Jeff cuts it in a material world; Interview

Deborah Ross talks to Jeff Banks
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Indy Lifestyle Online
Jeff Banks has always seemed so polished and together - when he loses one fortune, just swiftly moves on to make the next - that I wonder what goes on underneath. Is he a kind person, for example? "I wouldn't say kind, because that implies softness, and I'm not soft," he says. "But I would say I'm compassionate." Does he cry easily? "Oh yes. Just thinking about some things makes me cry. The thought of peace in Northern Ireland makes me cry." And blow me if Jeff Banks doesn't burst into tears.

When people cry in front of me I get all embarrassed and tend to say the first silly thing that comes into my head, which in this instance is to ask about those shorts-leg swimsuits which are so hideously in at the moment. Jeff, I say, I bought one before I went on my last holiday, and it ruined the entire fortnight because I looked wholly absurd in it, like Popeye only less attractive and more masculine. I mean, who can wear these swimsuits apart from 12-year-old girls with legs like colts?

"Well," replies Jeff, perking up considerably. "Betty Grable always wore big knicks jobs, didn't she, and she looked good. The thing is they have to have a very wide waistband, otherwise bits bulge out.".

Jeff knows a lot about fashion, of course. He's been up there since the Sixties when he first opened Cobblers, one of London's first boutiques, and then went on to found the hugely successful Warehouse chain. And he is still part of the fashion establishment, still designing, still banging on about the horrors of bobbling - "you may laugh, but it's a serious problem, actually" - and, until recently, hosting The Clothes Show for the BBC, which he did for 10 years before quitting last month.

He resigned, he says, because over the last year it had become apparent to him that the BBC was only interested in "dumbing it down" and making it "superficial and infantile" in an attempt to capture the teenage market.

Previously, he says, the show "always had an intelligent view. How does Paris work? How is linen made? But increasingly the BBC started wanting things that were inconsequential. What's the in bag? What's the in belt? And it hacked me off."

Oh come on, Jeff, I say. It's all pretty superficial and inconsequential isn't it? No, he insists, it is not. "Clothing is one of the three principal factors in life: a roof over your head; food in your belly; clothes on your back." But there's a difference between clothes on your back and, say, spending pounds 987 or whatever on a pair of pony-hide Gucci flip-flops, isn't there? Of course, he says. But, still, high fashion is a wonderful thing: "When you experience it up close, and see the level of craftsmanship, it is just unbelievable. I love it. From an artistry point of view, it's incredible."

We meet at his office in Soho, where he has something of an empire going. These days he designs not only clothes, but also tableware and Pyrex dishes and wallpapers and corporate uniforms. He is responsible for redesigning the uniforms at Bally Shoes, Abbey National, American Express, Coventry Building Society and Barclays Bank. "At least half a million people a day go to work wearing something designed by me," he says, proudly. I tell him I'm dying for him to get his hands on M&S uniforms because all those flying diamonds on the navy background make me dizzy. He says: "Yes! Yes! Awful!" Then gasps: "And those A-line skirts? Terrible!"

Which designers does he rate himself? Romeo Gigli, he says, plus Issey Miyake. And Versace? No, he was never a big fan of Versace. "Too over- embellished for my taste." Was he surprised by his death? No, he says. "I mean, if you mix with gay boys in Miami, this is what you leave yourself open to." Versace asked for it in other words? "Yes." Now, where's the compassion there, Jeff?

Funny thing, that weeping over Ireland business. The tears weren't fake, I'm sure of it. But why? We go on to talk about a lot of other things: his wayward father and how he kept running off; the loss of his first fortune; the collapse of his first marriage to Sandie "Puppet on a String" Shaw. But he doesn't get choked up over any of these.

I am entirely mystified until later, when we get onto the subject of Buddhism - he converted in 1975 - and I ask him if he sees any contradiction between his twofold commitment to both material aspiration and spirituality, and he says he doesn't. "Yes, I chant for financial success, but if you chant for something material, and it happens, then that gives you the strength to chant for less obvious things."

It proves it works? "Yes. And I have a little thing on my altar." (He has Buddhist altars at his homes in Henley and Cornwall). "It's something someone gave me 15 years ago in Belfast and it says I should not cease to chant for peace in this world until there is peace in Northern Ireland. Well, I've been chanting for that for 15 years. When I started, Bobby Sands was on the blanket. Peace as a concept was difficult to grasp. Now, we are a few days into a peace process. Has my little bit of chanting helped? Maybe it has."

I think Jeff believes that, should peace ever be declared in Northern Ireland, he will have helped to bring it about. In his brilliantly solipsistic way he will see it as his achievement, hence the tears. Plus, it will also confirm his belief that the world is an ordered place in which causes have effects. Buddhism, of course, is all about causes having effects. For some reason we get on to the Holocaust, which Jeff views like this: "You have to ask what the Jews had done historically to be so vilified. What's the karma of the Jewish people such that they drew this effect? Jews are not uncharitable people, and they have great minds, but they also have bad money karma because, in historical terms, they have acted in the main as merchants and moneylenders."

Now, it doesn't cost much mentally to think like this. Certainly, it is easier than thinking the world is an accidental place in which there is no justice or moral purpose. But Jeff cannot take this on board. I don't think he is a stupid man. I don't think he is anti-Semitic, either. But he is all about Making Things Happen. Perhaps because his early life was so chaotic and disordered and this is his way of coping. .

