"Charming. Lovely. So-o-o pretty."
One voice crashes through the gentle murmurs.
Heads turn, eyes widening in shock. The dressmaker to the Queen and Britain's oldest couturier ("Britain's only couturier, dear girl") is perched on a seat in the back row. Thrusting his hands between his knees, he rocks back and forth, chuckling gleefully. "That got you going, didn't it? Come on, you dumb lot, applaud. You won't find clothes this well-made anywhere else in London."
The ladies laugh and clap - as much in homage to the designer as to the clothes themselves. A show would not be complete without some mischief- making from Sir Hardy. He may be about to turn 90, but age has not tempered his lively tongue nor dimmed the extraordinary pleasure he takes in life.
His greatest pleasure is his title, a personal endowment from the Queen, which he recites with gusto: "Knight Commander of the Victorian Order". He rarely uses it, except to get them jumping in restaurants, and is known universally and with great affection simply as Hardy. The name suits him well. He is as colourful and enduring as the plants that live in his garden - another grand pleasure. I ask him what he did when he opened the letter from the Queen. "My dear girl, I burst into tears. I said, my God, I'm going to be Sir Hardy." His eyes sparkle with mischief. "Not bad for an old queen, is it?"
TWO WEEKS later, Hardy's chauffeur, Bill, appears outside my house. He drives a Volvo Estate. We are to collect Hardy from his London flat, on our way to his house in the Cotswolds, where we will be spending the weekend. Hardy is famously hospitable and likes having the young around him. I, at almost half a century younger, surely qualify. I have dressed carefully and packed with unusual caution. Ninety he may nearly be, but those old eyes miss nothing. And approve less. "I never see great style on the streets, never think, oh that's a clever girl dressed like that. I grumble about it because it's so rude to the inhabitants of London to appear dressed as if you're in a second-rate seaside resort."
I am wearing open-toed sandals. Glancing at them nervously, I remember one of Hardy's many utterances. "Great style is insouciance." It is said with a flourish. "It is very vulgar to be impressed by your own clothes." I settle back in the car and attempt to look unconcerned.
Hardy emerges into the early morning sunshine in a crab-like shuffle, most of his weight supported by a stick. Arthritis of the spine has bent his tall figure into a sharp angle. It is a painful condition, although he never complains. I ask him if it is difficult to straighten up. "Yes, darling, but I always do it when I walk into the Ritz." He recounts a story about a journalist, a young man, who asked him if his back had always been like that. "I said, `Oh, yes, dear boy. I've always been bent.'" This causes a paroxysm of laughter. We stop while he recovers, then walk to the car. He is stooped so low that his eyes are focused on my shoes. As he levers himself into the passenger seat, his eyes glint wickedly. "Bare feet in town, darling? How amusing."
Next stop is to collect Peter Hope Lumley, Hardy's PR and friend of 52 years. The two have an affectionate and rumbustious relationship.
"Now don't say anything silly, Hardy."
"Oh, shut up, you old fool."
They speak on the telephone every morning, usually from the sanctuary of their respective baths. Peter has left Hardy's employ three or four times over the years ("The old sod doesn't pay enough"), but has always returned. "I like him and I like working with him. He is very amusing and good company." In his 50th year of service, Hardy presented Peter with a watch. A few months later he asked him if it ever lost time. "It wouldn't dare," said Peter. I demand from Peter a few adjectives to describe Hardy. "Imperious, arrogant and pompous, but saved by a great sense of humour."
"And a snob," says Hardy. "Don't forget that."
His snobbery is, in a sense, a part of his charm, because it is so much a part of him. While his affectations may come close to being a parody of the English upper classes, he has always celebrated his roots. "Pure middle-class and not an inch above. I am a child of suburbia." Does he mind being thought a snob? "Darling, it makes me proud. It means that I treasure high standards. Now it doesn't mean to say that you're unkind to the lower orders. Being a snob simply means that I think the top is the best."
A little later, he is talking about necks, for which he has a particular affection. A woman, he says, cannot be elegant without a good neck and a well-cut head. "The average woman has to fight a short neck; certainly the less well-bred ones." I give him a sharp look. Why? I ask. "Dumpy lower orders," he says, his smile sweetly provocative.
We have been in the car for nearly two hours and Hardy is scarcely winded. Even his increasing deafness does nothing to staunch the torrent of words. "I never stop talking. It's all right, you can ignore me if you like."
Who would dare?
The house, built of mellow Cotswold stone and framed by roses, is beautiful. The garden is sublime. There is no time to enjoy it, though - we are to take a walk, Hardy's daily constitutional.
"Have you any proper country shoes with you?"
"Borrow some Wellingtons, there's a good girl."
