harvey Nichols. Cocooned against the elements, she’s all in black: a leather and shearling jacket, cashmere roll-neck and wide-legged silk trousers, all beautifully cut yet understated. Dressed entirely in her own label, she is layered up in key items from this season’s collection, which she’s about to showcase to customers at an in-store event. Even the jewellery is her own design, from a collaboration with Ernest Jones.
So what do Scottish Wakeley fans go for from her collections?
“Cashmere sells phenomenally well here,” she says, which is no surprise given the weather outside. “Cold shoulder and sexy, or oversized boyfriend sweaters with satin in the sleeves. And coats! But the dress, for occasionwear, sells well too.”
Warming to her theme, and unthawing as she sips a coffee, she unzips her reversible jacket. “Yes, I’m all for things that are multifunctional,” she says. “This can be edgy during the day, then spin it and it’s prettier for evening. I’m fascinated by function as well as form.”
Wakeley prides herself on designing for busy people like her: women busy rushing from airport to meetings to events, from work to yoga to dinner, who want to look and feel good on the go. Tonight she’ll fly back to London where she lives with her life and business partner Hugh McLeod Morrison.
“He’s half-Scottish and I have Scots among my ancestors, so we love to come and visit,” she says. “We’re fascinated by Scotland and different pockets of it, and I love to meet my customers.”
Wakeley is also famous for dressing A-listers and royalty, from Kate Middleton to Kate Winslet and every red-carpeteer in between, having established a reputation as the go-to designer for that bias cut evening dress or tuxedo.
Wakeley is delighted when celebrities wear her clothes – “we don’t know if they’ll wear it until we see the pictures but that’s always nice” – and the publicity is always good, although Wakeley herself remains tight-lipped about her Louboutin-heeled clientele. “I couldn’t possibly talk about that,” she says and laughs.
However, she professes to be just as pleased when less stellar shoppers choose her designs. “What I love is seeing someone coming out of the changing room feeling transformed by what they’re wearing and they’re not a megastar. Megastars are easy, because they have immaculate bodies, hair and make-up and every leg-up imaginable. But a busy, frazzled woman, multitasking, she wants to look and feel beautiful and stylish too, so I’m trying to make her life easier and provide her with a lovely, versatile capsule wardrobe. To do the thinking for her.”
Wakeley is both charming and a straight-talker whose aim is to “make beautiful clothes that make women feel gorgeous”. “I like to think my designs embrace a woman and her form. If I have made a woman feel skinnier, taller and sexier, then I’ve done my job.”
Cheerfully admitting to having had “no training at all” in fashion design, she started small and launched her first boutique in Chelsea in 1990. The arrival of Princess Diana at the door of her shop catapulted Wakeley into the spotlight that she’s basked in ever since, and her business now employs 60 people.
“I wish I could say I had a huge great business plan, but I didn’t. We’re a lot more structured now though. Fashion is a very complicated business. You have to have a great product that is beautifully sourced, at the right price, delivered at the right time, visually merchandised beautifully and sold well by your sales associates. Then there’s the marketing, the online and social media, warehousing and distribution. And there’s the financial side too. But it’s all fun and I’m always busy, which is why I understand our customers.”
Born and raised in Chester, the 54-year-old had no designs on a fashion career. Leaving school her desire was to get out and see the world, heading straight to Florida, where she sold timeshares on the beach until someone offered her a modelling gig.
“I fell into it and didn’t take it seriously, but it took me to New York where a passion for fashion was ignited. I worked with phenomenal people there in the 1980s. Then when I came back to the UK I couldn’t find that beautiful luxury aesthetic of Donna Karan or Calvin Klein so I started myself in a tiny way, making clothes for myself and friends, then friends of friends.
“I had made clothes ever since I was a child when I would cut up the clothes my mother and grandmothers put in the dressing-up box. My first creation was a gilet. It was the 1970s and it was gilet world.”
