Coming up roses

Take a vintage Forties slip, trim with fur, applique, beading or silk flowers, add Deborah Anderson's unerring sense of style and you have Belle Aura, the label poor little rich girls are desperate to be seen in. Hester Lacey met its founder

DEBORAH Anderson's girl friends often ask her where she finds her clothes, but often they already know the answer. "They say, `Don't tell me, it comes from a thrift shop'," she says, with a laugh. But, sadly for the lazy and for those who are useless with a needle, buying any old tat and throwing it on doesn't work: the secret is in what happens after. "I say, `Yes, this cardigan's from a thrift shop, but I added the fake fur to it and put in the lining myself... '"

And from this passion for renovation has sprung a whole design line: Belle Aura. "I had the idea when I made myself a slip dress a year ago," explains Deborah. "I had found a second-hand slip in Los Angeles, dyed it brown, added some dark red velvet and stuck on a couple of roses." Her dad, she says, took one look and asked if this was all the rage; she told him no, but that it soon would be. And she was right: Belle Aura slip dresses are worn by the likes of Nicole Kidman and Winona Ryder, not to mention home-grown talent like Sophie Dahl and Tamara Beckwith.

Deborah hunts out vintage slips wherever she goes; she has friends in Portobello Market who hang on to any likely candidates for her. Her favourites are silky numbers with spaghetti straps from the Forties and Fifties. "Slips from the Forties and Fifties are often exquisite pieces, beautifully cut," she says. Hanging from a rail in her Chelsea flat, which is also where she works, are a dozen slips in the process of transformation; a slinky white one trimmed with lace, a pale yellow already half-trimmed, another printed with pink flowers. Once rescued, Deborah washes them, mends any tears and replaces or fixes any lace trim that has suffered over the years. Then she dyes them and begins to accessorise. At the moment, she is into artificial flowers and butterflies; or she might choose applique or beading. "I am a total magpie," she says. "I might see a hat in a junk store for 50p and buy it to rip it apart and take bits off it."

She is guided purely by the inspiration of the moment, and her own taste. "The best gifts are something you'd want for yourself, and if it gets me excited, it generates excitement in others," she says. Each dress is a one-off. "That excitement is in the care and love I put into it," she says. "It's not just sticking on flowers and hoping they'd sell. Sometimes I put clashing colours, sometimes it's gorgeous co-ordination. I want to move away from them looking like slips to looking like beautiful, sexy dresses." At first, each piece was custom-made for each buyer. Then bigger orders from stores started coming in; but each dress is still unique. They retail for around pounds 200.

Deborah, now 25, started Belle Aura in the spring of 1997, with a friend called Belinda; the name is a mix of their two first names. By August, Belinda was working on other projects and Deborah was going it alone. "I freaked at the idea, but then I thought `I can do this'," she recalls. Bergdorf Goodman took 20 dresses to see what would happen, sold the lot in a fortnight and asked for 100 more by Christmas. "I had all my girlfriends in to help; I was phoning up saying `Can you sew? Can you sew?'"

Although her formal training goes no further than learning to use a sewing machine at school (needlework classes, she says, were "an excuse not to do maths"), before Belle Aura she had already started another company, Bag Lady. "I had this dream of making little, funny backpacks, and it was just as fake fur was about to explode. I just took an old bag of mine apart to see how it was put together, and got started. In LA I was six months ahead of the trend and the next thing I knew I was selling to eight stores," she says casually.

She makes breaking into fashion design sound ludicrously easy, and it's not even her main career. First and foremost she is a singer; born in London, she went to Los Angeles to work on her music. "It was never a case of running to LA to start a fashion label," she explains. "LA was good, but I was still developing my style. I realised I wasn't paying my rent, I was waitressing to earn money - how can you be less creative? So I decided to do something I could work on from home. I trusted my instincts. I could see what Versace, Dolce e Gabbana and Prada were doing, and wanted to do something at a quarter of the price and just as much fun."

A chart hit two years ago with Alex Reece won her a record deal with Mo Wax records; since then she's been writing her debut album, which should be out early next year. Her father is a musician and the whole family, she remembers, would sing harmonies with him; his studio was set up in the living room in their home. Meanwhile her mother ran a designer shop in Barbados. With her background, she says, "I think it was one of those things where you'd either get out of it all and become a doctor or an international lawyer or you'd throw yourself into it." And she has neatly combined the music and fashion elements in her own life. Oh yes, and she paints too, murals and canvasses. And she wants to open her own shop, with her own designs and other designers' work too, maybe next year. But all this diversity suits her perfectly, since her fashion sense tends towards quality, not quantity. "I think if you do three collections a year you lose the buzz," she says. "I'd rather do ten dresses that are beautiful than 30 that are just okay."

And she still finds time to get out on the town. "I'm not a serious person. Yes, I'm a businesswoman but I love to have a laugh and have fun. Getting all done up and getting out there is more exciting than anything else."

Belle Aura is available from Browns Focus, 38/39 South Molton Street, London W1, 0171 629 0666.

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