Interview with Vanessa Denza MBE

As buyer for the 21 Shop at Woollands department store, Knightsbridge in 1961, Vanessa Denza helped launch key young designers. She opened the Vanessa Frye boutique, Sloane Street (1966-70), subsequently establishing Denza International, an international fashion industry recruitment agency and consultancy. She founded Graduate Fashion Week in 1989. In 2004 she received the MBE for her services to the British fashion industry and education.

Below is a transcript of an interview recorded with Vanessa Denza in February 2006.

Fashion in the 1950s

In the 1950s youthful clothes were non-existent. At that time if you were on the tube you were expected to wear a pair of gloves. It was all old lady stuff. There was not a single shop apart from Jaeger that sold a size 8. The first people to make clothes for young people were Kiki Byrne and Mary Quant, and I couldn't afford Quant's prices. My father would never give me anything, so I was thrown back on my own resources, making things.

Woollands 21 Shop

Woollands 21 Shop was conceived by Martin Moss, when he saw the youth market was starting. It was designed by Terence Conran using pine and was a shoplifter's paradise. It had to be completely dismantled within six months!

It must have been in planning for a year. I insisted that all the hangers were the same colour and on the way it was going to be hung and the way it was going to be delivered. The idea was to give a whole image, working with young designers.

They booked the Temperance Seven for the opening on 15 September 1961. We had three shows and by 11 o'clock at night there was a crowd of people going round the block. It was like a dam bursting.

You had a completely different customer. People like Cathy McGowan who was on Ready Steady Go, everybody. We had to bring in new clothes all the time. I thought the clothes were not expensive.

Sally Tuffin and Marion Foale's first trouser suit was made in needlecord. In 1961 you didn't wear trousers. That's when I started buying in a lot of trousers from France. I used to go over to the factories. They needed computers but they didn't have them; their stock was in such a mess. I'd hand pick myself two or three thousand pairs.

The Sixties

There was a feeling that everything was possible. You were not laden with debt, you had time to go out and enjoy life and wear new clothes. Television was in its infancy and you stopped worrying about whether Paris said you had to have a short skirt or a long skirt, all that had gone out of the window.

It was not swinging in the way you would think of it. That was in '68-'69 when everybody started to get into flower power.  

The music was fantastic. If you went to a jazz club there was no drink at all. There would be a break at about 9.30 and you would all go out of the building to a pub. It finished at 11.00. But then you might go to a night club. There were new dances coming out every few months.

Key designers

The key people were Kiki Byrne, Mary Quant, Foale & Tuffin, Gerald McCann, Ossie Clark, Georgina Linhart, John Bates, Alice Pollock, and then a bit later Rosalind Yehuda. Her knitted clothes were just amazing, but she didn't come into it until about '66-'67 and she was not a Royal College graduate. But I would say she had the most enormous influence at that time.

The King's Road

In the sixties people came to London for designers like Mary Quant, her shop Bazaar, and James Wedge and his shop Countdown. I can remember saying, when Wallis said they were going to open up in the King's Road, 'That's the beginning of the end', because everything was independent. Then the big boys got in on it, and then the Americans. But it all imploded, because systems weren't in place to cope with the volumes of sales.

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