Who is Susan Small?

Following on from Thursday’s post I am sharing another article from Woman and Beauty today. This article was actually the first in the 1961 series Window on Fashion and traces another well known ready to wear firm, Susan Small. 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 Window on Fashion article about Frederick Starke, click here

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Who is Susan Small? Woman and Beauty March 1961

A success story that began in a tiny workshop

In a penthouse high above Regent’s park, the lamps are lit and the soft, muffling curtains are drawn against the darkening night. A middle-aged man, with the quiet slightly absent-minded air of a professor, sits reading in an enveloping armchair. Nearby sits his wide. She is petite, fine-boned, irresistibly vivacious. Now, chin cupped in hand, she listens reflectively to Tchaikovsky’s “Swan Lake.”

There is little indication in this peaceful, homely scene that these two people, Leslie and Fay Carr-Jones, mean more to millions of women in Britain and abroad than the latest pop singer or the most vigorous cabinet minister. But, as founders, promoters, directors and guiding stars of Susan Small Ltd., wholesale couturiers, they are responsible for dressing well over three hundred thousand women each year. And that is not all. Today, the twin words, Susan Small, have come to evoke a special vision- of intense, bewitching femininity: of great, but casual, elegance.

It was not always so. Twenty-eight years ago, Susan Small meant no more than a tiny, cramped workroom and a handful of machinists and pattern cutters. Leslie Carr-Jones toted his samples from door to door, and an order which topped a dozen made it a Red Letter Day. Then Fay Carr-Jones herself an enthusiastic and talented young designer with an artist’s eye for pure line and colour, persuaded her husband to let her drawing board in a small room behind the workshop. He agreed. And the real Susan Small- imaginary, indefinable, yet wholly recognizable- was born. On the origin of the name, both Leslie and Fay Carr-Jones are unashamedly vague, “We really can’t remember” they say, smiling at each other and shrugging. “It just sort of happened, somehow.”

From that moment on, the Susan Small saga is one of zooming success and bounding growth with only minor set backs. Such as the time during the war when most of the staff left to work in munitions factories and machines gathered dust, starved of fabrics and skilled hands which could make them up. Now the small, dark workroom has been replaced by a humming stack of offices in the heart of London’s wholesale fashionland, just North of Oxford Street. The designs which flood from the drawing boards- Fay Carr-Jones now heads a team of three designers- keep over a hundred sub-contractors at work for weeks at a time. The end result of all this industry? Any woman, from size 8 to 20, in France, Canada, the Bahamas, the British Isles and thirty five other countries can walk into her nearest main store- and, in exchange for between five and twenty-five guineas, walk out again wearing a Susan Small garment.

One might imagine that controlling an organisation of this immensity calls for cool nerves and a gimlet business brain. True. But neither Leslie nor Fay Carr-Jones give any hint of either. Together, or separately , they move through the bustling melee of their offices, where doe-eyed model girls wearing bulky sweaters and hobble petticoats hurry from dressing to fitting rooms; telephone shrill, bell boys totted beneath armloads of dresses. And always the Carr-Jones’ remain the same- kindly, serenely unhurried. If an out-of-town buyer drops in with road-weary feet, or a junior office girl has boy-friend trouble, each can be sure of at least fifteen minutes of sympathetic attention.

“Actually, we’re just dull, ordinary people,” says Leslie Carr-Jones apologetically. This is a played down version of the truth. There are few dull, ordinary people who possesses the Carr-Joes measure of outgoing warmth and vital interest in the people and, to a lesser extent, things which surround them. Many of their staff have been with them for over twenty-five years, and ten years’ service is commonplace.

They do, however, enjoy the satisfying, everyday relaxations which a million of more other people enjoy. Most weekends they motor down to Bosham in Sussex, where they own a two-bedroom cottage and miniature guest house. Leslie Carr-Jones pulls on old tweeds and spends from sun-up to sun-down tending his large vegetable and flower garden- he grows vegetables for the staff canteen and provides flowers for the salon. Fay Carr-Jones spend her off-work moments relaxing, reading or cooking. She thinks the good, old-fashioned English cuisine is unbeatable, is proud of her homemade soup but is quick to add, “Leslie makes the best salad dressing in the world.”

Her fashion philosophy: to possess a few, really good items rather than a hotch potch of indifferent ones. She aims and achieves a “groomed, crisp look.” She thinks that every woman should own one good black dress, and has a horror of downtrodden shoes. “I always notice a girl’s feet.” She says. Her fashion bugbear: “Clothes which you have to fight and struggle to get into.” As a result, she sees to it that Susan Small designs are simple to slip on.

Both Fay and Leslie Carr-jones are “all for youth”- they have a son and daughter, each married. Says Fay, “Paula has a terrific fashion sense. I get a host of ideas just listening to her and her friends. They have such bounce and zing.” On the subject of success, she was thoughtful. Finally, she summed it up thus: “I love designing bright, youthful clothes- clothes which women feel happy wearing- and if you enjoy something I think you almost inevitably do it well.”

