Jasper Conran: Designs for life

Jasper Conran has become one of British fashion's most successful and versatile figures – and his new collection is a tour de force. Iain R Webb meets him

When the designer Jasper Conran, then a precocious pretty-boy aged 19, emerged on the British fashion scene three decades ago Vogue proudly pronounced that he could be our own Calvin Klein.

"I went to Parson's School in New York, but I actually thought Calvin Klein was quite boring," laughs Conran when I meet him at his HQ in south-west London. "I thought, 'Oh God, please don't make me be a beige coat' and I kicked against being categorised."

Fast-forward 30 years and Conran has expanded his CV exponentially. Known primarily as a womenswear designer, he also creates high fashion menswear, along with J Line, a lower-priced range for Debenhams that includes jeans, accessories, childrenswear, homeware and hosiery. His talents are manifold; over the years he has designed a range of crystal for Waterford, china for Wedgwood, fabrics and wallpapers for Designers Guild, luggage and even fireplaces. At the beginning of this year Specsavers launched his Optical Collection.

It does not stop there. A four-storey Georgian townhouse in central London is the jewel in Conran's crown. It opened in 2005 and is home to his flagship store, showcase for his fashions, fragrances, made-to-order furniture, homeware and a couture bridal service. Never one to miss a business opportunity Conran has added a bridegroom collection.

Although he cringed at the Klein comparison, Conran must have been thrilled when described as "Britain's equivalent to Ralph Lauren".

"It's evolved because it's a business," says Conran. "I work as hard at T-shirts at Debenhams. I find the application of creativity to pure business situations absolutely riveting. And I think I've become quite good at it."

An understatement if the rumours that Conran is now worth as much as his father, Sir Terence, are true – at last count his personal property portfolio was estimated at over £15m. In the mid-1980s when I asked the rising star how much he was worth, he responded that the question was academic. "It's what I will be worth that matters," he said. So what is he worth now?

"I'm worth enough," he says. "We are a very profitable company. We are many companies. A lot on paper."

The impressive store, with its air of art-gallery tranquillity, is a tangible accomplishment. It was a defining moment when the designer saw all his efforts come together under one roof. "Yes, because I designed everything in that place," he says.

Despite his deceptively nonchalant demeanour, Conran is a big deal in the British fashion industry and this year he was awarded an OBE for services to the retail industry.

"I've got the OBE and two doctorates, I'm a visiting professor," says Conran, "but I'm more proud of being tenacious because there's been really tough times – the late Eighties were just awful."

While many of his contemporaries have taken lucrative jobs overseas or show abroad, Conran doggedly champions Britain.

"I have a real affection for this country," he says, "and trust me I pay a lot of tax. But the Government are still not quite sure what creativity is. It's unreasonable to expect that all creative people should have business brains, but it would be reasonable to expect that British designers were given practical help."

Conran once told me that there was a "strong difference between what I do and fashion, I've never said that I make fashion".

"That still holds," says Conran. "I feel that I am in my heart more dressmaker than showman. I like making the much quieter things that are craft and skill based, that's my love. For me making quite simple dresses is a pleasure."

Throughout his career Conran has adhered resolutely to this ethos, effortlessly refining his look. While his debut collection featured classically restrained clothes, his most recent collections have offered sensuous silk jersey dresses in golden sun-tan tones (S/S 2008) and understated tailored suits and cocktail dresses that mixed 1990s minimalism with 1950s couture in shades of kohl, clay, nude and sable (A/W 2008). Over the years he has built up a faithful clientele who love his quietly confident clothes.

"They are not that va-va-voom," says Conran. "I've had to live in the real world of selling clothes, which has been frustrating at times."

While the Conran moniker might be seen as a stepping-stone to stardom, Conran Jnr points out that the need to get away from the tag of being somebody's son has been a huge motivation in his career.

"From my early childhood my father was successful, and that was hard," he says. "I couldn't go to art schools in this country as he was a governor. So, I went to New York."

Those early days in the Big Apple influenced him to the core. American fashion appeals to what Conran calls his "sensible approach". Sensible clothes don't always make headlines. How has he dealt with the capricious press?

"You are not going to be everybody's cup of tea, that's fair enough," says Conran.

It is not just Conran's designs that appear grown-up. Having diversified into so many other areas of the design industry Conran has gained a confidence that has afforded him a new perspective on the fashion business.

"I feel I've conquered other people's expectations of me and the fear of that," he says. "Deciding to work with Debenhams was a really good thing to do and has been good for other British designers. When I first did it, everybody was looking down their noses. Now Karl Lagerfeld's doing it.

