So, I have now reached the final article in Anne Barrie’s Window on Fashion series focusing on Anne Bruh, the designer behind Frank Usher. Having reached the final article in the series it seems appropriate to reflect on the series as a whole. I was fascinated that the series profiles five companies- all of whom are a Husband (chairman/ financial side of the business) and Wife (designer) team apart from Frederick Starke. As ever Starke seems to be the “odd one out” in the series. However, I have contemplated why perhaps these five designers form the series- my thought is that they were all key members of the London Fashion House Group (the series includes all three men who were Chairman/ President of he Group Carr Jones, Zelker and Starke). Furthermore, both Bruh and Parry-Billings were part of the original membership of the group in ’58.
I would love to hear if you know anything more about the brands featured in the series- did you work for any of the firms perhaps?
They Created Frank Usher
Woman and beauty July 1961
A passion for perfection in all the elegant clothes which bear the Frank Usher label, says Anne Barrie
Once upon a time, a girl who yearned for a fabulous gown either had to part with her lifetime’s savings- or settle down to sew one herself. Not so today. Since Frank Usher came onto the fashion scene, any girl with a grand occasion ahead can but a grand ball gown to match, at a cost which won’t wreck a modest piggy bank.
Two people, Max and Anne Bruh, are responsible for this, by turning out couture-quality dresses with a low price tag. But it is Anne Bruh ( Max’s wife and co-director) who gives Frank Usher clothes their special, feminine allure. She is herself bewitchingly feminine, a brunette, with clear blue eyes, and a quick vital manner. When she speaks, she moves her hands, spiritedly, sketching out her words with dramatic gestures.
Born in the little German town of Wuppertal, Anne fled to England in 1939 when Hitler’s hordes began sweeping Europe and now regards this country as ‘home.’
In 1945, when the world rejoiced in its new-found peace, Anne and Max had their own private reason for celebrating; after a friendship which lasted throughout five war years, they were married. Max, with much valuable experience gained as a director of one of Berlin’s pre-war top fashion houses, was mustard-keen to start his own business- but this was no simple task in austerity Britain.
Characteristically, Max and Anne Bruh found the only way round the hampering restrictions- they discovered and bought an existing but almost defunct, firm named Frank Usher. ‘The name was good, so we kept it,” explained Anne Bruh, “Besides, it gave us such glorious anonymity.”
The years that followed were crammed with excitement and sheer hard work as the new Frank Usher struggled to its feet. “They were wonderful years,” recalls Anne. “We started off doing literally everything ourselves, even sweeping the floors.”
Two other major events punctuated those early years; the birth of a son, Stephen, and three years later, a second son, Robert. Anne’s feeling about her family is one of slightly anxious dedication. Although working full-tilt at her job, she unhesitatingly puts the children first even when it means “coming home bone-wear and having to lend a hand with knotty algebra problems.”
For this reason she has, until recently, firmly resisted sending either of the boys away to school (although Robert, at his own wish, Is now happily installed at boarding school); and she spends most evenings and weekends contentedly at home. The result is a harmonious, easy-going mother-sons relationship. “Holidays are the best fun of all,” she says. “When we go ski-ing, it’s Robert and Stephen who race me down the slopes, and tug me on to the dance floor later. It’s like having two dashing young escorts.”
Once the two junior Bruh’s became less dependent (they are now fifteen and twelve years old respectively), Anne was able to spend more time assisting Max, and eventually crystallised her present-day role in the firm: that of inter-department liaison and fashion arbiter. “My parents were coat and suit makers,” she says, “So I’d been absorbing fashion since I was knee-high, But the other part- the liaison- that’s the really vital job in a firm like ours. It’s knowing what fashion outline to promote- and how hard; what the public wants, and how far they can be persuaded.”
This rigorous training has given Anne a clear-sighted feeling about fashion. “When you live with clothes, you get to hate fussiness. I’d rather see a woman under-dressed than ovderdone any day. I love clear, singing colours that make your heart zing.”
She is sufficiently down-to-earth to realize that most women can only spend a moderate amount on their wardrobes, thinks vast expenditure is unnecessary anyway, but says “It’s nonsense to pretend you can be well-dressed on practically nothing.”
The important thing, she feels, is to posses a kind of prophetic fashion foresight, to be able to recognise fashion straws in the wind. “It’s no good knowing a good line after it has arrived. That way you’re only up-to-the-minute for one season. And when the fashion changes- pouf, you’re behind the times. To save money and be a pacesetter, you must sense an outline three seasons ahead, When it is still little more than a gleam in the designer’s eye. Then your clothes will be top-liners for several seasons.” Here are other ways in which Anne suggests cutting the clothes budget, yet remaining well-dressed: have one set of good accessories in black patent or neutral leather- and wear them with everything. Buy more expensive items (ball and cocktail dresses) in classic shapes and keep them for years, She says, “I have dresses in my wardrobe which I bought five years ago-and I wear them just as happily today.” Then she adds, “The really canny shopper never buys gimmicky clothes. After two, or three outings they are ready for the rag-bag, and that’s poor fashion sense whichever way you look at it.”
Soon the Bruh family will be exchanging their flat at Harrow-on-the-Hill for a brand-new, split-level house next to Hampstead Heath. Explained Anne: “ We’re having it specially built, and it has everything we ever dreamed of- chequerboard terrazzo floors, window-walls and a vast garden with even a pond and a weeping willow tree.”
The painstaking perfection which Anne Bruh put into planning their house is a clue to her life’s maxim. “There is no end to knowledge. I try to do everything as well as I can-and every day I learn a little more.” Maybe this is the quality that makes Frank Usher dresses outstanding- but isn’t that where we came in?