Despite the stick and the stoop, we bowl along at a spanking pace, my arm held in a vice-like grip. In the churchyard, we stop in front of a group of brass plaques. "Casket corner," Hardy says gleefully. "I've booked us in." The "us" is himself and his sister Rosemary - younger by four years - who lives in the village and organises much of Hardy's life. "I'd never manage without her." One place is already taken, occupied by Ken Fleetwood, Hardy's companion and intimate, who died three years ago. Fleetwood, a gentle and clever man, was design director at Hardy Amies and with the company for 43 years. I say that he must miss him. Hardy looks momentarily forlorn. "I am still so sad. It was a union of souls."
We leave the churchyard and gallop through the fields, talking all the while. He was born in Maida Vale and clambered, he says, "out of the dimness of my background". Soon after, the family moved to Wembley - "Nowhere could be more suburban than that" - and thereafter to Essex. His father was an official with London County Council, "a generous and easy-going man"; but it is his mother, who worked for a West End court dressmakers, who was the greater influence. He recalls being taken by his mother as a treat on a Saturday to the shop at which she worked. "I'm talking now about just before the 1914 war. I don't recall any particular dress. What stayed with me was the atmosphere. Here were 200 people devoted to making well-sewn and -cut clothes."
It was an uneventful childhood. The District Line trailed though his youth and presumably would have followed him to eternity, had he not been sent off to France and Germany as a young man. It was hardly the Grand Tour; he worked first in Paris for a company of carriers and customs agents and then in Germany for a business producing ceramic tiles. "I learned French pretty well," - well enough to read Proust in the original - "and was fluent in German." He is fluent in both still, which he has always considered an asset in his clamber out of the dimness. "They say, oh, he's marvellous, he's got marvellous French and German. The languages helped a lot."
After a stint in Birmingham selling weighing machines ("not very different from selling dresses") he moved to London, where he became the manager of the dress shop Lachasse. "Can you imagine it? I had no experience of the dress trade but I was pushed in as manager of this shop that had quite a standing. It was then I realised I had to learn about the upper classes, which I did exactly as if it was another language."
"I was pretty cute and when gentlemen fell for me, I encouraged them." The eyes twinkle. "Up to a point." His mentor was Alexis ffrench, an interior designer and expert in antiques. "We had a liaison for 20 years, and that doesn't mean it was based on sex. We got on well together, respected and loved each other. The family accepted me. I was well-treated by them, and even loved. Everybody was so helpful when I got things wrong. If I said, `Oh, Cook has made a very good stew,' they said, `You must never talk about Cook. It must always be Mrs Jones.'
"That, of course, was very helpful for my business, because the more I understood their lives, the more I could understand the clothes they wanted. I think that one of the reasons I'm still going is that I've always made clothes for lives and not for the front page."
And what of today's front-page clothes?
"They are not clothes. They are advertisements to sell scent."
And the new, classless society?
"Total rubbish. If it has no class, it is not a society."
Our walk ends at the barn, some two minutes' walk from Hardy's house. Another handsome building, it is used to house the overspill of the many guests he likes to invite down for the weekend. It is flanked by another rose-filled garden, and dominated by a tennis court. Hardy had to give up tennis four years ago, much to his chagrin, and abandon the doubles matches he played every Saturday morning. "I had to, don't you see? Otherwise I was boring three people." He has also given up his favourite pre-lunch vodka martinis. "I met this charming girl who told me that white drinks give one aches and pains. Well, I don't want any of those."
It is midday, and time for a pre-lunch stiffener. Hardy drinks red wine. "I said a glass," he says, "not a thimbleful." The glass is properly filled, to the brim. Peter has given up drink. It was a choice, he says, between wine and women - both expensive commodities. "Wrong choice, dear boy," says Hardy.
Hardy has always been candid about his sexual preference and peaceable with his homosexuality. He mentions Cecil Beaton, with whom he is often compared. "Oh, but Cecil was an unhappy old queen whereas I am a happy old queen. The trouble with poor Cecil was that he never found true affection, and while he wasn't all that grand either in the beginning, I am most different from him. I have a vulgar streak, a physical, outgoing side, which he never had. I never heard Cecil praising food or being at all interested in it because that was too gross for him."
Is he still happy? "Well, of course I'm happy. I think it's amazing that I'm going to be 90 and I'm knighted."
Drinking wine, we talk in the sunshine, surrounded by roses, clematis and lilac, all carefully tagged and labelled. No common hybrid roses here or garish bedding plants. The roses are ancient, the laurel is clipped, the lemon verbena trained to an obedient standard. If ever there was a bucolic dream of some enchanted England, then this is it.
"A garden should be peaceful, like clothes," Hardy says. Then he laughs. "That was rather good, wasn't it? I made it up, just this minute."
