IN OUR glossy-mag world we were frightfully sniffy about Frank Usher frocks - those spangly things worn to Rotary Club dinners and Guildhall 'dos'. Nevertheless the business, owned and run by Max Bruh, was hugely successful, winning countless awards for export and dressing a swathe of genteel British (and foreign) women with an eye on fashion but neither the budget nor the derring-do to go the whole hog.
Frank Usher, like its rivals Susan Small, Geoffrey Wallis and Freddie Starke, was a ready-to-wear house which copied the look from Paris. In those days fashion was a direct Gallic diktat; one was left in no doubt that this season was emphatically A line or H line, mohair or Gazar. The trick of interpreters, like Frank Usher, was not stylistic innovation, for they had the safety- net of haute couture design leads, but to know their rag trade inside out; where to got the best value for money in fabrics, seamstresses and novelty trimmings.
Ready-to-wear manufacturers bought, at vast expense, a 'caution ticket' which not only allowed them to enter the couture show but also entitled them to one garment made up, to two toiles or to three or four patterns. Max Bruh usually chose the last.
While Mrs Carr-Jones of Susan Small tended to opt for having a garment made on her so that she had a real feel for the dynamics of the clothes, and Wallis was the fastest and most daring copyist who ignored all embargoes and would get 'Chanel' suits out in a fortnight (unexpectedly, much to the delight of Coco, whose scent sales rocketed), Frank Usher preferred to use the patterns to make more classic and - one shudders at the very word, 'wearable' - interpretations. He knew his market. His women did not want one-season folderol, they wanted a good, reasonably priced dress that would 'see them through'.
Bruh had a feeling for business rather than design. As one doyenne of Vogue explained to me, 'You see, when suits were supposed to be soft and floppy (Chanel), his were stiff, and when they were supposed to be cardboard stiff (Courreges), his went floppy.'
Both he and his wife, Anne, were refugees from Nazi Germany. There would not have been such a flourishing fashion business in Britain were it not for such canny and motivated people who earned a handsome living and significant export earnings for their adopted land (his were reputedly the best-selling evening dresses in Germany).
Bruh came from a poor Jewish background in Silesia and left school at the age of 14 to support his family. He was apprenticed to the fashion house Friedlander & Zaduk, in Berlin.
While on business in Switzerland he was advised to flee Germany and came to England, where he met his wife, who had escaped from Wuppertal. They married in 1944. In the same year, seeking to start their own fashion house, they bought the Frank Usher label because British fashion manufacturers needed textile trading coupons to operate and it was hard for a new business to get them.
Thanks to his commercial success Max Bruh became an influential voice in the British fashion industry and on the board of the British Fashion Export Council. In 1961 the Bruhs sold Frank Usher to Selincourt, the fashion, manufacturing and retailing conglomerate, but maintained a day-to-day control. However, by 1985 he had tired of this arrangement and bought the company back and it was skilfully revived.
I recall meeting Barbara Goalen, the Fifties model, at the fashion photographer John French's retrospective at the Victoria & Albert Museum in the mid-Eighties. She cooed with delight at Frank Usher's renaissance as she stood magnificently upholstered in one of Usher's quiet black cocktail dresses. If one opted for his little black classics and avoided the spangle factor they would serve you long and well and Mrs Goalen was certainly a testament to that.
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