Saturday 06 July 1996
Meeting designer Anita Jenkins is slightly disconcerting: she is blonde and slight and only 26, with the cool composure and sophistication of a screen goddess and the business savvy of Bill Gates. She makes skirts composed entirely of yellow and white daisies - but she also reads the financial pages.
Jenkins, whose line is called 3F, is at the forefront of the new breed of British designers: they are steely-minded and business-orientated as well as talented. The frivolousness of the Eighties, in a sense, is gone: the Jasper Conrans, the Rifat Ozbeks and the Betty Jacksons are being jostled by younger, more streamlined, more focused versions.
This particular designer is studying French for when her collection shows in Paris. And she already speaks Serbo-Croat.
Jenkins was a buyer at the trendy Notting Hill emporium Graham and Greene (where a little French T-shirt sets you back pounds 50) before she got tired of trawling Paris for clothes she knew she could design better. For a while, she designed the shop's own line - which was snatched up by the likes of Koo Stark - but realised, early on, that her fortune lay elsewhere. With nothing more than a portfolio of sketches and a book of contacts, she left. 3F was conceived in the Holland Park flat she shares with her boyfriend Michael Levy, a barrister. "I have always been very pragmatic about my career," she says. "I always knew what I wanted, always knew what the next step would be."
With her grit and determination, it did not take long for Jenkins to soar. In January, less than a month after leaving Graham and Greene, she was awarded a New Generation Sponsorship through Marks & Spencer, which paid for her space at the London Designers Show during London Fashion Week. She was one of the few chosen for the sponsorship who did not come up via the traditional route, a la grunge whiz-kids Clements Ribeiro, Copperwheat Blundell and Pearce Fionda. They are all graduates of Central St Martin's and part of a tight-knit fashion mafia. That is a short cut to getting recognised by the editors of fashion magazines. The other is to get your husband to sponsor you and persuade television presenters to wear your clothes.
"I was insecure about not having a degree, at first," says Jenkins. "But my background, my training, is different."
She grew up in the East End, the daughter of a Bosnian mother and an English father, and was taught to sew as a child by her grandmother, while learning to speak Serbo-Croat and cook Bosnian food. As a teenager she haunted the East End markets, buying fabrics and studying textures.
"My love of fabrics, of textures, of shapes, comes from my childhood," she says. "We went to Yugoslavia every summer, to the Dalmatian coast. And there, everything was bigger and brighter. The tomatoes were redder, the sky bluer. I admire Armani, but I would never produce a collection devoid of colour."
At 17 ("but I acted 30"), Jenkins was admitted to the Harrods training scheme. She left, briefly managed an Accessorise shop, and went to Graham and Greene. There, she was credited with having a brilliant eye, but also with being upfront and truthful. "Frankly, there are some people who can wear a bin liner and look great," she says. "But most people need a bit of work." Her clothes reflect that honesty. They are wearable, yet fun, cut from lush fabrics - velvet and brocade in the winter, shantung, lace and linen in the summer. She says she was inspired by Balenciaga, but also by the film clothes of her favourite actresses. "The sort of thing Audrey Hepburn or Grace Kelly might have worn," she says. "Or maybe a La Dolce Vita look."
The clothes are also wearable. When she cuts her pinstriped capri trousers, she cuts them high on the waist rather than on the hipbone, because that is the look that flatters most women. "You can move in my clothes," says Jenkins. "You can pick up the laundry in them. I'm fed up with clothes that are pieces of art. Those things belong in a museum."
Ten years ago, designers who would admit to wanting to be commercial - such as Nicole Farhi - were sniggered at by fashion editors, and the ones who didn't - such as Helen Storey and Scott Crolla - went bottom up. "The right combination is to be creative and commercial," says Jenkins. "There is nothing wrong with that."
This is what sets her apart. At London Fashion Week, she was inundated with offers: her whimsical daisy skirt was featured in Vogue and Marie Claire, and filmed by Granada TV. Her clothes were snapped up by the Japanese for major department stores. Her next trick is submitting a design - "I want to make something wild... but something you could still wear to a party and not look ridiculous" - to an Absolut Vodka competition. After six months, her line is available in Browns, Graham and Greene, Tokio on the Fulham Road and Space NK. And, of course, at all the best places in Japan
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