They created Frank Usher

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?

To see the Jean Allen Window on Fashion article click here

To see the Polly Peck Window on Fashion article click here

To see the Susan Small Window on Fashion article click here

To see the Frederick Starke Window on Fashion article click here


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?

Window on Fashion by Anne Barrie Spotlights Jean Allen

Of all the companies that were part of Anne Barrie’s Window on Fashion series Jean Allen was probably the one I knew the least about (and actually the one that there is the least information to be found about on the interwebs). It is perhaps unsurprising therefore that the article suggests she is a quiet person who shied away from publicity, to be honest I think I knew more of her Husband Kenneth, who dealt with the business side of the company (often quoted as N.K. Parry- Billings, his first name was Norman, but it seems he did not use it)

To see the Polly Peck Window on Fashion article click here

To see the Susan Small Window on Fashion article click here

To see the Frederick Starke Window on Fashion article click here

Window on Fashion by Anne Barrie Spotlights Jean Allen

Woman and Beauty June 1961



Jean Parry-Billings, better known as Jean Allen, is a brown-eyed blonde with a soft, slightly breathless voice and a smile which first crinkles her eyes and then lights her whole face. At 32, she is possibly London’s youngest well-known wholesale dress designer, is still charmingly baffled by her success, and puts most of it down to the drive, energy and insight of her husband and managing director, Kenneth Parry-Billings. In the blue and white living-room of their Belgravia mews house she talked about everything from Rome to good grooming, adding her idea on racing cars for good measure! We present her views here monologue-style, with occasional pertinent asides from her husband.

“The first thing I learnt about fashion- the designing end, I mean- is the marvelous, magical power of fabrics. I can dream up a dozen dresses, just while I’m holding some gorgeous, sumptuous cloth in my fingers. Naturally, I do the fabric buying, all of it. This is the one job I won’t hand over to anyone.”

“I have three design assistants. After all, nobody should be indispensable,” (Husband Kenneth: “She is though.”) “So if I break a leg or twist a knee the business will continue on its own momentum.

“Watching our dresses trundle out of the factory at the rate of 1,500 or so every week gives me a funny feeling. It’s hard to believe they’re all mine. You’d never think, would you, that we only started six years ago?” (Kenneth: “You should have seen her. Her designing was brilliant, but her book-keeping! That’s where I came in.”)

“True, He was marvelous. I was so grateful, I married him. Now he brilliantly takes care of all that tiresome business nonsense. He even make me do things I cringe from, like going to New York for two weeks. Honestly, I’d much rather stay at home. I adore fashion but I hate all the socializing that goes with it. Really, I’m terribly anti-social.

“My idea of perfect bliss is an evening at home with Kenneth. He glues himself to the television set, and I’m buried behind the newspaper, but each of us likes to know the other is there. I hate television. And we both hate London. If we had our way we’d drive down every night to Newdigate in Surrey were we have a simply heavenly house; five bedrooms, three dogs, five garden acres and two streams.

“I love it. We spend every weekend there, often with friends- gardening, talking, sitting in the sun if there is any. Kenneth tinkers with cars. He started life as an engineer, you know, and he has a passion for old, interesting and frantically expensive Cara with Character, I’m mad about cars, too, but the sleek, fast modern kind. Right now I own a Merced convertible. It’s white and navy blue- that’s my colour scheme- and all my cars in turn have had the same licence number: JA 1000.

“I think one of the greatest luxuries in the world is to have masses of time. Time to read, go to the theatre, do all the satisfying, worthwhile things one dreams of doing. The trouble with starting a new business is that one becomes absorbed by it. Everything else gets blotted out.

“I’ve lived and breathed fashion since I was sixteen. My cousin, Peggy Allen-an established couturiere-took me under her wing, taught me almost all I know. Then, when I wanted to start Jean Allen Dresses, she gave me a friendly push in the right direction and said, ‘Now you’re on your own.’ When she retired two years ago, I took over the business. Now I design collections- four main, and four mid-season-every year.

“Of course I go to all the big collections. Paris, Florence, Rome. Balenciaga is my absolutely favourite designer. Why? Simplicity. All his clothes are so incredibly elegant.

“I think Italians are the most elegant women as a whole; they pay meticulous attention to detail.

“For myself, give me pants and big, bulky sweaters every time.” (Kenneth: “Believe it or not, she owns thirty- and she’s still collecting.”)

“The most-often-worn dress in my wardrobe is a little black number. Every woman should have one. It’s a mainstay. Colours? I always choose cool, muted shades; beige is marvelous. Hot clashing colours just make my head ache.

“But what Kenneth and I both want most of all in the world is a large, joyful family around us.”

The Polly Peck Touch

Today I am sharing the third in the Window on Fashion series from Woman and Beauty. This article focuses on the company Polly Peck and is in a large part an interview with designer Sybil (with little mention of Raymond, who was the companies chairman, at all!)

