London designer Alice Temperley draws on her upbringing to create pieces infused with a bohemian charm. In this profile from autumn 2018, she explains how her SS19 collection is about returning to something real.
A few days before September’s London Fashion Week, Alice Temperley, sitting in the serene white space of her West London office, dressed in a leopard-print shirt dress and Charlotte Olympia sneakers, her nails bright red and her hands adorned in jewellery, including a fox ring made by a friend (her son’s name is Fox) and a shell bracelet made by her sister, gently hinted about the future direction of Temperley London, the brand she launched as a graduate of the Royal College of Art in 2000. Her forthcoming spring/summer 2019 show was to be a collection that was, she said, “more about real women, it’s more about my muse.”
Leaning back in her chair, her beachy blonde locks scrunched behind her head, she explained this season was the beginning of something new, switching up how she goes about showing collections. “[It’s] just about how to break the formula. It’s so important to do what you really believe in, that makes business sense and not just do what people expect you to do. So, this one was just about bringing to the fold some realness. The show is not a massive thing for the sake of doing it, it’s about real clothes, quieten it [all] down, not everything needs to be big. We’re not a massive brand.”
The latter point, however, is arguable. Eighteen years in the business and the go-to London label for a certain blend of bohemian femininity, Temperley is one of the only long-standing names on the capital’s fashion calendar (her contemporaries in names like Matthew Williamson and even Burberry’s Christopher Bailey, who also studied at the RCA, are all now gone). In an industry that has an ever-increasing seasonal turnover of names trying to make it, 26 shows (this was the big 2-6), a clutch of international stores, a flourishing bridal category as well as a collaboration with department store John Lewis, and having dressed everyone from Beyoncé to Helen Mirren, Meryl Streep and the Duchess of Cambridge, Temperley London actually has.
Notably one of the reasons behind this is that Temperley hasn’t kowtowed to the whims of zeitgeist trends in the process. Where others have followed a popularity for a sloppy sleeve or a complicated hybrid creation, or deviated according to Instagram fashion, her penchant for beautiful dresses and wearable clothes has turned out to be her secret weapon. Vivid surface textiles in graphic prints and embellishment characterise her work. In a landscape saturated with similarity and overly complex wares, it’s her non-threatening but glamorous aesthetic that stands out as being one of the most modern and fresh propositions right now.
“I think you just don’t try to go by anyone else’s rules. You just do what you do. I think that will serve us in the long run,” she considers. “If I were to just try and please somebody else or go into somebody else’s world, it still needs to be my vision of what a Temperley girl is, otherwise it may as well just have another name above the door.”
“It’s so important to do what you really believe in, not just do what people expect you to do”
Since the brand’s inception that ‘Temperley girl’ has very much been based on Temperley herself, who grew up on a farm in Somerset and now splits her time between London and the pretty south-west county, making her as at home in wellington boots and overalls as she is an evening gown. “The Temperley girl has loose razzled hair and just wears things much more effortlessly,” she describes. “If I had been tottering around in full makeup and heels I think my parents might have disowned me, because you just have to be real. That’s kind of how we grew up, not with makeup and bouffants but we could appreciate clothes. The Temperley girl is a lot more of that – country, travelled, ultra-feminine.” Which has long since been its charm.
“I’ve always thought of her as a romantic British designer who creates beautiful dresses for garden parties and festivals,” describes the actress, model and poet Greta Bellamacina. Because she does that quintessential British thing very well. As she does a jumpsuit, which was central to her Autumn/Winter 2018 collection. Forties workwear; Amelia Earhart and aviation; costume designer Edith Head and Hollywood bias-cut gowns were among the inspirations to form the mood, which is always how Temperley goes about starting a collection: looking at how – in an ideal fantasy world – that person would live. “There’s a little more escapism to what we do,” she notes. And so, jumpsuits, though a practical garment, get a little sequin upgrade in her hands. “They’re amazing to wear out so you just know you’re going to have fun in them.”
