In Conversation with Fashion Designer, Philip Waghorne.

I have known Philip Waghorne since the mid 80s. We met in Paris when we were both working for the fashion house Lanvin. Philip was already a talent, designing for Maryll Lanvin and I had recently been taken on as her model muse. We hit it off straight away and formed a close friendship.

Over the years, we slowly lost touch; geography and frequent moves being much to blame. However, we recently reunited. Philip is retired now and lives in a beautiful house he’s restoring in Orvieto, Italy. I talked to him about our shared memories, his extraordinary career as a fashion designer and being a child prodigy.

Philip, what are your first fashion memories?

Along with my older sister, I am one of triplets. My brothers and I got weekly pocket money and rather than spend it, I’d always hand mine straight back to my father. I wanted him to put it towards the latest copy of English Vogue. Each month, I’d wait for his car to come up the drive and rush out in expectation. I’d take the magazine to my bedroom, close the door and reverently turn the pages as if it were the bible. I was five.

For my eighth Christmas, I asked for one of those little wooden artist figures. I used it as a mini dummy to drape and pin fabric on. One evening I overheard my father saying, “I’m not happy about Philip draping this doll. He should be out playing sport.” My mother said, (and this was a life defining moment for me), “Leave Philip alone. One day, he might end up designing collections in Paris”. Her words stayed with me because she was validating what I loved. 

I was very close to my mother. Her own dream was to be a ballet dancer. She was very talented. One week before her audition at the Royal Ballet, she ran out of a shop and was hit by a car. The accident left her deaf and put an end to her dancing career. Not being able to hear cut her off from so much, so she poured all her energies into us instead. I remember her being quite severe and strict, always wanting perfection from us. She used to dress my brothers and I identically. We were known as the Saltburn triplets, always in our Smedley jumpers, very English, classic style. It was tough for my sister because so much attention was on us boys.

The Saltburn Triplets I’m on the right).

What got you into fashion?

I was always interested in what women were wearing. We used to sing in the church choir and I’d be mesmerised by the outfits and hats. It was all visual for me. I often couldn’t remember a person’s name or what they were like, but I could recall in detail what they’d been wearing.

My mother was brought up to love beautiful things and believed it was better to buy one quality item than 10 average ones. She would take me to Middlesborough to a shop called Binns (which was Saltburn’s equivalent of Selfridges or Harvey Nicks). While my brothers went off with dad to play sport, I chose to accompany my mother. I would pick out clothes I thought would suit her best and all the sales ladies would comment on what lovely taste I had. My mother would tell me I was known for picking the ones with the biggest price tag.

By the time I was 11, I was putting on these sherry evenings with exhibitions of my fashion drawings. I would organise everything. They were held in a house called Teddy’s Nook, owned then by a town councillor. I would set the whole thing up and the councillor would take care of the sherry and cheese biscuits. About five hundred people would come and all the money went to charity.

There was a menswear boutique in Redcar called 36  Boutique. As a little boy, I would stand in front of the window display, looking at the shapes, the cut of the trousers, how everything had been put together. I was 15 when I showed my sketches to the two men who owned the shop. They liked some of my designs enough to produce them. They became very good friends and used to drop me off at school in their American Corvet Stingray in front of all the other boys, which of course I loved.

On the day of my O’Level results, I bought myself a pair of trousers, shirt, belt and shoes from the shop. It cost me a fortune but my justification was that if I’d done well, they were my reward and if I’d done badly, they could be my consolation prize.

One of my very early sketches

Where did you study?

My original interest was music. I’d won a lot of quite big competitions and started to think that music rather than fashion was the direction I should take. I went to the Guildhall School of music and drama. At the start of term, I blew all my student grant on clothes so I got very thin and was always ill. My tutors warned me about staying fit and healthy in order to be able to sing. But this was my first taste of real freedom. I was in London, everything was exciting to me and I wanted to make the most of it. 

I got pretty lonely and depressed but was still designing every weekend. I had read about St Martin’s School of art and one day, I just walked in. I had some designs with me. I asked a passing woman if I could speak to the head of the fashion department. She asked to see the sketches, then brought back five other people, laid out all my drawings on a table which they discussed. I was worried about being late for my next music lesson and said I’d hoped to have spoken to the head of the department. It turned out I was speaking to her (Muriel Pemberton) and her team.

Even though I had no formal training, she offered me an immediate place. She said I had a gift. It was a hard decision to make. I loved my singing but you had to be very disciplined, very strong and work the voice every day. So I made the switch. The one thing I continued was my music lesson which the Guildhall allowed me to do. That was quite unusual but it meant I got the best of both worlds. 

Working away on my student bed

After graduating from St Martins, you went straight to Paris.

Yes. In September, I’d started working for Marc Bohan (the longest serving designer at Christian Dior). By Christmas, I’d decided to leave. Monsieur Bohan warned me not to put love before my work, but I wanted to patch up my relationship back in the UK. It was a decision that would back fire as I quickly realised it was doomed. Once the Haute Couture collection was over, I was suddenly out of a job. 