It still is and, sure enough, in Wakeley’s current collection, there are gilets alongside the bias satin gowns and tailored tuxedos, bobble hats and cashmere sweaters.
“We do one every season. This time short and long sheepskin versions, reversible. They sell incredibly well, keep you warm and leave your arms free,” she says, waving her arms around and making her bracelets and bangles jingle, her rose gold Rolex Daytona flash and her long blond highlights flick. Wakeley exudes energy and movement, skiing in Verbier in winter and sailing in summer, so it’s fitting that she designs clothes for women on the go.
“The older I get the more casual I get in a way, and I’m really into sports luxe. I love being fit and I love luxury, so the combination feels very right. We’re all super busy, working and running to yoga classes, so a cashmere sweater over exercise kit has a nice feel.”
If some of Wakeley’s inspiration comes from her energetic lifestyle, she also finds travel a rich seam. This season sees styles influenced by Bedouin textiles and palette, and jacquard makes a statement.
Textiles are important to Wakeley, the more luxe the better, with leather, suede, cashmere, velvet, sheepskin and silk building up what Wakeley calls “layers of gorgeousness”.
“We develop a lot of our own fabrics; felted cashmere with merino, a tiny bit of stretch in the pants. They’re beautiful and it gives them longevity and makes them robust,” she says.
For Wakeley the inside of a garment is as important as the outside. Look inside and you’ll see her initials embroidered on linings, under a tux collar you’ll find soft felt, and there’s silk under lapels.
“I want people to feel taken care of, it’s a kindness that elevates your mood, arms you to face the world, the school gates, the office, or whatever.”
The conversation moves on to the skill of the craftsmen she works with, whether it’s the leather factory in Tuscany where the handbags are made by third-generation artisans, or the bead factories in India.
“When you see the skill, it’s great to be part of that. It matters how it’s been created, that it has been made with love. And we like to collaborate. For example we’re working with Paloma, a brand that hires ex-combatants in Colombia, on a T-shirt and tank top.”
Not everyone can afford one of Wakeley’s showstopping evening dresses or coats, something the designer has acknowledged in more recent collections with lower entry-level prices.
“Handbags, jewellery, hats,” she says. “You will still find the glamorous hand-beaded gown, but not everyone can afford or wants that. And we want to get in touch through our website so people can see what’s going on at Albemarle Street, so if they can’t come along to events they still feel part of it. We want to put our arm round our customer.”
For the past 20 years Wakeley has also been putting her arm around those affected by breast cancer, in her role as co-chair of Fashion Targets Breast Cancer, with Caryn Franklin.
“I employ 90 per cent women, and it felt right to be involved with a charity that involved a lot of women. We’ve seen progress but we’re still losing too many to this hideous disease, so if I can help raise awareness and funds for research and care, then great.”
Wakeley’s grandmother suffered from breast cancer in an era when women didn’t talk about it. “Ironically she talked to one of my brothers because he’s a medic and this was at a time when women were pretty brutalised by their mastectomies. Thankfully we’ve seen massive changes over the last 20 years.”
Acknowledgement of Wakeley’s commitment has come in the form of an OBE in 2010, and an honorary doctorate in fine art from Chester University last month. “To be recognised for what you try to do really well and have a passion for is wonderful, and to get an honorary doctorate, I was very proud.”
Wakeley’s aims now are to reach more women, and “keep on learning”.
“I have a very questioning mind and am fascinated by how things are made, how they work. My father and grandfather were surgeons, working out how bodies worked, but I’m all about fabrics, how they work. I love them! Got to feel gorgeous! Got to run!”
And with a jangle of bracelets, a rustle of silk and a sweep of blonde hair, she’s off. It’s show time.
Amanda Wakeley, London, available at Harvey Nichols, Edinburgh (www.harveynichols.com), 30-34 St Andrew Square, Edinburgh EH2 2AD, and online (www.amandawakeley.com) and at 18 Albemarle Street, London (0203 691 2982)