Fun and fantasy are integral to the Temperley DNA. As a child, she made things for herself from the off-cuts of Liberty fabrics she’d bought from sales with her mother, went to vintage shops and festivals and loved fancy dress. From a very young age, she could see how clothes could transform the way you feel. “Wearing dungaree hand-me-downs on the farm, the moment I got my hands on something glamorous I was like ‘Wow’, because it does take you to another world!” Her take works because it’s tangible, not avant-garde. The same goes for the bridal offering, which she says borrows from the main line, her brides-to-be wanting sequins and colourful embroidery or opting for simple and graceful lines that don’t scream ‘bridal’.
“My assistant said ‘You’ve been offered an MBE,’ and I said ‘Don’t be silly,’… I still can’t quite believe it ”
For the next Spring/Summer season it’ll be neo-classical architecture prints on goddess gowns, breezy belted dresses over cut-off trousers, coast-ready kaftans and debutante dresses strewn with botanical sequins shaping that surprise. As the sun set on an autumn evening way up on the 32nd floor of the Centre Point building on New Oxford Street, the designer sent out a cast of real-life muses, friends and known names – such as actress Helen McCrory, photographer Ellen Von Unwerth and the pregnant model Arizona Muse – to capture the label’s spirit of empowerment and adventure. Friends and fans in the audience cheered as the special guest cast of women walked out looking comfortable and confident.
“She [the Temperley woman] is very feminine but she’s also very strong, she’s individual and she appreciates not following the crowd. Most of my girlfriends are quite alpha female… though the brand is perceived as being very feminine, it’s how you wear it.”
In a digital age (for said casting will have certainly served to feed the hungry Insta lens), there’s nothing better than seeing your wares in real life. Though Temperley welcomes the benefits of the digital world, as 18 years ago no such thing existed. The internet was something people were unsure of as opposed to reliant upon – and a lot more besides has also changed since then.
“When I started out it was with two collections, then it was four, then lots of projects and too much – then we launched a diffusion line which we got rid of which was good because now it’s just one collection, one person, one wardrobe.” The only problem is the speed and timeframe with which she – and all designers right now – are expected to produce their collections. Too much, too fast, always.
“There doesn’t need to be as much product and people need to be doing less and selling more of what they’ve got, rather than three months and it’s gone. Everyone just needs to slow down,” she observes of the demanding hamster cycle she finds herself in. But it’s something that, as a member of the British Fashion Council Advisory Board, she is on a mission to address. Because how are young designers supposed to make a mark and launch a brand if even seasoned ones are struggling to keep theirs going? “If they have very individual handwriting and they’re really passionate and believe what they’re offering is something different, then that’s great,” she says. But otherwise, her advice would be to get experience working with someone else before going it alone. “It’s totally and utterly invaluable.” It’s also how you learn to run a business.
Looking back, would she have changed her career knowing all she does now? “I might have rethought it at that point and become a photographer instead, it would’ve been much simpler,” she laughs. “It just takes a huge amount of focus and energy. This is a very tough industry.” That said, only a crystal ball could’ve predicted whether a photography pathway, too, would’ve led her to receiving an MBE. Which she did in 2011 for her services to fashion.
“Well I thought it was a joke to begin with. My assistant came in and said ‘Alice you’ve got a letter from the palace,’ and I said ‘Yeah yeah yeah,’” recalls Temperley. “She said ‘You’ve been offered an MBE,’ and I said ‘Don’t be silly,’ because she always used to wind me up jokingly. I still can’t quite believe it.”
But given that the business isn’t all that far away from its 20th birthday, perhaps she ought to start. Next season expect a continuation of this “new messaging”, as she describes it, in a gentle turnaround that only seems to underline her brand USP: leaving the fuss behind in favour of real fashion.
Temperley London, 27 Bruton Street, Mayfair, W1 temperleylondon.com
Images: brands’ own.
A version of this interview was originally published in the Autumn 2018 edition of The Glossary.