How We Met: Dawn French And Helen Teague

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The Independent Culture
Dawn French (41) studied at Central School. She was an original member of the Comic Strip, performing with her TV-partner-to-be Jennifer Saunders in the evenings while teaching drama during the day. She is married to Lenny Henry and they live in Berkshire with their daughter. Fashion designer Helen Teague (43) trained as an architect while selling her clothes from a market stall. In 1986, she opened a shop in north London, and in 1991 she teamed up with Dawn to launch another shop, Sixteen47, and their own label. Helen divides her time between Ghana, where her dogs Pluto and Pallas live, and England

DAWN FRENCH: It was early 1990 and I was in search of good clothes, and I'd read about a shop called Big Clothes. On the day I went along, Helen's partner was there. I was buying loads of stuff, doing that panic-buying that big women do when they finally come across reasonable clothes.

I could hear Helen downstairs, working on her sewing machine. Then it stopped and she came up. She looked at me and said: "I've been waiting for you to come here." Helen is very spiritual and thinks that it was fate that I walked through the door. For a second I wondered: "Do I know you?"

She seemed slightly mysterious to me. I was struck by how beautiful she was, with this big open face and a huge smile that completely lit it up. I remember trusting her straight away. She was quite a big girl and wearing great clothes - this bodes well, I thought. Helen was immediately very honest and advised me to reconsider several of the choices I'd made. I liked her directness - she wasn't at all in awe of me.

About a year later she came to see me in the play Silly Cow and afterwards came backstage to my dressing-room and pitched the whole partnership idea to me. I'd been thinking of a similar venture for about a year and approached various designers to investigate how much it would cost. But it would have meant remortgaging the house and I'm too cautious to risk everything. So when Helen came along, she was the answer.

Our workshop is based in Ghana, and Helen spends part of the year there. I miss her when she's not here. We talk on the phone a lot and she sends me loads of faxes and letters, occasionally touching on business matters. When all that is going well, which it is most of the time, we toast ourselves with champagne.

We socialise together a lot. We quite quickly got intimate about personal things, and both relish a good gossip. I often invite Helen to parties - she was at my 40th. We're members of a small secret society, the Lazy Sues, five girls and one "honorary" who take regular singles holidays together. We set out to have fun and we do - there's quite a lot of nail-painting involved.

Helen's also part of the book club that Jennifer [Saunders] and I started. If there is a consensus about a book, Helen will differ, not because she's contrary but because she has such a quirky view of life. The wiring in her head is connected in a different way from other people's.

Helen knows all my secrets and has seen the worst side of me, and doesn't mind. I get grumpy when I'm anxious and under pressure. I know she would never badmouth me, and among women friends that kind of loyalty is rare.

I find her astute observations of the people we both know very intriguing. Helen's judgement on work matters is excellent, though in her personal life it's more questionable. I'd like to matchmake for her, although I think she's perfectly capable of doing it for herself. But her advice across the board is always worth listening to. Helen possesses an ancient wisdom.

We're both certifiable workaholics. Helen is passionate about her work, so much so that she's sacrificed an awful lot for it - a family life of her own and a chunk of her social life. But it fulfils her - it's like great sex to her. She doesn't own anything, she lives like a student and has no interest in material things. Her priorities are different.

Helen is an eternal optimist - her glass is always half-full. I'll be surprised if she ever loses her enthusiasm. She once had a God-is-it- worth-the-effort? turn and I was shocked. That's my role - hers is always to see the best in everything.

In lots of ways, Africa is her true home. When she moved back there she felt much more comfortable - big women are celebrated over there. Helen spends a lot of time absolutely baffled by British culture. I didn't know Helen had African heritage to begin with, but she and Lenny clicked immediately - there was a great resonance between them.

I would like Helen to rate herself more highly - I'd like her to know in her heart what a good person she is. She's very intelligent, perceptive and well-read. It's taken me quite a long time to get to know her, and I feel there is lot more to know, and I know that it's all good.

