A love letter to ‘Debo’: Erdem exhibition celebrates Duchess of Devonshire’s style

<span>The Duchess of Devonshire, who died in 2014 aged 94, pictured at the family’s estate in Chatsworth.</span><span>Photograph: Cecil Beaton Archive/Condé Nast</span>
The Duchess of Devonshire, who died in 2014 aged 94, pictured at the family’s estate in Chatsworth.Photograph: Cecil Beaton Archive/Condé Nast

The first item in the new exhibition at Chatsworth House celebrating the legacy of the late Duchess of Devonshire is a tweed suit. The youngest Mitford sister was a chicken lover and the bottom few inches – poultry head-height – have been intentionally dishevelled as if ravaged by her Buff Cochins and Welsummers.

The exhibition is an imagined conversation between Deborah Cavendish and the British-Turkish designer Erdem Moralıoğlu, whose last spring/summer show was a love letter to “Debo”, her wardrobe and the estate in Derbyshire of which she was chatelaine until her death, aged 94, in 2014. Items from her wardrobe punctuate Moralıoğlu’s designs inspired by them – the tweed suit is the latter.

Practical and glamorous, she fits the mould of Moralıoğlu’s inspirations – he often looks to unconventional women throughout history and this exhibition, complete with an evocation of his studio, is lifting the lid on Erdem, a “fashion nerd’” and thoughtful designer, and his process.

Taking the duchess’s wardrobe has allowed for fun, elegance and poetry. From her own collection, there are no-nonsense white-collared shirts, elegant opera gloves and chic yellow taffeta evening shoes. There is a small clutch in the shape of a hen that looks like it could have been teleported to Derbyshire from a recent Jonathan Anderson collection but, again, belonged to the duchess.

Designs inspired by her love of chickens sit alongside those inspired by her other love, Elvis. Slippers owned by the duchess have the singer’s face on them, and a small bag is emblazoned with “Elvis” in diamanté. Moralıoğlu took the theme and danced with it via rhinestones and vibrant leather biker jackets.

Her jewellery collection was also a source of inspiration, some of which is on display alongside the looks it launched. Aflutter with brooches of bugs – every year her husband would give her a new insect brooch, which Moralıoğlu described as “a little act of love”.

The process of creating the collection, as he told press at a preview of the exhibition on Wednesday, “became a kind of truly imaginary conversation between someone I’ve never met as a muse and myself. So what you see is maybe not an exact portrait of someone, but rather something through a lens.”

Having spent so long in imaginary conversation with her, what would he ask if he met her for real? “I would ask her about the first day she moved in [to Chatsworth House],” said Moralıoğlu. “What was the first thing she saw when she stepped over the threshold?” (The duchess oversaw the gargantuan overhaul of the 126-roomed house, which had been neglected during the war, when it housed a girls’ school that had been evacuated from Wales.)

While many designers have been inspired by the Mitfords, and Deborah in particular, Moralıoğlu was given rare access to the extensive – and growing – archives of Chatsworth, which house about 1,000 items. “There were rooms just floor to ceiling,” said Susie Stokoe, head of textiles at Chatsworth. “I found 64 rugs in one room, all rolled up with string … Deborah didn’t throw anything away.”

The concept of make do and mend was central to the duchess, and finds its way into Moralıoğlu’s collection via a sense of done-undoneness. One dress, which Moralıoğlu regards as the most important in the collection, is a reworking of Deborah’s floral curtains. “I kept asking, do you happen to have more chintz?” said Moralıoğlu. The fabric has been crafted into a deconstructed 1950s silhouette and embroidered by the duchess’s great-granddaughter Cecily Lasnet, but the stitches are intentionally unfinished.

The dress feel like a potentially apt symbol for the UK fashion industry at the moment, which could be described as being in tatters – and especially tricky for an independent label such as Erdem. “It is a challenging time for all of us,” said Moralıoğlu when asked about it. It is, he said, in a line you might be able to imagine coming from the duchess, about “becoming more reliant on oneself”.

Imaginary Conversations: An ERDEM collection inspired by Duchess Deborah is in the guest bedrooms in the house, from 22 June to 20 October 2024