As he launches his first ever High Street collection for John Lewis, Bruce Oldfield tells Stephanie Smith how his principal aim has always been to flatter the women he dresses.
It’s testament to the responsibility and gratitude Bruce still feels towards the charity that helped him find his feet in his early years. Born in 1950 to an Irish mother and a Jamaican father, he was fostered as a baby, living in County Durham, then at a Barnardo’s children’s home in Ripon, educated at Ripon Grammar School after passing the 11-plus.
“Barnardo’s is a charity very close to my heart and one that made my career possible,” he says. This it did by paying his fees and providing a grant for him to attend Saint Martin’s School of Art after a teacher training course at Sheffield City College of Education.
He adds: “I try to support them in any way that I can, particularly in the area of after care,” he says.
Some might be surprised that a designer so renowned for his couture chooses this point in his life to venture onto the High Street by creating a ready-to-wear collection for John Lewis.
“Couture is beautiful and is most definitely where my heart is,” he says. “It was very important that I chose the right partner to do this with, and John Lewis was the natural fit – I’m an avid customer of the Peter Jones shop. John Lewis is a British institution and we have similar brand values: attention to detail, the importance of quality and service, and a shared belief that style is ageless.”
As a child, Bruce was fostered by seamstress, Violet Masters, who was a mother to him and fostered also his love of fashion. “It is said that, at the age of seven, I sat at the side of my mother and did a drawing of the dress that a customer of hers was describing as the wedding dress of her dreams,” he says. “The drawing didn’t survive, but my love of clothes and fashion did. I also used to repair my sister’s dolls clothes and make new ones for them – couture fits any size.
“I think she also fostered in me a love of the technique and craft and the finer points of making clothes, an interest that has never gone away.”
While at Ripon Grammar School, Bruce had no inkling of where life was going to take him. “I remember wanting to go to Jacob Kramer Art School in Leeds to do a vocational course in fashion, as a school friend had gained a place there after O-Levels, but a career in fashion was not the route for a boy to take in the ’60’s and I was encouraged to take a rain check on that, which is what I dutifully did.”
But in Sheffield with his foster brother, Barry, he indulged in what he calls “fledgling fashion activities”. “We would buy T-shirts from Tesco, dyeing them bright colours, screen-printing Mickey Mouse on them, then selling them to local boutiques. I remember also making hippy leather belts and bracelets, which sold equally well. As a summer vacation it beat working in the steel mills and factories around Sheffield.”
At the time, Bruce was training to be a teacher. “Luckily for the teenagers of Sheffield and Rotherham, I only inflicted my limited teaching skills on them during teaching practice,” he says. “I wasn’t very good at keeping order, in spite of my height, and I soon realised it took a talent to nurture kids and get them interested. You needed a generosity that I didn’t have, so my thoughts soon began to look towards my first love – fashion. The rest was history.”
As a couture designer, Bruce has always aimed to create something women cannot find anywhere else, and the aim for his John Lewis Bruce by Bruce Oldfield collection is no different, drawing on his classic designs throughout his 40-year career.
“I was inspired by the ’80s era and the workwear designs from this decade,” he says. “I wanted to rework and update these to create a collection fit for any modern woman’s wardrobe.” There are key pieces here that should be in any wardrobe, he says. “For this first collection I focused on a monochromatic palette offset against warm blush tones and hints of metallic shimmer. I added texture throughout the collection by using velvet, silk and embroidery – reminiscent of the era that inspired it.”
His primary aim when dressing a woman is to flatter, he says. “I’ve created couture gowns and dressed beautiful women, including Joan Collins, Charlotte Rampling, the Princess of Wales and Rihanna over the past 40 years. I have been incredibly lucky to dress such fantastic women. My only real aim is to leave every one of them feeling the very best they can. It’s so rewarding, seeing someone so in love with what they are wearing – they glow.”
Saint Laurent, he says, was the master of enhancing the feminine form – “Even when the designs were at times androgynous. He knew how to dress women. For menswear, I don’t really have an opinion, but the designer who quietly changed the way men dress was Armani.”
Bruce confesses that he himself does not enjoy “getting dressed up in a formal way”, which is perhaps why he likes to wear Converse trainers.
Bruce is finishing work on next year’s spring/summer Bruce by Bruce Oldfield collection for John Lewis, still working, of course, on his own couture designs and bridal collection, and enjoying life. “I am lucky to live and work in Chelsea which gives me access to great restaurants, museums and parks and I have a beautiful house at the foot of the South Downs in West Sussex, “ he says.
“I would have eventually designed homes, and there’s still plenty of time. I’m always dreaming.”
All clothes from the Bruce by Bruce Oldfield collection at John Lewis.