Thursday, 27 January 2011

The Great Cross-Dressing Dummy Hunt

Upon reading the last posting here, Mr. Wesley's old friend and lunatic about town, Horatio Barnzley Nelson Armitage - - immediately and generously offered to lead us blindfolded through cobbled backstreets to a secret location - his own nomination for top quality / top value fabric supplier. We picked him up at A Child of the Jago, the store of his eponymous fashion house on Great Eastern Street - This is just about the only line of current days to which Mr Wesley will doff his cap and indeed he modelled for them in the Spring / Summer 2010 show:
Mark and a dog called Bastard in the Child of the Jago show S/S2010

Barnzley designs the line in partnership with Joe Corré who is the child of Vivienne Westwood and the late Malcolm McLaren. Previously he created the fancy pants peddler Agent Provocateur with his ex-wife Serena Rees, that they subsequently sold for a fine'n'fancy fortune. Already his new Child has won windows at Selfridges as well as club kids' kudos. Oooh, while we are on a Westwood wicket, I should mention that a few weeks ago we met Francis Lowe, menswear designer at VW. He was uncommonly nice to us and told how he had started out in the company as a sales assistant - having been a plumber before going into retail. Andreas Kronthaler (Dame Viv's partner in life and business), undeterred by his lack of fashion school qualifications, asked if he would like to give the designing a shot and mentored him to the top job. That story reflects well on all involved I think.

So we parked up outside an unprepossessing unit on the outskirts of town where children ran wild in the streets and stray dogs scrapped over a box of bones and followed Barnzley into a warehouse. It was hard to walk with bags over our heads and I stumbled as we went through the door. It had been quite hard to drive too, come to that. Now inside we were revealed by the master of Terrorist clothing (Child collections often take inspiration from those hors de la loi) to find ourselves blinkingly swept up in the good humour of the greeting that awaited him. Barnzley is, after all, a man unacquainted with indifferent reaction. Philip and Martin  here buy up surplus fabrics from British mills which already tells you that the stock will be of supremely pukkah quality and normally super pricey. When Prada / Gucci / whoever come to collect their order they sometimes shriek "Porco Dio mama mia Bolognese! There is a snag of .0000001mm only visible under a microscope, we cannot possibly take it!" Which is when these gentlemen appear as if by magic in long capes and wide brimmed hats to off to take it off the mill owners' hands. It's all quite Robin Hood really - the mill owners' children get to eat after all while the fashion students of the nation and penny-wise start-ups like ourselves get to work with fabulous fabric. That's the kind of win-win scenario I'm talkin' about.

Flirty Philip the People's Pimpernel, and the double trouble duo Wezley and Barnzley

Philip and Martin 
Then Philip lead us to a bolt of the near-mythical worsted that is Guanaco. I no longer pretend to know anything about anything and readily admit that I had never heard of this yarn. So extraordinarily special is this - it makes cashmere look like acrylic  - that it normally retails for £1200 PER METRE!!!!
"Can I have a sample?"
Fair do's haha.
If you would like to know more about this cloth of gold consult here:
The advice runs "don't wring out or agitate too much" - mmm, same can be applied to me too.
Ya wanna see? Sure you do:
The Queen of Cloth and the thumb of someone who cannot be identified in order to safeguard supplies

A still sumptuous silk and cashmere mix

One of my favourites that day

The label we want to see
Presently, Barnzley had business needing his attention but before we parted he gave us ANOTHER top tip - for finding a tailor's dummy, such as we urgently need for our sampling. Spitalfields antiques market was on, it being a Thursday, and he reckoned they surface there most weeks. Someone else had advised checking out Morplan, the shop outfitters just north of Oxford St but we found that to have mostly display mannequins inspired, or so it seemed, by either porn stars or Muppets:

The more I look at this the more disturbing I find it

The price of a regular display mannequin is around £500 - if you're passing a shop window see how many there are in it and do the maths.  I even rang up the daddy of all dummies, Stockman in New York - - and had a lovely chat with Lucia there who had one for a Canadian client uncollected I could take but it was $585 and duh, in New York (they have a place in France but no outlet in the UK). So we walked into Spitalfields market and the first thing we saw was a bashed up lady torso for which the seller wanted daft money. We made our excuses and wandered on across the covered square. On the far side was another lady of Whitechapel waiting for us in a state of louche undress, but in perfect nick and the English "Stockman" no less -

