Interview with James Wedge
Below is a transcript of an interview recorded with James Wedge in February 2006.
Family background and education
What's interesting about my early life is that it was working class, very poor. I never went to a restaurant, except maybe occasionally a pie and mash shop, and I had a very poor education. I never took an exam in my life. Then I went into the Navy and then to art school. When I made my collection of hats for Ronald Patterson I was suddenly a sort of celebrity in the fashion world, yet I had no experience of London society.
While I was in the Navy I did a correspondence course in drawing and I knew I wanted to have something to do with art. So I went in to the fashion department at Walthamstow Art School and hat designing was a part of it and I just took to it, it was like sculpture. The main tutor was Peter Shepherd who was a brilliant hat designer himself and he had a workroom in Woollands.
Then I went to the Royal College and that was a two year course. At the end of the first year they have a fashion show and I was the only hat maker so I did all the hats. I think it was through that, that Ronald Paterson heard about me. He came over to the school and asked me if I wanted to do his collections.
At the Royal College of Art I had my own little room and was very much alone, but it was a great time because Janey Ironside was probably the best fashion head they've had there. They had some excellent students, Peter Blake and Allen Jones, David Hockney and the school was really buzzing. People like myself and David Hockney wouldn't have been able to get in there if it hadn't been for the grant system and the fact that they took people on their merit, not on their GCSEs. I'm sure many others wouldn't have got in if the system had been as it is today.
When I was working for Paterson they were all couture hats. I knew that this was a good showcase for me so I made very extreme hats, which was why I got a lot of publicity. Then through the publicity Liberty's offered me my own workshop for free as long as they could have the first choice of what I made. It meant I was selling at Liberty's but they didn't mind me selling to other people at the same time, so it started me off very well.
In around 1962 I went just around the corner to No 4 Ganton Street which was a small house. There was a shop underneath which I didn't have anything to do with but through the door there were two floors and I took the whole of that. On the first floor, was my showroom and office and then the next floor was a workroom and storeroom. I think in those days it was quite a cheap area. It was good for fashion but especially hats because all the hat fabric companies were very close by. If you wanted to get a felt hood a lady called a matcher used to go out with colour swatches and match it up with a ribbon or something. All my milliners I pinched from places I'd worked in as a student, who I remembered were really good at their job. I had this fantastic team of five milliners and then this lady who was a runner and then I had a PA so seven people in all. It was a great time. I used to put on my own collection twice a year, all the fashion people used to come to see it and they couldn't get in. I used to hire these chairs and there was only room for twenty or thirty, so they used to sit on the staircase outside and wait until others came out and ask what the hats were like!
Top Gear, Countdown and The King's Road
I can remember seeing this tiny shop in the King's Road, it used to be a travel agents. Kiki Byrne had her shop down there then, and there was Mary Quant's, and that's all there were, no others. And I just thought boutiques were the thing for young people. So I just plunged straight in and got it very cheaply. It was a joint thing with Pat Booth.
I did most of the buying. There was a shoe designer who I think was at college (Moya Bowler) whose shoes sold very well. There were people who did crochet dresses, very simple little straight dresses with short sleeves and square necks in gold and silver metallic fabric and they were all knitted on home knitting machines. They used to go very well. I had one woman who used to come in with a little packet of six hand-knitted sweaters and they used to sell very well, they were angora. But we didn't have any out factories or anything like that. Foale and Tuffin were our biggest suppliers.
Top Gear was all black with scaffolding for the coat hangers and a mirror that fitted the end wall. It was just a tiny shop with lightbulbs all the way around it, and a little dressing room off it. We had a carrier bag which had a bull's eye on it, no name or anything, just a bull's eye. People knew where that carrier bag came from.
The customers were trendy, rock and rollers, the Beatles…on Saturday there was always a Rolling Stone. Mick Jagger did a concert in Hyde Park and he wore a dress, a little white dress I think it was, and he got that from Countdown, and Marianne Faithful used to be in there on a regular basis. All the 'people' used to hang out there. There were people who used to come and buy and there used to be a hell of a lot of people who came to steal and we lost so much stuff. That was why, in the end I felt it was time to get out.
By the time Countdown closed in 1971 the King's Road had completely changed character. There were probably one or two little coffee bars hanging on there, but from my shop back to World's End it was all full of young boutiques. The other end had become big stores. The whole street had changed in those few years.
I never liked Carnaby Street so much. I don't think the fashion was really very good whereas in the Kings Road you had Mary Quant, Kiki Byrne and even Granny Takes a Trip, in their own way had very interesting fashion. They were all quite good until the mass production people opened up further down. But I went to Carnaby Street the other day and there were lots of boutiques which I found quite interesting.