Born: London, 14 July 1950. Education: Ripon Grammar School, Yorkshire, 1961-67; studied at Sheffield City Polytechnic, Yorkshire; studied fashion design at Ravensbourne College of Art, Kent, 1968-71; St. Martin's School of Art, London, 1972-73. Career: Designed
Bruce Oldfield's Season, with Georgina Howell, London, 1987.
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My approach to fashion is, and always has been, through couture-orientated technique in cut and detail. I like the idea of producing a garment where the actual technique and the cut are the integral design elements. For me, this approach in designing clothes allows a greater scope for developing ideas from season to season. I am not enamoured of ad hoc superfluous detailing and would always prefer to use a good quality plain fabric over a print, because if I should need to have a surface detail, I would rather create it myself.
I love quality and finesse and continuity and am horrified by the concept of "in one season and out the next." It seems to devalue the whole creative process. This is not to say that fashion could or should stand still, we need new ideas and a rolling out of attitudes to the way that we see ourselves, but the speed of change and the polarization of successive trends show an insecurity that to me is quite undesirable. It would make me very happy if, in 2050, someone came across a Bruce Oldfield dress in a thrift shop and simply had to buy it.
"It would have been better for me to have lived at an earlier period," Bruce Oldfield told journalist and writer Georgina Howell (who collaborated with Oldfield on Bruce Oldfield's Season, London, 1987), "because I care about the technique of making clothes." During the 1970s and 1980s there was an increasing disregard for quality and workmanship in dress manufacturing, and it was this very sloppiness, readily accepted by retailers and customers alike, that Oldfield reacted against. He was attracted to the traditional high standards and technical workmanship of couture and the private client.
In the 1970s and 1980s, crazy fashion was very popular but Oldfield declared he could never create such fantasy clothes. To him they were totally unconvincing. He recognized there was an established market for understated, flattering clothes and targeted an identifiable, timeless look towards this customer, someone he described as being expensive, sexy, body-conscious, a great looking woman in a flattering dress. Avoiding the need to make seasonal fashion statements he has remained a staunchly classic designer. "There have been times when I have been in fashion and times when I have been out of fashion, but I have always had six pages a year in Vogue, sometimes [more]," he once declared.
After leaving St. Martin's School of Art with a fashion degree in 1973, Oldfield worked as a freelance designer for several high-profile fashion companies, ranging from an exclusive collection for Henri Bendel in New York to selling shoe designs to Yves Saint Laurent in Paris. He established his own company in 1975 with a bank loan and a grant from Dr. Barnardo's, the children's home where Oldfield grew up. The business began as a ready-to-wear operation that produced two seasonal collections a year. Concentrating on occasion clothing, the range was available at prestigious stores such as Harvey Nichols in London, and Bergdorf Goodman, Saks Fifth Avenue, and Bloomingdale's in New York. He also worked on specialist commissions, such as designing the film wardrobe for Charlotte Rampling in Le Taxi Mauve and Joan Collins in The Bitch.
The success of the business led to an increasing emphasis on the private customer, resulting in the decision to provide an exclusively couture service by 1983, producing unique and glamorous evening and wedding dresses. In 1984 the first Bruce Oldfield shop opened at 27 Beauchamp Place, London, selling a total look, both to the ready-to-wear and the couture customer. Oldfield is perhaps best known for his couture and ready-to-wear evening dresses, often worn by high-profile clients such as the late Princess of Wales or actresses Joan Collins and Anjelica Huston.
Sumptuous fabrics like crushed velvets, taffeta, mink, printed sequins, crêpe, chiffon and lamé are used to design traditional sculpted shapes that are exquisitely manufactured. A ruched bodiced dress in velvet, with a huge fischou collar, is completed with a vast swathed taffeta bow on the hip. A velvet double-breasted coat dress is enhanced by an exaggerated mink collar. Particularly distinctive is Oldfield's use of color blocking; simple jersey dresses are slashed asymmetrically and blocked in various vivid color combinations. His tailoring is always curvaceous and womanly, with seams and darts significantly placed to flatter the feminine physique, in soft leathers and wool crêpes.
Oldfield's career has covered a wide span of activities and he has recently received awards acknowledging his contribution to fashion. In 1990 he was awarded the OBE and made an honorary fellow of both the Royal College of Art and Durham University. The same year he was also the subject of a television documentary on his life and career, A Journey into Fashion, which was subsequently sold to television companies around the world.
If success can be measured by public recognition, then Oldfield has achieved it. His name is synonymous with style; he is universally acknowledged as having a unique understanding of how to make a woman look and feel her best. Yet in the 21st century Oldfield took his particular fashion sense into alternate fields of design. Signing on with Alexandra Corporate Clothing, Oldfield designed staff uniforms for the Warren Village Cinemas, then Oldfield segued into interior design in a new St. James housing development in Kew, where he designed furniture and furnishings for two homes and two apartments of the 400-house Kew Riverside neighborhood.
Looking to move more firmly into interiors, the opportunity with St. James was a welcome respite from the demands of fashion designing. As Oldfield told Anne Spackman of the Financial Times (27 January 2001), "The idea that you spend three months making a collection of clothes which should be useless in six months' time makes a mockery of all the effort." For this reason Oldfield cut back to only custom orders, yet home furnishings, on the other hand, "are more of a worthwhile investment for me and for the customer…. The British have always been reluctant to spend money beautifying themselves, but when it comes to their homes, it's a different matter."
Brits with a taste for Bruce Oldfield style can seek him out for private orders, but his design skills now adorn the employees of Warner cinemas, the furnishings of select St. James homes, and if the designer gets his wish—perhaps restaurants and hotels as well.
updated by Nelly Rhodes