Interview with Gerald McCann
This is a transcript of an interview recorded with Gerald McCann in March 2006.
The difference between then the sixties and now is one simple thing, camaraderie. We all supported one another. We didn't think about money as being the most important thing, it was about what we were doing. We were changing things. Change was the excitement, the adrenalin.
The Royal College and fashion in the 1950s
I went to the Royal College of Art under Madge Garland, who was rather wonderful. She was a former editor of Vogue, the first Professor of fashion, with lots of links to the industry. The fashion school was in Ennismore Gardens in a beautiful house which had been decorated for us, and Madge Garland had an original Marie Laurencin painting in her study. This was around 1952, and of course we were involved in the coronation. I designed a Viscountess outfit. It was very funny that whole era. There was this strange thing about debutantes then, who used to look like smaller editions of their mother. They all had this flowered hat by Eric, and they all had a Princess coat in Ottoman (silk). I started dressing one of them, and then a couple more, and their parents of course were outraged and would say 'that top isn't seemly.' But the daughters loved it.
I left the Royal College and went to work for Marks and Spencer, which was very grand. We used to go to Paris for the collections, to Balmain and Dior, and it was all very swish. When we were in Paris it was just wonderful.
One time I was sent up to Durham to a factory, and suddenly I was called back. My dress had sold a million copies, so I had a key to the executive dining room and a cheque from Lord Marks, and everybody smiled wherever I went!
In the end I thought this isn't me so I went to work for Harry B. Popper and did wholesale couture, selling to people like Harrods, with a private clientele including Princess Marina and her daughter.
Working in the 1960s
Then I set up my own business, and then it started, first of all through Vanessa Denza and Woollands' 21 shop alongside Roger Nelson, Jean Muir, Rosalind Yehuda, and Foale & Tuffin. As I was the only one that had a proper manufacturing base, I was given the big orders, like 350 in a single style. I could supply orders within a week. I had 3 or 4 factories going in Poland Street and off Brewer Street. It was so much fun though because everybody got on so well.
A buyer from Bloomingdales, Ida Sciolino, came to London and loved my things, and she also brought some fabric and said make something up for me, and of course it ended up on the cover of Glamour magazine and immediately everybody swooped down, because there was this big thing on Swinging London.
The American manufacturers came to London and said 'We'd like to meet you', and there were dinners and contracts, and the next thing I knew I was there. You know when they move, it's like lightning. It's showtime! You're on stage and there's no room for error because the amounts at stake are enormous, 140 000 of one style. My coat and suit manufacturer Larry Levine was overwhelmed with 'eight customers for every coat'.
It was hard work because I would go to New York for 3 weeks, do a collection, visit stores, in New York and outside, in Philadephia, Detroit and Michigan. I flew in a private plane. They were very professional and they got down to work. I was very impressed especially when I came back to England, it was like treacle, you had to slow down because the pace in New York was really fast.
The Sixties Look
We had the music didn't we, so that set the stage and then we gave it form. We produced the clothes that epitomised the 'look.' And the funny thing is just before that was the beehive, and the white lipstick, and all so terribly contrived and hideous-looking, I could never understand why people wanted to look like that. But suddenly there was this lighter feel.