Celebrity bridal designer Kate Halfpenny on her Derbyshire upbringing
PUBLISHED: 00:00 16 September 2016 | UPDATED: 11:52 16 September 2016
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Bridal designer and stylist to the stars, Kate Halfpenny talks to Claire Bore about her Derbyshire upbringing and how it has inspired her groundbreaking bridal shop in London
Tucked away in a little backstreet, not far from the iconic British Library and imposing Euston Station, is a time warp of Victorian London. Café tables line the walkways, leaded windows smile out from shop fronts reached by elegant steps. As Kate Halfpenny later informs me, Woburn Walk was the first attempt to create a shopping mall in London: a cobbled street lined with an array of merchants’ houses where families resided above their shops.
‘I found it on the council’s website and I couldn’t believe how cheap it was. It was a gift, finding this shop at the right price with all this space, which as you can see, we are now completely growing out of,’ she says.
At first glance, the interior is clearly a reflection of Kate’s taste. A timeless beauty, with Farrow and Ball Downpike grey and chandeliers galore, original yet with an element of quirkiness. Kate enthusiastically shows me the latest autumn/winter collection of laces and trims. New fabrics have arrived from France and, as can be observed from a rectangle of beautiful hand-embroidered material with grey/metallic hints, they are truly special. ‘This is the fabric for our 2017 Sylvie dress. It contains coils of metal – like that they use on military insignia but we’ve had it in white instead of gold – hence the hero theme,’ she explains.
Born and bred in Derbyshire, celebrity stylist turned bridal designer Kate Halfpenny entered the world literally surrounded by fabrics and sewing so it’s no surprise that she chose design as her vocation. Her fairytale story shows an element of luck but a lot of tenacity. ‘From the minute I picked up a pencil I was doodling and drawing dresses constantly,’ she says.
Kate’s mother and her friend Sue had a knitwear company on Belper high street called Alley Cat. ‘It was all mohair, classic 80s and striped batwings. I’d go there from school and be around all these cones of wool and detail,’ she says. ‘My mum was my main influence... she would do things such as take an old wooden curtain pole, chop it up and we’d paint, varnish and make the pieces into little brooches.’
Kate’s grandma was a denim machinist in a factory and every weekend Kate would be on her old Singer sewing machine. ‘I would sit there with all the old off-cuts and bits of cushion covers and curtains that she had made and the trims and things. I grew up in Ripley and spent a lot of time in Borrowash where my grandma was. We would go on massive walks and along the cycle paths. We enjoyed horse riding at Elvaston Castle every weekend. I also spent a lot of my childhood in the grounds of Sudbury Hall as my mum’s great aunt was the housekeeper and my great uncle was the gardener.’
Actually, notes Kate, ‘The 2017 collection is called “The Summer of Love” and it is all about roses, the fragrance and that nostalgia you have remembering the summer. Smelling some David Austin roses in town the other day just transported me back to my grandma’s garden where we made petal perfume.’
While Kate clearly has fond memories of growing up in Derbyshire, she believes it also made following her dreams to some extent more difficult. ‘When I was growing up it was a real treat to buy Vogue and all those other magazines. It wasn’t like growing up in London, you had to be inspired by other things and sort of carve out your own way. You needed to visit galleries and places then because you couldn’t just go online to see what a show looked like or view the incredible blogs we have these days.’
By Kate’s own admission, she wasn’t academic and was easily distracted, absorbing everything and wanting to know what was going on (a quality she now identifies in her 10-month-old son Sylvester), and she followed the one thing at which she was good. After Chesterfield Art College, Kate went on to take a BA Hons in Fashion Design, then an MA in Textiles at the prestigious Central St Martins. Sandwiched between the courses, Kate did an internship at Vivienne Westwood – ‘her idol’. She was quick to realise though that she wanted to work for herself.
After a chance meeting with another intern she started making costumes for television, including the Powergen weather commercial. ‘I spent weeks and weeks embroidering the costumes. It was all craft and now it is all VFX (visual effects),’ says Kate. Her true calling had made an appearance during Kate’s final degree show when she chose to create alternative bridal wear. ‘I was always obsessed with big silhouettes and corsets. It’s funny because now all my collections are soft and unstructured.’ From there it snowballed and Kate started to make bespoke wedding orders.
Made in Britain
Today Kate juggles motherhood with a very busy working life: ‘It’s hard being so busy – we have 11 stockists now and are to do the New York bridal market in October so we are stepping up to the next level with everything.’
Generous with praise for her ‘big gorgeous team’, Kate admits she doesn’t know how she used to do it. ‘I just don’t have the brain capacity since I became a mum.’ As well as the growing team in the London Bloomsbury studio, Kate employs home-based embroiderers: ‘We have a lady in Worthing who hand-embroiders and we make in East London and Worthing. It’s all about quality, trust, craft.’