I have transcribed the article in full below. Sorry for the slightly rubbish pics of the original article, the magazines were all in a large bound volume, so it was difficult to get pics of the pages properly.

To see the Frederick Starke Woman and Beauty article click here

To see the Susan Small Woman and Beauty article click here

IMG_1933 IMG_1934

The Polly Peck touch Woman and Beauty May 1961


Window on Fashion by Anne Barrie


It takes initiative and flair to build success. This is the portrait of a woman who has reached the heights in fashion.


Sybil Zelker, managing director and sole designer of Polly Peck dresses, is as vivid and arresting personality as the clothes she dreams up. Her first-floor office, a stone’s throw from Bond Street and the glittering Westbury Hotel, looks more like Aladdin’s cave than an executives work-place. Bales of brilliant silk, gossamer wools, pastel-shaded cottons line the walls and spill to the floor; half-open boxes reveal tumbled gold braid, crystal beading; and racks of tacked and pinned originals crowd the floor space.

At the far end of the room is an elegant, expansive but cluttered white leather and mahogany desk. In the small crowed space between the desk and the vast, floor-to-ceiling mirror which backs it, all Polly Peck dresses start life. Here, Sybil

Zelker drapes, swathes, twists and pins an uncut dress length until a design stakes shape, then drops everything to turn and sketch deftly on a large pad.

“I don’t begin with any clear-cut plan,” she says. ‘The fabrics inspire me as I go along. I find certain materials just cry out to be made into certain shapes.”

Working quickly and expertly, she can complete a design in as little as an hour- or as long as one day. Then comes the consultation with her chief design assistant. The first tough model is tacked into shape on a stand, reviewed, critiscised, altered- and reviewed again until it is perfect. Then, and only then, it is handed to the workroom to be reproduced a hundred or even a thousand times (an estimated 5,000 Polly Peck dresses leave the factory each week). All od this sounds tremendously high-powered, which is just what Sybil Zelker is not. Her attitude to life is relaxed and easy-going (husband Raymond Zelker, Polly Peck chairman, handles the business side, does most of the worrying). She is unaffectedly sophisticated and loves luxury as naturally as a beautiful Siamese cat does.

Her day begins around 8.30am with a slow, perfumed bath followed by breakfast (she invariably wears a frothy negligee) and two of three telephone calls to friends. At 10.15am the Zelker chauffeur manoeuvers their navy blue Rolls Royce into the curb outside the Regent’s Park flat, and minutes later Sybil settles into the pale blue back seat while he steers her to Conduit Street, and the Polly Peck building. At lunch-time, and again when work stops at 5.30pm, there may be drinks with friends. Dinner, cooked and served by the Zelkers’ housekeeper (Sybil admits, “I can cook, but don’t enjoy it”) is a family affair. Often, the Zelkers’ eighteen-year-old daughter, Heather, and husband Harvey, drop in to join them and their second daughter, fourteen-year-old Elizabeth.

During off-duty hours, the pattern is unvaried although the location may change. Summer holidays are spent at Cannes in the sun (“loafing”); weekends, walking in the country or, come summer, at their new seaside house (“soaking up sun again”); evening at home, listening to swing or Italian jazz records in their mauve-and-orange television room (‘just lazing”).

Sybil carries her love of fine, quality possessions into her clothes life. She admits to owning a clutch of furs- among them, a mink coat, jacket and stole- but won’t wear them until they have been remodeled. “Right now, they’re terribly outdated,” she says.

This is something she is absolutely firm about: her clothes must be right fashion-wise, and they must suit her. For instance, although square-toed shoes are the newest thing afoot, she dislikes them- therefore doesn’t own a single pair. She spends a lot on tailored clothes- coats and suits- and good leather accessories, but all her dresses are Polly Peck models. She uses jewellery sparingly (feels lukewarm about it) but with terrific effect: on the shoulder of a sleeveless beige jumper suit she’ll pin a magnificent gold-and-topaz brooch- and leave it at that.

As part of her meticulous grooming plan, she visits the hairdressers twice a week, feels “simply dreadful” if her hair is less than perfect. At present, her almost straight, thick blonde hair is cut in a bob-and-fringe which makes her look like a youthful art student.

When it comes to leisure clothes, Sybil is “mad about” pants- she owns ten pairs- and wears them whenever she can. But hers have nothing whatever in common with the Chelsea-blue-jeans variety. Each pair is faultlessly tailored usually in sugar-almond shades (pale green, lavender, pink) in silk and occasionally in stretch elastic; and each has its matching silk shirt of sleeveless silk jersey T-shirt. ‘Heaven preserve me from baggy pants and sloppy sweaters,” she says.

The quality she admires least in a woman is over-dressing. “Jangle-dangle jewellery, frills and peep-show blouses aren’t smart- just messy.” And the quality she admire mist? An air of unstudied casualness. It may take a woman many hours to achieve this, but when she does- that’s elegance.”