The working woman's friend

Annalisa Barbieri meets Monica Zipper, designer of the ultimate in wearable, affordable capsule wardrobes

Within 15 minutes of applying lipstick for the photographer, it is no longer in its intended place. "I'm still like a kid. I still spread my lipstick all over my face," laughs Monica Zipper. Doesn't matter, doesn't matter. She tissues it off and continues talking as the dictaphone eats up tape after tape and morning turns into early afternoon and the fruit bowl, once spilling berries and grapes, becomes a graveyard of pips and stalks. Monica Zipper tells great anecdotes. The trouble is, you can't repeat half of them because she tells them to you in secret, in a trusting way that actually makes you keep the secret, because you wouldn't want to get her into trouble.

Zipper is 43 and does many things. She is best known as a fashion designer and best remembered for her successful clothing company, Monix, which she ran for 14 years. She now runs her own business again, Zipper Image Landscaping, and has just launched a new line of things to wear called "Slip On". ZIL helped relaunch Biba and bring it "into the millennium" and it also works with Evans. But a lot of the work she now does is confidential. "I have people who contact me and say, `Look, no-one can know this, but we're at a standstill." Zipper is able to breathe life into a range, a store or an idea which is flagging. You have no doubt that she is very good at this because Zipper has not lost that child-like quality of seeing past the crap and stating the obvious that everyone else either can't see or doesn't dare mention. "I love telling people that I don't understand in the middle of a meeting," she says.

Monica Zipper was born in Enfield to German and Austrian refugees. She is the youngest of three children:"I was always an embarrassment to my brother and sister because I had such a big mouth." She learned to play poker at an early age, beating all her brother's friends, and to earn a bit of extra pocket money she delivered the political leaflets of two parties at the same time.

After school she went straight to the London School of Fashion. Then her father sent her to Switzerland. "I'd never have been able to get into finishing school - that was the joke - so I got a job working with a knitwear wholesaler." On her return, she spent five years working for a clothing company, designing things in "denim and lace", before leaving, now aged 23, to start up Monix on 1 April 1977.

Maths was a bit of a problem with her first order, for Miss Selfridge, for 800 tiered skirts in four different colours. "I ordered each colourway for 800 skirts. So, all of a sudden, I had 3,200 skirts, and I panicked." But within 12 months, Monix was thriving. "When I started Monix, I used to say, `Buy it out of a wage packet not a bank loan.' I designed for a price point." Monix went on to win two "More Dash Than Cash" awards at the British Fashion Awards.

"Monica was always very clever," says Jane Proctor, editor of Tatler, who first met Zipper in her role as fashion editor of a national. "Of all the inexpensive companies, hers was the only one I remember as having proper talent. Several times, I would see she had already done something that was then shown on the catwalk, but she would do it at a cheaper level. She has a lot of talent."

Monix got hugely successful, but ran into financial problems. A buyer came along and took on Zipper and all her staff (part of the deal, at her insistence) but she wasn't happy and left 11 months later. "The whole thing had taken too much out of me. I had lost the house, everything. But you know, people were kind. Elizabeth Emanuel rang me up, so did Jeff Banks. And one of the greatest nights of my life started out as the worst. I was stranded at the airport in Paris - the flight was delayed - and so was Vivienne Westwood and we spent the whole afternoon together. She said that sometimes it had been her shop that had kept her going - that direct link with the public. And we talked and talked."

Zipper was offered a job immediately, joining Sears as design development director. She insisted on a few conditions that would keep her happy. "I take my children's birthdays off, so I can meet them from school. It's their treat. I don't do red-eye flights and no-one calls me `Mon' at work." In jest, the managing director, Derek Lovelock, called her Mon one day, she called him Del-Boy and they continued in this bantery way until she left. Then she set up Zipper Image Landscaping. "Someone said to me, `What do you want to do?' And I thought `The high street shops all look the same and I want to make them look like English gardens, all different but all beautiful.'"

Today, Zipper has her fingers in lots of pies. She is fretting that we are losing arts and crafts skills in our schools and that computers are taking over. But the traumas of the past few years have taught her a lot. Working from home means she can spend more time with her three daughters. "But sometimes I find it hard to separate my `mother' hat and my `designer' hat and say, `Carla, you can't go out in that!' and she'll say `But mum, you bought it for me,'and I think, `Oh dear'."

Zipper Image Landscaping is on 0181 446 3098. Slip On is available from June at Spirit, Duke Street, London W1 and by mail order on 0171 485 5926.

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