■ The legendary celebrity design guru, 60, on being a single mother and how to survive a pandemic without losing your sparkle
Were there early signs of a jewellery designer in the making?
I was a little magpie and my first transaction was a criminal one — I nicked my mum’s engagement ring and swapped it for a Barbie doll. Then at the age of seven, I found a Cartier brooch at a jumble sale. My mum made me give it back and because there was only one person in our village likely to own a Cartier, we knew whose door to knock on. It belonged to a Lebanese-Italian countess who, years later when I opened my first workshop, commissioned me. So I guess the good deed paid back!
So why jewellery?
I was designing clothes and interiors at school and when I did a foundation course I realised I liked working with metal and didn’t like sewing so much. Central Saint Martins did a degree in jewellery design — it’s not necessarily what I’d recommend because I thought the people who ran it were ancient but I did learn the basics of jewellery and I loved the mix of other creative people. I got a 2:2 and felt I’d failed. But I was good at selling myself and the buyer from Liberty came to my design show and asked me to do a collection. Hat designer Stephen Jones gave me a space in his workshop and I started making everything day and night. I also worked in the evenings as a waitress and I rarely slept as I cobbled together my first collection. From then, I did designer Rifat Ozbek’s jewellery for his catwalk shows, which took me all over the world. I lived partly in New York, started selling in the US and even Madonna was a client. Everything was looking amazing — it was my rock star moment.
I am sensing a ‘but’…
There was a recession in the early ’90s and I wasn’t really thinking about the business. I was carried along on the crest of a wave. Suddenly people owed me money, I wasn’t managing the accounts properly and I very nearly went bust. I managed to get a bit of investment in ’92 and open a shop in Notting Hill. I was 36 when my son was born and I ended up as a single mother running a business, fending for herself. I never wanted a man to support me so I took two months off after Lorcan was born and then I used to bring him in and put him under my desk.
What happened next?
As he grew, I always wanted to be at the school gates so it taught me to be able to cut off from work to be a mum. If I couldn’t pick him up, a friend would. Being a single mum means you enjoy a fantastic network of friends. You naturally gravitate towards friends who are better for you, the community becomes really important and those friends I made when Lorcan was little still remain good friends. One of them helped me design all the shops.
What was the lowest point?
By 2005 I had three shops, was bringing up a child alone and I was at the mercy of retail while rents were rising sky-high. The financial crash hit my business and at one point I ended up in court with an investor fighting over my very name. It was tough.
Mistakes, you’ve made a few?
I didn’t listen to people who bored me and that would be accountants. I couldn’t pay attention to them because my head was always thinking of the next thing I wanted to do. The biggest mistake I made was not finding a good partnership in business with someone who had all the qualities I didn’t. It’s like a marriage — you want someone as a partner who complements your own skills.
And then there was Covid-19…
My son now lives in Shanghai and I’d been to Thailand in February. I wore a mask like everyone else so by the end of the month when I returned I knew a virus doesn’t have borders and I knew it was coming to the West so I started to make plans. Having said that, sales dropped off a cliff in March and I really did think, ‘Is this it? After 35 years of running my own business, how can I deal with this?’ The fear of letting down all my team and staff was huge.
What did you do?
I started looking at how there have been pandemics before. We closed the shops, furloughed the staff — the furlough scheme was the great saviour for someone like me, who runs a small business — and that gave me the chance to think about how I could move the company forward. People started shopping online so I fast-forwarded that side of the business, got the website looking good over lockdown and then tackled the rents. I thought it would cost a fortune to go to a lawyer so I rang the landlords of my six shops and talked to them myself. It took a month to negotiate each one but whereas I’ve always run the company on creative verve and intuition, this forced me to concentrate on business. I’m running the company now better than I was before.
What advice do you have for young designers?
It was a lot easier to be heard and noticed when I started in the 1980s. Now people come up with a marketing idea first. I know a jewellery brand that started with marketing first and it’s a massive success. But young designers need to work out how to have your designer voice and stick to a narrative of what you do. Don’t try to emulate the style of others. So many designers are copying all the time and you might be successful for a year or two but you won’t be able to keep going unless you are authentic.
Salary: Young graduates with degrees in jewellery design start on £25,000 contracts — often for a six-month trial period.
Regular hours? Not when you’re starting but now I’m an 11 to 7 girl!
Short and sweet advice: Don’t forget, you’re designing for others, not making things for yourself.
‘Covid has taken us back to basics. So forget the internet and get your inspiration from things you see around you. Put down your mobile, get out your sketch pad and draw’