TASTEMAKER AND HOTELIER. Jasper Conran is a British designer who studied at Parsons School of Art and Design in New York. He has worked on collections of womenswear and for the home, as well as productions for the stage in ballet, opera and theatre. He opened his first hotel in Morocco, L’Hôtel Marrakech, recently followed by Villa Mabrouka in Tangier.

You canlisten to the podcast of this interview here.

Jasper Conran, how did you become a womenswear designer for the eminent Henri Bendel department store in New York when you were only 19?

I left school in England when I was 15, and I had gone to New York with my mother who was working on a book there and didn’t want to leave me alone in London because she was worried I’d get up to some sort of mischief. I ended up getting into Parsons in New York, but it was completely unplanned. When I came back to London and was making clothes, one of the buyers from Bendel’s came to see me and bought from me.

What clothes did you make for Bendel?

Wedding dresses. That’s how I started, and I’ve always made wedding dresses. It’s a moment in a woman’s life where you can make a portrait of her. You’re working towards this ultimate moment for her, and it’s very pleasurable to make a woman look as good as possible.

You made a wedding dress for Princess Margaret’s daughter, Lady Sarah Chatto. Were you a friend of hers?

I had grown up with her husband as children, and Sarah Chatto got introduced to me well over 30 years ago. We became genuinely good friends who knew each other very well. I think there’s nothing in her wardrobe still that isn’t mine. We work together all the time.

“I have a store of ideas in my head, and this ability to switch from one thing to another.”

Jasper Conran

Jasper Conran for Wedgwood.

Photo by Tessa Traeger

Jasper Conran, for a time you also dressed the renowned Diana, Princess of Wales?

Yes, I dressed her for a long time, mainly the day clothes that she wore in private. I met her when she was 19 and we were the same age. She would buy a lot of the things that I was making for my collection, and if she needed something special we worked together on that. It was very easy working with her. When I first met her she was this very shy, self-effacing, gentle girl. She was always fun, always nice to be with. There were some darker times, and that was hard, but she and I had a lovely and happy relationship.

Did you need a lot of people working with you to make these clothes?

I did the cutting, the fitting and the making a lot myself. Eventually the business got a little bit bigger, and I started employing more people, but it was very artisanal. It wasn’t only wedding dresses, I was doing real clothes, and this extraordinary thing happened, which is I got seven pages of only my clothes in Vogue. Things took off from there and I mainly was doing clothes for men and women throughout the 1980s and into the ‘90s, when I started doing quite a lot of licensed business: china with Wedgwood, and crystal with Waterford. I then worked with a very big company in the UK called Debenhams, and did a lot of licensed work with them on various areas.

How can you design all these diverse things? Wedding dresses, menswear, womenswear, children’s clothes, china, crystal…

I have a store of ideas in my head, and this ability to switch from one thing to another. I have teams of people that work underneath me, so I go from team to team to team, and I brief them. It’s a continual work-in-process that I am still doing.

Your father created the household furnishings retailer Habitat, and you got involved in your father’s business, including his famous Conran Shops?

I was a director of my father’s business, and they needed a creative director so I went in to revamp the stores. My father was getting older, and I eventually became chairman and CEO of his group as well as my own. That was a busy period! There were about ten stores at that time, throughout the world, and I was supervising all the stores and all the new products. I was doing for him more or less what I was doing for myself as well, because I kept on doing my own things.

Has your style changed over the years? 

No, I do what I do. I’m similar in my thinking now and the way I was. I’m a pragmatic designer. When I’m making women’s clothes, my style is consistently simple, colourful and wearable. I like the idea of making clothes that men or women can wear a lot, not just once, and I apply the same rules to menswear as I do to womenswear, which is: I like the cut, I like the fit, and I like good fabrics. I try to make the kind of clothes that I would wear myself.

Were the objects that you did for yourself or for Wedgwood and other companies sold in the Conran shops?  

Yes. Wedgwood were absolutely horrified when they invited me and I said, “We’re going to make an entirely white range.” They said, “But we do printed things.” I said, “Let’s do white.” When I get an idea in my head, that is the idea. I like things that are plain, simple and useful. That started 25 to 30 years ago, and they’re still making it and still selling it.

