Born: Cairo, Egypt, c. 1943. Education: Attended boarding school in Harrogate, England; studied fashion at the Art School in Swindon. Career: Worked for couturier Michael Sherrard, and for Mary Quant, Knightsbridge; assisted fashion photographer Tony Rawlinson; returned to Mary Quant; established own business, 1963; moved to Beauchamp Place, 1966; designed for a number of celebrities and musicians, 1960s; designed for British royalty, beginning in the 1980s; opened new store on Bond Street, London, 1990s. Address: 9, St. Johns Wood High Street, London NW8 7N6 England.
"Designs for the Princess of Wales," in the Times, 3 November 1981.
Brampton, Sally, "Showing the Rest of the World," in The Observer, 20 March 1983.
Kendall, Ena, "Caroline Charles: A Room of My Own," in The Observer Magazine, 16 August 1987.
Lomas, Jane, "Staying Power," in The Observer, 16 August 1987.
Samuel, Kathryn, "A Feel for the Fabric of the Times," in the Daily Telegraph, 16 May 1988.
Coleman, Alix, "Breaking New Ground," in Sunday Express Magazine, 22 October 1989.
Haggard, Claire, "The House that Caroline Built," in Fashion Weekly (London), 9 November 1989.
——, "Setting the Style," in Country Life (London), 18 January 1990.
Nesbit, Jenny, "A Perfect Fit," in the Sunday Times Magazine, 14October 1990.
Bridgstock, Graham, "Me and My Health," in the Evening Standard (London), 19 July 1994.
Tyrrell, Rebecca, in the Tattler (London), November 1994.
Johnson, Sarah, "WestPoint Acquires Foothold in Europe," in HFN, 3February 1997.
Morris, Belinda, "Fashion: Uphill, Down Dale and Upmarket," in the Financial Times of London, 14 June 1997.
Klensch, Else, "Deep Color, Easy Outlines Mark New Caroline Charles Collection," at CNN Online, 3 August 1998.
Caroline Charles has described herself "as a child of the 1960s" and certainly she could be said to have been in the right place at the right time. Born to an army family in Cairo, Charles was sent to a boarding school in Harrogate, England, where she claims to have "picked up a survival kit for life." She studied fashion at the Art School in Swindon, after which she worked for couturier Michael Sherrard and for Mary Quant at her Shop Bazaar in Knightsbridge. She then assisted fashion photographer Tony Rawlinson before returning to Mary Quant.
In 1963 she set out on her own and moved to Beauchamp Place in 1966. From there her business boomed, and with sound and sensible strategies she expanded from London to the rest of Europe, Japan, and America. She built an empire that takes in more than 40 top store accounts and licenses for wedding dresses, hosiery, bed linens, underwear, and menswear.
Armed with talent and ambition—"I do have tremendous drive," she has said—Charles admits to having in the early days a woeful lack of business acumen, a trait she was to acquire very quickly as the momentum of the "swinging" 1960s launched her onto the fashion scene. In 1965 she was jetting around the world and the subject of headlines in the U.S. as Americans loved her fresh, "kinder, London ladylike-look," and at the tender age of 22 she was fêted by trend-hungry New York audiences.
During these years she created Ringo Starr's wedding outfit, dressed Petula Clark, Madame George Pompidou, Barbra Streisand, Lulu, Marianne Faithfull, and Mick Jagger. "The 1960s were totally celebrity-driven," she said. "There was this mood and we got great press. The editors loved the mini-star designer who dressed the major-star pop singer." With singular inspiration she transformed a lace bedspread into a long empire-line dress and sold it to Cilla Black. When Cilla's record "Anyone Who Had a Heart" became a hit, the dress became a bestseller. Charles took this in stride and became one of London's "swinging set."
Quite a celebrity in her own right, she was a regular guest on Juke Box Jury, the popular "Teen Scene" program; was interviewed on the Tonight Show by Johnny Carson; was a guest writer for the teen press; and modeled her own trendy designs. She was one of a myriad of talented young designers in the 1960s who made the clothes she and her friends wanted, full of youthful energy and gaiety, invention and individuality. People seemed to want everyday clothing for the streets of London, Paris, or anywhere in Europe, a trend that turned out to be well marketed and exploited by the new young designers.
Charles is treated with reverence in the fashion industry as someone who "got it right." She is a business-like technician, straightforward, and in love with her craft. "I enjoy what I do now more than I ever have. Every day I do precisely what I want and I am not so anxious now." Despite more than 35 successful years in the industry, she admits to an irrational fear that she will not be able to design clothes.
After such an auspicious start in the 1960s, she reflects that the 1970s were "a terrible time for fashion." But the 1980s saw her in full swing again, attiring the newly married Prince of Wales in a tartan suit for the Braemar games and an oatmeal wraparound dressing-gown coat for a walkabout in Wales. She became one of the exclusive breed of "Royal Designers." The exuberance of the swinging 1960s had given way to a more classic, sensible look. Charles has an eye for lavish fabrics combined with easy wearability. Hers are beautifully-made clothes with simple accessories; she hopes her clients would wear them to the supermarket.
Her many illustrious clients, Lady Lloyd Webber and Dame Diana Rigg among them, have attested to the beguiling quality of her fabrics: perennial velvets, rich wool paisleys and elegant brocades, and, in the 1990s, black leather mixed with flippy lace skirts (a slightly vampy departure for the designer) toned down into wearable sexy party clothes. The 1990s have seen yet another phase of extremely successful, well-thought-out business expansions. A new flagship shop in Bond Street, and with it an entirely new Bond Street customer, opened up a whole new market for Charles.
Charles is that rare commodity who has survived the vicissitudes of the fashion industry while retaining her own personal signature. She continues to create practical clothing that can be worn by working men and women. Her style is considered quintessentially British, which explains why she was a favorite of the late Diana, Princess of Wales, yet her clothing is available for everyday, albeit somewhat upscale, British consumers as well. She sells through retail outlets, including her own stores, as well as the mail-order catalogue Kingshill's, for which she was one of three initial designers.
In the late 1990s, Charles expanded into accessories and home furnishings. Her high-end home collection includes manufacturers such as PJ Flower, which was acquired by WestPoint Stevens in 1997, extending Charles' international distribution. (The designer shows her apparel in Asian cities including Tokyo and Bangkok, as well as in New York.) Elsa Klensch of CNN described Charles' 1998 fall/winter collection as being a mix of deep jewel-like colors and neutrals, accented by spots of bright hues. The colors, which Klensch described as olives, umbers, ambers, golds and plums, were inspired by the painters Rosetti and Klimt.
The slouchy, comfortable line typified Charles' use of soft fabrics and her rejection of too much tailoring and padding. Throughout her more than three-decade career, this British designer's focus has been on clothes that are easy to wear.
updated by KarenRaugust