People in fashion: To most people, ribbons, however pretty, are for tying up hair or presents. It took entrepreneur Annabel Lewis to spot their myriad other uses and turn them into a thriving business. Sally Williams met her
FOR SOMEONE who specialises in gorgeous trimmings, Annabel Lewis is looking surprisingly plain. Tall and blonde, with long hair and a straight back, she is wearing a beige skirt, brown cardigan and cream sandals. But then there's the ribbon. Tied on her head in the most fanciful of loops, is an enormous bow of Zebra-striped mock suede. "I'd like to wear a different one each day," she says, briskly, "but I just don't get the time." Annabel Lewis, founder and owner of VV Rouleaux, the ribbon and trimmings shop in Sloane Square, is far too busy selling decorations to others to worry much about herself.

Sandwiched between shoe designers Emma Hope and Patrick Cox, VV Rouleaux (rouleaux is French for roll, VV stands for "very very good. Pathetic, I know") has trimmings galore on two floors. Upstairs is dedicated to home furnishings such as woven braids, curtain tie-backs and tassels. Downstairs has every type of ribbon from wired organza and pleated velvet to French brocade and Dalmatian-printed suede. Run with husband Richard ("he does the admin"), the shop is like your mother's dressing up box. It's full of flimsy things, shiny things, things as soft as spaniel's ears and all in bright sweet-shop colours. Fresh-faced assistants know everything there is to know about woven banana bark, chenille worms, and how to fold a piece of ribbon properly: woven between thumb and little finger. ("Rolling it is so department store.") The feel is specialist, exclusive, and busy.

But how can this be, you may ask? Dresses are no longer decorated with ribbon, hardly anybody wears hats, and what with clips and scrunchies, there is more than one way to tie a pony tail. "Everyone thought I was completely bonkers when I first opened in 1990," she says. "People would come in and say, what a beautiful shop. Marvellous. How can you possibly make any money?" But Annabel does. Rather a lot, in fact. Her turnover last year was half a million pounds, and future plans include eight franchise shops in this country, as well as outlets in New York, Washington and Rome. One woman came in recently and spent pounds 13,500. "Richard was shaking so much he could hardly do the till." What did she buy? "A bit of tassel, a bit of ribbon, it mounts up." It must do. Annabel, Richard and their four children, Phoebe, Fanny, Monty and Tallulah (ages 10 to 6) live in Chelsea. Not bad for a farmer's daughter from Cumbria who left the local secondary modern at 16 with no qualifications, and who, arriving in London soon after, had to beg for a job in Justin de Blanc's flower shop because she was so broke.

But then, who would have guessed just how big ribbons would become? Annabel certainly didn't. Not even when she first gained a name for ribbons, sold, at first, to tie up bouquets from her two flower shops in Fulham and Parsons Green, opened in the early Eighties. "We used to put really unusual things on our flowers: ribbons from France, wire edged ribbons, even sacking and pipe lagging. People used to comment. That's how it started."

Now ribbons are everywhere. "It began with Voyage," said Min Hogg, editor of World of Interiors, "and their signature velvet trim. Now other designers are following." From Gap to Nicole Farhi, the shops this seasons are full of T-shirts, cardigans, frocks and coats with richly-coloured velvet ribbon on the cuffs and hems ("We are constantly being asked how to Voyage a cardigan," says Annabel stiffly). According to Min Hogg, trims are quite the thing in the world of soft furnishings, too. "The fashion now is for a plain curtain with a beautiful trim, rather than a large pattern," she says. "Trisha Guild, for example, uses this look in her Designer's Guild curtains."

So, where does Annabel fit into this craze? "You just couldn't get beautiful ribbons before VV Rouleaux," says Min Hogg, "such a place didn't exist. She's made it much easier for designers to get wonderful ribbons and trimmings. Annabel has definitely facilitated the fashion. Who knows, she may even have sparked it off."

It's certainly true that the world of trimmings couldn't wish for a more passionate advocate. "I just have a complete bee in my bonnet about it," she says. "I can see something like an antique piece of bead work, with ribbon and lace all mixed up together, and I just go, 'Yep, bloody marvellous'." Annabel searches the globe for good quality, original ribbon. When she talks, it's like eavesdropping on a secret world that speaks a private language: grosgrain, organdie, guipure, tulle, bobble drops. She is the sort of woman who knows 32 different words for beige: sand, barley, cognac, sherry, suntan, daffodil, blonde...

But Annabel's real skill is in knowing what to do with it all. Most people, when faced with a ribbon, even a beautiful picot-edged one, think hair or present-wrapping. Annabel, on the other hand, thinks picture frame, bow tie, cardigan pocket, Christmas tree, sofa, lamp shade, pelmet, quilt, hat, even horse - see her brochure with intriguing close-up of horse's bottom with purple taffeta tail. "Look here," she says, picking up a thick rope of lime green chenille, "this would look terrific on a pair of those floppy trousers. You know, the swishy, swishy ones. You can see, can't you?" Well, no, actually, but the great thing about Annabel is that she will tell you. She has written a book, The Ultimate Ribbon (Conran Octopus), gives lectures, goes on (non-terrestrial) TV, and helps countless magazine stylists. "People are always asking me for ideas. I don't mind at all - as long as they buy something. That's what it's all about. After all, at the end of the day, I am just a shopkeeper."

VV Rouleaux, 10 Symons Street, London SW3, 0171 730 3125

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