Although we want to do ladies wear in a few seasons we are focussing on the boys while we get rolling. We resisted her solicitations and mooched on to find John of Portobello on Parade doing his East End stint. Mark got an outrider's cape from him that he's worn every day since and as attracted not just admiring glances but enquires from the yout' of Stockwell. Then we succumbed, returned to Patrick's stall and paid a mutually agreed amount of folding money for Lillie (as she will henceforth be known).

Mr Wesley carried her over his shoulder, much the way he does me on occasion, and made it all work by figuring that although she is a size 16, there are a lot of man boobs around these days and so Lillie will be our cross-dressing dummy.

Tired as we were, we thought we'd pop in to visit Josephine, our friend with a stall at the Battersea Antiques Fair - - and rang to say we were on our way. We mentioned our find and she exclaimed that someone had ten tailors' dummies no less on a stall in the marquee. We tore across the city, flinging Lillie about in the back as she wouldn't wear a belt, and screeched to a halt in the park. We pelted up to Jo's stall, and she lead us round an aisle where we saw a whole group indeed, but every last one of them had lady bumps (except for the children's sizes):

As disappointed as we were, it was non the less a pleasure to meet Lord Robert Brady of Albrighton whose stall it was and who delighted us with the history of his career which included being a tailor. YES IT DID. If the dummies pictured here are just what you are looking for, do contact DJ Green Antiques -

The next day, driving up to the Borough, we spied a whole gang of abseiling dummies who can maybe be press-ganged into our workroom:

For now, however, Lillie remains our trans-gender mascot.

Thursday, 20 January 2011

One Wonderful Weekend

Things got off to an epic start on Friday morning when we acquired our 100th "Likee" on the Earl of Bedlam Facebook page. Incentive was offered in the form of a prize, which did incite something of a limping rush, but the tortoise who hared across the line was Chris "Allways Diggin'" Archbold. He has been duly warned to temper his expectations regarding the reward - "the value of which will increase across the years if not immediately apparent upon receipt." We were grateful to note that he lives in Sydenham, not so far from us in London, which saves us postage.
Then I worried about acknowledging the far-flung Early Adopters - one doesn't wish to act like the mortgage lenders or broadband providers who give all the good deals to new customers. So I noted down every name of the Bedlam 100, such as future legend will hail as the stalwart Centurions who laid the foundations of our mailing list, and it is our true intention to cast a medal, at some point, when we have some tender-type metal, and see that each gets their due. It may turn into one of those "Ninety-eight year old veteran at last receives recognition" tear-jerkers, but I will get it done. (Just saying, it might take a while). (If anyone has a spare smelting pot and the know-how then drop us a line).

Saturday got off to a noisy start - the builders next door came in to work to bash at the non-stop-party wall some more. Luckily we had Taffy Centurion's offer to accompany him to an altogether better party on the Beaulieu estate in the New Forest. We packed the car and pootled off, managing to miss the motorway at every opportunity and travelling almost the entire way on A- and B-roads. When at last we crunched into the drive we found we were joining the birthday celebrations of Nick Ashley, scion of Laura, all round man of mettle, motorbikester and fashionisto. He designed menswear at Dunhill for a while, where, he told us, he was treated like James Bond. I imagine he stepped up to that role very well. Now he has his own line and is reassuringly uncompromising about getting the majority of it made in the UK:
When we got home we found an article Nick had written on buying the right leather jacket and let me assure you that it faithfully conveys his nifty wit and savoir-s'habillier:
As introductions were made, Nick admired Mark's jacket which was a great way to start the evening seeing as it was one of Mark's self-made. What can I tell you that a picture cannot convey better? Here is how the night ended up:
The Earl duets with Nick Ashley. Think this was "My Generation"??  Earlier, they scared the horses with "Should I stay or should I go?" Nick was asked to join the Clash as drummer but told Strummer he was a bit busy studying at St. Martin's.  And good call too. Who wants to be a drummer when you can be Lead Designer?!