"I feel very certain of myself now and that's because I work with more people. I like working in a team. Actually, I like being head of the team."

election 2015The 10 best quotes of the campaign
A caravan being used as a polling station in Ford near Salisbury, during the 2010 election
election 2015The Independent's guide to get you through polling day
David Blunkett joins the Labour candidate for Redcar Anna Turley on a campaigning visit last month
voicesWhat I learnt from my years in government, by the former Home Secretary David Blunkett
ebookA delicious collection of 50 meaty main courses
Life and Style
ebookNow available in paperback
  • Get to the point
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

ES Rentals

    iJobs Job Widget
    iJobs Fashion

    Ashdown Group: Marketing Manager (B2B) - Romford - £40,000 + car

    £35000 - £40000 per annum + car and benefits: Ashdown Group: Marketing Manager...

    Ashdown Group: Helpdesk Analyst - Devon - £20,000

    £18000 - £20000 per annum: Ashdown Group: Helpdesk Analyst - Devon - £20,000 ...

    Ashdown Group: Data Scientist - London - £50,000 + bonus

    £35000 - £50000 per annum + generous bonus: Ashdown Group: Business Analytics ...

    Ashdown Group: IT Project Coordinator (Software Development) - Kingston

    £45000 - £50000 per annum: Ashdown Group: IT Project Coordinator (Software Dev...

    Day In a Page

    General Election 2015: ‘We will not sit down with Nicola Sturgeon’, says Ed Balls

    'We will not sit down with Nicola Sturgeon'

    In an exclusive interview, Ed Balls says he won't negotiate his first Budget with SNP MPs - even if Labour need their votes to secure its passage
    VE Day 70th anniversary: How ordinary Britons celebrated the end of war in Europe

    How ordinary Britons celebrated VE Day

    Our perception of VE Day usually involves crowds of giddy Britons casting off the shackles of war with gay abandon. The truth was more nuanced
    They came in with William Caxton's printing press, but typefaces still matter in the digital age

    Typefaces still matter in the digital age

    A new typeface once took years to create, now thousands are available at the click of a drop-down menu. So why do most of us still rely on the old classics, asks Meg Carter?
    Discovery of 'missing link' between the two main life-forms on Earth could explain evolution of animals, say scientists

    'Missing link' between Earth's two life-forms found

    New microbial species tells us something about our dark past, say scientists
    The Pan Am Experience is a 'flight' back to the 1970s that never takes off - at least, not literally

    Pan Am Experience: A 'flight' back to the 70s

    Tim Walker checks in and checks out a four-hour journey with a difference
    Humans aren't alone in indulging in politics - it's everywhere in the animal world

    Humans aren't alone in indulging in politics

    Voting, mutual back-scratching, coups and charismatic leaders - it's everywhere in the animal world
    Crisp sales are in decline - but this tasty trivia might tempt back the turncoats

    Crisp sales are in decline

    As a nation we're filling up on popcorn and pitta chips and forsaking their potato-based predecessors
    Ronald McDonald the muse? Why Banksy, Ron English and Keith Coventry are lovin' Maccy D's

    Ronald McDonald the muse

    A new wave of artists is taking inspiration from the fast food chain
    13 best picnic blankets

    13 best picnic blankets

    Dine al fresco without the grass stains and damp bottoms with something from our pick of picnic rugs
    Barcelona 3 Bayern Munich 0 player ratings: Lionel Messi scores twice - but does he score highest in our ratings?

    Barcelona vs Bayern Munich player ratings

    Lionel Messi scores twice - but does he score highest in our ratings?
    Martin Guptill: Explosive New Zealand batsman who sets the range for Kiwis' big guns

    Explosive batsman who sets the range for Kiwis' big guns

    Martin Guptill has smashed early runs for Derbyshire and tells Richard Edwards to expect more from the 'freakish' Brendon McCullum and his buoyant team during their tour of England
    General Election 2015: Ed Miliband's unlikely journey from hapless geek to heart-throb

    Miliband's unlikely journey from hapless geek to heart-throb

    He was meant to be Labour's biggest handicap - but has become almost an asset
    General Election 2015: A guide to the smaller parties, from the the National Health Action Party to the Church of the Militant Elvis Party

    On the margins

    From Militant Elvis to Women's Equality: a guide to the underdogs standing in the election
    Amr Darrag: Ex-Muslim Brotherhood minister in exile still believes Egypt's military regime can be replaced with 'moderate' Islamic rule

    'This is the battle of young Egypt for the future of our country'

    Ex-Muslim Brotherhood minister Amr Darrag still believes the opposition can rid Egypt of its military regime and replace it with 'moderate' Islamic rule, he tells Robert Fisk
    Why patients must rely less on doctors: Improving our own health is the 'blockbuster drug of the century'

    Why patients must rely less on doctors

    Improving our own health is the 'blockbuster drug of the century'