Jenny Packham on how the red carpet has changed, and the joy of bringing glamour to everyone
What do Kate Winslet, Adele and the Princess of Wales all have in common? They’re Jenny Packham fans. Few brands can claim to have retained such red-carpet prominence over such a prolonged period of time, but 35 years after first launching her eponymous label, Packham still draws in royals, actresses and musicians alike. “I learnt very early in my career that in fashion I must never feel too good or satisfied with my work or assume that just because things are going well things will continue that way,” she says. “If you want longevity in fashion, keep reinventing, looking outwards, being curious and don’t get lazy.”
Packham has always stuck to what she’s good at – glamorous, glittering eveningwear created with a lightness of touch. Shock tactics and chasing the zeitgeist have never been her thing; instead she has remained true to her brand codes, cultivating a diverse and ever-growing clientele that return to her romantic, dazzling looks every time they want to make an entrance. But it's not without its challenges. “It’s more difficult than ever to see one of your gowns worn on the red carpet,” she explains. “A lot of stars are locked into contracts with the big fashion houses so they have to wear something by that brand. If you manage to get a dress on someone on the red carpet, it’s quite an achievement. There’s so much choice out there and even if you have made something specifically for someone, they’ve probably gone to other brands to make something specific, too.”
Packham has never paid anyone to wear her dresses, but prides herself on maintaining good, long-lasting relationships. “Often you can make something for someone and it didn’t work out for that event, but they remember that you made the effort and call on you again in the future,” she says, adding that she no longer feels disappointed when a star decides at the last minute not to wear one of her gowns. “I have an in-built sense of ‘we’ve done our best.’ I understand perfectly that if they wear it, it was the right dress, but if they didn’t, then it wasn’t.”
Ultimately, she says, celebrity red-carpet endorsements don't boost sales. She refuses to talk specifically about one of her most famous fans, Kate, the new Princess of Wales, and whether or not her patronage results in increased profits. “I actually don’t think women want to look the same,” she says. “What the red carpet does do is drive brand awareness and relevancy.”
Born in Southampton, Packham knew she wanted to be a fashion designer from as young as 11 years old. Having dropped out of school early, scrapping her A Levels (much to the horror of her parents), she went on to study fashion at Southhampton University, which taught her the practical side of design, and then on to Central Saint Martins, which taught her the conceptual side – and to dream big. “I arrived the year Galliano left,” she says. “It was an amazing period. People used to come in and ask if you wanted to design costumes for this film or you’d be sat making textiles, and Missoni used to come in and buy some of them. It was the '80s and there was money swishing around. My daughter was watching an Arnold Schwarzenegger film the other day and I remembered I’d done the costumes. I sold designs to Missoni too, all while I was at college. There were so many opportunities.”
She met her now-husband Matthew Anderson while they were at college (he was studying sculpture), and within a year of graduation they decided to launch the brand together. “I put it all down to youthful arrogance,” she laughs. “I don’t know how we set up a business without the internet or social media. We would go round London putting leaflets through editors’ doors.” Her breakthrough moment came after she moved her London Fashion Week show to New York in 2010, where her eveningwear found red-carpet fame. Sandra Bullock wore one of her tulle sequinned gowns to the 2011 Golden Globes and that was it. “The Americans understood and appreciated what we were doing in terms of eveningwear,” she says.
Since then, she’s dressed Hollywood royalty – from Angelina Jolie to Beyoncé to Sandra Oh – and has created costumes for the big and small screen, including Sex and the City, The Devil Wears Prada and Casino Royal. She helped reinvent a then-stuffy and traditional bridal market with feminine, modern dresses that were more aligned with contemporary silhouettes and styles. “When I design each bridal collection, I try to bring some sort of magic to it; you need to make the bride fall in love with that dress, whereas with eveningwear the woman just needs to feel empowered,” she explains.
Most recently, she’s designed the uniform, or team wardrobe as she prefers to call it, for 700 members of staff at the soon-to-open London Peninsula hotel at Hyde Park Corner. Her collections were already sold at the luxury chain’s Shanghai and Beijing outposts, so the pairing felt natural. The project also marks her menswear debut.
She describes the experience as "a learning curve and a lot of fun", explaining that the challenge came in finding something that would work for all – both in terms of design and practicality – from doormen to housekeeping to restaurant teams to office staff. So, in what was really a collaborative project, she set about gathering information from the staff themselves. “We wanted to bring some glamour and style to everyone, but we also had to find out what was required of every job so we could work out what was needed in terms of what they wear – how they needed to move – so we could design around that,” she says. “I make clothes that hopefully women wear more than once, bar the wedding dresses, so this was a challenge in designing something durable, easy to look after and wash.”
By their very nature, uniforms are typically thought of as nondescript – something that the wearers put on to make them look professional, but also to blend into the background. Not so for the team at the London Peninsula; Packham's brief from the hotel was that the staff feel "empowered and confident to put on their uniforms", resulting in a collection of colourful, elegant options – from pussybow blouses to silk dresses and brocade jackets – with accessories that can be mixed and matched, and looks that can be switched up from day to evening.
Packham still says she gets a little buzz when she sees anyone wearing one of her pieces, no matter whether famous or not, but – more than anything – she’s just enjoying seeing such a renewed energy for fashion and the red carpet in general. “We’re seeing such amazing style because after the pandemic, there’s a real enthusiasm for dressing up again,” she says. “There’s a true joyousness that I don’t think we’ve seen in a really long time.”
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