Taffy too made a new friend, and they have been texting a lot since the weekend:

We had a scream and thanks are due to Ari and Nick's daughters too for making our noisy, drunken selves feel so welcome.
Sunday morning, we were up with the pheasants to slug back to London. We had to stop at a service station for a can of Red Bull and a piece of KFC each, so utterly hang dog were we. Still, we shambled in more or less upright to my mother's birthday lunch where one of my godmothers had made a surprise appearance. "And to what are you up?" she asked. In twenty words or less I attempted to summarize the canon of this blog. I have, I informed her in conclusion, decided to approach ten people and ask them for five thousand pounds each. Then if, God forbid, we go head over the handlebars, the only people to get badly mash up will be us. While my mother was distracted by her delight at the dusty rose marabou neck cushion we gave her, my godmother leant in and whispered "I'll write you a cheque". I was so tired and felt so fragile that it required the most enormous effort not to cry. And sure enough, at the day's close, we had our first solid investment.

So far this week we have applied for our VAT number, persuaded Colin Young that he does want to take on the burden of our multi-million pound potential turn over accounts, opened a business account, deposited the cheque, booked our flights to New York to see Mr Bell at Barneys and been up to Berwick Street to buy gorgeous fabric from the Cloth House  - - and trimmings from the Christmas grotto that is Klein's on Noel Street (greetings to Raymond):
The Cloth House on Berwick Street, and below.

Kleins on Noel Street, Soho
In the link to Nick's article above is a posted comment about A2 jackets that lead to another find, the Good Wear leather company: 
From their homepage comes this:
"In the 1940s, A-2s were mass produced in factories, going from one station to another (note how some jackets have several different colors of thread in the parts), which led to these jackets having an organic, imperfect look in the details, yet a classy overall character. That’s what we like."
Us too! Indeed, we would be more than satisfied to be described that way ourselves - 

"Imperfect... yet a classy overall character."
And I guess that's what makes it emotional when someone fills in a cheque and hands it to you - it is proof on paper that while you may be imperfectly in need, someone thinks you are a Good Bet; that you possess the integrity to caretake their money - even give them it back and then some - yet have enough character to use it boldly.

Tuesday, 4 January 2011

Wishing you a very Natty New Year!

"A solar eclipse of January 4 will encourage you to be more adventurous and to explore the world with a joyous, curious spirit." So writes my lovely friend Susan Miller for Taureans such as myself on her much consulted site  
I assure you and her that I am ready to be taken over by such a spirit, Lord be praised, indeed I am. Just yesterday we went to see "Jack and the Beanstalk" at the Hackney Empire - as restored to plush seated glory by Lord Alan Sugar - and you will take my word for it when I say that I thrilled to Jack's warbled vow as he scaled the vital vegetation just before half time - "Now's the time to show your mettle, now's the time to grasp the nettle." 
I don't wish to invite Fate to contradict Susan's soothsaying by quoting too extensively from Mark's 'scope but the words "Hooray - help is on the way dear Gemini" do feature.

Now you may have expected us to have celebrated in some extravagant social situation on New Year's Eve. And in which case you may be surprised to learn that we spent the daylight hours with couturier, and mother to Carolyn, Madame Christiane Randolfi, in her work chalet at the end of her garden in Dulwich. This woman of remarkable and resilient spirit grew up in Limoges (from whence derives the word "limosine", incidentally and a propos  of not much) before making her way to Paris. There she trained as a seamstress before coming to London and working with the Ravhis sisters. This is the only information I could find on them - 
So Mrs Randolfi's memories here will add significantly to the archive.

