Star Girl Reporter – Catherine Walker – A Couturier for All Seasons
Darling ‘Katrine’, I still can’t believe you are gone. That we will never again curl up on the big sofas in your elegant, cosy, cream studio in Chelsea, sip green tea and talk about life, love and work.
You would smile and tease me about my attempts to find a husband, and admire the ruched, bustle detail on a glamorous new winter coat from Tocca. We would talk about your latest trip home to France, and how you missed your family terribly. Inevitably, our conversation would turn excitedly to a dazzling new dress in your latest collection – and how a long, blustery walk in the rain near you house in Sussex had inspired the perfect shade of silver grey on a cuff or twinkling beaded collar.
The Most Talked About Fashion Designer on the Planet
You were the most talked about designer on the planet. Celebrated for the iconic, architectural column dresses that transformed a young Lady Diana Spencer into a dazzling princess, and polished international icon of style. Work brought us together. I was a fashion and feature writer for the broadsheets and colour supplements, and I loved your ‘arrestingly simple architectural style’; it spoke to me of an earlier golden age of British Haute Couture, of Norman Hartnell and Sir Hardy Amies, and a sense of optimism, romance and aspiration.
A Warm Friendship and Gentle Understanding of Each Other
But it was friendship that kept me coming back. Our warm friendship and gentle understanding of each other was born out of similar, sensitive personalities, and a passionate interest in people, films, organic food and a gentle, holistic approach to health and wellbeing.
It was Monday afternoon when my boyfriend walked into my study and handed me his paper. “Your lovely friend Catherine Walker, the Royal couturier has died.” I looked up from the article I was writing on a recent trip to China to see the giant panda conservation project in Chengdu, and stared at him blankly, disbelievingly. “No,” I said, “tell me it isn’t true.” He slowly handed me the obituary and tears began to stream down my face.
A Life Touched By Greatness and Personal Tragedy
In my heart I had been expecting Catherine’s death for several years. Her life was touched equally by greatness, gilded accolades, and haunting personal tragedy. She lost her first husband, John when she was a young wife and mother; then she went on to develop cancer not once, but twice. When her second and devoted husband and business partner, Saїd Ismail, broke the sad news to me that she had been diagnosed with ovarian cancer, I was heartbroken, I knew it would crush her sensitive, beautiful spirit.
Catherine, or ‘Katrine’ as I came to fondly call her, was one of the most amazing women I have ever had the privilege to interview and then to call my friend and absolute inspiration.
Catherine Walker achieved greatness; and she will be remembered as one of the most influential designers of the 20th Century, a technical virtuoso, who understood the iconic power of ten thousand twinkling, Swarovksi pailettes fluttering on the bias, to transform a mortal princess into a goddess. But her success was tinged with regret, a certain vulnerability, and later, epic struggles with her health.
The Price of Royal Patronage
Catherine confided in me that the intensity and demands of that special royal relationship came at a terrible price. Back in 1999, when I was interviewing her for a cover story in a broadsheet about the exciting new direction of her work, Catherine burst into floods of tears and told me that that the long years spent dressing Diana, and being the person she absolutely depended on to dazzle and enchant the public as her marriage to The Prince of Wales fell apart, had destroyed her health and made her ill. She was passionate and angry and told me that Diana had come to rely on her too much. “ For the first twenty years of my life as a designer, I gave everything to the business and it was very hard. I didn’t make sufficient time for myself and other things,” she said forlornly.
What Catherine longed for now, were the simple pleasures other people took for granted. To go to the cinema and see the latest Woody Allen film, or just go for a walk when she felt like it. She had denied herself that luxury for years.
My interview with Katrine that day was the most extraordinary and emotional of my career. The atmosphere was so fraught that we both cried uncontrollably, and I frequently had to abandon the interview. I felt distraught for my friend. No relationship is worth dying for. But Katrine also made me promise that I would not mention what she had said about Diana in my piece.
A Playful New Approach
It took Katrine a long time to come to terms with the death of Diana, but when she did, it was a huge relief. At last, she told me she could finally break free of royal restraint and protocol, which she described as stifling, and she would tell me how she felt much lighter and more playful in her approach to design. It was like talking to someone who had been let out of a gorgeous, gilded prison. She was like a teenager having fun for the first time.
But it was also no secret that Katrine wanted a brilliant new muse to succeed Diana. She wanted to forge a relationship with an icon of international stature who would show the world that she had moved on, and that the elongated silhouette she famously created for Diana’s willowy, almost boyish body had changed and become younger, sexier and less formal.
A Letter to Julia Roberts
One day she asked me what I thought of the film star Julia Roberts, and mentioned that she would like to dress her. Katrine sent her a special outfit with a handwritten note. Roberts sent a charming note back, but the relationship didn’t catch fire. In truth, I think Julia knew that she was being gently courted to take on the mantle of the most famous woman in the world, and she smartly realised that it was an impossible act to follow.
