Interview: Designer and costumier Paul Shriek

PAUL Shriek describes his life as a rollercoaster of ‘excitement and drama’ and the last 30 years have certainly been eventful.

Paul Shriek, with his work at the Customs House in Shouth Shields

PAUL Shriek describes his life as a rollercoaster of ‘excitement and drama’ and the last 30 years have certainly been eventful.

Fresh from college his designs were sold in Topshop – no mean feat for a newcomer – and swiftly became the brand’s top-selling concession in the country.

He went on to have huge success in the 80s, even being branded the ‘enfant terrible’ of the fashion world, a term also bestowed upon the famous fashion great Jean Paul Gaultier.

The Northumberland-born creative’s haute couture pieces were snapped up by the rich and famous. His other accolades include fashion consultant for television show The Tube and costume designer for the National Dance Company of Wales.

“My graduation ceremony was on my mum’s birthday and I had to leave early because I opened a concession in Topshop on the same day, “ explains Paul. “It was November 20, 1981.

“My concession became one of the best selling in Topshop. I went on to open my own standalone store on Dean Street. I sold a sweater dress that was £14.99 and a lady flew over in her private jet from Jersey just to buy the dress.

“It was a different world back then.”

The designer was born Paul Graham in Rothbury in 1959, but grew up in Ashington, a town he is still extremely fond of. His father George was a mechanical engineer who taught in the mining department at Ashington Tech while his beloved mother Trudi was a seamstress.

“Between the two of them they created this monster,” laughs Paul, who changed his surname from Graham as it ‘was not a good name for a fashion designer.’

“My mother taught dressmaking at the adult association and I read an article from 20 years ago that said there must not be a house in Ashington that hasn’t got curtains at the window that were made at her sewing class.

“She had ladies who went to her evening class for 20 years. I did an interview with a magazine recently and one of the questions was what do you value most about your childhood and I said being loved.

“I grew up in Ashington, it’s a very real place. It’s sad in terms of industry, that it is not what it used to be, but the values of the people are still the same. They are still honest and passionate people.”

Paul studied at the College of Art and Technology in Bath Lane, Newcastle and had dreams of being a theatre designer until he heard of someone working in the same job in the West End who didn’t earn much money.

“I loved theatre but I decided to pour all my energies into fashion,” he says.

The 53-year-old’s first job was in the East End of London at a Jewish tailors. “It was incredible what I learned there. That was in 1978 and I earned £158 which was a lot of money back then.

“I also worked at Strawberry Studio where I was taken on to make samples for the Pineapple Dance Studio.”

Paul returned to his roots to go to college before opening his shop in the 80s. His designs were deemed daring and flamboyant and earned him his ‘enfant terrible’ title.

Sadly his Dean Street store was hit by the economic climate of the time but he continued to design for private clients.

His love of the theatre never went away. When he was growing up his dad built him a puppet theatre in the attic and he would put on shows. His exhibition at the Customs House in South Shields features 47 puppets from his personal collection.

“My original collection was burnt in a house fire in 1978. The whole street in Ashington went on fire and it was on the national news,” he says.

Paul, of Jesmond, spent 10 years teaching the diploma in fashion course at Newcastle College but continued to work on his own designs but in 2005 he wanted a change. I needed to get back to what I do. I needed to get back to the real world and I ended up working in theatre.”

He has since worked with the National Dance Company of Wales and balletLORENT and is currently working with The National Trust to re-create 18th Century clothing for a project at Seaton Delaval Hall.

The Leopard exhibition has now opened at The Customs House in South Shields, which not only profiles his career to date but shares the memories and influences that have made him the person he is today.

There are puppets and pictures he has collected over the years as well as examples of his fashion designs.

A new collection of garments titled Now, Voyager are also on display.

Paul says: “I was invited by The Customs House to put on an exhibition and I actually felt it was important that people try to understand where I come from as a designer.

“I have split it into two sections.

“One is my collection when I was growing up, my childhood years right from the early 60s to the 70s.

“My mother, who died 20 years ago, kept all my art books. There is also a portfolio from the 1930s belonging to my mother, a couture seamstress.

“I have tried to show people a section of why I was encouraged to be creative.

“My parents when I was six gave me a puppet for Christmas and puppets form part of the exhibition.

“I have original peg dolls that I made when I was five, my drawing books from when I first started school.

“There’s a mish mash of my successful 80s fashion in Newcastle.

“There is also a 50-minute film documenting all my thoughts on how I feel about the industry and the very sad demise of the craft.

“I think technology has taken over. We have forgotten reality and we need to know how to use our hands again.

“I didn’t want the exhibition to be a retrospective. I wanted it to feel like you are going into a different mindset. I have been able to give the general public a vision of who I am. I class myself as a normal person.”

Entry to the Leopard Exhibition at the Customs House, Mill Lane, South Shields, is free and open from 10am to 8pm, Monday to Saturday, opening at 11am on Sundays and bank holidays, www.customshouse. co.uk

I have original peg dolls that I made when I was five, my drawing books from when I first started school

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