‘A love hate relationship with couture’ – a talk by Sylvia Ayton MBE

The transcript of a fascinating talk by fashion designer Sylvia Ayton about her experiences studying and working in fashion, ending with some thoughts about what is important in fashion education today.

Some time ago now a colleague and I attended a teachers’ evening at the Fashion and Textiles Museum in London. You can read about their events on the FTM website.


At the event we were lucky enough to be allowed into the talk by Sylvia Ayton. As I am an inveterate note-taker, I wrote down as much as possible of what Sylvia was talking about. We found all of her anecdotes about her experiences of the fashion industry fascinating and thought we would share them.


Any omissions or inaccuracies are due to my own poor typing skills. Sylvia has been a designer for high street clothing store Wallis for many years. If you haven’t heard of her you may not be alone – but there’s a great Independent article about why you should have.


‘A love hate relationship with couture’ – by Sylvia Ayton MBE

I should start by saying that whether I have been feeling love or hatred for my work it has always been my relationship with couture that has caused me to design the high street clothes I will be remembered by.


It was the 50s. Young girls wanted to look grown up and elegant. I was a rebel and didn’t want to look like this. I hated the idea of marriage, patterned wallpaper and half hats (which were like fascinators but more horrible). I hated couture.


In 1953 I went to Walthamstow Art School, which also produced Shirley and Ken Russell. I did the dress design course. It was four years of heaven – and four years of hell.


I dressed for comfort and freedom. I felt I was different but I was trying to design clothes for grown up elegant women whose lives I knew nothing about. Recommended to me by one of my tutors, the fashion magazine L’Officiel inspired me and I began to worship couture. The Paris designers were special. Dior made the most impact with the A-line in 1955 [read a post about the history of the A-line].


How many times did I cut two left fronts and forgot the facings? (I can tell by the laughter that I’m not the only one). We drew all the time – anatomy, plant drawing, everything. Drawing was the ultimate delight – we had no computers then. We were told about factories but it fell on deaf ears. Industry was a million miles away. We learnt to produce toiles and put off our future thinking about being designers, apart from planning to go to the Royal College of Art.


Five students from Walthamstow applied to RCA that year, and five were accepted. I remember the holiday homework we were set around that time – a satin theatre suit, an organdie party frock. Clothes that we were certainly not wearing ourselves!


At RCA I wondered what had happened to glamour? We were making stiff white shirts. And the flat pattern cutting – I was sure Balenciaga was not doing all this. The different methods of teaching were very confusing but a vital part of our fashion education.


Then we went to Paris to see the couture shows. Oh, how I loved couture!


In my second year the British European Airways set us a project to design a new uniform for their air hostesses [take a look at some of the BA uniforms through the years]. I loved Chanel at the time and this clearly influenced my designs – my outfit won. I met some of them and they had so many stories – one of them had Sean Connery write her a little note saying he loved her!  They must have had an amazing time.


I was designing for a whole fleet of women of all shapes and sizes. In our final year we had to wrote a synopsis of a play and dress the characters. This was my last project designing for the older elegant woman. We all put in long hours, catching the last bus home from college every night.


We now had to decide what our futures would hold. I had worked the previous summer in the M&S skirt department – by the end I knew and they knew it was not for me. The high street was too basic and too grown up, and I had decided that couture was too grown up and stuffy.


Gradually we started to design clothes for ourselves that were different, that were for us to wear.  A new and exciting name appeared – the time of Mary Quant. We wanted to set up ourselves snd Foale & Tuffin appeared [read a bit about Foale & Tuffin on the V&A website]. They later opened a shop in Carnaby street.


I got a job designing in Margaret street. But I left after one week -I was told my designs were too daring, too new.


I taught at Kingston and Ravensbourne to make ends meet. And designing for Vogue secretaries which was awful; they had terrible taste.


Suddenly it was the swinging sixties, the most magical time to be a designer. I was a designer and had my own range. Tights were invented and putting on pantyhose changed our lives, we could abandon our girdles and escape from convention.


We were far too egotistical to look to couture for inspiration.


In 1965 I designed and sold garments to Palisade’s Top Gear and Countdown, it was wonderful, I didn’t even have to make them up myself – I had a girl around the corner for that!


I designed what I felt was right and it was what the you g girls wanted. I even sold to a store in New York, Altman’s. A small order but it was a start. All the flat pattern cutting paid off.


