NICHOLAS OAKWELL for Tirade Book #4

The Jesuits used to say ‘See the boy at seven and you see the man’ and I suspect that was true of the couturier Nicholas Oakwell. Impeccably dressed as a young boy and in front of me now, he was obviously surrounded by beauty from a young age. His Mother was a catwalk and showroom model and his Grandmother an artist and dressmaker, a creative force who symbolically died on the day he was born.

Words — Helena O’Keeffe

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Like Coco Chanel, Nicholas was originally a milliner. He studied under Shirley Hex, who also tutored and inspired Philip Treacy & Stephen Jones. His love of craft, fabric, form and experimentation naturally led him to expand into couture and he is now at the forefront of its great British revival. He reminds me that “British designer Charles Worth was arguably the original founder of couture and while his house was in Paris, he started his career in London. London has a great heritage in couture and as a British designer I am proud to show here first, before presenting in Paris.” He is proud of British artisans who he feels produce some of the best work in the world. The world of haute couture has always courted the best British designers, such as John Galliano and the late Alexander McQueen, who designed haute couture collections during their respective tenures at the long-established houses of Givenchy and Christian Dior.

The term haute couture is protected in France, just like Champagne. But the old guard is changing. A new president, Ralph Toledano of the Spanish giant Puig, is taking over. The French houses have fallen one by one, with only Chanel and Dior left standing amongst the original houses. Only around 25 Ateliers now show in Paris, down from a peak of around 110. Not everyone wants to show in Paris. The Dolce & Gabbana autumn/winter 2014 couture show captured the spirit of the Mediterranean at a secret cove off the coast of Italy with models arriving in boats over the water as the sun was setting.

Couture is making economic sense once again. The demand is a reflection of the economic reality of the polarisation of wealth. Fifteen years ago, there seemed little economic logic in creating beautiful dresses which cost as much as a car. But the emergence of the super-rich has created a niche market for whom couture makes perfect sense. What's more, the super-rich are least affected by global economic woes. When I ask Nicholas about understanding his clients’ lifestyle he agreed that there was a global ‘rich’ who were willing to pay for the finest of clothes and were indeed spread around the globe. They come from China, the Far East, the Middle East, Russia, Europe, the USA, everywhere, but what united them in their very different lives was their desire for the best.

And couture really does sell. Sales of Chanel’s most recent collection – Spring/Summer 2014 – rose by 20%, while Valentino is projecting growth of 30-35% for couture in 2014. The average age of Dior’s couture customer has fallen, from mid 40s to early 30s. When Princess Beatrice appeared at this years Serpentine Garden Party she looked the best she has ever looked. She was, unusually, the best dressed in the room - and what was she wearing? – a Nicholas Oakwell couture dress; she looked stunning. In the age of social media where images are hashtagged, tweeted and instagrammed around the world the glamour created by couture has an ever-greater footprint. Nicholas has had clients contact him and buy gowns merely from seeing his intagram pages.

The Nicholas Oakwell atelier is on the move, from Clerkenwell to St. James Mayfair. He aims to have everything under one roof later in the year as expansion beckons. After only three years he has established himself in this rarified world. He is privy to some extraordinary lives and understands his clients and what they want. He is passionate about training young people in old skills and has a great relationship with Falmouth University’s textile department.

He shows in Claridges ballroom twice a year and at a salon in Paris. He does trunk shows in LA, New York, Dallas, Dubai, Abu Dhabi, Doha, Riyadh, Kazakhstan, Hong Kong and China. His shows are fantastical and he is known for producing scented shows that transport the audience to somewhere beautiful or as Nicholas puts it “wherever my brain is at that time”.

Ralph & Russo has been the first London based Atelier to be accepted on the Paris schedule of haute couture and The House of Oakwell may be the next, although he wishes to remain London based. He has plans for a limited edition ready to wear collection as well as accessories, tailoring and scents. British couture is definitely having a renaissance and Nicholas is perfectly placed at its helm.

All photos courtesy of Nicholas Oakwell. Find out more