When Tanya Sarne, founder of the Ghost label, announced last year that she was launching a new line called handwritten, her legions of fans were delighted. The first collection, created in collaboration with the New York designer Gary Graham, is just as relaxed, pretty and wearer-friendly as might be expected, given the motivating force behind it. Having sold her remaining shares in Ghost to Kevin Stanford and the Icelandic retail investment company Arev, in 2006, Sarne had agreed not to work for a year. By then, while many might have just basked in the glory of past successes – and, it is hoped, considerable means – this irrepressible character had decidedly itchy feet. And that is good news for women the world over.
"My aim was always to make beautiful clothes that make women feel feminine, attractive and confident," Sarne says today, and dressed from head to toe in her own designs, she looks just that. "I want to make women feel good."
In fact, while Ghost is busily expanding – even with Sarne at the helm, it had grown to the point where she describes the collections as "huge" and "rambling" – handwritten harks back to a time when she ran a small but perfectly formed West London-based business, working with a skeleton staff of suitably cool characters and a series of guest designers, from Nicholas Knightley and Sherald Lamden to Alister Mackie and Suzanne Deeken. Ghost, you see, was ghostwritten, hence the name.
Although all of the label's designs were adapted and often inspired by Sarne herself, she transformed it into a great British success story by working with up-and-coming young talent as well as a handful of more permanent pattern-cutters and the designer Sophia Malig ("my right hand"), who rejoined her at handwritten. It was always a winning formula: Sarne gave her designers both a platform and the resources to produce a collection. They gave her an injection of bright, young creative talent in return.
Then, of course, there are the fabrics. It is by now the stuff of fashion folklore that the vintage crêpe effects that Sarne developed are in fact achieved by shrinking and dying a new, stiff, woody material, not dissimilar to net curtains in consistency. This was a process that Sarne rediscovered and many others went on to appropriate. Certainly, the original material bore little or no resemblance to the finished product, which, at its best, bore more than a passing resemblance to the fabric of slip and tea dresses of the Thirties and Forties (when the process originated), but could be machine-washed and -dried, and stuffed at the bottom of a suitcase from which it would emerge pristine – well, pristine after five minutes hanging in a steamy bathroom at least.
Handwritten follows a similarly pragmatic approach, in as much as the label's identity comes from the fabrics first and foremost, allowing Sarne to flit between designers at her leisure – Robert Cary-Williams has also worked on a small holiday line due in the shops in early November. The weight and texture of the yarns she is using in the organza, georgette and crêpes are new developments and are finer and more delicate, but the colours are the instantly recognisable, unashamedly romantic and subtly faded shades that Ghost was known for. For spring/summer, ultra-feminine skirts and dresses come with bubble hems and the Victorian-lingerie details that are Sarne's trademark – covered buttons, lace trim and gauzy layers, the effect of which is subtly precious.
"I feel my previous work was becoming a little 'lady', and handwritten is slightly younger," Sarne says. "It is also a much smaller collection, every piece has to count." That is not to say that the need to cater to all shapes and sizes has been cast aside. "Of course, every piece has to be forgiving. Every piece has to have stretch to adapt to the changes in a woman's body."
If this sounds like an extremely personal and individual approach, then that is good to see. After all, Sarne's sudden split from Ghost, the company she built up from scratch into a multi-million pound operation over more than 20 years, was something of a blow, both personally for her but also for anyone running an independent fashion business in this country.
Sarne started Ghost, she has always said, because she was a single mother with two children to support, and her flamboyant personality and colourful lifestyle was as much a part of the label's identity as the clothes themselves. As is often the way, her at times idiosyncratic approach to running her company sat uneasily with the more corporate nature of the brains behind Ghost today, and so Sarne stepped down. "I love fashion," Sarne says in explanation of her seemingly tireless wish to remain involved. "I don't know what I'd do otherwise."
The autumn/winter handwritten collection, which arrives in stores at the end of August, includes signature bias-cut slips and more covered-up and typically versatile dresses, but they are joined by structured, tailored pieces, still predominantly following an hourglass line, lace jackets in fashionably downbeat colours, and fitted knitted garments, too.
Tanya Sarne sweeps past a mannequin dressed in a narrow-waisted, shrunken olive-green jacket and matching A-line skirt. "Look, this is new," she says. "I've never done wool like this before". It looks lovely but, truth to tell, its creator seems more excited by the fact that it can go in the washing machine.
You can take the girl out of Ghost...