People in Fashion: A touch of class

Few would equate the mining town of Barnsley with sartorial style. But that's where Rita Britton has established her reputation as an institution in British fashion through her boutique, Pollyanna. James Sherwood met her
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In the design studios of New York, Tokyo, Paris and London she is known as "Reet the Sweet". Issey Miyake calls her shop - Pollyanna, in the working-class mining town of Barnsley - "One of the most beautiful in Britain." At 53, Rita Britton is an institution in the British fashion world and arguably one of the most astute buyers on the international scene.

This year, Pollyanna celebrates 30 years in the business. Britton has built her empire from a tiny side-street store, stocked with pounds 500 worth of Ozzie Clarke and Mary Quant, to the now-famous four-storey, stone and glass, designer emporium, stocking Yohji Yamamoto, Issey Miyake, Jil Sander and Comme des Garcons.

"Orrible, innit," declares Britton when asked about the name of her shop. "But you have to remember that 1967 was the era of Biba, Ozzie and Mary Quant. Pollyanna was right for the time. I should have changed it while I could, but now it's too late. Pollyanna has an identity of its own now." To demonstrate her point, Britton tells me about a meeting with Tony Benn MP at one of the local colleges where he was giving a talk. "I went to congratulate Mr Benn after his speech and he asked my name. I said 'Rita Britton' and he fired back, 'Pollyanna'.

"I think the main difference between us and London is that they follow fashion and our customers invest in style," Britton continues. "And we give a service you would not believe. People say they bend over backwards for their customers. At Pollyanna, we do backflips. There isn't a day goes by when we don't send at least four parcels direct to our clients. I don't even see some of my best customers any more, they trust me to send the pieces they would instinctively choose."

Ninety seven per cent of Pollyanna's clients do travel to Rita's and, 30 years on, Britton has the third generation of local families shopping at Pollyanna. "I'll give you a typical customer profile," says Britton. "She's got money to spend. She may have a couple of weddings coming up. But she doesn't want occasion clothes in bright colours from Discarda [Escada]. She'll come to me for a Jil Sander suit that she can wear to the wedding then wear it to work then dress it up for the evening. Northern women expect clothes to work for them."

Britton, born into a working-class Barnsley mining family, opened her first shop when she was 23. "I borrowed pounds 250 from my Dad and saved the rest from my wages at the paper mill. When I first went to London [in 1967] and bought from Ozzie - who was the first gay man I'd ever met, because we didn't have gay men in Barnsley - it was the time of the birth of the boutique. So, when I opened Pollyanna it was a new idea, be that in Barnsley or Carnaby Street.

"Now, the first question every journalist asks me is how can I justify selling designer frocks in Barnsley," (the inference being Britton is casting pearls before swine). "What they really mean," says Britton with a belly laugh, "is how do I do it? You have to remember that I've been in this game for a lot of years. I never left Barnsley and I am one of their own." She was recognised by her own as Northern Businesswoman of the Year in 1996.

Absolutely Fabulous Britton ain't. "Who are these people who sit round smokin' fags and drinking wine?" asks Britton about the common fashion cliche."We are surviving each season not living in a fantasy world. Mind you, my next door neighbour is called Clarence Thickett and he has an outside toilet, so I don't think I'm in any danger of getting above myself.

"You've got to keep your feet on the ground. Yesterday was one of the best days I've ever had. Today looks like it's gonna be one of the worst. I'm very conscious of the balance between good times and bloody awful times." Britton's bloody awful time came 16 years ago when she was diagnosed with breast cancer. "It's like a death sentence," she says, bluntly. "But the only way for me to tackle it was to hate cancer and do everything in my power to beat it."

When it comes to buying stock, Britton is a ruthless businesswoman. "I made a decision to pare down the designers I was stocking and expand the range rather than introducing new names." Her bete noire is colour. "You're looking at the only colour in this shop," says Britton nodding to the sunflower on the cafe table. "What do you think about these damned colour analysts?" she barks. "I mean, they aren't trained and they don't realise we don't have Mediterranean or Caribbean light. Ours is grey-blue. Lime green is fine in Jamaica but not in Leeds. I remember telling Miss [Jean] Muir about colour counsellors and she said to me, 'How dare they!'."

Britton will often invest five-figure sums on one collection. Even when gambling with such large amounts of money, she admits that the seasonal buy is a bit like being the Mystic Meg of the next tax year. "I may still be insecure about this thought," she says, "but I don't think tailoring is the biggest thing now. There are other ways of wrapping fabric around the body and fabric technology is taking precedent. Pollyanna customers aren't interested in costumes or clothes that look to the past for their inspiration. They're too busy thinking about clothes for the next millennium. Fabric technology is the future."

Remember you heard it first from Reet the Sweet.

Pollyanna, 12/14 Market Hill, Barnsley, Yorkshire, 01226 291665, and Salt's Mill, Saltaire, Shipley, 01274 592052.

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