Their business began as an accident in 1982, just after the duo graduated from the RCA. Jeff Banks (founder of the Warehouse chain) saw Thelma out shopping in a hat she had made for herself using car spray-paint and straw. He ordered hundreds - and the pair worked frantically to finish the order. However, it wasn't until Joseph Ettedgui, the great diviner of British design talent in the Eighties, ordered hats over the cloakroom counter of their cult Piccadilly nightclub, "White Trash", that a design duo was born.
Since then, Bernstock Spiers have been known primarily as milliners but they are also accessories designers, club promoters, stylists and fashion merchandisers. In 1995, they became fashion designers, and only last week Paul and Thelma entered a new phase - as retailers. TEN is the name of their first shop. It is conveniently located beneath their respective flats in Columbia Road, home to London's well-known Sunday morning flower market.
On a weekday morning, Columbia Road is virtually unrecognisable from the hustle and bustle of the Sunday market. Instead of hollering market traders, the eerily quiet street is patrolled by the occasional model heading to an appointment, or young mums with their children. "The first Sunday we opened I saw my street in a totally different way - huge trees and shrubs bobbed past the windows all morning," says Thelma who has lived above the shop for nine years. The shop is typically East End: old wooden floors; brocade couches covered in comfy cushions, rails of clothes suspended by ancient ladders and curtain poles on pulleys.
Their clothes, they say, have been awaiting realisation for some time. The first collection, shown two years ago, was a capsule range of fluid silk/jersey and glazed cotton separates. "When we told our friends we were designing clothes, they thought we were mad," says Paul, as Thelma intercepts: "But we've never been into fashion to make a million. We're passionate about it and we want to enjoy it." A cliche, but an accurate one. Paul and Thelma have never stopped having a good time, and the shop is an extension of their sociability, as customers pop in for tea and a chat as well as to shop.
Their current collection is based around a simple but effective idea. Most of the clothes (primarily for women, with a few token unisex pieces), are made from Airtex, a staple of school sportswear, and a favourite of Austrian designer Helmut Lang. The colourful range is pull-on, washable, uncreaseable, and no item costs more than pounds 100. Thelma and Paul cite American designer Norma Kamali as an important influence. Kamali came into her own as a designer after her divorce in 1978, opening a shop called On My Own (OMO), and was a specialist in creating colourful versatile clothes that could be worn in several ways and in different situations. Their range reflects this easy-dressing concept. (Kamali is also regarded by many as the innovator of easy dressing, using bodysuits and unitards before Donna Karan had thought of them.)
Just after the shop opened last week, Corinne, singer with Swing Out Sister, appeared in TEN. "She spent three hours in the shop trying on different things," says Thelma.
"She tried the bright pink one-shoulder dress with orange elbow length gloves; she layered slip dresses over trousers and wrapped things around her middle - she looked fab, and then she left." Luckily Corinne only left to get some money and a couple of friends. She bought a bag-full of clothes to wear on tour and vowed she would be back again.
The clothes are refreshingly easy to wear, and are not just for skinny waifs. They are sporty, womanly and are the perfect way to gather a summer wardrobe in minutes.
"You can come here and buy two interchangeable holiday outfits for under pounds 200," says Paul. There are also some very fashion-conscious pieces, such as boob tubes, slip skirts, and strapless dresses. There are even coordinating "fag bags". "Every girl needs one of these when they're out," says Thelma.
Bernstock Spiers currently make their clothes at the back of the shop, so alterations and unusual size requests are not out of the question. Neither is a long trying-on session and a quick cup of tea.
TEN, Columbia Road, London E2. Inquiries, tel: 0171-729 7229; fax: 0171- 613 1317. Opening hours: Monday-Friday, 12 noon-7pm. Saturday, closed. Sunday, 11am-3pm.
Main pictures (above)
Long three-colour Airtex T-shirt dress, pounds 80; elbow length gloves, pounds 25
Blue and purple slip dress, pounds 45; fag bag, pounds 10
Yellow and pink short T-shirt dress, pounds 60Reuse content