Foale and Tuffin talk fashion

Known for their lively, graphic and very wearable clothes for women, Marion Foale and Sally Tuffin were at the heart of the youth fashion revolution in the 1960s.

Having met at art school, they graduated with a shared determination to ignore the conventional next step of completing a long apprenticeship, and quickly set up their own design business. Under the Foale and Tuffin label the pair created a range of informal dresses, skirts and tops, which they sold through department stores and their own shop just off London’s Carnaby Street. These fun, colourful clothes became a regular fixture of Marit Allen's ground-breaking 'Young Ideas' section in British Vogue, and helped set new trends. Intent on doing things differently, Foale and Tuffin were among the first designers to popularise the women's trouser suit – and to make it look unashamedly sexy.

Selection of garments designed by Foale and Tuffin, 1964 – 1972, England. © Victoria and Albert Museum, London

Marion Foale: I went to Ilford County High School and always wanted to be a famous painter. I used to enter and win painting competitions – I won a Blue Peter prize when it first started. I told my parents that I wanted to paint and they said, "No, you're a woman, you're going to get married and have children – you can't go to college". And I said, "Blow you, I'm going!".

I earned some money, took myself along to Walthamstow School of Art and got through the interview. We did General Arts and Crafts – I was going to be a famous painter! I did arts and crafts for two years and then realised that as a painter I would never be able to keep myself. I saw I was surrounded by all these people making frocks and, as I didn't want to teach for a living, I thought, "Hmmm, they're making all these clothes…". My mother was a milliner and I'd been taught to make all my own things, and my father taught me how to use a sewing machine, so I knew a lot about cutting patterns and could make a garment. So I went into the Fashion School and, because I knew how to make clothes, I was able to bypass much of the foundation course. That's why I did fashion – because I knew I'd got to make a living and I already knew how to cut a pattern.

Then I got into the Royal College of Art at the same time as Sally and Sylvia [Ayton, who also went on to be a successful designer]. We'd had a talk by Alexander Plunket Greene [Mary Quant's husband and business partner] at the end of the course and it really impressed me. And Bazaar [Mary Quant's first shop] had opened by then and I thought, "Well, if they can do it, we can!".

Sally Tuffin: I was educated in a progressive Quaker school in Saffron Walden. My mother was a dressmaker after the war and my dad was a printer and a very good draughtsman. He drew maps in the war. When it ended, he won a six-month bursary to the Berlin School of Art, but he got pneumonia and was in hospital for six months, so he missed the chance. His dream was to get his daughter into art school – luckily I was accepted at Walthamstow. Straight from a Quaker boarding school into art college… it was quite a difference! And then Marion came along – I think I was there a year before you?

Marion: Yes, I came later.

Dress, Foale and Tuffin, 1966, England. Museum no. T.29-2010. © Victoria and Albert Museum, London

Sally: When I arrived I was asked, "What craft do you want to take: Lino or Dress?" I didn't know what lino meant and I didn't want to look a fool, but I knew what a dress was so I said, "Oh, Dress, please!".

Marion: I did Lino – God knows why!

Marion: Sylvia Ayton always says stardust must have been sprinkled at that time because so many creative people in the Sixties came out of Walthamstow. After four years we were awarded an N.D.D. [National Diploma of Design] and five of us from that year were accepted by the Royal College of Art [nearly half the intake].

Sally: Daphne Brooker [head of the Fashion Department at the Royal College] was, and still is, a wonderful teacher. She just had this fighting spirit, didn't she? The work we did at weekends went up on the wall and we had a crit every Monday and you had to stand there and take it. Things we weren't used to at all.

Marion: Daphne was very, very good. She taught at Kingston as well. There were loads of wonderful students from there.

Sally: Janey Ironside was head of the Royal College Fashion School when we started. We were lucky. She had just taken over from Madge Garland and when she arrived students were expected to wear a pencil skirt with a split at the back. No trousers. High heels if possible. Cocktail parties… you had to go to the theatre. All the things that were completely alien to us. We hadn't got a clue. Luckily that went out the door after about a year, didn't it?

