People in fashion: Town and country

Elainea Emmott's Chalk label sells at hip London shop Egg, but she designs her subtle clothes in quietest Yorkshire. Hester Lacey reports
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Indy Lifestyle Online
There are advantages and disadvantages to Elainea Emmott's choice of location - the picturesque Yorkshire village of Holmfirth. The advantages include the fantastic view down the valley she sees from the window when she is designing the clothes for her label, Chalk: a rainstorm sweeping down between the hills is, she says, a spectacular sight. Her cottage is beautifully panelled in the original dark polished wood. And the local butcher sells great smoked bacon, of which she consumes large quantities.

The main disadvantage is that delivery men are often foxed by her address, as she is tucked away on a back lane. "I often see them driving past," she sighs. "I shout 'Up here! Up here!' but, by the time I get to the door, they've gone." But she admits this is a small price to pay (they usually find the way in the end). She travels to London every week or so and thus combines the best of two worlds. "I love the country, I love the city, so I'm very lucky," she says.

Chalk has been going for six months, and Elainea has completed her second collection: next year's spring/ summer range. The clothes in her studio are in restful black, white, beige, grey. Her elegant shapes avoid dallying with fuchsias, lime greens and oranges. The fabrics speak for themselves. "The starting point is the fabrics. I'm aiming at the highest quality, the best workmanship. You know when you see clothes in a magazine and think they're wonderful, and are disappointed when you buy them...? I don't want that to happen with my clothes."

Among the Chalk range are a long, grey, sleeveless shift in a linen-Tencel mix, decorated with immaculate pin-tucking, a voluminous wool mohair coat, a beautifully slim-fitting tailored coat, a selection of soft cashmere scarves, shirts inspired by antique garments and an ingenious ruched dress the wearer can make shorter or longer by pulling on drawn threads that run from neck to hem. All the garments are meticulously finished, right down to hand-bound seams and details like hand-made wooden buttons. "A lot of the work is done by hand," says Elainea. "No two coats are ever the same."

Elainea studied fashion as a mature student at Manchester University; she joined the course aged 24 (she is now 29). "I used to work in advertising in Birmingham but I'd always been interested in sewing and fashion. When I went for my Manchester interview, everyone else had portfolios and artwork and I had nothing like that. But they liked me and offered me a place. I loved it. It was the hardest I'd ever worked."

On graduating, Elainea was offered work in New York and Paris, but she started her career as design assistant at Warehouse in London. She moved on after just a few months. "I wanted to work for a smaller company," she says; so when Rita Britton of Pollyanna, purveyor of designer labels to the North, got in touch, she jumped at the chance to join the Pollyanna design team in Barnsley. This was when she moved to her Holmfirth hideaway (handy particularly because her husband works in Manchester, which is not a terribly convenient commuting distance from London). "I spent two years at Pollyanna. It was fantastic: busy and exhilarating. I was doing everything: designing, pattern-cutting, selling on the shop floor. It was a very close-knit team."

Britton says Elainea fitted in from the word go. "She has this almost childlike enthusiasm and a great personality. What impressed me most when she sent in her work was that she was incredibly well organised and presented herself so well. It's a great part of the job: as dear Miss Muir once said to me, 'We can all draw pretty pictures'." Learning at Pollyanna, says Britton, fits in perfectly with Chalk's very grown-up, classic approach. "It's very much our theory that we don't care what fashion says, and Elainea learnt quickly that if a woman buys a fuchsia pink jacket, she hates it after a few wears: that the thing to do is have a black jacket with a fuchsia scarf." She believes Elainea is a stayer. "The fashion press builds up young designers into icons very quickly, before they have time to get their feet on the floor; they come and go. Elainea will build up slowly and be a success in 20 years' time."

Elainea started up Chalk with some very clear principles. "I want to make something special and unique," she says. "People have got to buy clothes they feel good in, the clothes have to be worth the money paid for them. I want people to really want my clothes, to salivate over them." She describes her sizing as "realistic". "My clothes have to be honest. Women want to look thin: I do. A dress might look great on someone with a model figure, but it also looks good on me, and I've got boobs and hips." She wants the clothes to look effortless, she says, "but simplicity is one of the hardest things to achieve. I keep it really simple and let the fabric do the work." She is aiming at no particular group. "I don't think of one type of person: I think of myself, my friends, a customer I've met, someone I've seen in the street, lots of women all at once. My designs are ageless and suit all body types."

Her insistence on top-quality fabric and handwork mean Chalk clothes do not come cheap. The wool/ mohair coat retails at pounds 595; a pin-tucked shift is pounds 295, a shirt pounds 120 and a simple sleeveless top pounds 125. "You are paying for the fabric and quality," says Elainea. "And these are clothes that won't date. One of the greatest compliments I can have is when people wear and wear something: really worn clothes take on a beauty of their own, as well."

She herself was wearing an extraordinarily smart, practical two-piece in black jersey: loose-fitting trousers to mid-calf with a tunic-style top. "I wear these all the time to run around in," she says. And who needs colour anyway? "My clothes don't shout out 'Look at me, look at me!'," says Elainea decisively. "They are quietly confident."

Chalk is stocked at Egg, 36 Kinnerton Street, London SW1, tel: 0171 235 9315; general enquiries: 01484 689158