After a successful career as an artist, Elizabeth Bessant set up her couture business twenty years ago. She’s now based in Knightsbridge where she specialises in bridal and occasion wear
My earliest memory is of creating necklaces at nursery school by threading cut drinking straws onto string. By the age of 12 I knew I was going to be an artist, and at 16 I left school and went to work in an art gallery in Chepstow.
Exposure to other artists led to dreams of art school and four years on I had a place at Newport School of Art, South Wales, supporting myself through grants and part-time work at the same art gallery. I started working with silk screen prints because I was drawn to the perfect, flat colours you could achieve and the magic of overlaying colours. I soon reached my dream of being included in the summer exhibition at the Royal Academy of Arts in London, a huge accolade for such a young person
After my first exhibition, things happened very fast. I was contacted by four galleries, all of whom offered me representation, and by the age of 27 I was included in ‘ Who’s Who in International Art’. I had achieved my dream and my prints were in demand across the world.
But the pressure killed my creativity. I stopped working from one day to the next, and it was at this point that I turned to my other love; sewing. (It is perhaps ironic that I’ve become known for my tailoring, considering the fact that I taught myself pattern cutting!)
Having produced my first pieces, I responded to a trade paper advertisement placed by The Chelsea Collections, a showroom in the Fulham Road. I showed them a few pieces, rented a rail and soon starting selling from my small collection and creating commissions for their clients.
In those days, most of my commissions were outfits for the season, things like Ascot and Glyndebourne. Later, when the dress code for such events became more relaxed, I expanded into bridal gowns and bridesmaids dresses, and, of course, mother-of-the-bride wear. I meet most of my clients through mouth-to-mouth recommendations although I always attend the National Wedding Show at Olympia for their spring and autumn shows. It’s a great opportunity to present my designs to a wider audience.
When the Chelsea Collections closed, I set up my own couture salon in Walton Street, eventually achieving my ultimate dream; moving the salon to Beauchamp Place. I have been here three years now and it is lovely. Although we’re in the middle of buzzing Knightsbridge, I like to think I have created a sanctuary where clients can enjoy the pieces on display whilst we have a coffee and discuss their requirements. The personal relationship is very important in couture. I like to know a bit about each individual and their preferences before I begin the creative process. Equally, the client needs to be comfortable around me, after all they will be attending numerous fittings and must feel relaxed in my company and be free to express preferences.
A returning dilemma is the issue of expansion. When I first started out, I thought it imperative that I get my designs into famous department stores and boutiques. At the time, I was lucky to have a very experienced mentor, a well-known business consultant who had helped me steer through some difficult patches in the past. ‘Some businesses are meant to be small’, he said. I still think this is the best advice I’ve ever been given. Whilst the market for couture is a small one, it is where I am most comfortable and my work was never about making a fortune. I am success-motivated, not money-motivated, and as long as I can earn a living doing what I love, I consider myself lucky.
Offers still come in various forms – collaborations, endorsements or perhaps a ready-to-wear collection. But as much as such offers are flattering, and the thought of testing my designs in a wider market can be tempting, I’ve learnt what it’s like to lose your creative freedom. Once you get involved in mass production the job changes and you’ll be overseeing a process, travelling abroad, dealing with contracts, etc. and that means losing the close relationship with clients. That relationship, as well as working on the production of each individual garment, are the things I enjoy most about my job, and I wouldn’t want to lose those elements.
I know how fortunate I am going to work every day with a smile on my face as I look forward to meeting the day’s clients and pondering designs that will contribute to making their upcoming occasion a special one.
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Elizabeth Bessant, 59 Beauchamp Place, London SW3 1NX (by appointment)