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Bruce Oldfield Makes Clothes Fit for a (future) Queen

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Jasper Conran may have won the British Designer of the Year award last fall, but it was his colleague Bruce Old-field who walked away with the real prize. The guest of honor at the lavish awards dinner, attended by 180 style-setters from England and the U.S., was champion clotheshorse Princess Diana. While virtually all the other women guests wore black, Di stood out in a sexy, deep purple gown that revealed the flawless royal clavicles. Di’s crushed velvet creation was the evening’s sensation, and Oldfield, who designed it, could be seen making his way through the crowd whispering excitedly to friends, “It’s mine, it’s mine.”

Rarely does he gloat. In fact, despite Oldfield’s list of clients (Joan Collins, Charlotte Rampling, Princess Michael of Kent, Barbra Streisand, Diana Ross), despite his elegant shop on London’s trendy Beauchamp Place and sumptuous new digs in Elm Park Gardens, despite his BMW and his personal Armani wardrobe and his ’30s Rolex, Oldfield can’t allow himself to believe he’s made it. “I don’t think I’m on top of the world yet,” he says, dragging on one of his ever-present cigarettes. “I am still on the slopes, but where I am now is a good beginning.”

Oldfield’s 14-year rise is a testament to the value of work, magnetism and the soundness of his stated design goal: “to flatter—nothing else.” Now at age 36, he is considered Britain’s prime purveyor of glitz and glamour, via his trademark silk, satin, sequin and lamé gowns, which range from $800 to $6,000 each. Last year Bruce Oldfield, Ltd. brought in about $4.5 million from the worldwide sales of his ready-to-wear and made-to-measure clothes and from licensing deals for hosiery, furs, shoes, eyeglasses, lingerie, tennis wear and Simplicity patterns. This spring Oldfield’s first book, Season, an inside look at the creation of his winter 1986 collection, will be published in the U.K.

Given his background, that is quite an accomplishment. Abandoned at birth, he is the illegitimate son of a black Jamaican boxer and a white English mother. From London’s Hammersmith Hospital, he was sent to branches of the venerable Dr. Barnardo’s Homes and remained there until just before his first birthday. Then he went to live with Violet Masters, a single woman who raised 18 foster children in her home in Durham County in northern England. “We were poor,” recalls Oldfield, “and lived in a very small, what they call two up and two down [a four-room house], with the loo in the backyard. There were five of us, and we were a family.”

Masters also provided Oldfield with inspiration. A dressmaker by profession, she taught all her children to make their clothes. “There were always bits of fabric around,” he says. “The machine was the altar, the supplier of wealth.” On Sundays, everyone would gather around the TV and watch Fred Astaire and Cary Grant movies. Their glamour made an immediate impression. On a recent British television special about Oldfield, one foster sister remembered the tiny velvet, lace and silk outfits he had made for her dolls. “All for the cocktail hour, of course,” he quipped.

Although his relationship with Masters remained “wonderful” (she died in 1974), Oldfield was caught shoplifting and voluntarily moved back to Dr. Barnardo’s when he was 13. “I was out of control, supposedly, and I was very big for my age,” says the designer, who now stands 6’2″. Oldfield didn’t care for all the house rules or for living with 24 other boys. Fortunately he was a bright student and was sent to a better school than the others. That gave him “a little leverage,” he says. “I even got a bit demanding.”

Barnardo’s then sent him to a teachers college in Sheffield, where he outgrew his childhood stuttering and became social secretary of the student union, “organizing really good parties and dances. But I just didn’t feel it was challenging enough,” he says. “I wanted more.”

Oldfield decided his childhood predilection for fashion was the way to go. When he was 21, the orphanage paid his tuition to Ravensbourne College of Art and later to London’s prestigious St. Martin’s School of Art. “All the time I was sifting out where I should be,” he recalls. “I knew what I wanted to do. I was a real workaholic.” His efforts paid off. In 1973 his work at St. Martin’s caught the eye of Vogue talent scout Judy Brittain, who described him to colleagues as “just like Eve Harrington,” the devastatingly charming and ambitious heroine of the film All About Eve. That same year, after engineering a successful campaign to launch Charlie perfume in England, Oldfield met Geraldine Stutz, at the time president of Henri Bendel. She wooed him to New York to do a collection.

“It was baptism by fire,” says Old-field. “Everybody seemed to like the clothes, but they didn’t sell.” Back in London, however, he was approached by Charlotte Rampling, who had seen the designs. She hired him to create a wardrobe for The Purple Taxi, the first of several he’s done for her. As a designer, she says, “Bruce understands what a woman wants.”

That rapport soon began to pay dividends. A stint in Paris designing shoes for Yves Saint Laurent placed Old-field in the society of Jerry Hall, Tina Chow, Bianca Jagger and their ilk, all of whom became clients and friends. In that way, says Los Angeles Times columnist Marylou Luther, “he’s like Halston was. He spends a lot of time socializing with his customers and knows their needs. He’s not just designing in a vacuum.” In 1975 Old-field formed his own company with partner Anita Richardson and by 1978 had added Hollywood types like Collins to his roster. “These ladies really get your look across to the public,” says Oldfield.

It was Di who put him over the top. They first met in 1981 when Vogue called on Oldfield for help in putting together Diana’s post-engagement wardrobe. After her wedding, the Princess began calling on him personally, either asking him to come to Kensington Palace or occasionally having a Jaguar bring her to Oldfield’s Beauchamp Place studio. The relationship has benefited them both. “His clothing has become much more grown-up in the past couple of years, I think more from the Princess’s influence than anything else,” says TV fashion commentator and former model Marie Helvin. “He’s doing drop-dead glamour now, whereas before [his work] had much more of a sense of humor.” He, in turn, has been credited with helping Diana make the leap from her school-marmish Laura Ashleys into more flashy, body-revealing getups. “She is not that different from any other client,” Oldfield says. “A lot of people are 100 percent more demanding.”

When asked if there is a “significant other” in his life, Oldfield feigns horror and says he doesn’t imagine ever “settling down.” By the time he’s 40 he plans, he says, to have added a fragrance and a menswear collection to his achievements. “I’ve never pined for huge houses, big cars, helicopters and things like that. But they’re coming anyway…. Ultimately, one would like to have an empire.”

He’s not lying back waiting for it to happen. Oldfield’s 12-hour days begin at 7:15. He tries to schedule mornings at his shop, doing fittings, while the afternoons are usually spent in his new lime-green studio in Fulham. Oldfield calls his approach to designing a “fairly methodical process.” He begins by choosing fabrics—usually French and Italian: “The English don’t produce any nice fabrics.” After deciding on “the silhouette that the collection is going to follow,” he’ll begin to draw, draping fabrics over a mannequin and “evolving shapes” from the way the fabrics fall. He says he is thinking of trading in his gold BMW for a more conservative (by English standards) Jaguar and hiring a driver so that he can “sketch all the time.”

After work, says friend Helvin, Old-field “likes to entertain in a very grand way. His parties are impressive in terms of food, drink, decor and guests. Still, he’s a very private person and doesn’t go out all that much, even though he’s in the papers a lot.” On evenings at home, the designer loves cooking for himself. “I’m not very good,” he admits, “but I always use the best ingredients. Just like my dresses.”