Joseph Ettedgui: Fashion designer and entrepreneur who made his name selling clean-cut styles at affordable prices

Click to follow
The Independent Online

Joseph Ettedgui was a world renowned yet self-effacing Moroccan-born fashion designer who brought simple, clean-cut styles and fashions to the public at affordable prices. Though he had no background in fashion, Ettedgui did have a keen eye and an entrepreneurial flair for retail coupled with an innate intuition for what his customers needed and wanted, which ultimately led to his global success and an impeccable reputation. His stores brought together contemporary designers with his own-name designs from the early 1970s.

All of this, however, was a world away from the ambitions of his father who was a French-Moroccan shopkeeper. "He wanted me to be a doctor or a solicitor," Ettedgui said. "In Morocco, it was considered degrading to be in retailing."

Born in Casablanca in February 1936, Ettedgui originally trained as a hairdresser but in 1960 he and his brother, Maurice, came to London, where, he said, they "fell in love with the rain and baked beans". It was the start of the swinging Sixties and there was a buzz of excitement in the air with the likes of Vidal Sassoon, Mary Quant and Terence Conran about. In 1962, the brothers opened a hairdressing salon, Salon 33, on the King's Road, Chelsea, being joined two years later by their other brother, Franklin.

Joseph Ettedgui was quick to explore new avenues, his love for fashion exceeding his desire to style hair. This led to a meeting with Japanese designer Kenzo Takada in Paris, after which Ettedgui began selling Kenzo knitwear in his salon, turning the basement into a shop in the early 1970s. As luck would have it the fashion editor of The Sunday Times, Michael Roberts, noticed the salon and liked the sweaters. He used them in a shoot that appeared in the magazine. By the Monday afternoon, the entire stock had sold out. Thus, Joseph Ettedgui was launched on a Britain that had no idea its appetite for adventurously minimal European style was about to be stimulated.

Along with Kenzo, Ettedgui introduced local aficionados to the likes of Azzedine Alaïa, Helmut Lang and Martin Margiela. In 1972, continuing to sell young designers like Kenzo, Emanuelle Khanh and Jean-Charles de Castelbajac, he established his own-name clothing store in Chelsea offering women staples in the form of simple yet stylish and impeccably cut trousers and shirts, as well as an unfaltering mixture of brands. His philosophy was simple. "An entire wardrobe can't be made up of only designer clothes," he said. "People need good trousers and good shirts that they wear all the time." He was right – but just as important was the way he sold his goods, in hi-tech, chrome-and-glass stores initially designed by Norman Foster, which had the streamlined ambience of an Art Deco cruise ship. In the late 1970s, he took on the rest of the world, opening stores in Paris, New York and Japan.

The black and chrome of his London stores defined the stark monochromatic obsession of the 1980s and spawned countless imitators, keen to adopt the same sense of sophisticated style but unable to match his unfaltering mix of carefully chosen labels. Wise enough not to buy entire collections, he selected only the most streamlined and well-designed pieces. His constant search for perfection, combined with convincingly structured in-store and window displays, brought many designers to the fore. So influential was Ettedgui's choice of names that his favour could raise a designer's status overnight. As well as developing the Joseph brand, he has been credited with nurturing designers such as Margaret Howell, Katharine Hamnett, Franco Moschino, the late Alexander McQueen and John Galliano.

Hamnett, for one, reflected on "a fantastic working relationship" which began when Ettedgui rescued her from penury after a French company she was working for left her high and dry with a bagful of samples. He bought the lot on a sale-and-return basis, she recalled, "and that was the beginning of one of the happiest times in my career. He enabled things, he trusted his instincts, he loved what he did, and he was very good at it."

Despite the success of his Joseph emporia, he recognised that shoppers wanted a different retail experience, and so, in 1997, he decided to overhaul his stores to make them less sterile, more comfortable, even fun. "Stores provide too much stability today," he explained. "You have to give customers the element of surprise, because shops should be like a stage that changes every three months."

In 1996 and 1997 new Joseph stores opened in New York, along with a second London store. The new London shop was Ettedgui's first free-standing menswear shop; additional men's-only stores were slated to follow in major US cities like Boston, Chicago, and Miami. However, Ettedgui found a new passion in the Connolly brand. In 1999 he and his wife Isabelle, who was the firm's designer, bought the family-owned luxury leather goods brand and opened its first flagship store in 2000 in Conduit Street, central London. Since then he had introduced ready-to-wear, an area he planned to develop further. In 2008, aged 72 and with retirement not on the horizon, he contemplated opening a luxury hotel in London, which would have given Connolly an extra dimension.

In late 1999, Ettedgui and his brothers Franklin and Maurice surprised many by selling a 54 per cent stake in the Joseph brand to the Belgian financier Albert Frère, and a minority interest to the luxury giant LVMH, with Joseph personally making over £30m in the process. In 2005, he and Franklin sold the entire business to the Japanese firm Onward Kashiyama for £140m, sharing £20m between them.

Over the years Ettedgui won a number of accolades, including the Knitwear Designer of the Year award four times, in 1990, 1992, 1993 and 1994, for his Tricot collection. In 1990, his collection of urban classics received the British Classics award, and in 2000 he also received a British Fashion Award for Contemporary Collections, presented by Cherie Blair.

Joseph Ettedgui was widely recognised in the fashion world for his profound contributions not only to apparel, but to the atmosphere in which clothes are bought and sold. His ability to act as a catalyst, bringing together the work of innovative designers as well as classic ensembles, many from his own designs, provided a unique environment for both men and women seeking clothing and accessories not only for special occasions but for an entire lifestyle. "I like to dress people, not to make them fashionable," he said. Whether consciously or not, he did both over three decades.

Nicholas Foulkes, author of The Last Dandy, summed up Joseph Ettedgui: "With his tousled hair, slightly mischievous smile and cigar, Joseph was a true Londoner even though he never shed his French accent. I believe that Joseph will come to be regarded as one of the handful of men who shaped London taste in the last quarter of the 20th century and who helped establish chic London today... he was a charming man and a good, kind friend. He will be greatly missed."

Martin Childs

Joseph Ettedgui, fashion designer, retailer and entrepreneur; born Casablanca, Morocco 22 February 1936; married firstly (two sons), Isabelle Pritchard (one daughter); died London 18 March 2010.