Rebecca Moore met London-born fashion designer Rachel Riley to find out about how she went from sewing in her attic to dressing mini royals…
When I arrive at Rachel Riley’s Marylebone High Street store, I’m greeted by the designer herself, whose international profile has rocketed since Prince George was photographed wearing the label’s dungarees on the royal tour of New Zealand in 2014. She is impeccably dressed in tailored trousers, which, paired with an immaculate 50s-style hair-do, creates an aura of retro chic. Born in the 60s in London, Rachel flourished at school, excelling academically – her creative side seemed more of a hobby than a future career path.
“When I was at school, at the time, we still did needlework and dressmaking. I studied this as an O-Level and absolutely loved it,” she explains. Although Rachel left school to read Social Anthropology at the University of Cambridge, she was always being creative. “Back then there was much more of a culture of making things, it was very much “make do and mend,” Rachel says. “My mum knitted, my grandmother knitted, but I made more creative things. I’d make Paddington Bear some elaborate pyjamas, I made things for myself, and I remember my mum’s friend had a baby and I was paid £100 to make four dresses,” she explains.
It wasn’t until Rachel was studying at Cambridge that a real interest in fashion sparked. She signed up to a model agency after a friend had told her she had “model looks”. “As a teenager you don’t really know what models are, and what makes a model, but I was a student and really needed the money. We had such long holidays so I thought I’d give it a go. It actually took off really well.” In her first year Rachel went to Paris, later travelling to Japan and south east Asia.
With this hectic life Rachel didn’t stop making things either. “I’d take my knitting along to the photoshoots. And I bought myself a sewing machine with my modelling money when I was about 18.” Rachel would still go to flea markets and vintage stalls for inspiration and was never far away from her knitting needles. But modelling proved to be a valuable insight into the industry. “Being a model is like being a fly on the wall. I did work for Kenzo, Agnès B, Marie Claire and Vogue. It was great. Nobody would normally show you this insight into the fashion business, but as the model you’re the star. It’s a great life.”
“There are lots of early mornings, but models have it really easy. It’s a dream job – you get paid, you travel and it’s creative. My only problem was I always wanted to participate and be more involved, but I just had to sit there really,” she laughs.
After completing her degree Rachel was drawn to Paris once more, taking a year off to model. During this whirlwind, Rachel met her now husband, photographer Daniel Jouanneau, best known for his Chanel perfume bottle shots. The pair met on a Marie Claire photoshoot, and enjoyed a transatlantic affair, living between Paris and New York. But as much as they both loved life in the fast lane, the couple very much wanted to settle down and start a family. They married, and when pregnant with their first son Felix, they bought their idyllic rural family home in the Loire Valley.
The family soon grew and little Felix was swiftly joined by brother Alfie and later, sister Rose. “As a family, we lived a very much a make-do lifestyle like in times gone by. We made fires, baked our own bread, made our own jams. I made a lot of the children’s clothes too. It was a very rural lifestyle,” reminisces Rachel. “My husband has kept all of the smock dresses I made Rose. I chose the colours, the patterns, and they’re smocked all across the chest. I’m so scared that those old-fashioned techniques are going to die out.”
As her brood got a little older, Rachel felt unqualified to fulfill their learning needs, so she decided to study the Montessori approach to education, gaining a diploma. But this wasn’t the only thing keeping the former-model busy. Another baby had been born – her eponymous childrenswear company, which was launched in 1994.
Beginning with a mail order catalogue, which she sent out to all of her friends, her first collection comprised traditional and charming children’s clothes, modelled by her children, and photographed by her husband. “It started very simply – I put together a collection of around 30-40 pieces, which I made. They were comfortable, pretty items using luxury fabrics but at the right price,” explains Rachel.
In their house Rachel set up a 1940s-inspired workshop in the attic, which became the creative hub of the business. Her favourite era is from the 1920s to 1960s when most children’s clothes were made at home. “I’m not stuck in a time warp, and I certainly don’t want to be in some BBC period drama, but I love the creativity of an era gone by, and things being made in a beautiful way,” she explains.
The catalogue experiment took off, and very quickly Rachel knew she had a business on her hands. “The press went wild! We were in American Vogue, House and Garden – they loved our fairytale existence. I suppose we had a certain je ne sais quoi,” says Rachel.
