Obituary: Kenneth Fleetwood

Derek Granger
Sunday 11 August 1996 23:02

Ken Fleetwood's career as one of Britain's leading but most modest and reticent of fashion designers culminated seven weeks ago in a fittingly intimate ceremony at the London fashion house of Hardy Amies. It took place on 18 June, in that elegant establishment in Savile Row where Fleetwood had play-ed a key role for nearly 45 years.

At a small, informal presentation the Countess of Airlie, wife of the Lord Chamberlain and a Lady of the Bedchamber (herself an old friend and customer), handed over to Fleetwood, on behalf of the Queen, the insignia of the MVO. The award had been announced in the New Year's Honours List and was of particular significance to him, being an honour in the personal gift of the Queen herself.

Because Fleetwood was too ill to attend the investiture at Buckingham Palace, the presentation was made at the workplace where for four decades he had exerted an influence not only on the Royal Wardrobe but on two generations of faithful Amies customers. Within this setting, surrounded by his fellow workers, many of long standing, it was touchingly appropriate that Sir Hardy Amies, doyen of British fashion designers and Fleetwood's employer, friend and mentor of a lifetime, should have been able, at 87, to look upon his long-time protege with justifiable pride.

Fleetwood, who had led the studio design team which created the Queen's wardrobe for her hugely successful tour of South Africa in 1995, had been attending fittings and consultations with the Queen since Amies relinquished the role seven years ago on reaching the age of 80. But Fleetwood's first opportunity of attending the Queen as the salon's chief representative occurred in 1986 when Amies had suddenly to go abroad on business. The occasion was recalled by Amies in his autobiography, Still Here (1984), where he noted that his emissary had been greatly beguiled by the Queen's personality and her ready shafts of humour. Amies also noted that the Queen had sent back a message saying that she had spent a happy afternoon. Although Fleetwood was the soul of discretion regarding his visits to the palace it is not too difficult to speculate that his royal patron would have appreciated, as did his friends, his characteristically unaffected, no-nonsense, northern approach.

Born and brought up in Wigan, Fleetwood attended Wigan Grammar School where he became highly proficient in art. In 1948, at the age of 18, having obtained a grant to study fashion design, he struck out from his Lancastrian roots and came to London to take the three-year Fashion course at St Martin's School of Art. Then, as now, the school had a flourishing design department and Fleetwood's talents quickly developed in these stimulating surroundings, particularly his skill at costume drawing. His sketches always conveyed with their lithe and tensile line a fluid sense of how clothes fitted and moved with the body, their detail summarised in bursts of dashing calligraphy.

Over the years he repaid his debt to St Martin's by returning as a part- time lecturer to many courses of graduate students who were quick to appreciate his candour and his deflationary humour about the fashion business.

On leaving St Martin's in 1951 he worked for some months as assistant to the theatre designer Loudon Sainthill on ballet and stage designs. The following year he was invited by Hardy Amies to join his design studio and to work as an illustrator and sketch-maker, presenting initial ideas of how outfits would look when worn by models.

Amies had shrewdly spotted that Fleetwood's well-mannered taste and innate practicality would make him an ideal addition to the firm. Apart from his term of National Service, when he served for 18 months in the Royal Corps of Signals, he was to spend his entire working life in Savile Row as a sturdy pillar of Amies's couture.

Having been initiated by Amies into the art and technique of clothes design he quickly advanced from the role of sketcher to become a member of the studio design team. Here he was able to cultivate the virtues of an established, traditional fashion house whose clientele preferred to wear well-made, flattering and stylish clothes firmly within the bounds of decorum.

The well-cut suit, the finely detailed day dress were the staples of the Amies studio together with grand and romantic ballgowns (a particular Fleetwood speciality) of strong, classic line and often glowing, jewel- like colour. Fleetwood, with his flair for elegant draughtsmanship, his sense of line and discerning eye had the wit and skill to add a sufficient spicing of verve and colour to these designs to give his well-bred customers the kind of enjoyment that would make them come back, asking for more.

As the international menswear side of Hardy Amies Ltd began to expand, often taking Amies himself on long merchandising trips across the world, Amies realised that he could safely leave the women's side of the business to Fleetwood. He had proved that he had a natural empathy with the couture clientele, could be relied upon to see that the customers were properly cosseted, had a keen understanding of the traditions of the house. His northern good sense made him a shrewd and canny shopkeeper.

Since 1974, when he was appointed Design Director, Fleetwood was responsible for all the women's wear of the Amies Mayfair salon and over the years he had played a large part in the creation of the Queen's wardrobe for numerous royal tours, state occasions and ceremonial visits. This exacting task requires a variety of skills not the least of which are the need to allow for a high degree of royal visibility, an understanding of the practical aspects of easy wearing in operational conditions and the ability to cater for varying extremes of climate. All these considerations Fleetwood could balance with tact, experience and flair.

With his sometimes amusingly lugubrious cast of feature, Fleetwood was a witty, civilised man with a love of music (for which he had the keenest ear) and a deep knowledge of art on which he expressed strongly personal and pertinent views. To his friends it sometimes seemed surprising that one so quiet and taciturn and with such a coolly appraising nature should have flourished in the heady, hothouse world of fashion. But Fleetwood never lost the sense of his roots and his dry, sharp, down-to-earth manner remain-ed always that of a knowing and unimpressionable northerner who accepted the feverish, inbred milieu of the fashion world only on his own level-headed terms. Within this brittle profession he worked with assiduous professionalism and application, and although it led him to mix with the fashionably rich and grand he always maintained his own centre of integrity.

With his essentially thoughtful and self-contained personality Fleetwood could never have been described as gregarius, but beneath the layers of introspection and dreaminess he was a witty and rewarding friend, often wickedly deflating, capable of well-timed asperities and, when the mood took him, one who could be a comc fantasist of a high order. At such times, and at his most relaxed, he was hilarious company, particularly in Oxfordshire in the charmingly converted mid-Victorian schoolhouse which Amies had bought in 1980 and filled with warm-hued oak furniture and 17th-century tapestries, and which he shared with Fleetwood at weekends.

It was appropriate that Fleetwood, who had made such a distinctive contribution to British fashion and to so many royal occasions, should have been able, at the very end of his life, to see his work so signally recognised.

Derek Granger

Kenneth Walter Fleetwood, fashion designer: born Wigan 11 November 1930; MVO 1996; died London 9 August 1996.

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