Marion: Bazaar had opened by then as well, but we were fed on couture, which we absolutely loved at the time. We aspired to be couturiers.

Sally: We were taught to cut and sew properly…

Marion: From the start: bound buttonholes, pockets with welts, work on a stand.

Sally: We visited couture houses, didn't we? We went to Paris: Chanel, Dior, Givenchy and Balenciaga. During that time I won a bursary and was given a choice: six months at Givenchy or tour Europe. Which did I choose? Europe! A big mistake on my part, I always regretted it.

Yellow towelling beach outfit with jacket, Foale and Tuffin, 1968, England. Museum no. T.197:2-1991. © Victoria and Albert Museum, London

Getting started in business

Sally: Our parents gave us sewing machines for our 21st birthday presents. We spent £5 on a steam iron… you must have had an ironing board, I think.

Marion: And we just started cutting clothes and making them in our South Ken flat. There was a dining room table – we put two machines on there. We probably cut on the floor in the early days. The first two real dresses we ever showed anybody… you did the red flannel with white frills, and I did the grey flannel with frill and the placket and the kick pleat.

Sally: I've got drawings of our first collection, in a pink folder that we took to show Woollands [21 Shop, the ground-floor boutique at Woollands department store in Knightsbridge was well known for stocking fashionable clothes for younger buyers].

Marion: Vanessa [Denza, the buyer at 21 Shop] used to buy two things and put them on the rail and when they were sold we would come back with four.

Sally: We would deliver via the 52 bus – go straight into the department, not the delivery room.

Marion: When we got our first two orders for 36 garments we realised we'd got to get some help. Do you [Tuffin] remember the lady in that flat by Old Brompton Road? Later, we found a factory, the Caples, and a tailoring factory in the East End. We gave them the patterns and samples to work from. But I'd always tailor a sample with hand-stitching on the collar first.

Sally: Yes, you'd always tailor it…

Black and white optical skirt suit, Foale and Tuffin, 1964, England. Museum nos T.43:1-2010/T.43:2-2010. © Victoria and Albert Museum, London

Marion: We were taught to tailor perfectly at college.

There was Woollands, then when Jimmy Wedge opened Top Gear [a Mod boutique] in the Kings Road, that started a whole huge thing… Yes, and Browns opened! Mr and Mrs Burstein opened Browns [a boutique in South Molton Street] – the ground floor only. Of course, we went straight into there, so that was good.

We used to buy our sample fabrics from shops like Dickens & Jones, Liberty and Scotch House in the beginning. John Lewis was great too for basics, but it was strange because we didn't know about wholesale buying at first – we just didn't know it happened. Then we found out, so we went to buy wholesale fabrics, but it was a man's job in those days. A middle-aged man in business suit would go and buy fabrics for a firm so when we turned up…

Sally: It was a joke…

Marion: They just laughed at us. And then nearly wouldn't sell to us.

Sally: Women just didn't have a place in business.

Marion: In the end they just thought it was so funny that they let us. We gave them the cash and we bought bolts of grey and red flannel… that was for the first Vogue photograph.

Sally: We worked on the billiards table in Jimmy Wedge's flat.

Finding premises

Marion: I'll tell you how we got to be in that area. Jimmy had his offices in Ganton Street and we asked, "Where should we go?" and he said, "Well this seems to be cheap." Now, if we wanted to be in the centre of the London we'd have to find the place with the cheapest rent – and this was it. People lived there and there was a dairy, a tobacconist, a newsagent… there was this little courtyard and everything – a proper village, though very run down. We really had no choice. Jimmy said there's a place going round the corner in Marlborough Court…

Sally: Six guineas a week…

Marion: So we started there on the first floor. Then downstairs became vacant and we took that too. But we didn't want to open a shop at that point so we used it as a workroom and showroom. And because we had to display something in the window we put up a screen, which we made ourselves, and displayed showcards: Chosen by Vogue. Then we saw the potential and realised we'd got to open a shop. So, that's what we did! [The shop opened in Marlborough Court, off Carnaby Street, in 1964.] Then we needed more space and Jimmy said there's room above me. So, then we had Ganton Street as well. Jimmy eventually moved out, so then we had the whole building.

