British designer Alice Temperley's fashion wonderland

Coming up roses: after entering the trade almost by mistake, Alice Temperley has made her mark with a romantic English style, writes Gemma Soames

PUBLISHED : Monday, 10 June, 2013, 12:00am
UPDATED : Monday, 10 June, 2013, 12:21pm

When Alice Temperley launched her first collection in 2002 - just 25 dresses she had assembled in a garage on London's Portobello Road - little did she think that 10 years later she'd be running a fashion empire with shops in the British capital, Dubai and Los Angeles. Even the Middleton sisters are fans.

But here Temperley is today, visiting her Hong Kong office, co-ordinating the logistics of her eponymous global brand - one created, she says, almost by mistake.

"I knew nothing about the fashion industry to begin with," she says, laughing. "I'd studied fabrics, and I knew what I liked, and I just made up a collection with one seamstress and one pattern-cutting table. And for some reason we had great support. I guess people saw an innocence and a point of view that was different, but I wasn't even aware of that. I was just making clothes!"


Strangely, for such a quintessentially British brand, Temperley actually has some roots in Hong Kong. Brought up on her parent's cider farm in Somerset, she led a charmed, very rural English life before moving to London to study fashion in her 20s. In 1999, however, aged 24, she moved to Hong Kong with her boyfriend Lars von Bennigsen, who she married a year later. They now work together on the label, with her husband managing the finances.

"It was during that time that I met all sorts of suppliers and silk mills, a lot of whom I still work with today. I had always made stuff and sold stuff, but it wasn't until I came out here that I learned about production and how to actually make things happen."

Once the ball started rolling, however, things started to happen for Temperley quite quickly. After that first show in 2002, she emerged as the woman to go to for a particularly romantic, barefoot, beautiful aesthetic.

Famous for her embellished bohemian dresses and "English rose" take on things, she's a designer for women who want to look pretty.

"It definitely has an English sensibility to it," Temperley says of her brand's style.

"It's much softer and much more romantic. It happened very organically. I just always liked dressing up as a child; I loved black and white movies, and I have always wanted to wear things that feel quite effortless. My designs were never about construction. When a woman wears our clothes, she is herself, which I think is so important."

As her brand has progressed from a family-run business to one with stations all over the world, she has fought hard to make sure it retains its core identity.

"We're still quintessentially English, but the collection is a lot more diverse. We started doing just 25 pieces - and now we do more than 1,000 pieces a year, everything from sheepskin to evening wear, bridal [wear] and veils, frocks to knitwear and jersey. We also launched our diffusion line, Alice, three years ago, so global sourcing is essential. It's certainly a lot more complicated than when I first started. It's crazy when you think about it."

It's also hard work. Temperley isn't just the face of her brand, but lives and breathes it every day. Until very recently she lived at their shop and offices, a sprawling set of higgledy-piggledy rooms that expanded from her first workshop on Portobello Road.

"I'm involved with a lot more than people would imagine, everything from logistics to product development to design and more. So there is not much quiet time, no. But to be in this business, you just have to enjoy it and try not to stretch yourself too much. Plus, I'm really organised," she says.

At weekends she goes to the countryside and a handsome estate in Somerset, just down the road from her parents, where she spends time with her son, Fox. "He's four years old, and he tells me I'm perfect. It makes me so happy. It made me cry the first time he said it, so now he knows the reaction, which is quite good."

Juggling motherhood and work hasn't always been easy. "I had to go back to work two days after having him and pretty much launch our diffusion line on my own. I was literally juggling production with trying to remember to breastfeed. I remember, in the back of my mind was something Calvin Klein said - that it's all about longevity and sticking around. And I do remember thinking, 'If I survive this, I hope that's true.' Because it was really tough."

These days she finds life a little easier. "Fox comes into the office and sits and draws at my desk. Balancing the time between him and work is difficult, but I take him to playschool and I stop at 5pm, and I try not to work at weekends. It has been tough, it almost took me down, but I've just about recovered. And now the hard work seems visible. It's a good place to be."

The hard work has certainly paid off, and so far her brand has had a big year.

They recently launched a flagship store in Mayfair, rubbing shoulders with the likes of Stella McCartney. She has also enjoyed global recognition as a favourite of the Duchess of Cambridge and her sister Pippa Middleton, who turn to Temperley for everything from party dresses to winter coats.

"They are great ambassadors, impeccably mannered and really charming to work with," she says of her most famous customers, "so it's a joy to work with them. The Duchess of Cambridge has great taste and the most fantastic thing is she knows completely what she wants in quite an impressive way.

"And yes, it's amazing the effect they have had on people's awareness. People are obsessed with them. But they're so unbelievably charming to me, that I think it's really nice that they're being treated to so well. It's nice that good girls are ambassadors."

It's nice, too, that good girls who work hard to get global recognition by sticking to their guns and doing what they do best can make a business they can be proud of.

"We just want to do the same thing as we always have," Temperley says of where she is today. "I want to do clothes that are easy to wear, beautifully cut, timeless and classic but that also have a dreamlike and ethereal quality that makes them unique. You can't explain it, but people always say, 'I know that's Temperley,' when they see one of my pieces."