Dress designer

Dress designer Tessa is  just into her fifties and lives in a pretty terraced house in a Camberwell backwater with her daughter and partner.


“No one tells me what to wear!”

Tessa  built up her huge know-how from her mother who was a fashion student in the fifties at the Royal College.

She used to make my clothes,  I didn’t want her to dress me so I learnt how to make things for myself.  My mother is very confident about tacking any practical task. I remember her deciding to drop down the kitchen floor with a  Kanga hammer then barrowing  the clay down the garden to make a pool. I still call her if I have a technical problem .

Tessa did an anthropology degree at UCL and worked on various vintage stalls on the Portobello market then in her final university year a friend asked her to make her wedding dress and  she took her own stall on the market.

I was youthful, optimistic and energetic. I had to sell a lot to make it worthwhile and because it was the market, it had to be cheap. Then I shared a huge studio in Swiss Cottage with Jenny who was a Goldsmiths textile graduate. I was enthralled with her work, it  was far more consciously arty than mine, I was far more bish, bosh, bash it out. We had contrasting interests and we learnt  a lot from each other.

Rolling in Cash

We took a stall in Camden Market in the early eighties and designed a pair of share cropper jeans – they were huge and belted in at the waist, black with white stitching. We called them Dog on the Rocks, asked £30  pair and they really sold.

We had 200 pairs made up by a factory near  Brick Lane run by a Moroccan guy. But later we found he had cheated us; he told us it took 2.5m of material to make them up and actually it was 1.3m and he would make up the extras to our pattern and sell them himself.

In London fashion week the Japanese buyers came down to see us and placed big orders , so we got an Iraqi man to handle the production for us and paid him £1 a pair. The Americans bought and the Germans and we had people working for us on our Camden Market and Petticoat Lane stalls.

It lasted about five years and there are photos of us rolling in the cash takings from the stalls. I loved the moment of making money but Jenny didn’t like the sharp end of the rag trade,  I bought her out and I ran it into the ground. It was a one trick pony, other people copied the jeans and we didn’t have a way to defend it.  We didn’t really know what we were doing but success was a real laugh.

Enterprise Strands

Today Tessa  has a whole sheaf of enterprise strands . She has ongoing fine art collaborations, teaching,  an  emergent online utility label ( stand by for the T Brown dress), she designs for a children’s clothes label , and takes private wedding dress commissions, and bakes sour dough bread to order.


The client came with a vintage 1970s dress bought online from Couture Allure wanting to make it into her wedding dress. When the client put it on it totally swamped her.

Together they decided that an empire line would suit her better and the sleeves would have to go, so Tessa took it apart and made a mock of a fitted bodice onto which she could tack the original skirt, the change allowed  the hemline to scoop up slightly at the front and flow behind.

Next, the upper part of the dress needed to be resolved. Tessa worked on a mock on her half sized Kennet & Linsel stand  and found two possibilities to explore at the next fitting.

Her client rejected the proposed shoulder knot as too Grecian and they wondered about a flower at her shoulder. This was a new territory for Tessa but in an hour a mock-up of a wired lily with pearl encrusted stamens stood majestically on the shoulder.

The lily was then given long sweeping tendril like ribbons weaving round the body so that it was integrated into the whole length of the dress.

Some heat fixed Swarovski crystals were added to the flow of the skirts to give  extra glamour and the  original peachy acetate satin underlining was replaced by pale crepe de chine.

Next Tessa created a bag based on an abstract of the lily form,  making the handle from ribbons knotted to a system used by barge boatmen which she had been researching.

The client wanted a veil so Tessa gave her loads of addresses to have a veil made. By this point the whole collaborative process was going so strongly that her client urged  Tessa to do it herself, again new territory, and successfully mastered


Tessa works very closely with her couture clients but understands that the nature of the exchange is financial. She makes it clear from the outset that any special kind of dress will take a lot of time and discussion

£1000 is the minimum and anything which ends up at £1500 to £2,000 is a bargain against any named designer’s off the peg creation which will cost between 3 and 4 grand. If someone you go to someone like Vivien Westwood   you can expect to pay 15 grand.

You have to have boundaries and be very clear, especially if you are working for friends of friends in a domestic environment.

The first meeting is on my time and my ideas are free – we need to see if we can work together and gain each other’s trust. Thereafter I take a deposit probably a couple of hundred pounds – some makers take a third of the projected price. You also never let the dress go until it is fully paid for. It is also vital to be clear about extras such as embellishment and accessories, each needs to be priced and agreed as you go along. However close you feel to a client you are still performing for them, it is a financial transaction.

Crafts people are usually very clear about money, yet for them their work is about enjoyment and extension of their skills. They never charge enough to really be paid for their time. Fine artists won’t talk about money, it is a taboo subject, yet fine art is all about money. Fine artists are defined by the price they can charge.”

—works 30 hours a week— earns £10,000 a year—

One thought on “Dress designer

  1. Purl Princess says:

    I love the tiny dress form, it makes it look like she’s making a dress for the Queen of the Fairy’s!

    I had my wedding dress made for me and felt that it was worth every penny and that it was in fact quite cheap for the number of hours worked on it and skill used to make it. I think that often people that aren’t crafty themselves just can’t see the true value in something handmade.

    Loving the blog Dixie!

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