Grading is hateful so gradually designs became simpler and new shapes evolved. Simpler shapes but with more impact. Grading might be why the simpler shapes of the sixties evolved! There’s a thought…


I eliminated pleats. Trousers became a sexy important garment and  each week we shortened mini skirts another inch.


I then met Zandra Rhodes, she had been designing prints for Foale & Tuffin. In 1966 we decided to start our own business.


We worked from my flat. We went to see the buyers and tried to sell the clothes – they were so different that only a few bought them but the press liked us.


We worked so hard I even missed watching the World Cup final on TV, just listened to it on the radio as I worked.


We didn’t have enough money for a car so we travelled on the underground to the factory carrying everything we needed and paid for the clothes in cash. It was tough. American buyers became difficult – they didn’t want prints, poor Zandra was frightening the buyers so we had to have our own shop.


The Fulham Road Clothes Shop was born. We had a wonderful shop window with silver and lights. To save money we moved into the back of the shop. Part of the freedom we were offering our clients was to shop in boutiques not the same as the shops their mothers shopped in.


We were even on TV on the Dave Balham show. We began making clothes for celebrities.


We sold a paper dress to the buyer for Miss Selfridge but they asked us what to do because the customers kept tearing the hems to see if they were really made of paper. We told them not to hang them up then!


I served in the shop on Saturdays and pretended not to be me if anyone complained about the shop. We were terrible at the business side of things. People owed us lots of money and we owed people lots of money. The bailiffs came to visit us a lot and I used to hide in the toilets until they left. We both just loved designing and drawing. We had definitely rejected couture. I don’t think we ever took a salary from the shop and eventually owed £3000, which was a lot of money then and we had to close it down.


We went our separate ways but still wanted to design.


Then I met Brian Gobald who is now Head of Design at M&S. He was working at Wallis. I joined when he left in 1969 in the outerwear department. I did worry about it – I wanted to be a rebel, I was sad not to have my own business, was I still going to be able to dress lots of trendy customers?


But isn’t it funny how things turn out. It was owned by two brothers and one of them had a tie up with a Parisienne couturier, and I had to go and visit Dior, Yves Saint Laurent and eventually Chanel. We bought patterns of our favourites and made copious notes as sketching was absolutely forbidden.  I loved couture again. We always chose the designs we felt we could sell, exactly right for the Wallis customer.


When we went into the showroom we were surrounded by all these amazing clothes that we were not supposed even to look at as we were only allowedto look at the designs we had chosen to purchase. Of course we had to look and try to remember everything with only our notebooks for tape measures to get every bit of information from the collections before the lady caught us !


At Dior it was more buyer-friendly and were allowed to bring our pattern cutter to Paris. Back in London we would produce excellent copies of the Yves Saint Laurent and Dior garments, we looked hard to find similar but cheaper materials. Apart from with the Chanel for which we used the same materials.


They went into the shops at the same time as the outfits appeared in Paris. The couture copies were ready on the high street for people to rush in and buy them.


But gradually the customer didn’t care about couture copies, she wanted something young and new – was she becoming a rebel? She had been through the mini and the midi and was confused.


In 1978 when Chanel hit the headlines again we made a little white tweed suit of our own design, inspired by couture again.


The problems at Wallis began and we were bought by Sears who owned Selfridges and Miss Selfridge and many more, but things kept changing. Many well known names disappeared from the high street but Wallis was lucky and survived. We had a new managing director who understood that fashion was always changing and we had to keep up.


I always say that Wallis design is evolutionary not revolutionary.


In 1992 Wallis launched an expensive range called W and it was wonderful to be able to buy expensive beautiful fabrics – lucky couturiers who could always get fabric like that.


I am envious of the young designers who get to work in couture, I still love it and hate but we must have it. I hope through researching the work of the couturiers I managed to bring happiness to the Wallis woman for years.


Perhaps the new couturiers are the new rebels.


People ask me what I think about fashion education today. Educational establishments and industry must work together so students who will become the designers of tomorrow know all about the industry.


They must have the basic underpinnings of skills which are necessary to all designers. They must be capable of drawing, choosing cloth, making toiles, all of it, they need to get industrial experience so they learn about the product and also learn to work with people other than designers. Because often designers live in their own little world.



If you enjoyed reading this post, here are some books you might enjoy!

A Cultural History of Fashion in the 20th and 21st Centuries

Poiret, Dior and Schiaparelli 

The Dictionary of Fashion History

Who’s Who in Fashion

The Great Fashion Designers