The pronouncements come thick and fast. "Never mix mauve and white lilac in the same vase. It's unspeakably vulgar." "Cuff links are so ageing." "A man who fastens all the buttons on his suit is not a gentleman." "One must not talk about a jacket - it is always a coat."
I ask him if he is tired. "I'm exhilarated, darling. It's always such a joy to talk about oneself."
What was the very first outfit he designed? "I can't remember a thing about it." He pauses. "Except, and this is important, I wanted to bring in an emphasis on shape, because it had been lost in the Chanel period." In 1937, he produced a collection for Lachasse, which included corsets. "The very first photograph I had in Vogue was of a suit called Panic. Cecil Beaton took the photograph. It had padded hips and was made of Linton tweed, in green with a cerise overcheck."
By the time war intervened, he was designing the entire Lachasse collection. He spent the war years with the intelligence corps, which taught him, among other things, "how to write a report and control a table of people in a restaurant". In 1944, he spent some time in Brussels, mopping up the Resistance movement. "You could smell the New Look coming."
Off we go, on the subject of the century's great fashion characters, many of whom he knew. "Dior was marvellous, wonderfully ebullient. Above all, he liked grand living, not for any reason, for glory or anything like that. Simply for fun." You can see how the two of them must have got along. Balenciaga he did not know, but admired. "He was the best. His clothes were so plain. He had a way of treating cloth that was so unfussed, which I've always liked." The one subject he will not be drawn on is the Royal family. "My dear, I couldn't possibly. It wouldn't be correct." His love and respect for the Queen is incorruptible and has been since 1951, when he made the first outfits for the young Princess Elizabeth. To this day he is proudly triumphant when she wears a creation by the house of Amies. He once stormed out of a hairdresser mid-cut because the manicurist criticised the Royal Personage. As he talks on, it is perfectly easy to understand why the Queen took him for her own. He must have made all those interminable fittings such sparkling good fun.
He stopped dressing her personally more than a decade ago: "She doesn't want an octogenarian crawling about her feet." But he is always on hand for advice. And while Hardy no longer designs the collections of the house that he founded in 1945, he does sit in on final fittings. "They don't like it when I make suggestions, which I quite understand. I wouldn't have liked it either."
He fixes me with a piercing eye. "Ask me what my real gift is."
What is his real gift?
"I am able to see how things would look finished. Give me a square of fabric and I can tell you what it will look like as a suit." His preference has always been for tailoring, and for simple, unadorned clothes. "One of the things I dislike most is a patterned silk suit. A suit is essentially something to do with the country but if you have a modestly coloured, beautifully planned and made suit, it will look very well in London. But a patterned suit with brass buttons I should loathe."
He has a benchmark by which he judges the success of an outfit. "I always ask, how will it look on the platform of Salisbury station?"
After lunch - three courses, with more wine - Hardy takes to his bed, which he does every afternoon. He is beginning, he says, to feel his age and rarely goes out in the evening or eats dinner. "I have a bowl of some sort of porridge stuff designed for invalids. It does me very well." His bleakest time is between six and eight o'clock, when Ken used to visit, bringing gossip and good cheer. "I do get a bit lonely, darling. You see, when you're 90, most of your friends are gone."
He emerges from his nap looking sprightly. Drinks are poured just before six ("Ah, the cocktail hour"), and we turn on the television to catch the early evening news. "One must be au courant." Neighbours is still playing. Hardy watches with mesmerised attention. "One day I'll sit through the whole thing and try and work out what it's all about. They're always quarrelling. Mind you, they're damned good-looking."
Dinner is served as a concession to the young, and afterwards we sit and talk some more. At 11, I am flagging and suggest that it is time for bed. For the first time, Hardy looks sad. "I suppose we must." Then he brightens. "But wasn't that fun, darling? Didn't we have a lovely time?"
I ask, before I leave, how he would like to be remembered. "As somebody." He twinkles gently. "That's with a capital S."
On the way back to London, Peter says he has found the perfect word for Hardy. "He's unique. Thank God."
Captions: Main picture: Sir Hardy Amies in his showroom at 14 Savile Row, London. Left: Amies in 1946, the year after he set up his own fashion house
From left to right, top to bottom: clothes designed by Hardy Amies in 1965, 1949, 1950s, 1967, 1961, 1961, 1964, 1973, 1984
Above: Amies in Cornwall, 1950. Below left: with Princess Margaret and the Queen, now the Queen Mother, 1950. Below: demonstrating to his assistants the size of a customer's bust
Above left: Amies (far left) in 1958 with Norman Hartnell (third from left), Yves Saint Laurent (fourth from left) and Cecil Beaton (sitting on floor). Above right: Amies and his staff leaving 14 Savile Row
to deliver clothes to the Queen at Buckingham PalaceReuse content