Fashion designer Jenny Packham (Tonje Thoresen/PA)
Fashion designer Jenny Packham (Tonje Thoresen/PA)

Jenny Packham on the return of glamour after lockdown

The fashion designer reflects on her dislike of loungewear, big red carpet moments and her brother Chris’ love of Prada, with Hannah Stephenson.

Hannah Stephenson
Tuesday 09 March 2021 09:30

She has dressed everyone from royalty to red carpet A-listers, working her sartorial magic on high-profile figures from the Duchess of Cambridge to Angelina Jolie, Taylor Swift, Gigi Hadid, Adele and Kate Winslet.

So it’s unsurprising that fashion designer Jenny Packham best known for her crystal and sequin-embellished glamorous evening wear and wedding dresses, hasn’t embraced the loungewear habit during lockdown.

“I’m not enjoying it,” says the London-based designer. “I like to feel quite smart. I do dress up for work every day. I don’t love loungewear or casual dressing. In the summer I found it very easy. I love prints – jeans with nice shirts. In winter, I still make an effort. It’s important. You have to keep things quite smart in the workplace.”

The glamorous dresses she designs might have remained in the wardrobe given there have been no special occasions to attend, but Packham and her husband, Mathew Anderson, CEO of the business, have a big online presence and customers in the UK, US and China.

“I’ve been incredibly surprised at the sales we have done,” says Packham. “Bridal has been the biggest fallout because everybody just cancelled. But looking at that optimistically, they haven’t cancelled their weddings – they will happen and the business will come back. People will want to celebrate and dress up and get married.”

For more than 30 years, Packham has been immersed in designing beautiful, glamorous clothes, creating collections for A-listers and royalty alike, with a flagship store in Mayfair.

There have been highlights – Sandra Bullock in soft pink tulle at the 2011 Golden Globes, Packham’s first A-lister on the red carpet; Kate Winslet in black at the Titanic 3D premiere in 2012; Caterina Murino, the Bond girl who wore a stunning coral dress in Casino Royale.

But Packham, 55 (she’ll turn 56 on March 11), has never felt able to relax into her success. “You’re only as good as the season you’ve just had,” she notes.

There was a point in her career when she suffered from show burnout. “I’d done a lot of shows in New York and the whole social media thing had cranked up. We had an amazing artist doing hair and make-up for one show and when I arrived backstage I simply couldn’t move. There were so many beauty press there with their photographers that I couldn’t get near my team.

“I just stood there and nobody seemed to know it was my show. I couldn’t do my job. What happens on the catwalk is reliant on how well organised everything is backstage. It wasn’t a place I wanted to be anymore.” She returned to the UK at the right time, she says.

She has now written memoir How To Make A Dress, which charts her inspirations and unpicks how fashion design has shaped her life.

The Southampton-born designer clearly had a creative bent and an eye for detail from an early age. The daughter of a marine engineer and a legal secretary mother who was very creative and would make all her clothes – as well as two grandmothers who were great needlewomen – the young Packham was drawn to the intricacies of Victorian clothing she came across in a museum on a family holiday in Scotland. She was mesmerised by the costumes worn by Anne Boleyn (played by Geneviève Bujold) in the 1969 film Anne Of The Thousand Days, and was later inspired by second hand shops, vintage clothing and portraits in art galleries.

Jean Harlow and Marilyn Monroe also provided early inspiration, she recalls. “I’ve always been interested in the more glamorous side of dressing. For me, it’s a privilege to design something for someone who’s having a moment, rather than a day-to-day experience.”

She designed shirts for her older brother, the naturalist and TV presenter Chris Packham, in his early days of The Really Wild Show. He still has them, and clearly the siblings remain very close. She gently ribs him in the book about his foibles, including his passion for Prada but it’s all good humoured.

“We’ve always got on really well and we have a lot of mutual interests. We’ve always been there for each other, spurring each other on and supporting each other. I’m very proud of everything he’s done. We both enjoy what we do and we have integrity about it,” she says.

She and her husband, whom she met when she was a fashion student at Saint Martins School of Art and he was a sculpture graduate, have been together more than 30 years, inextricably linked in both their personal and professional life.

There have been highs and lows – over the years she has received her share of poor reviews and they hurt, she says. “Creative people are sensitive people and I wouldn’t like to have a thick skin. That would be detrimental to my creativity. You need to decide which bits are valid. Some of the times I’ve been most upset after a show when comments have been hard, have actually been some of the best things that have happened. You move on and maybe you’ve got to do something about it.”

She says in the book there’s a lack of sisterhood in the fashion business, citing various examples. At one show, she asked the then British Vogue editor Alexandra Shulman what she thought of her new collection, to which Shulman replied, ‘I liked the music’. She thinks that type of cutting attitude can be inherent in the fashion industry.

“What I really felt was disappointment. I like the idea of holding some people in esteem. I was disappointed that I felt someone who was at the top of our world would be like that. Sometimes I’ve felt very under supported by the British fashion establishment. A lot of it is about being an evening wear niche brand.” Packham writes acerbic fantasy letters to her detractors in the book, detailing the sort of things she wanted to say but never did.

Away from the catwalk, she and Anderson, who have two grown-up daughters, got married five years ago. She designed her own wedding dress, a lacy dove grey number. Why did they leave it so long?

“We were just too busy. We started the business when I was 23 and Mathew was 25, and the first 10 years were pretty hard-going. Then we had kids. It was on my 50th birthday when we went away together and started joking about it and then said, ‘Why don’t we?’”

Yet two years ago they broke up for four months, which she puts down to the stress of the business. “The pressures of our little world had caused cracks in our relationship and we were lost,” she writes in the book. She moved upstairs to the spare room, talking ceased at home. But the reality of prising apart decades of creative togetherness would have been a step too far, she notes.

“That co-dependency of what we’d built together pulled us back. We had four or five months when things were tough, but it’s been a successful relationship,” she says now. “We just made that extra effort and I’m very pleased we did. We are very happy. Our relationship is much better now. We are much more understanding.”

She’s looking forward to the return of red carpet events and believes people will still want to shop for clothes in stores in the future, despite the inevitable spike in online shopping.

Her most recent purchase goes some way to explaining how she feels about the future. “The last item of clothing I bought was a pair of Missoni espadrilles in the sale – they are zig-zag, black, red, orange and yellow. The things I’ve bought during this time have been about the future. I’m thinking about brighter days.

“I’ve got those espadrilles on my shelf in my bedroom and I’m thinking, ‘I’m going to wear those this summer’.”

How To Make A Dress by Jenny Packham is published by Ebury, priced £22. Available now.