From the Royal Enclosure to the boardroom, Catherine Walker offers immaculate tailoring and the best in English couture
Article by Rupert Watkins
On an elegant Chelsea street sits an elegant establishment. For the past 40 years, Catherine Walker & Co has been a discreet mecca for women seeking the finest in English couture. Being taken round the bustling and warren like workshops by Catherine’s widower and the house’s Head of Design Said Cyrus (Catherine tragically died in 2010), it is clear obsessive levels of detail are lavished on the creations leaving this small West London boutique.
Examples of the house’s designs line the walls of the small shop up to the ceiling, from these clients can select and try on examples of evening gowns, day suits or coats. Once the selection has been made, a calico toile is created at the first fitting; given the cost of many of the fabrics and embroidery, unlike more rugged men’s suiting which can be altered and re-pressed, until the sizing is perfect no cloth is cut. From this toile a unique mannequin can then be built up and on this the garment is created. “It takes up to three hours to get the mannequin right before tailoring or dressmaking work can start,” Said remarks, “a few very regular customers have their own.”
From the start, Said and Catherine took inspiration from the tailoring in Savile Row, and subsequently lured a number of cutters to their workshop. There was clearly a need to adapt the Savile Row form to the female shape, “I was always taken by the tight precision of the Row’s tailoring,” Said comments, “you’re giving the client a formality and structure and the confidence that comes with such clothing.” Catherine Walker’s distinctive saddle shoulder has evolved to become a signature look, the firm has the unique shoulder pad made in Italy. Students of couture will see a nod to certain feminine silhouettes going back to Schiaparelli’s well-known pagoda shoulder.
“There’s that juxtaposition between a very formal shoulder – almost harking back to Savile Row’s military roots – and the female form,” notes Said. Clearly, dropping down from the shoulder, there is not the need for such severe structure and Catherine Walker jackets use an extremely soft canvas in order to mould and compliment the female torso. “Actually that’s one of the trickier aspects for cutters to get right at the beginning if they’ve come to us from a men’s background,” divulges Said.
Clearly given the variety of women’s wear, jackets and coats make up a small proportion of Catherine Walker’s output. “All aspects of every garment is controlled in Sydney Street,” Said says; looking at any of his drawings, from initial sketches through to detailed drafts sitting alongside multiple fabric swatches and embroidery concepts, it is clear being able to tap into comprehensive in-house skills is critical to the boutique’s success. Time is not an issue, moving past work tables Said points out various examples of incredibly intricate beading and embroidery, every smallest item individually hand sewn on.
That success has taken this Chelsea firm from humble beginnings, “we started with a sewing machine on the kitchen table,” recalls Said with a smile, to the internationally sought after and talked about British couture atelier it is today. The house was able to buy its workshops opposite the shop in the late 1980s. Despite that success and coverage, Said retains the desire to stay a small firm, “small is beautiful – don’t just merely think about being bigger, become better.” This precise and artisan ethos is reflected throughout the collections, “we keep them small – intimate – and above all they must be wearable.” Catherine Walker celebrated 40 years in 2017 with a small exhibition at Spenser House. Diana, Princess of Wales is still their possibly most iconic customer, all her clothes are fully preserved in the archives. Rarely touched, if they are they are handled with white gloves.
This desire to remain small is shown in the close-knit and loyal team that works in Sydney Street. Thirty strong, the majority have been with Catherine Walker for well over a decade and one experienced artisan recently retired after 37 years’ service. Whilst Said explains they do not run a formalised apprentice system, two new girls have recently joined and are currently learning the skills and standards required to keep this art alive, “we are allowing them to move around to both develop and broaden their expertise but also, more importantly, to discover where their passion lies.”
Women come to Catherine Walker for the first time wanting tailoring or occasion wear. The house is famous for its distinctive coat dresses, “they give an elongated and strong silhouette,” Said explains, “with a dress underneath, it allows the customer to dress for the complete event – outside and indoors.” Be it for a more one off formal occasion – Catherine Walker is understandably popular during the season – through to sharply tailored but feminine work suits, “women have to feel special, feel a million dollars and they can then project the poise and confidence that goes from that.”
Certainly this had led over the years to a highly loyal and passionate clientele. Eighty per cent of custom is return though Said notes the house’s new website has bought in a considerable influx of fresh custom. This new seam of couture aficionados has driven the development of Catherine Walker’s E-Couture offering; with many overseas customers are unable to make the pilgrimage to the Chelsea shop, women can send in their full measurements (the house will send charts to aid this process) and the item will be made in Sydney Street before it is shipped. In consultation with a local trusted tailor or dressmaker, that long range client can then have any alterations made.
Even though every garment is made from scratch for the individual, clearly customers are buying into Said’s designs and the house collections; you cannot walk in and have anything you want. Once you have chosen your dress or coat there is limited scope to change fabrics, drape, pocket lines or other detailing, “whilst there is some leeway to give every item its unique, one-off, touch, we do enforce certain ground rules from the start of the process,” Said observes, “it is about being able to guide and assist but sometimes have that firm grip.” In a similar manner to men’s bespoke tailoring, a deposit will be placed down upon that first visit.
As well as those devotees making a dedicated journey to the atelier to browse both the current collections and the extraordinary archive – there are over 400 evening dresses alone in it – Said reports there is a gratifyingly steady level of walk in custom; as he points out many French live in the area with the Charles De Gaulle Lycée in nearby Cromwell Street, he has a growing number of French clients.
With discretion still a watchword and Said determined to keep to two collections a year, Catherine Walker remains an intimate atelier for those seeking something unusual and the highest standards in English couture. It remains a world that still enthrals Said, “you wake up in the morning dying to come to work – it’s a marvellous party here…”