A friend of mine who’d studied at St Martins, was working at Givenchy. He was looking for another assistant. My interview was at 7.30am and I was first in. Fifty other candidates waited on the staircase to be seen. After the interview, Mr Givenchy accompanied me out of his office, shook my hand, and announced to everyone waiting that the post was now filled, that could all go home. He hadn’t even told me I’d got the job. 

When I returned to Dior, Mr Bohan wasn’t happy about my news. He said that if I stayed with him, he was prepared to give me a lot more responsibility, including the ready to wear collections. This would also mean a sizeable salary increase. 

It was too good an opportunity and I had to send a telegram to Hubert De Givenchy explaining that I wouldn’t be taking the position after all. I heard from my friend who worked there that beautiful white roses and a personal gift from Mr Givenchy had been placed on the desk they’d given me. As you can imagine, I felt terrible. Mr Givenchy was apparently blue with rage and sent a message saying, please tell your English friend that if I see him in the street, to cross to the other side. His door would never be open to me again (though in time he changed his mind). Mr Bohan loved this, of course. That world is very small. 

Marc Bohan at work in the Dior studio. I’m third from the right. Note the white socks.

You had two stints at Dior and Lanvin, the only designer ever to do that. What was Maryll Lanvin like to work with?

We hit it off from the moment we met. After working for Bohan, it was refreshing to get a woman’s perspective on fashion. Maryll understood what women wanted from their clothes. We had big ambitions for our first collaboration and I worked really hard. She was another perfectionist and was the person I was most influenced by.

Maryll Lanvin

I think people were jealous of her. She was this beautiful, glamorous and funny woman who had great style. She was also a female designer, which was unusual, and she was well known. People would say she had no talent and knew nothing about fashion, but my God she did. I did some amazing stuff with her that I’d never have done with Marc Bohan or Gerard Pipart at Ricci. She was responsible for bringing Lanvin back to being one of the heavy-weight couturiers.

She would buy me little presents and sometimes invite me to Chateau Bouglainvale. I went back to Dior for a bit but she wooed me back again. I loved her and Bernard Lanvin. 

Maryll and I after the Summer Haute Couture show

What about your relationship with Marc Bohan at Dior?

We got on. He liked having me there but worried that I’d take his place.

I remember going to a party at his flat after doing a collection. He was dressed in a shirt open to the waist and such tight red velvet jeans that nothing was left to the eye. He did look good in them but seeing him like that was a shock. I was used to him in his studio white coat. Normally, he wore beautiful, classic clothes, a look that really suited him. But then he had the means. 

Dior

You and I met two years after you’d started at Lanvin. I too had just come from Dior.

That’s right. Maryll only worked with very slim, fragile looking girls because it reflected her own physical image. You were so English. I told her at the time it was going to be a fantastic collaboration. I remember you walking down the catwalk with Maryll at the end of a show and she was holding you round the waist. It demonstrated how important you were to her. 

You went to Nina Ricci after you left Lanvin. What was that like?

Gerard Pipart had been at the helm but they wanted someone  younger to do the Pret a Porter and they chose me. I refused to follow the code because I thought that what he was doing was vulgar. There were just too many bows, frill, lace and jewellery. It was the opposite of what I loved and that created friction. I was doing strong smoking jackets and gold leather trench coats. I’ve got to say, my time there was pretty flawless. I should have blown my trumpet a little louder.

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Nina Ricci

And then there was Rubinacci

Amina Rubinacci is known as the queen of knitwear. It was a wonderful experience working with her. We had a very intimate working relationship and I learned so much about knitwear. In particular, the creation of tailored garments; coats, jackets, trousers, one piece dresses all in knit with the appearance of fabric-cut garments. Only Rubinacci has the ability to achieve this style and is famed internationally for it.

The only reason I left was because, at sixty six, I felt it was time to leave fashion completely and concentrate on my private life.

Any Regrets?

Only that I didn’t show myself enough in the public eye. I wasn’t one for parties and dinners. When you are a named designer, it’s important to do that. I could have shown myself more because in Paris they speak about the people they see. It probably meant I missed out on other jobs. 

What’s the best piece of advice you’d give a woman shopping for clothes?

Keep it simple. The best clothes are the simple ones. You won’t go wrong with them. 

Can the high street be saved?

I’m sure it can. Clothes are so personal. They’re a language that tells people about our character. Fashion will have to change but the need for it will still be there. There will be a big clean out, inevitably, but the strongest brands will survive because they will be the ones that got it right. I’m not surprised the likes of John Lewis and M&S are in trouble. It’s a hybrid way of dressing. You just have to look at how the clothes are displayed.

M&S

What are you doing now?

Retirement is thrilling and a huge relief. Most of my contemporaries have done the same. I’m tired of the work and I don’t really understand it anymore. Having said that, I always keep a close eye on what’s going on. Fashion still follows you even if you don’t want it to. It’s part of my DNA.

I’m moving to my house in Orvieto in Italy this autumn and once I’m installed, I might do some fashion illustrations and designs for my brother’s company to print but I’m pretty content. All in all, the boy from Saltford did okay. 

Me taken during a Rubinacci shoot

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