Catherine Walker: Fashion designer who dressed Princess Diana for nearly two decades

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The Independent Online

The quintessential royal couturier, Catherine Walker possessed the essential ingredients required of a person dressing a Princess who also happened to be a magnet for paparazzi. Diplomatic, tactful, tasteful and incredibly discreet, Walker became the designer who Diana, Princess of Wales, consistently came back to. It wasn't simply her eye for quality, which was never in question, but the fact that she was resolutely tight-lipped. Other British fashionistas fell in and out of favour but it was Walker, a Frenchwoman with an understated design signature and aversion to self-publicity, who endured.

Their close relationship - never discussed, never exploited - lasted for almost two decades. At the core of Walker's gift was her consistency. There was little she could not turn her hand to. Provided with a punishing schedule of international royal visits, all requiring a different look, Walker had a unique talent to work within the confines of protocol, varying climates, colouration, decorum - but most importantly the all-important photogenic quality. More than 1,000 outfits were produced during this period, ranging from a demure embroidered column dress perfectly proportioned for greeting guests at a state banquet to a refined linen dress designed for taking afternoon tea with Mother Teresa in Calcutta. In between there was a strappy-backed evening gown which Diana wore with slicked-back hair to the New York Fashion Awards.

Catherine Walker never attracted criticism. She shunned sensationalism in any form. The nearest she ever came to getting any kind of flak was designing a high collared jacket, worn by the Princess to the Albert Hall which was compared to one donned by Elvis.

She was born Catherine Marguerite Marie-Therese Baheux in a village in the Pas de Calais; her stepfather worked in the textile industry, and she spent her childhood surrounded by local crafts and beautiful fabrics. Toying with the idea of a career in the diplomatic circle, she studied for a Masters degree in Philosophy at the universities of Lille and Aix-en-Province and spent time in London working at the French Embassy.

Having met and married John Walker, a British solicitor, she moved to England in 1970. Five years later tragedy her 32-year-old husband died in a freak accident and Walker went from married woman with financial security to single mother with two young daughters. In the spring of 1976, consumed with grief and unsure of which way to go, she started taking evening classes in fashion design, bought an electric sewing machine and sold her creations from a basket on the Kings Road. "It was therapy," she said, "fuelled by a need to control my pain and sorrow."

In those days Walker was merely surviving, with no plans to branch out into bigger things, but she had already caught the zeitgeist. By now she had met a partner, Said Ismael, who instilled her with self-belief and told her point-blank: "You're going to make the Rolls Royce of children's clothes." Her instinctive love and understanding of fine fabrics came into play and she made angel tops and pinafores edged with binding. Her first order came from a shop called Small Wonder on the Kings Road. The owner asked her to make a girls' size four sample skirt in corduroy; an order for 14 followed at 70p each. This was the beginning of Walker the serious businesswoman who would later become one of a handful of British designers to flourish making clothes for private clients. She never lost her perfectionist streak: "I recall how upset I was when my grading was out by one 16th of an inch," she recalled of the early days. "My grief was consumed in tiny details."

As word spread, the Catherine Walker signature gathered momentum. She sold the furniture she inherited from her grandmother to buy a semi-industrial Bernina sewing machine. In 1976, and still largely self-taught, she set up her own business, buying a dilapidated house in Sydney Street, Chelsea and calling it simply The Chelsea Design Company. By 1979 childrenswear was still the mainstay and her cotton sailor dresses, mixing French chic with the Sloane Ranger sensibility and initially designed with her daughters in mind, were an immediate success.

By 1981, Walker branched out into womenswear, firstly making maternity then extending into the more elegant areas of day, cocktail and evening dresses. Inspired by the great Parisian couturiers, Vionnet in particular, Walker's business model ran parallel to a classic atelier with separate rooms specifically designed to drape cloth, construct tailoring or embellish dresses. In November 1981 came the call that changed everything. The Princess of Wales was expecting a baby and asked for a smock dress to be made. The photograph of Diana leaving St Mary's Hospital wearing a green polka dot dress holding Prince William the following year was the start of their partnership. It ended with Diana's death, and her burial wearing a black Catherine Walker dress purchased a couple of months previously.

In the early 1980s, though Walker personally shunned the limelight, with the Princess of Wales as a loyal client and walking advertisement for the brand, her clothes started to appear on the pages of the upmarket glossies - Tatler, Harpers & Queen and Vogue - and stayed there throughout her career.

Unusually for a fashion designer, Walker was never pigeonholed into one area, becoming equally known for beautiful evening gowns, flattering suits and sumptuous bridal gowns. She dressed a host of stylish thespians including Joely Richardson, together with socialites including Tara Palmer-Tomkinson. Unlike many other designers she never carried the can for an unflattering royal fashion gaffe. It wasn't because she kept her head below the parapet: it was that she simply didn't make those kind of mistakes. Maybe it was because she didn't go in for sensation. Her signature was refinement, flattery but above all, consistency. Anna Harvey, Editorial Director of Vogue International, knew Walker from the start. "She was an intensely private woman who would die rather than give away any state secrets," Harvey said. "She was a total perfectionist who didn't take any risks. She didn't want to set trends. She didn't want to set the world on fire. Her tailoring was perfect. She was totally fulfilled by making beautiful clothes for people who understand quality."

Catherine Marguerite Marie-Therese Baheux, couturier: born Pas de Calais, France 27 June 1945; married firstly John Walker (died 1975; two daughters), secondly Said Ismael; died 23 September 2010.