Annalisa Barbieri meets Elspeth Gibson, designer of a frou frou collection packed with girl power
When she was little, the fashion designer Elspeth Gibson was a very naughty girl. At seven, or thereabouts, she and her friend Fiona would dress up in Seventies curly wigs, long dresses and lots of costume jewellery and then visit the local "grumpy old man" whereupon they would annoy him until he chased them away. This wasn't the last time dressing up got Gibson into trouble. "As a teenager, I was always being told off by my mother. She would say, 'You can't go out in that!' So I would often hide a pair of high heels in my bag and slip into them when I went out."

Now 33, and after years of working for other people, Gibson designs for herself. Her collection - girlie, sometimes frilly but "never sickly; even when I do frills, they are wearable," - is highly sought after, but in that delicious secret way that makes you feel like you're in on something when you find out about them.

"I love beautiful things, but things that people can wear," she explains. "I don't know if what I see as beautiful other people will. But cloth and cut are very important too, I want people to think 'That's nice,' when they see my clothes, but then try them on and say 'Oh yes!'" Evidently people do, because her little broderie blouses and dresses (supplied with modesty slip) and georgette frilled bits and pieces (ordered to death by the Vogue fashion department) for spring/summer have already sold out at most of her stockists.

Being a fashion designer, despite her early dressing-up escapades, was not an obvious choice for Gibson. Her first love was horses. "I was a member of the Pony Club and I was mad about horses. When I was eight, my grandmother gave me this big parcel and I was convinced it would be a model horse or something." It was a old fashioned sewing machine and Gibson was "devastated". However, with the help of her grandmother, who was always making Gibson "little fake fur coats and hats", Gibson made skirts to wear over that Christmas. "They were basically tubes with elasticated waists. I made a flowery one for Christmas and then made lots in different fabrics." Her husband jokes that this early sartorial influence can still be seen in her collection.

Elspeth Gibson was born in Nottingham and brought up in a small country village where there were lots of farms and horses. At 16 she left school and went to Mansfield and Nottinghamshire College of Art and Design where she graduated from a two-year fashion-design course. From there she went to work on placement at Zandra Rhodes. "I loved her clothes. She did lots of embroidery and beadwork, which I had studied." Then several stints followed at various clothing companies: Triangle, Source, William Hunt, Coppernob and finally Monix, where she worked for seven years and left three years ago to finally realise her dream of starting up on her own.

"I always wanted my own label, but I needed to find out how things worked, how a company is run. I feel like I've been studying in the industry before starting my own label and I'm very glad I did it that way round and didn't just jump in." Jumping in is the downfall of a great many new designers - coming straight out of college with shiny new dreams, only to find them shattered by the harsh realities of business and the actual production of the clothes.

Gibson's studio - bright, bare, minimal and functional - is in her home in North London and overlooks a garden bursting with colour. The domestic part of her house is marked out by the knicky knacky things that make somewhere a home: a beautiful collage of her wedding pictures (at the end of the day, she jumped into a swimming pool in her wedding dress), a collection of clocks, only one of them working, more wedding pictures and fancy bottles in the bathroom, including an interesting one containing a rose suspended in liquid. Her home, like her clothes, hint at a life beyond mere fashion. "You have to do other things as well. You have to enjoy life to be able to keep putting it into design."

Now, Gibson's husband of eight months, Dominic Lawlor, looks after the business side. They both did business courses, but he naturally gravitates to the more logical side of a design business. "I like computers and spreadsheets," he explains, "Elspeth doesn't. I've taught her new words like 'budgets', and 'overheads'." This way, she is free to design, and he in turn has learnt all about fabrics and such like. Fabulously, Lawlor is also a dentist three days a week - he went part-time to work with Gibson. "Dentistry is an absolute doddle compared to fashion," he laughs, "although sometimes I get confused and ask my patients what size they are."

Elspeth Gibson is stocked at Tokio, 309 Brompton Road, London SW3 (tel 0171 823 7309) and Hero, 12 Green Street, Cambridge (tel 01223 328740) For further enquiries, call 0171 561 0773. Prices start at about pounds 90 for a broderie anglaise blouse.

Comments