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

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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.”

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


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.”