Compared to the exposure given Vanessa Williams in Penthouse, the recent photograph in a British magazine of young fashion designer Arabella Pollen seemed downright demure. The fair-haired society beauty merely posed topless, a twisted necklace dangling between her breasts. The photo, though, is unlikely to go over well with Pollen’s favorite client, Princess Diana—or with Arabella’s father, Peregrine Pollen, ex-chairman of the tony Sotheby Parke Bernet auction house. “I don’t mind being made to look like a bloody fool,” says Arabella, 23, who insists she had no idea the photograph would be published. “But I do object to being made to look like a cheap publicity-seeker.”
A court injunction banning further publication now protects Pollen. “People are sensible and understanding when we tell them what actually happened,” she explains. “It looked as if I’d posed as a nude shot for publication, but it didn’t happen like that. I had been doing a portrait shot for Ritz [the British equivalent of Andy Warhol’s Interview]. I was doing a shoulders-up pose, wearing a kind of doggy blanket and after about three hours when the thing had slipped off about eight times, the whole thing became a bit of a joke and we were just goofing around. It’s something to show one’s granny.”
The ensuing snickers don’t seem to have jeopardized Pollen’s position as a bright light of the beau monde, nor to have damaged her booming business. In addition to the royal clotheshorse (Di bought two outfits from Pollen’s 1982 collection and two more in ’83), Pollen counts Margaux Hemingway and Marianne Faithfull among her clients. Using traditional fabrics like Harris tweed and linen, Pollen strives for a look “somewhere,” she says, “between Saint Laurent and Norma Kamali.” With price tags from $35 to $500, Pollen’s line is carried by Bloomingdale’s in the U.S. and Simpson of Piccadilly in London, while a major Japanese deal is being negotiated.
Pollen employs a full-time staff of eight and shares management duties with her brother, Marcus, 20, and ex-fashion buyer Kathryn Ireland, 23. Her initial financing came from a Palestinian-born entrepreneur named Nairn Atallah. Renowned for employing London’s best-connected debs, Atallah once explained that he lent Pollen money on the basis of “her energy, her determination to succeed and her blue eyes.” So much for collateral.
Sounding like the Margaret Thatcher of British design, Pollen has the kind of drive on which the sun never sets. “There ought to be a lot more guts and push in this country,” she declares. “I violently disagree with most other British designers, because they are so content to remain small. Very few of them have big ambitions.”
Pollen’s headstrong nature came to light early. She was expelled at 12 from her aunt’s private school for what she describes as “general bloody-minded-ness.” She eventually graduated from high school but skipped college because “the idea of spending another four years in some kind of institution filled me with horror.” Instead she tried various advertising jobs, eventually decamping for France to make a movie with friends. After that Pollen returned to England and pursued her schoolgirl interest in fashion. Her first collection came out in March 1982.
Relaxing in her recently purchased two-bedroom condominium in Kensington, Pollen talks about opening her own retail shop in London soon and looks forward to a time when she is known for more than just baring her breasts. “What I would like,” she says, “is for somebody to look at something I’ve done and say, ‘That’s wonderful; it must be a Pollen.’ ”