Why did you decide to sell the Conran business in 2022?

I didn’t decide to sell it, my father decided to sell it.  It had been very much his creation, and none of the family really wanted to carry on doing it, so it was an appropriate time for it to go.

“Theatre and ballet let me go crazy.”

Jasper Conran, the world of ballet, theatre and opera is another facet of your eclectic life. Are you still involved in that?

Yes. When you’re working on the stage or telling a story in pictures it’s a moving painting. You’re dealing with theatre, not real life, and storytelling gives my creativity rein to go into other places. I apply what I know in how I make clothes, and I design sets too, and it’s a legitimate place for me to have more fun. Theatre and ballet let me go crazy. I join the team, and that’s a very good experience for me because I’m no longer the boss, but I’m working with lots of other creative people. I find that refreshing and exciting.

You worked with Jean Anouilh on The Rehearsal at the Almeida Theatre in London?

That was my first piece. The director came to me and said, “I would like you to design the costumes for this piece,” and I said, “I don’t know anything about designing costumes. I’ve never done it before. I don’t think I want to do that.” He said, “No, you can do it,” and then eventually I did. It was a shock to win a Laurence Olivier Award for it, but that really started me off.

Are there certain ballets or operas in your career that you remember more than others?

No, they were all experiences. I designed several ballets for the Royal Ballet and for 15 years I worked with the choreographer David Bintley, who was the head of the Birmingham Royal Ballet. Edward II was a giant piece of work. We created a lot of new ballets together. Very often I would design the clothes before we knew what the choreography was! In Donizetti’s Maria Stuarda I dressed Queen Elizabeth I up in some fierce leather outfits!

Why in 2016 did you decide to open L’Hôtel Marrakech?

I particularly love Morocco, and I love working on houses. I had always had a yearning to have a riad in Marrakech, but I thought, “No, you can’t do that, you’ve got too many houses.” A little devil on my shoulder said, “You could do that if you made it into a hotel.” That’s how I started my hotel. It’s part of an old Caidal palace in the Medina, and what’s remarkable about it is it has large rooms with generous proportions. There are six suites and it’s done in a Moroccan/European mélange.

Why did you sell your family castle in Wiltshire?

It wasn’t a family castle. I bought it, loved living there, and sold it when a much smaller house in West Dorset came up. I wanted something smaller and we were very lucky, because I was there with my husband during lockdown for nearly two years. We married seven years ago. He’s an artist and performer called Oisin. He makes films, he sings songs, he paints pictures, he draws.

What did you do during lockdown?

I spent my time painting quite detailed paintings of rooms and flowers and silver objects. I did it for my own pleasure. I hadn’t really drawn a drawing since I was about 17, so I wondered whether I could do it. I started drawing and then painting, and found that I could spend 10 or11 hours going down a rabbit hole and concentrating, and I loved it. I was completely, fully focused on that.  There wasn’t anything happening in business so I had to do some positive things and focus on what I could do. I also did a lot of cooking.

Were you changed by the Covid lockdown?

I don’t think I came back that changed. Yes, it was the first time that I’d ever not gone to work since I was 18, so I didn’t have the same pressures on me, and I had the space, and I’m very grateful for that space, but after Covid the wheels started turning again and we had projects that were ongoing, so it all started again.

Jasper Conran

The Conran Shop

Jasper Conran

Jasper Conran’s L’Hôtel Marrakech

Jasper Conran

Jasper Conran bought and sold New Wardour Castle in Wiltshire

Phtoto by Simon Upton

Jasper Conran

Jasper Conran’s latest hotel, Villa Mabrouka, Tangier

Jasper Conran

Villa Mabrouka, Tangier

Jasper Conran

Villa Mabrouka, Tangier

“I went to see the Saint Laurent house and bought it immediately. I could see what it could be as a hotel.”

Jasper Conran, a few months ago you opened another hotel in Morocco, the Villa Mabrouka in Tangier, also formerly a private house?

