Obituary: Michael Sherard

MICHAEL SHERARD was amongst the last valiant British dress designers to attempt a full-scale couture house run on Parisian lines.

When it opened in 1945 his relative youth, good looks and undoubted talents made him an instant hit with a fashion-hungry public depressed by post- war austerity. No matter that within a few years his spot in the limelight was superseded by John Cavanagh and then Ronald Paterson, Sherard had proved that his own British taste and ingenuity could triumph over shortages of materials, labour, and near-total perverse government indifference.

One of Sherard's first collections sold entirely to Marshall Field, the Chicago department store, boosting British exports and prestige, but the pre-war and wartime significance of London as a serious rival to Paris, largely a result of the genius of Norman Hartnell, was lost as the French government fully re-backed the French fashion industry after Liberation.

Sherard also maintained that the weight of talent on view from the major French houses in the 1947 travelling exhibition "Little Theatre of Fashion" privately convinced him that Britain could never compete again. Dior's "New Look" next made London's struggling houses seem second rate, but Sherard also attacked the unpatriotic negative attitude of leading British journalists and influential British women. His own house only lasted until 1964.

He was born in Kingston-on-Thames, Surrey, in 1910, one of the six sons of Ada and Eustace Sherard. His father was a City solicitor from a legal family well-established in Kingston, of which his grandfather was twice mayor. At Berkhamsted School, he was influenced by the classicist H.L.O. Flecker, brother of the poet, who instilled in him a love of the classics (Greece remained his favourite holiday destination) and encouraged him to draw and design scenery for school plays.

Sherard threatened to run away if forced into the law and attended the Westminster School of Art (1929-31). In 1930, following a successful exhibition at the Goupil Gallery, he showed his designs to the young star of the fashion world, Norman Hartnell, who spurned an assistant and recommended Paris. Sherard endured three days of rejections before returning home and becoming assistant to the macho Peter Russell, whose house specialised in pared-down designs suitable for conservative, sporting women.

Although Sherard said it would have been difficult to find two people more unalike, he learnt practical designing and business methods from Russell. An elegant man with a no-nonsense reserved manner and great love of the arts and literature, Sherard appreciated the same qualities in others and enjoyed a wide circle of friends, but by 1939 his workaholic nature and the stress of working for Russell led to a duodenal ulcer. The subsequent war years were spent at the Admiralty as Deputy Assistant Censor Cables (Trade Division).

A Peter Russell client, the opera singer Ruth Vincent, introduced Sherard to her son John Fraser, who became business manager when the House of Michael Sherard opened at 24 Connaught Street, Marble Arch, in 1945, largely financed by both families. "The wrong side of the Edgware Road," snorted Russell. (Sherard's mother had defected to Hartnell from Russell because of his uneven temper.) But as the "village tailor" Sherard found that his "obsession with the length of pleats and drapery" drew society clients and stars including Margot Fonteyn, Phyllis Calvert, Margaret Lockwood and Gladys Cooper.

In all, he dressed some 30 modern stage productions, including The Mousetrap (twice) and The Reluctance Debutante. By 1948 Sherard was a member of Britain's Chambre Syndicale, the Incorporated Society of London Fashion Designers, and participated in their many shows and promotions, including the annual glamour shows in the presence of Queen Elizabeth (now the Queen Mother), and also making up designs for the Cotton Board, the National Wool Secretariat, the Nylon Spinners, the National Wool Export Board and fabric manufacturers such as Courtaulds, when new artificial fibres were promoted throughout the luxury end of the trade. Cecil Beaton photographed his own sister Mrs Alec Hambro in Sherard dresses for Vogue amidst the rococo splendours of Sir Henry Channon's "Amalienburg" dining room.

Sherard and Fraser inhabited three grandly decorated sets of chambers in Albany, where parties, shows and models were much photographed, together with his dachshunds Hansel and Humperdinck. This life style was curtailed after they moved out in 1954. In spite of his change of professional name Sherard was an unpretentious man, typically insisting that he was a dress designer, not a "couturier".

In 1952 a new yellow and off-white salon was the show-piece of his new house at 17 Curzon Street, Mayfair, and Sherard lived nearby until he died. The events surrounding the Coronation of the Queen resulted in prosperous domestic seasons. Three workrooms employed some 40 people producing elegant garments in the vanguard of fashion. If never trend-setters, Sherard's designs fully enhanced individual personalities. "One's nicest clients are seldom the most wealthy or smartest, but they have `chic'."

The best-selling clothes of his career were evening dresses, at which he excelled: a lavishly leafy-tiered crinoline of 1952 and a classically draped sheath evening dress of 1956 sum up his controlled exuberance and fascination with eternally young classical designs; they are also indicative of the individual talents of two famous former assistants, Murray Arbeid and Caroline Charles.

In spite of successful ready-to-wear lines marketed world-wide under different labels, Sherard lacked the clout of a great innovation or client that would have resulted in lucrative merchandising of his name, his big push of the "Pumkin" line at the 1951 Venice Film Festival British Designers Show was a brave attempt that met a tepid response. By 1964 new fashion centres, street styles and rising costs led to the demise of his house, but then came a fulfilling career lecturing at the London and Shoreditch Colleges of Fashion.

He was elected a Fellow of the Royal Society of Arts in 1966 and a member of the Clothing Institute, and his fascination with design resulted in close involvement with the rebuilding of the Girdlers' Hall in the City of London and responsibility for the interior design; he was particularly proud of his "Dancing Staircase" design. As Master of the company in 1959- 60, he laid the foundation stone and maintained a close connection with it until his death.

Malcolm Henry Sherard, dress designer: born Kingston-on-Thames, Surrey 17 July 1910; died London 26 December 1998.