Presenting Frederick Starke

Today I am very happy to share one of the most interesting articles I have dug up during my research thus far, a piece from the 1961 issue of Woman and Beauty entitled “Presenting Frederick Starke”. This article was one of a short series running from March 1961 (Window on Fashion by Anne Barrie) onwards that profiled some of the key ready-to-wear fashion houses operating in London at the time. I have tracked down the whole series via the British Library and will be sharing them all (in full!) over the coming weeks. As Starke is the main protagonist of my PhD research though, I thought I would start with him. I will say as an aside- Starke was prone to a little bit of elaboration of the truth we might say, so some of the things he said may be best taken with a pinch of salt 😉

As part of my research I would love to hear from anyone who knew Starke, worked for his companies OR even wore his clothes. Please feel free to email me: liztregenza@hotmail.com

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Presenting Frederick Starke Woman and Beauty April 1961

Almost every Saturday morning around 10 o’clock a lean, dark green Jaguar noses into the South Kensington traffic and heads west. The number plates bears the inscription FS2, the initials od the slight, dark haired man at the wheel. Frederick Starke, fashion designer, managing director and business tycoon, dressed now in comfortable tweeds, could at this moment pass equally well for a successful racehorse owner or a gentleman farmer. For the next twenty-four hours he will lead a slow-paced, country existence: swinging round the local golf course; outstretched before a leaping, log fire; talking to friends he has known for years.

But at 9.30 on Monday morning he will manoeuvre his second Jaguar (registration number FS1) into the kerb outside his Mayfair salon. Seconds later he will be at his desk in the small cubby hole office above the glitteringly spacious salon where the dresses bearing his name are paraded before an assortment of home and overseas buyers. ‘I’m bad at getting up early,” he admits, “but once at the office I pack in quite a programme.” His “programme” is sufficiently high-pressure to make many other executives flinch. Above the clatter of half-a-dozen typewriters in the next office, he dictates letters, flicks the switches on his Hollywood-type Dictograph to give instructions to other departments, designs-and later fits- all of the garments for every collection, and generally see to it that his exacting target output of 5,000 Fredrica models a week comes up to scratch.

This kind of pace is probably what it takes to stay abreast of the wholesale fashion industry. But Frederick Starke with a first-ever bronze award for ‘outstanding design”, is ahead of the field. The grandson of a fashion designer, he was, as he puts it, “born into the fashion business- but managed to avoid it up to the age of twenty-three.” Then his inborn talent, and a reluctantly admitted disinclination for any other profession, forced him into the design world. And in 1933. Frederick Starke Ltd., with bright, attractive premises at Little Portland Street in London, started and quickly became a going concern.

With the outbreak of war, the youthful managing director put on the blue-grey uniform of the Royal Air Force and, as part of a mobile ground/air control interception unit, followed the invasion through France and Germany. But wile the ground shook and shells shrieked overhead, “Freddie” Starke filled in his free time sketching designs which he posted back to his pattern cutter. ‘They were desperate days” he recalls. “We couldn’t get material, and what we could lay our hands on was poor, poor stuff- but as soon as it was ready it sold like hot cakes, all the same.”

In 1945, after the Allied forces had entered Berlin, Frederick Starke came home. While he has been away, an enemy bomb had shattered the Little Portland Street premises and his business has now moved to Bruton Street, in the shadow of Norman Hartnell’s famous salon. He immediately set about scoring a notable First. While Britain writhed in post-war austerity Frederick Starke threw a sumptuous, fan faring press party to launch his new collection. It was the first of its type. Every other fashion wholesaler hastily followed suit.

Frederick Starke’s present starry success is no accident. He combines a designers’ flair with the stag manger’s eye for the dramatic. The theatre is, in fact, his second abiding interest. Until it closed three years ago, he owned a half share in the New Lindsay Theatre Club, and read and chose plays for production. He puts into each of his collections the same painstaking attention to detail, polish and rehearsal that a good stage manager devotes to a successful production. His models’ changing room has all the hallmarks of a back-stage dressing room: wall mirrors and make-up benches flanked y naked electric bulbs; racks of tinted satin shoes and silk scarves at shoulder level; a tray of glittering, jumbled jewellery by the door, and middle-aged dressers waiting to help the models into their clothes and fasten zips, buttons and belts.

Not unnaturally, Freddie Starke has clear, uncompromising views on what makes a woman well dressed. “Unless a girl is well groomed, even a Dior dress is a waste of money,” he states emphatically. ‘I have stood in a roomful of women where beautiful, expensive dresses have been two-a-penny- and all I have noticed is whether or not the hair, the make-up, the jewellery are flawless.” He has a frank admiration for Audrey Hepburn’s clean-swept good looks, and thinks that Spanish village women are the most naturally well groomed in the world. He says of them, “They are at once simple- but outstanding. Magnificent”

High on his list of pet hates (in first place: ‘frizzled permanent waves”) comes the woman who overloads herself with cheap costume jewellery, “particularly oversize fake pearls. When a model comes to me for a job, the first thing I do is get her to strip off all the baubles. Then I can get a good look at her.”

Like most men, he is adamant about the importance of dressing to suit the occasion, has no time for the “woman who is so busy being well dressed that she wears black and pearls to an evening coffee party.”

On the subject of how to be well dresses, he is equally sure and unswerving: :It’s an art any woman can learn- if she sticks to the rules.” And those rules? One: buy a simple, inexpensive, basic dress or suit No one will know whether you paid five or fifty guineas for it. Two: pick it in a cool, unclashing colour which will tone beautifully with everything.” (He loves beige, silver-washed grey, ice blues and lilacs; has his own Kensington flat decorated throughout in pale grey, with shock accents in flowers, paintings, purple cushions.) “Three: add one really gorgeous piece of jewellery. And four: pay a small fortune (or the nearest you can afford) for shoes, bag and gloves. Nothing, but nothing, beats the fashion impact of real leather, expensively handled.”

The rules are simple but they are the secret behind the elegant “Frederick Starke look.”

“Dress for the occasion”- this is Frederick Starke’s firmest rule.

Fashion designing demands imagination, flair and insight, plus sheer hard work. All these are behind the famous Frederick Starke label.