Dress and bolero jacket from the Coco Frills collection, designed by Sally Tuffin for Foale and Tuffin, 1972, England. Musuem nos T.228-1984/T.228A-1984. © Victoria and Albert Museum, London

Breaking the gender norms

Marion: I would say we were about the same time [as Yves Saint Laurent, so around 1965], maybe a little bit before?

Sally: Yes. I remember us putting a corduroy jacket on [model] Jill Kennington and putting the trousers with it and falling about with laughter – it was so funny. We must have been making trousers anyway, but not with jackets. We put it all together and thought it was hilarious!

Marion: It was pretty daring…

Sally: And Jill looked wonderful in it.

Marion: We thought it was very daring but it was just so comfortable wearing trousers. There weren't many trousers for women that you could buy at the time. And there was this whole problem with mini skirts and what you put on your legs. Stockings in those days were flesh coloured, fine denier and worn with suspender belts. Well, we wanted fun colours, and thicker as well. We found these wonderful Swedish stockings, which we sold in our shop. And I think the trouser suit revolution was just a feeling in the air – that had to happen.

Sally: And, maybe, men looking more feminine and women looking more masculine as well. There was John Stephen, suddenly, in Carnaby Street, making fluffy things for men with bows and frills and things.

Designing with Liberty fabrics

Marion: We were right next to Liberty so it was awfully handy. We used to float round there all the time. We liked the hand-printing because they did it all themselves at Merton. We liked all that authenticity – so pretty. People always ask where you get your inspiration. You don't really get it from anywhere, you just see and then imbibe something without even realising. Liberty's prints were so lovely and you just fell in love with them.

Sally: I do remember we decided to mix and match tartans – loads of different tartans.

Marion: That same winter we made dresses with small Liberty prints mixed together.

Sally: We were careful with our sample fabrics. We kept the offcuts in bin bags, didn't we? We were very aware that people shouldn't know what we were using…

Marion: It was a secret.

Printed silk dress, Foale and Tuffin, 1969. England. © Victoria and Albert Museum, London

Sally: And yet that summer, everybody did tartan. It was amazing. I'd been to Shetland…

Marion: You came back with tartan in your head. It's like when you went to Egypt and you came back with kaftans in your head, and then everybody was doing kaftans!

Sally: It wasn't that we originated everything, we all did it at the same time.

Marion: It was just floating around in the air.

Crossing the Atlantic

Marion: We were taken on by [New York boutique] Paraphernalia, and [American department store] J.C. Penney licensed our designs.

Sally: We went to New York [in 1965] with loads of confidence, to make a collection [they were invited to the States to help promote Paraphernalia's wholesale arm, Youthquake]. We had a very good friend, John Kloss, and went to his flat overlooking Manhattan – we made the clothes in his sitting room. You could just go to a fabric company, order your bolts of fabric, go back to the flat, and the order would arrive before you! Can you imagine that happening in London? It was amazing. For their 'Swinging Sixties' promotion, Paraphernalia took double-decker buses over to New York, and there were flags and everything. We did a whistle-stop tour of the States with a band called The Skunks and the Go Go Girls! It was great fun – but absolutely exhausting.

Swinging London

Sally: That's how the whole movement evolved – in the King's Road where people would just dress up for the day and style themselves…

Marion: Walk up and down on Saturdays.

Sally: It wasn't that Mary [Quant] did anything or that we did anything – it was all those kids that pushed the boundaries.

Marion: And, also, you didn't want to look like your parents anymore. We'd had it rammed down our throats. I had to go to Sunday School with white gloves, hat and a handbag, just like a miniature mum in a dress made by her – exactly the same as hers! I mean who wanted to do that? We just wanted to kick against it all.

This text is taken from an edited transcript of an interview conducted with Marion Foale and Sally Tuffin in 2006.

Marion Foale is now a knitwear designer, and Sally Tuffin a ceramicist.