There are 12 rooms, so double the size of L’Hôtel Marrakech but a much bigger enterprise. It came about because I wanted to take people from my hotel In Marrakech into the Ourika Valley, and there would be a tent, and they would have lunch, and that would be lovely. I got it into my head that Tangier was where you went to make tents, and while there I went to an antique shop. The man in the antique shop said to me, “I know who you are. You’re that man who has the hotel in Marrakech.” I said, “Yes,” and he said, “Why don’t you open a hotel here In Tangier?” I said, “I would, possibly, if I found the right place.” He said, “Yves Saint Laurent’s house is for sale. Do you want to have a look at it?” I did already know Madison Cox, the head of the Saint-Laurent Foundation,  because he comes to the hotel in Marrakech and we share a godchild. Anyway, I went to see the Saint Laurent house and bought it immediately. I could see what it could be as a hotel.

Did you keep the Saint-Laurent/Berge style with the Jacques Grange interiors, or did you completely change it?

I made a mélange. I didn’t want to throw Saint Laurent and Jacques Grange out the window of this historical place, so I chose the bits that I liked and changed the bits that needed changing. It was an enormous work because we had to take the building completely apart and put it back together and I didn’t want it to look like I was imposing my will on the place too much. It’s a 1930s villa in enormous gardens, facing the sea and Gibraltar, and it’s just fantastic. In Morocco you can afford to have the staff that it takes to do the thing properly. I don’t think I would be able to do that in Europe.

Ultimately you are a businessman?

I’ve always run my own companies. I have an office in London, where very nice hardworking people work with me, but I don’t have a big team at all. The big teams are in Morocco, quite a lot of people employed there. Then I have a womenswear and a menswear team, and a homewares team. As I said, I do all the stage or ballet myself. That’s when I become not the boss, and that’s for me a lovely experience.

When growing up did you ever imagine that fashion would become the huge industry that it is today?

Growing up I was very aware of Saint-Laurent or Chanel, that kind of imagery, that brand awareness. They existed, but they weren’t this enormous thing. I created my world so that I have freedom, and I work with people but not for anybody. What I don’t like about these very large companies – who will remain nameless – hoovering up brands and reinventing old brands, is that it stifles creativity. It defines fashion as being just mega businesses, so small businesses have very little chance of getting anywhere because it is so much about money nowadays – even if it’s always been about money. (laughs) You have to make it. You have to sell it. You have to find a way of making a profit.

Where do you sell your clothes?

Retail has fallen apart. The most profitable place to sell your clothes these days is in your own space, and whilst we do sell to other companies it’s nothing to what we do on our own website. We are perpetually taking photographs, making stories. I could never have imagined the way the business of clothing has changed with the internet. It is very dramatic, and lockdown super turbocharged that change. Before lockdown and after lockdown is totally different.

How do you feel as a British subject in this new post Brexit time?  

I did not vote for Brexit. I see myself as European. Most of my adult life has been as a European. I believe in that entity. I do not believe in this closed off society. I’m very sad about it. I would really hope that after the election we tried to mend our relationship with Europe. America are headed towards a dictatorship if Trump does get elected, and it’s utterly terrifying and all the more important that we are a united Europe. I vote Labour and I’ve always believed in and held dear the simple principles behind the Labour Party: we should look after the poor and the sick, and we should educate the young.

Were you very involved in the gay liberation movement?

I was very lucky because my parents had gay friends and I grew up with gay people, so I never had to come out. I never had to hide because of that, I always was just who I was. It’s been a colossal change, but it’s simple to me: if you have to pay the same taxes as everybody, you should have the same rights as everybody. Why should I not have the same rights as you if I’m paying the same amount as you are? Otherwise, give me a discount!

With all your artistic talent you are also pragmatic?

I follow logic. I’ve known a lot of wonderful artistic people that have no business sense at all. You’re not an artistic person for very long, certainly not in clothes making, if you don’t learn about how the system works and how to make it work. You have to sell clothes. You must get people to buy them. A figment of your imagination is not enough if you want to continue.

Is your temperament that of a controller? 

I’m definitive about what I believe is right. I have a vision of what I want it to be, and that is the vision. I don’t know if that’s controlling or it’s implementing a vision.

That’s why you imposed white on Wedgwood. You had this vision, and it worked.  

Yes, I had a vision. And yes, it’s still working.

Thank you.

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Jasper Conran portrait by Tara Darby