In that exalted couture house of its day, at 19 Upper Grosvenor Street, between 1961-3, Mrs Randolfi - then Mam'selle Christiane Robert - crafted meticulously beautiful clothes for princesses such as Margaret and Alexandra, filmstars including Lana Turner and home grown glamour puss Joan Collins, and even Mrs Butlin of the holiday camp fortune. Every year she had to have her work permit renewed by the Immigration Office, and assure them she was only working as a seamstress. Many of the other girls came from Norman Hartnell's workshop Christiane recalls. There was a Polish lady called Natalie who was a good friend and when Christiane got engaged to master glacier Michael Randolfi of the iconic Joe's Caff on the Old Kent Road, the girls made her wedding dress. Here is a poor scan, for which I take full responsibility, of a photograph of the creation. While the detail definition may be weak I hope the romance is strong enough to vibrate across the decades / screen and thrill your hearts a little:

Mrs Randolfi's wedding day

Christiane was a "second hand", following instructions from a girl called Jessie, the "first hand", who cut the fabric and did all the fitting. On one floor they made coats, on another dresses, and on the top, hats. It was the Golden Age of matchy matchy outfits. If it is considered that each decade does not assume its own character until a few years in then you must remember that the convention of super smartness from the 1950s still prevailed. My mother, then a buyer at Harrods in the Dior Room (she met Christian Dior himself), remembers it as a most prestigious operation. 

Ah A-HA!!!! BREAKING NEWS!!! Mrs Randolfi's son Paolo has put my investigations in the shade and found these Pathé News clips of the Rahvis, one of which references Dior, the Colossus of  Couturiers at the time. What a find these are, and what characters the sisters evidently were (love the dark, dark glasses removed only to answer a question from the reporter). The young Graham Smith appears as their in-house milliner - he went on to make his name with Kangol. Here he looks about fifteen years old but is worldly enough to give a most knowing look to camera at the end having been asked who makes a better designer of womenswear, a man or a woman:

Paul found a second one too (below), as well as a credit for the wardrobe of Miss Harris and Miss Bouquet in the Bond film "For Your Eyes Only" as late as 1981.

So you can imagine our pride to discover that not only has Madame Randolfi deigned to help us with a spot of sewing but that she removed a front tooth over Christmas to get into the Mark Wesley look-alike club:
The Gap-Tooth Gang: Mark and Madame Christiane Randolfi
They worked away together during the afternoon until Madame R called time for tea. Mark was much encouraged to see how fine the top looked that they were sampling:

Incidentally, when my black cat died and I sold my house in London to go to LA some four years back, I dispersed my belongings around those dear to me and the purple witches' hat hanging from the rafter in the photographs above was one of the bits I bequeathed to Madame R. Anyway, her powers lie in the bobbin not the broomstick and I prefer to be a bit more undercover these days. This photograph makes me laugh only because it appears that Mr Wesley is reprimanding Madame R and nothing could have been further from the truth:

We went home and did a spot of tidying up in anticipation of a visit from Harriet and Andrea whose passage across Blackfriars Bridge was blocked by Boris and his barges laden with fireworks. We made a couple of half-arsed attempts at getting lively but recognised the voice of Tony Blackburn coming from the radiogram in the kitchen as the epiphanic moment it was: this was the year to wake up sober and fresh, ready to show our mettle, and seize the nettle. And so it was we settled on the sofa to watch "Ned Kelly" - a distant relative of Mark's by marriage according to his sainted mother (expect some armour-bodied suits some season). But I didn't make it to the final credits. I saw Boris turn the air blue, and red, and green, with his gun powder smoke, but then lost my battle with Morpheus and was sparko shortly after midnight. Wait 'til word gets around and you mark mine, everyone will be pretending they stayed in too.

We are naturally excited to see if Susan's predictions come true but already she appears to be hitting targets - "There is a very good chance you'll be at the airport taking off in February" she writes for Mark and whaddya know?! First day back to work our buddy at Barneys, Jay Bell, e-mails to say "February is sounding better and better" for our trip to NY. 
A very Happy New Year to you all!

PS: Here's a song Tony Blackburn didn't play but we are very taken with it all the same, and could make it our company anthem (with a funky little back beat perhaps??). "Tom O'Bedlam's Song", written anonymously in the sixteenth century and recited most marvelously:
"Of thirty bare years have I
Twice twenty been enraged,
And of forty been three times fifteen
In durance soundly caged.
On the lordly lofts of Bedlam, 
With stubble soft and dainty,
Brave bracelets strong,
Sweet whips ding dong,
With wholesome hunger plenty."

So may this coming year find you clothed and fed and all the rest be a blessing.