Why British bespoke is beating out French couture

Lisa Armstrong with British fashion designer Emilia Wickstead
Lisa Armstrong with British fashion designer Emilia Wickstead - Sophia Spring

For years, thanks to my job, I’ve been fortunate enough to attend the couture shows in Paris, where I’ve seen some of the most beautiful, intricately crafted clothes on earth (and OK, some of the most hideous, because when the sky’s the limit, anything can happen).

Often I’ve gone to the ateliers afterwards to see the work up close and in person. You learn a lot about love, dedication and passion in the workrooms at Chanel, Dior, Dolce & Gabbana and Valentino. I’ve marvelled at the perfection of a day jacket that is as immaculately finished on the inside as it is on the out, been dazzled by evening-wear embroideries and appliqués that can take days, even weeks, to complete by hand.

But never once have I coveted anything for myself. These couture collections are so out of reach – hundreds of thousands of euros for some of the more elaborate pieces – they might as well be exhibits in a museum. Where would you wear most of them? You can admire but not necessarily relate. It doesn’t spoil the pleasure. It’s like visiting Castle Howard and being blown away by Vanbrugh’s virtuosity while at the same time pitying the current residents the upkeep and the draughts.

If anything, not having skin in the couture game makes watching those shows a far more contemplative exercise than browsing the Zara website. You can glean so much about the art of making any garment, it’s actually quite helpful when it comes to benchmarking the clothes in Me+Em and Sézane, or on pre-worn designer resale sites. It’s also the absolute antithesis of fast, throwaway fashion.

Inside British designer Emilia Wickstead's flagship store on Knightsbridge's Sloane Street
Inside designer Emilia Wickstead's flagship store on Knightsbridge's Sloane Street - Sophia Spring

British bespoke, outside the men’s havens on Savile Row, has always been a teeny cottage industry in comparison with France. Even in its 1930s heyday, the super rich would nip over to Paris for their Chanel couture rather than shop in London.

The 1980s saw a dainty uptick. By the time I started working in fashion, in 1990, a handful of British couturiers were staging shows in London – Anoushka Hempel, Bellville Sassoon, Hardy Amies, Catherine Walker, Bruce Oldfield… and then it sputtered out, almost without anyone noticing. The small, classic labels such as Anna Valentine and Fiona Clare – favourites of Queen Camilla – provide elegant made-to-measure, but until recently British fashion names focused almost entirely on ready-to-wear collections that they showed twice a year on the catwalk. Even in Paris only a few big labels, propped up by a pyramid of fragrance, sunglasses and accessories sales, could afford to support the couture side of their companies with full-blown shows.

But now there are delicate, tender buds emerging on the British made-to-measure scene. And they’re much more viable and affordable than the Parisian equivalents.

One Monday morning back in March, I found myself in Emilia Wickstead’s glamorous marble-floored two-storey flagship on Knightsbridge’s Sloane Street, switching my gaze between her iPad, which has thumbnail pictures of dozens of her designs from previous shows, and various swatches. The idea is that you can choose any look from her archives and, together with Wickstead, create a demi-customised version for yourself. Say you want the geometric printed cape dress from spring 2016, but in plain green – provided they have the right green fabric, your wish is her command.

It took Wickstead's team around 45 days to make Armstrong's skirt suit
It took Wickstead's team around 45 days to make Armstrong's skirt suit - Sophia Spring

Her team advise which weight materials work with which styles. Then they’ll check to see what they have in stock, because as well as being a luxury service, it’s also a sustainable one that allows them to find a new purpose for exquisite fabrics left over from previous collections, which might otherwise sit in storage never seeing the light of day. It’s a clever win-win that enables Wickstead to use the existing inventory, and offers clients an almost bespoke experience at a fraction of the cost of couture.

I’ve always loved Wickstead’s classic, structured clothes. She designed one of my all-time favourite Princess of Wales outfits – the lemon yellow twist-front dress that she wore to St Paul’s Cathedral during the celebrations for Queen Elizabeth II’s Platinum Jubilee, in 2022.

