Catherine Walker - Fashion Designer Encyclopedia



French designer working on London

Born: Catherine Marguerite Marie-Therese Baheux-Lefebvre, in Pas de Calais, France. Education: Graduated in philosophy from Lille University, and received Maître-és-Lettres in aesthetics, Aix-en-Provence. Family: Married John David Walker, 1969 (died, 1975); children: Naomi, Marianne. Career: Worked in film department, French Institute, London, 1970; lecture department, French Embassy, London, 1971; designed childrenswear, 1977-86; opened shop, Chelsea Design Co., 1977; first womenswear collection, 1980, under Chelsea label; opened bridal shop, Fulham Road, London, 1986; favorite designer of Princess Diana (until her death); published autobiography, 1998. Awards: Designer of the Year award for British Couture, 1990-91, and for Glamour, 1991-92. Address: Chelsea Design Co., 65 Sydney Street, London SW3 6PX, England.

Publications

By WALKER:

Books

Catherine Walker: An Autobiography by the Private Couturier to Diana, Princess of Wales, New York, 1998.

On WALKER:

Books

McDowell, Colin, A Hundred Years of Royal Style, London, 1985.

Coleridge, Nicholas, The Fashion Conspiracy, London, 1988.

Debrett's Illustrated Fashion Guide—The Princess of Wales, London, 1989.

Articles

Jobey, L., "Designing Women," in Vogue (London), July 1987.

Alexander, H., "When Discretion Is the Better Part of Glamour," in the Daily Telegraph (London), 26 November 1987.

Modlinger, J., "Di's Designer Walker," in the Daily Express (London), 7 March 1988.

Menkes, Suzy, "Who Dresses Princess Diana?" in the International Herald Tribune, 8 November 1988.

Darnton, Nina, "Fashion Fit for a Princess—Di's Secret Designer," in Newsweek, 27 March 1989.

Jeal, N., "Catherine Walker," in the Observer Magazine (London), 16 September 1990.

Hauptfuhrer, Fred, and Louise Lague, "She Designs Dresses to Di For," in People, 6 May 1991.

"Designer Aims for Elegance of Simplicity," in the Independent, 16 July 1991.

Hume, Marion, "Joely Richardson Puts Sex into Catherine Walker," in the Tatler (London), July/August 1991.

Mower, Sarah, "The Discreet Charm of Catherine Walker," in Vogue (London), November 1991.

Armstrong, Lisa, "A Couture Fairy Tale (Princess Included)," in the Independent, 16 July 1992.

"The Undying Fascination With Di," in Publishers Weekly, 25 May 1998.

Mehle, Aileen, "Suzy," in WWD, 19 November 1999.

*

My initial interest in fashion revolved around two things: to elongate the body, and the general underlying technical composition of clothes. This took its own course towards designing glamorous, lean, fluid (1930s inspired) suits, cocktail and evening dresses, and a penchant towards couture.

I try to focus on making the above relevant to the lifestyle of today, that is to design clothes which give poise to women without being rigid, and which are poetic without being overworked.

—Catherine Walker

***

French-born couturier Catherine Walker established the Chelsea Design Company Ltd. in London in 1977 with no formal training in fashion design. Her educational background was in philosophy, for which she took a Maître-és-Lettres, roughly the equivalent to a UK doctorate. Walker claims the title of her company, which did not bear her own name until 1993, was in deference to her lack of experience as a fashion designer.

The decision to start her own company was made when Walker was widowed in 1975 and left with two young children. She began making childrenswear, and the transition to making maternity wear was in fact a natural one, according to Walker, since the pregnant female form resembles the generally shapeless figure of a child. Walker affirms that it was many years before she thought of herself as a fashion designer, and that it was a purely technical interest in the construction of garments which initially inspired her.

During the first 12 years of business Walker consolidated her knowledge of pattern cutting, fitting, and sewing, and later couture dressmaking, and tailoring. As her reputation grew by word of mouth, she attracted press attention, and British Vogue first photographed one of her dresses for its January 1982 issue. Although the designer's clothes have been regularly featured in editorial fashion pages, Walker is renowned for her dislike of publicity and has never held a

Catherine Walker with some of her designs. © Julian Calder/CORBIS.
Catherine Walker with some of her designs.
© Julian Calder/CORBIS.
catwalk show. She views her personal development as a designer in a series of stages—first dressing, then tailoring, followed by embroidered decoration and, finally, draping.

It is her tailoring and decorative use of beading that have become the hallmarks of Walker's designs. There is always an emphasis on the midriff, which Walker attributes to her French background. This structured effect around the waist, which though not fitted gives the illusion of elongating it, is apparent not only in her tailored jackets but on both day dresses and evening gowns. British journalist Lisa Armstrong, writing in the Independent (London, 16 July 1992), believes Walker's skill as a couturier lies in her ability to create clothes possessing the subtle, unlabored tailoring that on the surface seems not to be doing anything, but somehow manages to eliminate unwanted contours and add curves.

Another characteristic of Walker's designs is her use of plain colors such as black, navy, cream, and red, which are enhanced not through the use of printed textiles but with applied decoration such as hand-embroidery, heavy beading, and frogging. Her attention to detail is

Catherine Walker-designed silk crêpe dress owned by the late Princess Diana on display at Christie's London auction house, 1996. © AP/Wide World Photos.
Catherine Walker-designed silk crêpe dress owned by the late Princess Diana on display at Christie's London auction house, 1996.
© AP/Wide World Photos.
legendary; articles about the designer mention how she has been known to fly to Paris to find three buttons for a particular jacket.

While the bulk of her business is the made-to-measure couture collection, Walker also produced a ready-to-wear range called De Luxe and has designed hats made for her by Mailson Michel in Paris. She designs both fine jewelry and a collection of costume jewelry, which include earrings and bracelets to accessorize the clothes. Walker also designs a collection of couture bridal gowns which she launched in 1986 with the opening of a second shop on London's Fulham Road. She, along with others, was responsible for designing the wedding dress worn by Lady Helen Windsor at her marriage in July 1992.

Walker is perhaps best known for her creations for the late Princess of Wales, which attracted widespread publicity for her as a couturier, although she had always tried to avoid this aspect of the fashion world. It is important to note, however, that a close study of the Princess of Wales' wardrobe designed by Walker would not produce an accurate image of the designer. The requirements of the public royal wardrobe that the wearer stand out from the crowd—particularly important for television cameras and photographers—meant strong, often harsh colors were used, which were not typical of Walker's style.

The draped gowns, column evening dresses, and decorated tailored jacket worn by the Princess of Wales on numerous occasions do however illustrate the designer's signature use of beading and embroidery as well as her cutting technique of emphasizing the midriff and waistline. After Diana's death, Walker was outraged when the Victoria & Albert Museum refused to display the Princess' gowns and dresses in 1999, mostly designed by Walker. Many Brits took this as an affront to Diana's memory, especially when the London museum had expressed interest in displaying a dress worn by Posh Spice, a member of the pop recording group Spice Girls, and one from Sophie Rhys-Jones was already on the premises. The imbroglio came a year after Walker published her autobiography, recounting her experiences dressing Princess Diana.

Catherine Walker's impressive clientéle, which listed not only British but foreign royalty, bears testament to her skill as a designer, despite the fact that she did not consider herself one for the first dozen years of her successful business.

—Catherine Woram;

updated by Owen James

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