Fashion: Ghost stories

Tanya Sarne was a schoolteacher, then a Hollywood wife. After the divorce, she decided that fashion might pay the rent. So she founded Ghost, and filled Britain's wardrobes with spectral viscose frocks. Now she's going global, with shops in Paris, LA and New York, an ambitious new collection, and a fragrance to match the Ghost aesthetic. Susannah Frankel met her
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The Independent Culture
"YOU HAVE to keep moving. You have to or you die..."

Tanya Sarne, creator, designer and sole owner of Ghost, takes a sip of red wine, a drag on a cigarette, then pauses to answer the office phone ("well, someone's got to"). On a second line, a friend is still waiting for her to finish giving the directions she has promised him, from a battered old A-Z which she is waving about in her other hand.

She continues in this way, as she has for the last 20 minutes, despite the fact that we are over an hour late for our dinner reservation. Her stream of consciousness jumps from the state of the British fashion industry, to the benefits of Britain pulling out of Europe, the redesign of the pool in her newly acquired LA home, the state of women's tennis, and the joys of shopping at Sainsbury's, Ladbroke Grove, at 4am on a Friday morning.

As an inveterate workaholic, Sarne's train of thought inevitably returns to Ghost: the art direction of the next ad campaign, why a certain item of clothing has sold so much more than another, how to expand her business further without losing control.

When we arrive at our destination - a fashionable fish restaurant in Holland Park - the heroically patient owner greets us with a bottle of Champagne.

Such relentlessly chaotic, very English eccentricity is, of course, why so many observers assume Sarne was the inspiration for Edina in Absolutely Fabulous. This, however, is to underestimate both her business acumen and creative talent. Ghost's success is evidence that she knows exactly what she's doing. Everyone from Liam and Patsy to Kate and Naomi wear Ghost. In real rather than fashion life, women swear by the label, to keep cool on a summer day at the office, or to be the height of easy glamour at a black-tie dinner. And for those who can't afford the real thing Sarne, through her consultancy with Coats Viyella, is also responsible for the three best-selling articles of clothing at Marks & Spencer since the war - a pair of wide-legged elasticated trousers, a long, sleeveless dress and a bias-cut skirt.

There are two Ghost shops in London and, more recently, stores have opened in LA and Paris. A Ghost fragrance is scheduled to launch in February 2000, produced and distributed by Cosmopolitan Cosmetics, who were also responsible for the Rochas fragrances and Gucci Envy.

With globalisation in mind, Sarne has chosen to unveil her Spring/ Summer 2000 collection alongside those of Ralph Lauren, Calvin Klein and Donna Karan in New York this week, rather than in London where she has been showing for the past two years.

"London is fantastic," says Sarne. "It's a wonderful launching-pad for designers. It's easier to get sponsorship here, it's cheap to show here - you don't get screamed at like I do in New York. You know, `if you don't start the show in half an hour, you're dead', kind of thing. If I was a new designer showing now, London would be perfect. At the point where Ghost is now, after 15 years, New York is more valid. It's as simple as that."

Sarne opened her shop in LA a little over a year ago; she is opening another, in New York on Bond Street, just outside Soho, early next year. Go, the first Ghost diffusion line, will soon be ready for distribution, but only in America. Sarne now employs around 300 people and boasts a worldwide retail turnover of pounds 30m.

It was the break up of her marriage to Michael Sarne, director of the arthouse film Myra Breckenridge, that prompted Sarne to go into fashion. She married him in 1969, giving up her job as a teacher. In the early days of their partnership, she spent her time hanging out with the likes of Jack Nicholson, Warren Beatty, Roman Polanski and Sharon Tate. Nine years later she found herself single again ("I was fed up with him sleeping with every starlet in town"), and with two young children to support.

Her reasons for entering fashion were pragmatic: "I did it because I needed to pay the rent. I saw this gap in the market to create clothes for women with individuality ... Oh, and nobody else would employ me."

Sarne stumbled across a machine-washable viscose that, when shrunk, took on the texture of vintage crepe. She made it up in to designs to suit all shapes and sizes. It wasn't long before Ghost had become an integral part of any fashionable wardrobe, gracing all shapes and sizes, from stick- thin models to expectant mothers.

Over 15 years later, aged 54, Sarne finds herself in the happy position of having enough experience and financial stability to be able to develop her main line into a more fashion-forward concern. Today, Ghost is shaking off its image as a purveyor of easy, diaphanous dresses in favour of a more directional approach. The Ghost signatures remain, but the collection is more in line with current trends, and more ambitious than it has been. Ghost fabrics now range from crepe to acrylic georgette, tulle and knitwear, beaded and embroidered in complex designs. Sarne is no longer afraid to cater openly to the very young - strappy slip dresses that leave little to the imagination take pride of place. For the past couple of seasons, a Victorian theme has dominated, in the form of high-neck button-through shirts and wasp-waisted, full, floor-sweeping skirts.

This hasn't been an entirely easy transition. "Business has grown up in a higgledy-piggledy way around me," says Sarne. "I suppose that's very English. My main difficulty has always been the conflict between what actually sells and is commercial, and what is moving forward and directional. To keep that balance is really the ultimate skill. One has to have direction to be a fashion company, but there's a vest we've been doing for 15 years that we still sell more of than we do anything else. It's always the mix. Without selling the really easy commercial pieces one couldn't have a business. But no one would be interested in the easy pieces if they hadn't been drawn to the label by the publicity attracted by the more directional ones in the first place."

This formula is, of course, not specific to Ghost. Calvin Klein, for example, makes rather more money out of the fragrances that carry his name than his clothes. Sarne is cautious not to overstate the importance of her own venture into the fragrance market, however.

"A perfume has to be enormously successful for the designer to make any money. It has to sell millions. And, you know, Ghost is known, but we're not that well-known. If the actual scent is fantastic, the bottle is beautiful and the packaging is good, there's no reason why it shouldn't be a very good product. But it's very difficult to do."

The main purpose of a fragrance launch is to raise international awareness of a brand. There's a whole group of people who may not be able to afford to buy Ghost clothes but who can and will buy the fragrance. Sarne says that the Ghost website, which has been up and running since April, selling more basic pieces, has received more than a million hits from people "in places we've never even heard of. The fragrance is just another way of reaching a broader audience."

Sarne has converted the attic of her large west London home into a "perfume room. I got hold of every perfume I possibly could. I had all these samples and I just stayed there night after night, sniffing away. It's an enormous pleasure and very, very interesting."

The fragrance, she says, is "hopefully going to be very fresh, floral and on the sweet side. It's slightly old-fashioned, but not. It develops into something very friendly..." All of which is, of course, equally true of the clothes that have inspired its development.

What's kept Sarne going all these years? She is as passionate now as she was when she started, and although her tantrums are legendary, she is as likely to bite a young designer's head off as she is to offer them a bed for the night in her home, should they fall upon hard times.

"I am responsible for feeding 300 families from Skegness to York. I employ between 60 and 70 people full-time and have seven factories scattered around the UK that work exclusively for Ghost. There are people who have worked for me for 17 years - since before this business even started - and they've given me their loyalty. There are a lot of days, especially when someone's given me their notice or something, when I wonder who I can give my resignation to."

Not that Sarne would ever be likely to give up the label she started. "I've always been into fashion. The challenge for me is fashion - being part of today, not yesterday. You can't stay still. You have to keep striving for something more, something better. That's what keeps one going. I like a difficult life."