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
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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."