Jasper Conran suffers from fashion’s most pleasurable form of schizophrenia. On a visit to the theatre, you can wear his designs in the auditorium and watch them on stage at the same time. But though the theatrical costumes have been drawn by the same hand, aesthetically they are 1,000,000 miles away from the simple black crepe you’re wearing. “Designing for the theatre or the ballet keeps me sane” he says. “I don’t have to worry about whether it’s commercial, or who is going to buy. It’s completely unrestricted.”
With numerous ballets and theatrical productions under his belt – David Bintley’s Edward II, staged by the Birmingham Royal Ballet in 1997, numbered no further than 700 costumes – Conran still finds enough time to devote to fashion to generate a multi-million pound turnover for his company each year.
A precocious talent, Conran has been designing since 1978, when he showed his debut collection at the age of 19. “And I’ve never really got bored, because it’s like going on a constant voyage. Each season I visit Italy to look at the fabrics and they inspire me. I love cloth and I love women; putting them together is a privilege.”
Conran’s designs are enormously popular. The key to his enduring success is his respect for the woman he dresses in his trademark simple columns of crepe decorated with optical prints or contrasting bands of colour, or his deceptively simple jackets that fit sexily without restriction. “Your favourite dress should be like a friend you can rely on. A lot of designers spend their time dressing dolls, which I think is demeaning. Real fashion should be for real woman.”
Equally as important as the design it self, is the quality of the fabrics he uses. From the affordable J range (designed in association with Debenhams department store group since 1996) to the exclusive materials he develops in conjunction with the Italian mills for his mainline collection, the feeling of the body inside the garment is as important as the outward appearance. “It’s like a jacket in cashmere with a satin lining: the hand feels cashmere and the nipple feels the satin.”
After three decades, Conran’s collections are still greatly admired. Like his father, Terence, who revolutionised the British public’s taste in home furnishings and eating out, he is obsessed by the industry of which he is apart. “I love very simple things which will sell by the dozen, and really ornate theatrical pieces that are only for the brave. I am lucky enough to be able to do both.”