He was born 54 years ago in Ebbw Vale, South Wales, to Phyllis and Alfred Banks, a sheet-metal worker. Jeff does not think his parents would have married had it not been for the war. "My mother is a very diminutive, shy Welsh woman whereas my father, now dead, was a very adventurous, jocular, larger than life character."

After the war, the family moved to Catford, south London, where nothing much happened until Jeff was eight, and it was time for the family to go on their annual holiday to Clacton. Alfred went ahead, to sort out the caravan. Phyllis and Jeff arrived by train the next day. Meeting them at the station, his father blurted out his news. He said to Phyllis: "I'm leaving you for Gladys Doherty, the mayoress of Lewisham." The next thing Jeff can remember is his father walking off while his mother screamed down the platform: "And a bloody good job, too."

He says he can't remember feeling anger towards his father, or even missing him particularly, until he was 11, when he won a scholarship to St Dunstan's, a minor public school. But his mother who, to support them, was working as a tea-lady at the Lewisham branch of British Home Stores, simply couldn't afford the kit. "Then, I resented the fact my dad wasn't around to help in the way other kids were being helped by their dads," he says. In other words, when he first ached for his father he did so in a material rather than an emotional way. Did he then go on to become obsessed by material things? Perhaps.

He went to Brockley County Grammar instead, but still without a uniform which, he says, was so mortifying for him that it propelled him into seeking work. Too young for regular employment, he set up his own business whereby he bought paraffin down the hill, rolled it up in an old pram, and sold it for a penny more at the top of the hill.

He had started Making Things Happen. Soon he had enough not just for a school blazer, but a hand-made school blazer, and not just shoes, but hand-made shoes. What did these things mean to him, exactly? "They meant I had the best blazer and shoes in the school which, yes, was very important to me." Because, deep down, he felt fatherless and worthless and inferior? Possibly, he accepts.

Things not having worked out as expected with the mayoress of Lewisham, Jeff's father returned when Jeff was 16. His mother took him back, he thinks, because she was of that generation of women who never accepted a marriage had failed, no matter that she didn't love him. She didn't love him? "No, I don't think so. And I don't think he loved her, either. But in those days, the working classes felt they had to stay together to the bitter end." Did he love his father? "Yes. I grew to love him for the wild creature he was. And he loved me. And was very proud of me."

Jeff left home at 18 for Brixton college of design where he studied interiors and textiles. Then, in 1963, he opened Cobblers, a boutique in Blackheath, which was "a tiny place packed with stuff from people I had known at college ... Ozzie Clarke, Sally Hess. We sold out on our first day." To re-stock the shop as quickly as possible, he set about designing himself. By the time Jeff was 23 he had founded the International Clothing Company and was a millionaire with a pop star wife. It was heaven, he thinks. But it all went horribly wrong when, in 1974, a fire at International wiped out a whole season's stock and, after a year of negotiations with banks and insurance companies, he went bust. "It was crushing. I lost everything. Houses, car, home. It was like being back at school and having my blazer and bike taken away."

He lost not only all his own money, but also a fair chunk of Sandie's. But it wasn't being poor again that did in their marriage. "Sandie was fantastically supportive. I mean, she was a major pop star, someone who then was like the Spice Girls are today. We used to have French photographers breaking into the garden and everything. When it came to telling her the house was gone, and we had to go live with my mother, she just said `yeah, OK'."

What did for them in the end was Jeff's determination to make things happen again. Once he had the idea for Warehouse, he worked and worked and worked, so was never around for his wife or their daughter, Gracie. He regrets this now, he says. "The mistake a lot of men make is that they think women want them for what they can give them. But they don't. What they actually want is their time and to be cared about."

He has since married Sue, an erstwhile make-up artist, by whom he has two daughters, India and Coco. Is he a better husband and father this time round? "I'm good at taking weekends off, if that's what you mean. Unless I'm asked to do something, in which case I'll probably do it." So he hasn't changed that much, really.

After establishing the Warehouse chain, and making his second fortune, he bought himself an estate in Ireland and invited his parents to retire there. His father, he says, was on to it like a shot. "It was another adventure for him." However, after three months of living there, Alfred just disappeared. Phyllis returned to London while Jeff, who had nothing much else to do while he was staying there, went driving about at night to see if he could find him.

Three years later, Jeff wandered into a pub in Dingle on the south coast and there was his dad. "He was sitting there, legs apart, brown suit, trilby hat on, pint of Guinness and brandy in front of him. He looked up at me and said: `What the hell are you doing here. Is something wrong with your mother?' I said: `I'm looking for you, you silly sod. We haven't heard from you for three years. What are you doing?' On the stage were three guys playing drums and violins and things. He pointed to them and said: `I'm their manager. I'll show you.' He then took his hat off and went round the bar, collecting money. They were all about 60. He'd met up with them after he'd left, and had been rampaging around Ireland ever since."

Once discovered, his father returned to his mother. And she took him back again? Yes. But she later got her own back in their 49th year of marriage when, in the week before their 50th anniversary, she left him because "she didn't want him to have the satisfaction of a party." Jeff laughs appreciatively. I suppose it is quite funny. In a sad kind of way.

It's not hard to see why Jeff has to see life as so ordered and logical. He's had enough of chaos. Even his wardrobe must be ordered. "I keep my summer and winter wardrobes completely separate and swap them over on the same dates each year - 1 October and 31 March."

Who does he reckon has style? "Lady Harlech and Sigourney Weaver," he says. And Princess Di? "No, she's just a cultured buyer. Occasionally, you see her in cowboy boots or puffa jackets, things which shouldn't be in anyone's wardrobe." I've got a puffa jacket. I think it may be my turn to burst into tears.

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