The Princess of Wales wore a yellow Emilia Wickstead dress for the late Queen Elizabeth II's Platinum Jubilee
The Princess of Wales wore a yellow Emilia Wickstead dress for the late Queen Elizabeth II's Platinum Jubilee - Getty

Until now, I’ve had only a couple of her designs – a blue twill cropped jacket that I’ve worn two summers on the trot, and 
a long red dress. But with some formal events coming up, I’ve fallen in love with a strapless mini dress with matching jacket in pale gold tweed that satisfies a gap I’ve newly identified in my wardrobe: the stunning-but-useful gap. It’s from two years ago, and if possible, instead of the mini dress I’d like a calf-length straight skirt. Her new made-to-order service means I can order one.

The jacket is one of my favourite shapes, round neck, boxy – Coco Chanel would have approved. I wear this style all the time, so there’s no chance of it sitting forlornly in my wardrobe, as I know I’ll get endless wear from each piece separately. The tweed has metallic woven through it, so great for evenings, but worn with knitwear, denim or cotton it would also work for a smart daytime event. If I plump for the made-to-order option, provided they have the fabric I want, it will take them about 45 days and cost 45 per cent more than the ready-to-wear version. But it’s worth it, because it will be as current in 10 years’ time as it is now.

‘In a way, it’s going back to what I did when I launched in 2008,’ explains Wickstead, ‘when I didn’t have the money to carry stock or buy fabric in bulk from the mills. I’d go to Italy and buy the leftovers. We didn’t call it dead stock then, but it was very sustainable because everything was designed to last and there was no waste.

‘It was really very bespoke because customers would come to my flat and I’d make a dress to their specific requirements. They’d pay 50 per cent upfront, which meant I could buy the fabric, and 50 per cent on delivery. That’s how I grew my business.’

'Coco Chanel would have approved': Armstrong wearing her new custom-made jacket and suit skirt
'Coco Chanel would have approved': Armstrong wearing her new custom-made jacket and suit skirt - Sophia Spring

Her company was so tiny initially – just her and her now husband Daniel Gargiulo, who is still a director of the company – that she’d answer the phone when Vogue called, pretending to be her own assistant. It was six years before she started the wholesale side, selling to department stores and multi-brand etailers. Before that, it was all direct-to-consumer. ‘Working directly with clients teaches you so much about what they really want to wear,’ she says. This also explains why there are always little cardigans and jackets to go with her strapless and sleeveless dresses.

Wickstead herself looks like a Modigliani painting but gives off ultra pragmatic, practical vibes. The New Zealander would probably not merely survive on a desert island but end up building a very chic resort hotel as well as sewing the uniforms for its staff. She is, like all designers big or small, adapting to a new luxury landscape, where even the 0.1 per cent want value for money. Her brand now offers ready-to-wear, made-to-order, bespoke, where the pattern is exactly made to your measurements from either an existing style or something entirely new, and demi-bespoke bridal, where you can slightly customise from her bridal capsule collection.

That’s not the limit of her versatility, though. She famously decked out the front-of-house staff at Chiltern Firehouse in stylish tailored jumpsuits, and is currently working on the kit for Air New Zealand’s crew. While she studied at Central Saint Martins and is now a star of London Fashion Week, worn by many international royals as well as Naomi Watts, Laura Dern, Renée Zellweger, Alexa Chung, Ruth Wilson and Lily James, she says it’s her mother, a talented dressmaker designer with her own boutique in Auckland, who taught her the important lessons about fit, fabric, construction and running a business.

American actress Kelly Rutherford in an Emilia Wickstead dress outside the brand's London Fashion Week show in February 2024
American actress Kelly Rutherford in an Emilia Wickstead dress outside the brand's London Fashion Week show in February 2024 - Getty

Wickstead takes my measurements and checks she has the fabric. It’s a yes… now I just have to be patient while they make it. But as someone who no longer indulges in impulse buys from the high street or online (these days I prefer to stalk vintage on resale sites, where the quality is top notch and the savings huge), patience is something I’ve developed. The days when I might be tempted to get a new party outfit that would be delivered in 90 minutes from Matches Fashion or Net-a-Porter seem a long, long time ago.

My drift away from Matches, it turns out, coincided with that of countless others. In 2017 the online behemoth that began as a single independent boutique in Wimbledon in the early 1990s, was sold by its founders, Tom and Ruth Chapman, to private equity firm Apax Partners for £800 million. At the end of 2023, Apax, apparently defeated by the mysteries of making a fashion etailer work, sold the company to Mike Ashley, founder of Sports Direct, for a mere £52 million. Even that, it appears, was overpricing it. In March this year matchesfashion.com went into administration, with the immediate loss of 273 staff, and the closure of its three stores, including the flagship, domiciled in a plush five-storey town house in Mayfair.