After making everything to order from her workshop for the first few years, Rachel knew she needed to employ some help.
Historically, the Loire Valley in France is regarded as a sewing area, so she was able to employ talented local seamstresses.
As the children grew, both Rachel and Daniel knew they needed more formal schooling. “Felix was seven or eight years old and needed a proper education. I didn’t love French school, and felt quite strongly about my children having an English education,” says Rachel. “I love English schools, I love the formality and structure, and the uniform.”
In 1998 the family left France for London, setting up their first store on Pont Street, in Knightsbridge. They moved into the flat above the shop and the children went to Hill House School nearby. “During term time we’d be in London, and in the holidays we’d go back to France. It was really fun actually,” remembers Rachel. The shop was an instant success, and a second shop was opened two years later on Marylebone High Street. In addition, the business has taken off internationally, with a boutique in New York and offices in Hong Kong.
The Rachel Riley range is now stocked across the world in some of the most prestigious department stores, including Harrods, where, in 2012, to mark the Diamond Jubilee and London Olympics, Rachel was asked to create a special display to showcase her quintessentially British brand. “That summer we had a lot of fun, we made it look like Brighton beach! We used pretty picnic baskets, blankets, flasks and of course our clothing. It was a great time to be British and we’ve now been on a roll for about five years.”
When it was announced that the Duchess of Cambridge was pregnant with her first child back in December 2012, Rachel realised this could be a great opportunity for her business. “What’s been fun about having a small company is that we’re quite agile and can be reactive. As soon as we heard [about Kate’s pregnancy], I thought it was the perfect creative moment – an opportunity to become inspired about a whole layette collection,” says Rachel, knowing that a project like this had great potential. “I got really excited. I knew if I could design a collection quickly enough and showcase at London’s childrenswear fashion trade show, Bubble London, in January, then customers and stockists could have it in June, ready for the arrival.” Her foresight, from years of working in the business paid off: “The idea was so good, everybody had confidentiality agreements.”
The Heritage collection launched early in the summer of 2012. Quite clearly London-inspired, the range includes everything from babygros decorated with adorable toy soldiers, to bloomers with crown prints. “It wasn’t about dressing the new prince or princess, you can’t plan that,” explains Rachel. “But every child is their mum and dad’s prince or princess and it was a celebration of new life.”
The launch of the Heritage collection has been a pinnacle point for the Rachel Riley brand, and it wasn’t long before the inevitable royal seal of approval came. Aged just eight months old, third in line to the throne Prince George was spotted wearing the traditional Sailboat Smocked Dungarees on tour in New Zealand. That day will be hard to forget. “It was an extraordinary day, never in my career had I experienced anything like it. The phone rang over 100 times. I was in America at the time, and I appeared on the evening news, and on radio talk shows. It was mad,” remembers Rachel.
Of course, with another royal baby on the way, the merriment continues. “I’m excited about the next royal baby as I love seeing a family grow. If it’s a boy I’m interested to see if they do any matching outfits, and if it’s a girl I can’t wait to see how they dress her,” enthuses Rachel. And as the latest Spring/Summer collection prepares to drop into stores, there is a nod to this sentiment with lots of beautiful baby clothes for both sexes. “I loved having boys and a girl. Fashion-wise, boys are harder to get right, whereas girls have more choice. I like to think we’re quite good at covering both boys and girls.”
The family business has clearly rubbed off on her children. “Funnily enough they’re all on the edge of being in the fashion industry and are all quite creative,” Rachel says. Her eldest son Felix, 25, has trained as a shoemaker, while Alfie, 24, is a fashion student and Rose, 22, who studied textiles at A-Level, has now started working in the childrenswear buying office at Selfridges. It’s clear that Rachel’s enthusiasm for the brand, 20 years on, still burns strong. Now employing 25 people, she’s often the first in and last out. “I like to lead by example, with my team and my family. Leading with enthusiasm is the best way. I love inspiring people, and I hope I’m inspirational,” she says.
Traditional in her styles and values, Rachel Riley is looking forward to a prosperous year ahead. “I feel like we’re only at the beginning. The whole retro thing is now fashionable so we’re one step ahead. A journalist once said to me, ‘oh you’re so on trend at the moment’ and I said, ‘actually everyone has just caught up with me’.” We couldn’t agree more.