AMED FOR HER sophisticated take on cocktail dresses, with elaborate beading and decorous embroidery, it is somehow fitting that I am greeted at the door by a petite Elspeth Gibson, clad in an ivory silk full-length strapless number that skims the floor. She is barefoot, displaying painted toenails, and her dress is playfully adorned with a flirtatious cascade of champagne flutes and cocktail glasses made from a delicate combination of sequins, beads and embroidery. So what if it’s a Thursday morning and she’s a busy mother of two: this girl was born to add a touch of glamour to every occasion. “It’s just a bit of fun,” says Elspeth, with a giggle and just a hint of a soft Nottingham accent.
Today the fun involves dressing up for a photo shoot with her two daughters, Evie, eight, and Amelie, four, who are modelling Elsie, the new collection of girlswear that Elspeth has designed for Tesco. The girls are in lively spirits, excited at the prospect of getting to wear high heels and nibble on delicious Maison Blanc cupcakes. Amid the mild chaos, Evie stops every so often to give us a heartfelt X Factor rendition of Hallelujah, while Amelie is surreptitiously feeding Snowy, the family dog, the tastiest cupcake he’s ever had.
Our impromptu front-room fashion show is a far cry from the catwalk shows
of Elspeth’s haute couture days. After graduating from the Mansfield and Nottinghamshire College of Art and Design in 1984, Elspeth began her career with Zandra Rhodes. “I had done quite a few work placements, and I just loved it,” says Gibson. “I was only about 17, and it was hard work, running errands and getting everything ready for the catwalk shows, but I felt that I was in the right world. Design just came naturally to me.”
Exciting times lay ahead. In 1998, Gibson launched her own label, opened a London boutique and was named New Generation Designer of the Year at the British Fashion Awards. The following year, she won Best British Designer at the Elle Style Awards and her dresses were frequenting the red carpets on a glamorous host of stars that included Cate Blanchett, Liv Tyler, Uma Thurman and Madonna. So how did the unlikely collaboration twixt the haute couture designer and supermarket come about? You could call
it serendipity, or a mutual taste for lattes, when Elspeth bumped into Terry Green, Chief Executive of Clothing at Tesco, in a local coffee shop. The two had previously worked together when Elspeth designed
a childrenswear range for Debenhams. Seizing the moment, Green asked whether Elspeth would be interested in designing a childrenswear range for Tesco – and she said yes. Within weeks, Elspeth was setting off to Tesco’s head office with a bunch of early sketches – getting completely lost on the way and pranging her car into the bargain. She arrived, somewhat hot and flustered, to be ushered into a room full of people. “That was the first time the huge scale of it all dawned on me,” she says. “I felt a bit overwhelmed, but it was also very exciting.”
The meeting went well but, just before leaving, Elspeth had one last important assignment. “I had some drawings that Evie and Amelie had done,” says Elspeth. “They often sit with me when I’m designing and love to be involved. They insisted I take their drawings with me, so I had to show them off too.” From there, Elspeth set to work with the design team on her debut Elsie by Elspeth Gibson collection. “It was a real eye-opener to see how stringent you have to be about everything,” says Elspeth. “The safety precautions they take are incredible, from the length of ties to the types of buttons used, or whether things can get chewed. You never have to think about such considerations designing for grown-ups!”
Elspeth’s vision was to create a range f fresh-looking clothes with a vintage feel. Her signature in her women’s collections has always been feminine glamour; her new collection also has a hint of girlie glamour, but with an innocent feel rather than sophistication. “It’s fresh with a country look, I suppose because I grew up in the country,” says Elspeth. “There’s also lots of attention to detail, like a little rosette on the top or pretty embroidered dresses with netting petticoats and full circle skirts.”
Although Elspeth acknowledges it was always a thrill to see someone famous wearing her designs, she’s just as excited about designing for young girls, like her daughters, especially as her own love of clothes and fashion started as a child.
“I used to love visiting my great aunt, who lived a very ladylike, glamorous life – the gloves and the mink and the popping off for champagne,” says Elspeth. Her maternal grandmother was also a keen seamstress. “She used to go on cruises and come back with all these beautiful embroidered or beaded fabrics, then whip up these shift dresses in amazing fabrics. I loved spending time with her, doing sewing and all these things. My mother didn’t like it at all, but
I was just fascinated with it.”
Another great childhood pleasure was perfecting all her sartorial techniques. “I used to dress up my little brother James in my horse riding gear,” laughs Elspeth. “I put dresses and make-up on him too, poor thing. He is straight now, but I’m surprised.” Her youngest daughter, Amelie, has inherited the same trait. “She’s always styling things. She’s so like me, it makes me smile,” says Elspeth – though, without a younger sibling, it’s Snowy the dog who gets the benefit of her debonair endeavours. “Amelie put a pair of fairy wings on Snowy the other day,” says Elspeth. “Then she tied one of her skirts up round his middle, with the wings on top. He looked hysterical.”
Elspeth’s signature style also owes a debt to the glamour of Hollywood in its heyday. Her home is packed with old photographs and trinkets. On the coffee table, there are huge books on Grace Kelly and a copy of The Last Sitting, with the iconic photographs of Marilyn Monroe taken by Bert Stern, as well as fashion tomes on Coco Chanel, Elspeth’s favourite designer of all time, and Lanvin. The hall and stairway are lined with a collection of vintage fashion sketches bought in Alfie’s Antique Market in Marylebone, as well as sketches and photographs from Gibson’s catwalk shows and collections.
But what really speaks volumes is the personal paraphernalia that rests alongside the inspiration: the collection of cute framed paintings by Evie and Amelie, the poem Evie wrote about her sister’s hands, and the collection of family photographs that record many generations, including her great aunt and grandmother, and so many happy occasions, including Elspeth and her husband Dominic on their wedding day – in a swimming pool in wedding attire. “We were all pretty drunk and someone said we should jump in the swimming pool, so we did,” she laughs. Gibson clearly doesn’t take herself too seriously and, in the sometimes superficial fashion world, that’s a refreshing trait indeed. Family life is clearly a priority – she enjoys the humdrum everyday rituals of the school run and walking the dog on the heath – and it is part of the reason why she decided to change her path slightly. “After ten years with the shop, it was still a constant struggle and it got to a point where I had to change my life and make a decision,” she says. “I realised that I was spending money on the shop and yet I couldn’t take my daughters on holiday. It did pull things into perspective and made me think I’d been very self-indulgent with my career. There’s no point having all these pretty dresses when I can’t take the girls on holiday.”
Although she can never see a time when she won’t want to design, for now Elspeth has other priorities. And she doesn’t miss it particularly. “I do like being invited to glamorous things, but not all the time,” she says. “I’m down to earth. I’m more of a quiet person and not very flash.” When I point out that she has just been posing on a rocking horse in a sparkling cocktail dress, Elspeth laughs. “I love fashion and the fun of it and all the glam pretence, but it’s nice to be able to come home to reality. I think to take fashion too seriously would be a bit sad. It’s important to have nice people around you so you can enjoy it. Family is so important and quality of life – that always comes first”