This home-grown art is something Kate is clearly passionate about. ‘Moving forward it’s all about going back to the craft, to “Made in Britain”. I grew up in Derbyshire and the industry was devastated when they moved everything out to Asia. My mum used to work at a textiles firm that made lingerie for Marks and Spencer. Everything like that was made in Derbyshire.’
‘I’ve looked into using Nottingham lace, which is very cottony and quite beautiful and I’d really like to use it in one of my collections. It is so frustrating that the French bought all the British machinery from Nottingham and now we import lace from France. I just want to get that back,’ reasons Kate. ‘With wedding dresses people are demanding to know where their dress is from more than ever. They want to know the story of their dress and make it their own.’
Kate is full of admiration for the people who work for her: ‘How the girls in the studio next door do it amazes me. They have hands like angels, unpicking stitches and no one can tell. It is a dying art, to be that talented, but people often don’t appreciate it.’
In a way Kate maintains an old school approach to running her business. ‘Most of it is word of mouth, friends’ referral. We have a diverse collection with dresses for all different body shapes. I made a design called Cristabelle for my best friend and designed a version for her sister, Annabelle, with a longer skirt which is completely different. I just think “let everyone do their own thing so every bride can find exactly what they want.” We are diversifying slightly now, and adding embellishment and details to dresses that can’t be copied.’
As trends go there is one word that Kate Halfpenny goes out of her way to avoid – vintage. Believing that it is overused and misunderstood she would like to eradicate it but has had to compromise. ‘The problem is if I don’t have the word vintage in my text and internet searches, potential clients miss my work. People automatically assume my creations are “vintage” because they are cream and lacy. No, they are brand new. To me vintage is actual secondhand pre-1950s/60s,’ argues Kate. ‘I think a better word to describe the collections is timeless... I could show you a dress from 2005 and one from 2015 and I don’t think you’d be able to tell when they were made. It leaves us with a problem. The collection keeps growing and we don’t know which dresses to take off the rails as they are all still really popular.’
Although Kate is not really one for trends, she has created a trend piece for next season – the Bow jacket. She is keen to maintain that it’s ‘not anyone else’s trend – it is an iconic piece.’
Perhaps it is this attention to detail and the level of perfectionism that has drawn an array of stars to the Halfpenny headquarters over the years. ‘I designed bridal separates in 2005 for Emilia Fox for her wedding. It was a top and skirt. Now everyone is making them.’
Kate used to assist costume designer Vicky Russell on music videos and has styled everyone from George Michael and the Stereophonics to Rhianna and Pixie Lott. Her big ‘A list’ moment came when hairdresser James Brown said his friend Kate Moss needed a dress for her birthday. ‘He suggested that I made Kate’s dress and before I knew it I was making four dresses. The red dress has become an icon.’ A testament to Kate’s craftsmanship and eye for design is that celebrities return to her like a trusted confidante.
Kate’s mum is under no illusions about the magic of her daughter’s success and has advised her to record her life. ‘Mum’s always said I should write a diary because I’ll never remember it all when I’m older. I feel really blessed and lucky to have such an insane career – it’s more than I could ever have dreamed of and if it all ended tomorrow, I’d just think – wow!’
For Kate, however, there is a ‘nameless’ appreciation of all her clients and customers. ‘What we like to say is that any customer can have exactly the same experience – choose our dresses and work with our team – as Kate or Rhianna or the other people we work with. There is a dress out there for everybody. There is so much we can do – put in a bra infill, add a tie, a bow, there is nothing you can’t have. We like to customise dresses.’
‘I am inspired by everyone who comes through my door,’ she continues. ‘Whether it is a mum from Sheffield or Daisy Lowe! It’s all about creating a dress. No one is ever going to leave here unless they are 100 per cent happy.’
For Kate it really is about passing on her enthusiasm. ‘I love it, I just love the fabrics and finding new ones. Developing the embroidery in the materials we work with. In the future I want to get more stockists in the USA. We’ve already got the best British stockists. It’s about growing and building on our brand and staying true to ourselves… I just wish there were more hours in the day to do everything.’
So there it is – the modern dilemma of creativity. Yet if you could bottle the happiness and contentment of Kate Halfpenny (agreed she is a little more tired these days – the baby sleep thing does get better, we discuss), ultimately you would be on to a winner. Here is a woman who works hard, living and breathing her passion, juggling life while living her dream and remaining fixed to her Derbyshire roots. Perhaps that rose petal perfume had magic powers after all. To find out more go to Halfpennylondon.com