Real couturiers in London are an endangered species, so to find one not just in business but flourishing and expanding is something to be celebrated. Nicholas Oakwell trained as a milliner for three years before succumbing to his true love – designing properly constructed, traditional, handmade couture – and learning the ropes in the atelier of his fellow couturier Isabell Kristensen.
After 22 years in the business, he opened his own salon – somewhat off the usual Mayfair track, in Clerkenwell – held his first show at Claridge’s and hasn’t looked back. Word-of-mouth has proved the most potent tool in gaining new clients (he has never advertised) and his customers now come, as he says, “from all continents and are all ages, literally from 18 to 80”. They are united by a love of expert, highly flattering, made-to-measure tailoring alongside thrillingly cut eveningwear embellished to the highest standards – with beading, embroidery, feathers or silk flowers and, he says, “they absolutely get the concept, that they cannot have the dress for a couple of months but when they do, it will be theirs alone, and it will fit perfectly”.
Oakwell’s attention to the details of embellishment is impeccable. Most of the work is done in his atelier, where he is training a team of specialists, including young beaders, “who have a new interest in craftwork because it is so different from a world of computers and instant information”, he says. A few extraordinary items, such as silk or leather flowers and particular beaded pieces, come from Paris firms that habitually supply haute-couture houses. The flowers especially feature in this summer’s all-white collection (this being couture, clients can order them in different shades, prices on request) of sweeping, New Look-style gowns (pictured), slimly tailored day dresses and chic evening trench coats.
Now Oakwell is moving to a new level and has just unveiled his first boutique, in the frontage of Claridge’s and accessible from the hotel as well as from Brook Street. Theatrical, draped and dark, it forms a perfect backdrop for the white collection and will do fittings on appointment. But it is in effect a profile-raising pop-up – eventually it will close to be redesigned, by a London-based studio designer, as the base for Oakwell’s first ready-to-wear collection – for the designer has grander plans yet. He is taking over a building in St James’s that next year will become both his couture atelier and salon – as he diplomatically points out, “some clients prefer to stay in W1”. Beyond that, “one day I intend to show on the Paris couture schedule”, he says. Few would dare to doubt him.