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In the spotlight: Said Ismael and the Catherine Walker & Co atelier
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With Paris Fashion Week kicking off across the channel, we decided to take a closer look at the typically French tradition of haute couture on our doorstep here in the UK. It was quite startling to discover that there really aren’t many haute couture ateliers, in the purest sense of the phrase, left in the country. Excluding dress makers and even high end boutiques, true haute couture – that is, an exclusive and limited collection of bespoke pieces tailored to fit individuals – is a dying art on our island.

Said Cyrus Ismael, Catherine Walker & Co

It was with this in mind that I ventured to Catherine Walker & Co’s Chelsea boutique on Sydney Street. Waiting among the colourful dresses, smart suits and textured jackets hanging from ceiling to floor, I was deep in discussion with myself about where the majority of clients come from, when a mother and daughter entered keen to find out about mother-of-the-bride options for this summer. I later discovered that while appointments are the most common way of doing business for the atelier, there is a strong sense of community among the local businesses, recommending each other and ensuring that independent boutiques such as Catherine Walker & Co continue to thrive – a warming and inspiring thing I thought.

Catherine Walker & Co

“Inspiring?” I hear you ask. Well yes, as Catherine Walker & Co is one of only two remaining ateliers flying the flag for handmade British haute couture, it’s reassuring to know that it attracts both new and returning clients. After all, we Brits should be proud and supportive of our design heritage to which Catherine Walker has contributed so greatly.

In the beginning

Established in 1977 as The Chelsea Design Company, French-born Catherine Walker and her husband, Said Cyrus Ismael, set up shop in the same place it remains today. Sadly Catherine died in 2010 after a long battle with breast cancer, however, her legacy is a lasting one thanks to not only her established reputation but to Said, an experienced lecturer at the Chelsea School of Art who has had a guiding hand in Catherine Walker & Co creations since they started the business together.

Deauville, Catherine Walker & Co

Today Catherine Walker & Co represents the marrying of not only French and British fashion, but of a happy and successful partnership between a husband and wife, designer and entrepreneur. Testament to the environment they’ve created are the loyal workers, many of whom have been there for 20 years plus, spread throughout the seven studios across the road from the atelier where every item is designed and made.

An eye for detail

Said labelled haute couture as “slow fashion”, which juxtaposes nicely against the backdrop of our fast moving world. Every design is tried and tested on calico until it works perfectly and is ready to bring to life on material. Positioned very much as the Savile Row for women, this demands time for getting it just right, something Said believes should not be rushed. Naturally, it is this level of detail that makes each piece exclusive and so very valuable.

Deco, Catherine Walker & Co

Every season they “keep the cream of each collection to form the archive” which, having been added to for over 30 years, is almost as valuable as each new collection. The two work together to offer a wide variety, and pretty much guarantee that customers will find what they’re after.

Behind the design

Before putting pencil to paper, pieces are sensitively considered for their audience or occasion, demonstrating insight that only comes with great experience. Coupled with a natural talent for design and the knowledge of how material sits, folds and flatters the female form, it’s this level of intelligent, educated design that really sets the atelier apart, and is the reason it has welcomed so many famous faces from celebrities to royals, including the Duchess of Cambridge. Said and Catherine also famously dressed Princess Diana in over 1,000 outfits.

Onyx, Catherine Walker & Co

It’s not however, simply a case of designing ‘wow’ pieces: Said stresses the importance of ensuring that “the girl is the star, not the dress”. He believes that it’s not about overpowering design, but creating pieces which compliment the shape and style of the woman it is intended for, therefore adding to her overall beauty, not losing her in it.

Timeless creations

Said sees trends come and go and knows what is ‘popular’ with the masses, which is the opposite of what haute couture fashion at Catherine Walker & Co is about; it’s really about creating beautiful, classic pieces that transcend trends and speak with real quality, thanks to traditional techniques and an eye for beauty in the detail. Said says that “most people see design as designing for the catwalk; we do something a bit different”, ultimately creating “individual garments for individual people”.

Catherine Walker & Co

And that’s the key to its lasting success: Catherine Walker & Co designs are timeless which not only explains the company’s highly regarded reputation, but will hopefully safe guard its future, ensuring that the UK continues to offer haute couture at its very best.

The latest collection from Catherine Walker & Co will be unveiled at the beginning of March. For more information on the atelier or to book an appointment, call +44 20 7352 4626 or visit the website.

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