Katrine turned her attention to a younger crop of hot British actresses, who were creating interest in Hollywood. Joely Richardson and Olivia Williams were great favourites, and she relished the opportunity to design dresses that were lighter, sexier and playfully deconstructed. Though she charmingly bemoaned the fact that Joely was never loyal to one designer and would wear Catherine’s designs one week to a premiere, and John Galliano or Versace the next!
Catherine Was Warm, Funny and Always Interested in People
Catherine was very warm and open with me, and not all like the image the mainstream press portrayed of her, as a reclusive figure, who shunned the spotlight. She was warm-hearted, funny, and insouciant with her friends, and possessed a very rare attribute in the brittle, appearance-driven world of fashion; she was genuinely interested in other people, and what made them tick, and not just in her own success. She would always tell me when my skin glowed and compliment me on a dress or flea market find that she particularly liked.
Nor was she a fashion purist. She was equally delighted, whether I wrote a descriptive, thoughtful piece for The Times or put together a glossy feature spread in Hello! featuring her glamorous, photogenic designs. Most of all, she told me that she loved to see her work come to life on real, flesh and blood women.
A Compliment for Katie Price
Once, I remember her declaring that she rather admired Katie Price for her genius as a businesswoman; and she took great interest in helping me choose the muse for a cover piece in the Times that would showcase her come back after the death of Diana. When I suggested a gamine young actress and model called Hanne Klintoe, who was rather cool and edgy and was appearing in Mike Figgis’s film, The Loss of Sexual Innocence, she was thrilled. She liked the idea of a role model who was youthful, quirky and cutting edge, and the antithesis of Diana.
I would often pop into the lofty, elegant atelier on Sydney Street, just to catch up, have a cup of tea with Saїd and Katrine, or her assistants and view a new piece Katrine particularly wanted my opinion on. Images from my iconic shoots with Joely Richardson and Olivia Williams and The Times Millennium Cover Story were proudly displayed on the walls, and I always felt like part of the family.
There were many highlights to my friendship and working relationship with Katrine. One was spending hour after fascinating hour with her and Saїd the night before Princess Diana died in Paris. We were pouring over the archives; sketches and scrapbooks – looking at the iconic, unfolding transformation of a princess for her autobiography.
The Art and History of the Little Black Dress for The Times Magazine
The second was the iconic feature we worked on together to celebrate the Art and History of the Little Black Dress. Over the course of two years, and with Katrine’s stellar contacts and gentle persuasion, I interviewed and styled sixteen, A-list female icons in their favourite little black dresses. It was a wonderfully exciting, creative time – an extraordinary coup. I will never forget the vision of Vanessa Redgrave smoking a cigarette, teasing the photographer’s assistant, and looking utterly fabulous, with legs a mile high in an inky black tuxedo dress by Katrine.
A Rigorous, Intellectual Approach to Fashion Design
She was an incendiary talent, who inspired everyone who met her with her quiet, intellect, warmth and passion. She took British fashion centre stage again, with her genius for creating dresses that dazzled, but had the common touch. But make no mistake, Catherine Walker was also rigorous, and intellectual in her approach to couture, and a skilled, self-taught pattern cutter who could make fabric flutter and fly. With typical self-deprecation, she would refer to her iconic designs for Princess Diana as her ‘shiny, varnished outer shells’, but they captured the age and created interest, fascination and scrutiny on a scale never seen before or since.
A Girls’ Night Out to See Annie Hall in the Kings Road
Ultimately, one of the memories I will cherish of my dearest friend was a trip to the cinema, to see Annie Hall, on the Kings Road, with all the seamstresses from her workrooms. Afterwards, I asked her to go for a drink or coffee. “No, I can’t,” she said girlishly, “I must go home and spend some time with my husband.”
Saїd was a very lucky man. Katrine was beautiful, poised and willowy, and knew like all French women how to pull off understated glamour and allure. She often reminded me of the French film actress Isabelle Adjani, with her flowing brown hair and emerald eyes.
For someone who had such highs and lows in life, Katrine wasn’t frightened by death. I once asked her how she would like to be remembered in a hundred years time. Fixing me with her enquiring, intelligent green eyes she laughed and said, “Woody Allen once answered that question by saying, ‘I’d like them to say, ‘Gosh, doesn’t he look good for his age!’” But Catherine added wistfully, “ It would be nice if they look at my work at all – and remember it.”
Alison Jane Reid ©September 2010. Copyright February 2016 All Rights Reserved
Fashion Photography By Mike Owen, Fashion Direction Alison Jane Reid. Copyright Mike Owen/Alison Jane Reid/Eyevine.com All Rights Reserved