Risking all, Charlotte Colbert chose to design her own wedding dress. But would it all end happily ever after?
The train rattles its way back to London, Hogmanay still ringing in our ears. We stare at the medieval ring on my finger when it dawns on us: if we’re engaged, we’re going to have to organise a wedding.
And the logistics come tumbling down. Where? When? Who? Until we reach the question of outfits. My fiance Philip, designer (and Willy Wonka) of the fashion label The Rodnik Band, set his mind to concocting his own outfit. And, I foolishly thought, if he can do it, then surely so can I.
Most of my friends felt the whole idea was a recipe for disaster. Screenwriting and photography might not, they warned, be the best training for stitches and seams. But, undeterred, I sat down with pen and paper, intent on making something that would symbolise the uniting of body and spirit, as well as the specificity of our relationship. “Because it was he, because it was I”, as Montaigne wrote. And although in no way a designer, no one could do that but me.
My knowledge of cuts and silhouettes is little to none. So something classic and simple would do. No corsets, no satin, no frills. Instead, a plain dress with bold prints and a bolero for the church. To represent physical love, I abstracted a drawing of us: two naive characters drawn in thick black lines, eyes closed, pursed lips comically outstretched in a hopeful kiss. But how to represent one’s soul? Philip had always reminded me of Sergei Diaghilev, creator of magic, conjuror of spectacle. So I turned to the Ballets Russes, stricken by De Chirico’s spirit costumes: a half-twirl floating like a question mark over one’s heart.
Doodles in hand, I seek the counsel of my friend Tiger Chadwick. She endured two years of harsh apprenticeship as a tailor on Savile Row. I beg her for honesty. Is the idea terrible? Her enthusiasm propels us both into the deep end of dressmaking.
Zooming from Soho’s Berwick Street all the way to Hoxton, taking a sizeable detour through Shepherd’s Bush Market, we plough through linings, zips, cotton mixes and georgettes, sweatily exploring stock rooms, pulling out metre-long rolls of fabric until, miraculously, it seemed we’d assembled our raw materials. It is six weeks till D-day. Bag filled with samples, codes and references, we whizz in the battered white Sixties Mini past bombed- out Kensal Rise Cemetery, over the canal, through the no-man’s-land of Wormwood Scrubs and into the depths of Acton.
The Mini bounces on the pavement and screeches to a halt. Yola, an eccentric and legendary Polish dressmaker, beckons us into her world. She’s just returned from Amsterdam where a bout of ayahuasca — the notorious Peruvian drug — has initiated her to “the secret and true essence of the world which lies under our everyday perceptions”. We are in the whirlwind of her studio: dotted lines of patterns; half- completed outfits; pinned and headless mannequins. Her grandson plays in a corner as a stout lady listens to a Polish radio station.
Yola measures waist, height, width as I stand in my underwear, and we chat through the idea. A Fifties cut — the most elegant, she says, and my favourite. We’ll use the print that represents the soul on the bodice and the one symbolising the body on the back of the small bolero. “Will you have them embroidered?” Screen- printed. I like how the fabric soaks up the ink, like a canvas, and the simplicity of it.
Four weeks to go. I’m across the river, in Blackheath, banging on the aluminium door of a huge, vaulted studio in a railway arch. A friendly face peers out. “You Charlotte?” I nod as Gavin leads me past six-foot screens and golden paint. “We’re gold-leafing a thousand feathers…” So my prints will be a walk in the park? He smiles. We drink some tea with his partner Mika. A year after graduating, they’ve set up their own printing studio. They are the makers of visions and dreams.
Tiger calls. “Can you come to Hackney Downs? There’s someone I’d like you to meet.” I leave my files and pre-cut and darted fabrics with Gavin and Mika and, radio blaring, make my way north.
I recognise the Hackney Downs studio. One of my scripts was shot there recently. I slide through, past the catering unit and gossiping tea ladies to Piers Atkinson’s atelier. I ring the bell.
I’d never really considered hats before, or if I did, only with the narrow view of them as worn by old dames at the races. But, in the crammed room filled with bits of Barbie dolls, cut-out teddy bears and knitted balaclavas, I discover that millinery can be fashion’s equivalent to Alice in Wonderland’s “drink me” potion. As veil options are discussed, we opt for something simple, although now I definitely have my sights on creating a typewriter, camera or roll-of-film hat. Another time.
Have you thought of shoes, Tiger enquires. I nod sheepishly. I’ve been in touch with a Portuguese manufacturer who specialises in orthopaedics. Tiger peers anxiously at the website: rows of greyish granny footwear. I’ve sent them a design tweaked by a friend, the rather dark shoemaker Laura Gostling, who created a fairly disturbing collection based around leg and foot diseases. There is an awkward beat. What’s the design? Inspired by Schiaparelli, the kissing profiles shaping the side of the shoe. Silence. We’ll need a back-up.
Just twenty-four hours to go. People flock in from out of town as preparations hit full swing. Giant Campbell’s soup cans, metres of ivy, couches and paintings roll into our venue, the Farmiloe Building, a former toilet factory, transformed for the day. I have the veil, even the shoes, but there is absolutely no sign of the dress. Yola’s flight back from Poland was cancelled and her studio door is firmly sealed. A pint to drown my panic.
June 8, early morning. Banging on the front door: the dress has finally arrived. Pray God it fits. Coffee, toothpaste, something old, something new, something borrowed, something blue… From paper to dress, I’m clad in my own imaginings. Perhaps not perfect but individual, a new experience and a small adventure. What more can one hope for from a frock? And off we go.
June 9. Hangovers, worn feet, and thrown over a chair, the dress, shattered, tinted in cheers and laughs. Thoroughly lived-in. A surreal and magical day that came and went. The rest is up to us.