Born: Ilford, Essex, England, 27 November 1937. Education: Attended Walthamstow School of Art, 1953-57, and the Royal College of Art, London, 1957-60. Career: Freelance design work from 1959-63 included B.E.A. air hostess uniforms, 1959, clothing for B. Altman and Co. (New York), Count Down and Pallisades stores (London); worked at Costume Museum, Bath, England, 1960; designed hats for film Freud, 1960; formed partnership with Zandra Rhodes to open Fulham Road Clothes Shop, London, 1964; outerwear designer for the Wallis Fashion Group, Ltd., London, from 1969; freelance designer and pattern cutter for Keith Taylor, Ltd., London, 1975-80; part-time lecturer at Kingston Polytechnic (London), 1961-65, Ravensbourne College of Art and Design (London), 1961-67, Middlesex Polytechnic 1967-71; also external assessor for B.A. (Honors) fashion and textile courses, from 1976. Awards: Fellow, Royal Society of Arts, 1986; awarded MBE (Member of the British Empire), 1990. Address: c/o The Wallis Fashion Group Ltd., 22 Garrick Industrial Centre, Garrick Road, Hendon, London NW9 6AQ, England.
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I design for a chain of High Street shops, so I sell to a very wide range of customers who expect well-designed, well-made and well-priced garments.
The coats and raincoats I design must be extremely "wantable." My aim is to make thousands of women feel wonderful by providing garments that are not too boring, too safe, or too extreme but sharp, minimal, very functional, uncontrived, all very easy but with an element of surprise. I am a perfectionist. I care desperately about the shapes and proportions of my designs. I care about every detail, every stitch, button, and buckle. If the design is easy on my eye, it will also please my customer.
I don't design to a theme or for myself. Most of my ideas evolve from season to season, or a new idea just flashes into my head. I am very aware of my customers' lifestyle, and, as fashion is constantly evolving, I must be aware of the changing needs of women, and yet remain creative, experimental, and forward thinking. I design for a type of woman, not for an age group, and I become that woman as I design. I believe there are basically three types of women—the feminine woman, the classic woman, the fashion woman—and I feel she stays that type all of her life, whether she is 16 or 60.
I adore designing. I am always enthusiastic about my work, and get great joy from seeing so many women wearing my clothes. It is my job and my joy to make her feel good and very special, and to encourage her to return to the shops to buy again and again.
The name Sylvia Ayton probably means little to most British women, yet for the last several decades she has had a significant influence on what they wear. As outerwear designer for the Wallis Fashion Group, Ltd., Ayton produced fashion ranges in good quality fabrics at reasonable prices. Over the years, her coats and suits gained a rightful place in the forefront of High Street fashion.
Ayton's original ambition was to make women feel wonderful and special, as if each one were a "fairy princess." She dressed her first "fairy princesses" in the 1960s when she worked with Zandra Rhodes, Marion Foale, and Sally Tuffin. Some were private customers, but to her surprise, Ayton found that working for one person did not always provide satisfaction. During her career, she found the greatest fulfilment in designing a coat that will give pleasure to nearly 5,000 women. At Wallis, she produced two annual outerwear collections, mainly coats and suits. The cloth provided the starting point; each season came new fabrics and colors yet they had to be the right quality and price. These were used to create garments both fashionable but realistic—the typical Wallis customer was Ms. Average, but each woman had her own personality and lifestyle.
Ayton believed it most useful to divide women by type, rather than age group, categorizing them as "feminine," "classic," or "fashionable" types. This guided her attitude to her collections and dictated shapes and details. Each season, there were the classics: wool velour winter coats, gabardine trench styles, blousons. Of course there were always new ideas, unexpected twists, trims, or fabrics or completely experimental designs manufactured in small numbers for a few outlets. Alpaca wool coats, for example, were a luxury item featured only in a small number of shops. Ayton continually checked what customer were buying, and weekly sales figures provided an important guide. Sales influenced her ideas as much as the latest design intelligence.
Ayton has always been a realist who knows that business awareness is essential for a designer. This lesson was first learned in the 1960s when she opened the Fulham Road Clothes Shop with Zandra Rhodes, creating garments from fabric designed and printed by Rhodes. The press loved them, but their lack of backers, finance, and business sense proved fatal. For later designing, she thought like a buyer: pragmatic in seeking the best quality at a sensible price.
Ayton has worked unstintingly with British fashion design courses to instill high standards and to provide students with a realistic view of the industry. Annually, she organized placements in the Wallis design studio and pattern cutting rooms. Upholding standards is, in her view, essential. Having found her "fairy princess," she has spent years trying to teach young designers how to do the same.
Ayton visits Wallis clothing stores as often as possible to observe customers for herself, making her better able to create clothing for them when she returns to the design studio. She also collects fashion magazines from around the world and attends fabric fairs, usually in Europe, to keep at the forefront of the industry. Yet Ayton was never overly concerned with drawing up the newest, wildest outerwear on the market; instead, she focused on what clients will purchase. Her design process is cyclical, building upon the previous season as well as the last cold-weather season. She loses no time in warm weather, always looking ahead, researching markets and materials for the coming season as soon as production has begun on her previous work.
Working exclusively for a company label meant Ayton's name was not used to sell her designs. Her work, however, did not go unnoticed. She has received many awards, including the MBE for her services to fashion. The accolades are well deserved: as a designer Ayton has the right combination of qualities. She is a perfectionist and an idealist, but one with a very firm grasp of reality.
updated by Carrie Snyder