That’s only the beginning of the commercial devastation Matches’ demise is having on the fashion industry. Many well-known and smaller independent designers who were stocked on the website have not yet been paid for hundreds of thousands of pounds’ worth of deliveries. Wickstead, for whom Matches constituted a big chunk of her business, was one of the relatively fortunate ones. In 2022 she opened 4,000sq ft of airy, marble-floored retail space in what was once the Chloé store. Sited on Sloane Street along with Valentino, Gucci, Prada et al, the shop, which also stocks her swimwear and homeware, is a confident gesture that has given her far more visibility, particularly with high-spending locals and Middle Eastern visitors. Business is brisk. But she’s had to think on her feet and find ways to mitigate the Matches fallout.

'Wickstead is a beady-eyed perfectionist. She wouldn't let anything leave her store she wasn't happy with,' writes Armstrong
'Wickstead is a beady-eyed perfectionist. She wouldn't let anything leave her store she wasn't happy with,' writes Armstrong - Sophia Spring

During my first visit, a family arrives to be fitted by the bespoke bridal service. The doors that sequester the bridal area from the main boutique slide into action. As well as off-the-peg wedding dresses, Wickstead will, for a price, design something completely original and one-off. We’re talking sky’s-the-limit fees here, depending on embellishments and fabrics.

Other customers flit in and out, shopping Wickstead’s ready-to-wear summer collection, swimwear and kaftans. Others are here for a style overhaul with a member of Wickstead’s team, who will flesh out a new wardrobe tailored to their lifestyle, building on pieces the client already has and advising on accessories (Wickstead designs her own shoes but not yet bags). ‘I’m a big believer in keeping your clothes for years and just adding a couple of things each season,’ she says.

Other British names known primarily for ready-to-wear are quietly offering a spectrum of bespoke and couture options too. Richard Quinn, Alexander McQueen, Erdem and Roksanda all serve clients looking for unique designs, as well as those who want customised versions of existing looks.

Richard Quinn caters for customers wanting customised versions of existing looks
Richard Quinn caters for customers wanting customised versions of existing looks - Getty

Roksanda offers Zoom consultations with regular clients whom she has previously fitted. One client has so many of her ready-to-wear pieces, Roksanda has to design one-offs for her from scratch. ‘What’s lovely is the relationship you develop with clients, and what they teach you about what they need,’ explains the Serbian-born, London-based designer.

Meanwhile, after quietly beavering away on her bespoke collections for more than a decade, Suzannah Crabbe, whose label Suzannah London has dressed the Princess of Wales, Julie Christie, Elizabeth McGovern and Sophie, Duchess of Edinburgh, found orders surging for her beautifully fitted classics following the pandemic. She has seen a further spike in demand, particularly in the UK, since behind-the-scenes pictures of the exquisitely embroidered Coronation gown that she designed for the Duchess went viral last year (she also dressed her daughter, Lady Louise Windsor, and India Hicks). Crabbe had her team are working flat out, having expanded her workshop into the mews at the back of her boutique, tucked away behind Selfridges.

There’s clearly a correlation between the travails of etailers and the blossoming of independent labels offering an ultra personalised service. ‘It’s the personal touch,’ says Crabbe. ‘The authenticity and the craftsmanship. Creating pieces with a story behind them, with every stitch being there for a reason. There’s also the ability to have personal and bespoke touches, to be able to phone up and speak to a human who really cares and is passionate about helping you find the most flattering pieces that make you look the best version of you… that’s what people respond to.’

Six weeks on from my visit to Emilia Wickstead, my suit is ready. I’m a bit nervous, truth be told. What if it’s not as good as I hoped… No chance of that. Wickstead is a beady-eyed perfectionist. She wouldn’t let anything leave her store she wasn’t happy with. Despite being the kind of mid-weight tweed I imagine will still be going strong when my daughters come to wear it, it glides on like silk and I know immediately I was right about it being infinitely useful. I’ve already worn the individual pieces twice, and I’ve had it for seven days. It’s the kind of suit that’s almost better than money in the bank. To misquote Scarlett O’Hara: ‘I’ll never have nothing to wear again.’