Interview: Veteran clothes designer Jeff Banks

IT’S the mid-1960s and London is in full swing. A talented young fashion designer called Jeff Banks has recently launched his first boutique, Clobber in Blackheath, and it’s caused quite a buzz.

Jeff Banks with polytechnic students Michele Crosby, left, and Diane Duncan in 1988
Jeff Banks with polytechnic students Michele Crosby, left, and Diane Duncan in 1988

IT’S the mid-1960s and London is in full swing. A talented young fashion designer called Jeff Banks has recently launched his first boutique, Clobber in Blackheath, and it’s caused quite a buzz. Clothes flew off the shelves on the opening night and the shop was the talk of the town.

The fact that John Lennon and George Harrison of The Beatles, actor Terence Stamp and model-of-the-moment Jean Shrimpton were in attendance might have had a little to do with it, Jeff admits.

And it seems the London jet-set weren’t the only ones impressed. A certain Mr Trevor Fenwick, of the Fenwick department store dynasty, heard of Clobber’s success and wanted to bring a taste of it to the North East.

Jeff said: “Trevor had recently been to America and seen what were called ‘shop in shops’. He said he wanted to be the first department store in Britain to have one and he wanted Clobber to be it. He invited me up to Newcastle to show me space he had at the top of the escalator. I met his buyer, a grand lady called Dorothy, who sat at her desk wearing gloves and a hat!”

Jeff needed a model to launch the collection in Newcastle and had heard about a young girl who fitted the bill.

“I met up with a prospective model and her manager in Trafalgar Square. However, three weeks before the opening her manager called to say she couldn’t make the launch as she had to go to Paris to do a photo-shoot for Elle magazine. It turned out to be Twiggy.

“He’d really dropped me in it, but suggested he would find me another couple of models. He rang back to say he had two girls called Patti and Jenny, and they were really excited about it. It turned out to be Patti Boyd and her sister Jenny!”

Almost 50 years on, Jeff Banks has become a global name. And with a new men’s white shirt collection just launched at Debenhams, the veteran is showing no signs of stopping.

Rubbing shoulders with London’s rich and famous was a far cry from the industrial Welsh valleys where Jeff was born. He moved to South London at the age of three, but regularly returned to his home town of Ebbw Vale to holiday with grandparents.

Jeff said: “I used to get put on the train at Paddington with a brown paper tag tied to my jacket. I spent summers there running wild on the mountains, watching the smoke belching beneath with my two mates Aiden and Derek.”

Jeff’s parents separated when he was eight and his mother often struggled to make ends meet. Winning a scholarship to a public school sparked the entrepreneur within him.

“My mother didn’t have a lot of money and couldn’t afford the uniform. The only way I could afford to pay for it was to start a little paraffin round.

“I built a barrow with pram wheels and tied a five-gallon drum that my mum got from the BHS cleaning lady. I used to fill it up with paraffin and run round the streets delivering it to old ladies who couldn’t carry it home from the hardware store.”

Jeff’s passion for fashion began at school.

“Because I came from a poor background and most of the kids at the school were quite rich, the only way I could kind of outstrip them was to have all my school uniforms made to measure.

“I adopted this slightly dandy profile to have one over on them. That’s how I got into clothes.

“I became friendly with the son of the guy who hand-made all my clothes and we hatched a plan to open a shop in Blackheath. After I left art school, we used the money I’d saved from the paraffin business to launch the shop in 1964.”

Using contacts he had from college, Ossie Clark and Mary Quant no less, the pair were able to fill the shop.

Selling out on their first day and unable to get clothes quickly enough, they decided to start designing their own.

They turned the back of the shop into a workroom and the rest is history. Part of a new wave of British design, Jeff soon found himself on the front cover of Time magazine in America.

“We were the new brigade and being dubbed the vanguard of design in Europe. Clobber was one of only a handful of what they called boutiques in Britain at that time. A big cornerstone was winning a half a million pound order with Bloomingdales in America in 1965.

“Worth around £5m in today’s money, it was a massive order and a real turning point for us.”

In 1969 Jeff sold the business and launched the Jeff Banks label. Selling to around 600 stores in America, he found global success. It was the launch of Warehouse in the mid-1970s, however, which really broke the mould of the British high street as we knew it.

Jeff, who has an honorary degree from Northumbria University, said: “I thought that the whole process of clothes getting to the public was too expensive.

“At that time we were making stuff, putting a wholesale profit on it and selling it to a store. The store would then triple or quadruple it. I figured if we cut out all of that and just made the clothes and put them in our own shops, people could get fantastic clothes at great value. Warehouse really was the forerunner of everything that is retail now.”

He eventually departed from the Warehouse brand, but success kept on coming. Jeff landed a small weekly fashion slot on the lunchtime magazine show Pebble Mill at One.

He suggested to the producers that there should be a show on TV devoted to fashion. Four years later, The Clothes Show hit our screens.

Jeff said: “It was the first fashion show on TV in the world. My co-host was Selina Scott who was really famous at that time. We got three million viewers for the second show so the programme was moved to a Wednesday evening slot.

“We were then moved to Sunday evenings where we commanded audiences of around 10 million viewers. I hosted around 350 shows over 12 years! It was a bit of a challenge as I’m first and foremost a designer.”

With a 50-year career in fashion, Jeff’s design ethos remains the same.

“Because of my background, I’ve always aimed to bring great quality at fantastic value. I don’t believe clothes should be stupidly expensive.”

That is also the idea behind his new Definitive White Shirt Collection in Debenhams. The capsule collection of shirts are available as tailored and slim fit and offer eight variations of collar style.

“The idea came from the TV series Mad Men,” said Jeff. “The story is based on a guy called David Ogilvy, who went from England to America and worked on Maddison Avenue. I actually knew him quite well.

“David always used to have a drawer full of white shirts. Before he went into a meeting or presentation, he would always change his shirt for a clean one.

“Every good tailor will emphasise the importance of a good white shirt as a wardrobe staple. The aim of this collection is to allow men to find the perfect one for them, regardless of the occasion – from getting drunk on Friday night to getting married on a Saturday!”

According to Jeff, the fashion industry has changed for the better despite it now being a lot more competitive.

“The amount of detail that goes into clothes manufacturing now is phenomenal. The public get great value. There are also a lot of young people who are leaving college and setting up there own little shops. And the cheaper rents are allowing them to do so. That's the exciting bit about fashion. What goes around comes around.

“The downside is if you want a celebrity to turn up at your event, you have to go through lots of red tape. In the mid 1960s, you saw the likes of John Lennon and the Rolling Stones in the local nightclub, asked them to come to the opening of your shop and they did!”

Alongside being instrumental in creating the androgynous look for Annie Lennox of the Eurythmics, Jeff cites receiving an CBE in 2009 as being one of his career highlights.

He’s also a very proud ambassador for The Prince’s Trust, which is why he’s heading to Newcastle. Jeff will share his fashion views at the Ladies Who Rock event at the Discovery Museum on Thursday, October 11.

The event will include a three-course lunch with wine, a fashion show featuring retailers including Barbour and Cruise, and a competition to be a film extra.

“The Prince’s Trust is fantastic,” he said. “Not only does it get about 60,000 young people a year into setting up their own businesses, it also more importantly provides a network for disadvantaged youngsters. The work it does is incredibly valuable.”

When it comes to fashion, Jeff has the following advice: “Be yourself, enjoy the moment of dressing up and don't try to be someone you're not.”

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