Helen is a fantastically talented, artistic, gracious humanitarian and an unsung hero of design, in my opinion. She's elegant and sensual. If the business finished, we'd still be chums because I need her to be in my life. I rely on her an awful lot now, for her counsel. She'll never let me down. Helen is cheaper than a psychiatrist. I wouldn't want to be without her, that's for sure.

HELEN TEAGUE: Dawn walked into my shop at 10 past five in the afternoon on 18 January 1990. I had a shop called Big Clothes in St John's Wood. I was in the tiny basement, cutting and stuff and I heard this distinctive voice. I went upstairs and when my head was level with the floor, I looked up at her and said: "Are you Dawn French? I've been waiting for you." We'd been trading for two years and I knew she'd come. I remember writing in my diary that I sensed there was something fateful in the encounter.

I could tell that she was very shy. My partner kept pointing her in the direction of brighter stuff, and I sensed she wanted something more sophisticated. Dawn is wonderful on camera, but people tend to associate her with her screen characters. I never did - I realised that she was actually quite a serious person. I've never stood on ceremony with people; she came to my shop for a service, and she got it.

A year later, my business partner and I went our separate ways. I wrote to Dawn on impulse to ask whether she'd be interested in buying a share in our shop. I'd read somewhere that she had wanted to do something like this before, so it wasn't a complete shot in the dark.

The play Silly Cow was running and one evening I went backstage to broach the subject. She'd already made up her mind, it seemed. It was rather funny - we were soon chatting about children and all that personal stuff, and at the end of it all I wasn't sure whether she'd said yes or not. I asked, "Are you up for this then?" and she said, "Yeah, I'll give it a whirl."

We're both extremely busy and have to snatch our time together. We never have enough time together to sit around in companionable silence, being entertained in dark venues. We're too busy with salacious gossip. Dawn calls me regularly, but I prefer to write. I've got a mental block about phones, my flat is full of them - it's a telephone graveyard.

We formed a clique of friends when we became partners, and all got drunk over pina coladas at breakfast and christened ourselves the Lazy Sues. We take sunshine holidays together and have a lark. The book club is another shared ritual, and a great excuse for a boisterous get-together at Groucho's.

Dawn has a sideways view on people - all her friends are unusual. She doesn't have conventional taste in anything. She thinks I'm a bit of a crank - I'm quite involved with astrology - but when I'm out with her I look around me and think I'm in good company.

We're both very visual, into art and aesthetics. Dawn has a well-developed sense of style that spills over into everything. Her home is impeccably furnished, and she has a love of beautiful fabrics. We're creatively compatible. I don't hesitate to buy her presents to wear and objects for the house, and vice versa.

Through joining forces with Dawn I've been exposed to a whole new world. We have rigorous discussions - not arguments - because we deal in a world that is complex and frustrating. Ours is a feisty relationship. To be a friend in my life, a person has to be honest and have integrity. I don't have time to play games.

Dawn works very hard. My theory is that actually she'd like to live dangerously, that she has a wild streak that she reigns in. Dawn's not really a risk-taker and so one of her ways of living life on the edge is to cram in too much work.

We have common ethical values. It makes a big difference that she's married to an Afro-Caribbean. I like the fact that when I visit their home it's not all white. She's completely clued into racism, a difficult area, and I never have to explain.

Dawn is still shy and a very private person. At home she's a loving wife and mother and enjoys domesticity. But it doesn't surprise me that she's a star, she's brilliant in her work. I'm looking forward to her first screenplay. She'd have made a wonderful and remarkable teacher, though, because she still would have had an audience and would have made a huge impact on people's lives.

Fate has brought us together. We've grown together and are much more worldly than we were when we met. It shows in our appearance and outlook. We have so much in common that if we weren't doing fashion we'd be doing something else together. We have a great deal of affection for one another; I adore her and feel very protective towards her. Dawn is steadfast and holds on to her friends, and so do I. Dawn is part of the fabric of my life, she's a reference point for me. We'll be together till we're both pushing up daisies.

! Sixteen47 is at 69 Gloucester Avenue, London NW1 (0171 483 0733). French & Teague is also available in Evans outlets (for branches call 0800 731 8287). Dawn French appears in BBC1's Comic Relief on 12 March

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