The Great British Sewing Bee judge Esme Young doesn’t have a designer wardrobe – because she makes so many of her own clothes.
As well as judging the hit show, in which budding seamsters compete to win one of TV’s hardest creative challenges, the 73-year-old designer – who made her first skirt at the age of seven – teaches at Central Saint Martins, the art school where she learned her trade. She has also just written her autobiography, Behind The Seams.
Young’s career in the fashion industry came into focus in the 1970s, when she and three other female designers launched Swanky Modes, a cool collective in Camden Town. She has designed costumes for film stars including Leonardo DiCaprio and Grace Jones, and created the bunny outfit worn by Renee Zellweger in Bridget Jones’ Diary.
Here, she gives us a peek into her fashion style, and reveals what she keeps in her wardrobe.
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What is your preferred style?
“I like wearing dresses. They shouldn’t be too tight, frankly, because I’m a bit too old for that. And you won’t see me in an Amorphous dress any more.” (Swanky Modes designed the figure-hugging lycra dress popular with nightclub-goers in the Seventies and Eighties, which became known as the Amorphous dress).
When you buy clothes, where do you buy from?
“I mostly buy from Cos. A lot of women of my age and a bit younger buy from Cos.”
What about fabrics?
“I really like fabrics which I buy from my final year [students] which they have printed. Then I make clothes out of them. It makes it personal. I’m drawn to bright colours, but I also like dark colours. As a kid, I used to like pink, surprisingly, though I did have a very nice Black Watch Tartan dress that my mum bought me.
“I like linen a lot. I try to go to Greece every year and I make clothes to wear there. Linen is a really cool fabric.”
What’s in your wardrobe now?
“I haven’t got a huge wardrobe. I put my summer clothes under the bed when it’s winter and then I have quite a few trousers and dresses I’ve made. At my workshop, I’ve got a Swanky Modes archive, where I’ve got old clothes of my mum’s and of mine.”
Do you have any designer clothes?
“No. I’ve never really been into designer clothes – also I can’t afford them. Because I design and make clothes for myself, I don’t feel the need to make designer clothes.”
Have you had many disasters with garments you’ve made?
“One thing that sticks in my mind is at Swanky Modes – we were making an outfit for a stripper, and there was this huge cape with a train. I was overlocking it late at night and got the underneath of the train caught up in the overlocker [on the sewing machine]. I overlocked a hole in it. I’ve never done that again. You learn through your mistakes.”
Do you have a favourite outfit?
I cut patterns for a designer called Ashish, who was one of my students. He’s given me various jackets and they are really quite special.”
Which sewing items do you take with you to work?
“I can use spare machines at Sewing Bee and take my scissors, tape measure and buttons.”
Did you sew during lockdown?
“Well, I don’t have a sewing machine at home and didn’t want to go into the studio in Hackney, so I did a lot of hand sewing. I altered various clothes, I made some masks, I made some cushion covers.”
Do you buy many clothes?
“I’m stopping buying clothes and want to re-wear clothes I’ve got. All I need to do is change the necklace and people won’t notice.
“Years ago, I bought something from Primark. I went in there and it was like a feeding frenzy. There were clothes all over the floor. It was chaotic and shocking. If you see a T-shirt for two quid, you could think, ‘Well, I’ll buy that because I might wear it and it doesn’t matter if I don’t’.
“The other thing about buying clothes is that it’s a treat and it makes people feel better – but that feeling doesn’t last very long.”
Behind The Seams by Esme Young is published by Blink Publishing, priced £18.99.