Rita Britton at The Tobacco Warehouse
They say that when one door closes, another one opens.
And so, no sooner had Rita Britton said goodbye to Pollyanna, the Barnsley boutique which became an international, avant-garde luxury retailing phenomenon, than she said hello to The Tobacco Warehouse.
“I’ve said before that I should have done this years ago but maybe I was jumping the gun a bit because years ago I wasn’t ready to do this,” says the septuagenarian Britton who, giving a nod and a wave to her faithful customers as they pour in, holds court (once again) in the midst of her new café. “It only struck me after my illness [Britton suffered a heart attack in 2014] that I was never really a business person, and that I have always been a creative person. Now, for the first time, instead of just admiring other people’s creativity, I am being creative myself and doing exactly what I want to do.”
Here, in what was once a dilapidated Georgian storage unit, Britton’s creative vision has been unleashed on a sympathetic restoration project and the subsequent creation of a space dedicated to quiet luxury, complete with an eatery, art gallery and a showroom/retail space for Nomad Atelier, the clothing label that she established 20 years ago as a collection of basics to supplement the designer labels she stocked but which now gets her exclusive attention.
“At first I was a bit worried that I would miss working with some of the big names but, if I am honest with you, I had got very tired of it all. It simply was no longer the industry that I started off working in. Today it’s all about the big brands and red carpet dresses; everything has become very ‘tits and glitz’. I can remember years ago, when I was on a buying appointment at Lanvin, saying that the emerging markets — Russia, China and the Middle East — were going to start and influence the way designers design. And that’s exactly what’s happened. It might have taken six years to really take hold but happen it has. In the old days, the designers I used to deal with — Jean Muir, Issey Miyake, Rei Kawakubo of Comme des Garçons, Yohji Yamamoto — were honourable in terms of aesthetics and the way that they did business. I always remember Adrian Joffe [President of Comme des Garçons] saying that if he happened to say to Rei Kawakubo how good and sellable a new collection was looking she would rip the designs up and start again. Can you imagine that happening today? So, maybe it was time for me to leave that side of the industry, and for me to go back to working with people who were interested in what they were doing and how things were made.”
Trading in her front row seat at Paris Fashion Week for trips to the fabric mills in Huddersfield and textile exhibitions in France, Britton has found a new sweet spot.
“One of the biggest joy o’ joys is to go to Première Vision, the fabric exhibition in Paris. You stand there and gasp at how exquisite those textiles, from all over the world, really are. Britain is still a big part of that, but a very quiet part of it. For example, most of Nomad Atelier’s woven cashmeres come from Huddersfield where the men can touch a piece of fabric and tell you exactly how is was constructed. And then there’s people like Malcolm Campbell — Malcolm The Weaver — who is Scottish and who still makes a lot of the tweeds that we use in Scotland.”
Another Pollyanna/Nomad Atelier die-hard walks in; another wave.
“We took an order recently from a client who lives in Bermuda. She wanted a dress that we had created for her in black velvet to be copied in silk and linen. It’s no longer a case of ‘Sorry, we don’t get our Spring stock until February’; it’s a case of ‘Yeah, we know your size and we can make that for you’. We are not on the seasonal merry-go-round anymore and so we can offer bespoke services such as that. That’s the joy about Nomad Atelier, it’s very agile.”
But Nomad Atelier is much more than Britton’s own spin on the kind of Japanese avant-garde and Belgian Deconstructionist fashion design that she championed at Pollyanna for the past four decades: it’s also a comment on the throwaway nature of today’s fashion system.
“I’m designing garments in exquisite fabrics that somebody is going to love wearing for years and years; just like I do,” says Britton who points out that her Azzedine Alaïa donkey jacket is between 15-20 years old and that her boiled wool Comme des Garçons skirt dates back to 1994. “The kind of woman I’m designing for is one who understands and wants investment dressing. Personally, I don’t want to spend £150 on a dress that I’m only going to wear once. That becomes an expensive dress.”
As her common-sense approach to dressing shows, Britton (or ‘Reet’ as she is fondly known as locally) is a Barnsley lass at heart.
Indeed, it might be fair to say that Britton and Barnsley struck a deal a long time ago: to love each other unconditionally and let each other get on with it.
“I don’t go around Barnsley looking at everybody and thinking about what people are wearing. This is what I do for a living. And although I love what I do it doesn’t rule my life.”
Born into a family who lived in a two-up, two-down (her father was a lorry driver and her mother a cleaner), Britton worked in a paper mill for for the first nine years after leaving school at the age of 15.
“Don’t forget, this was a time when there was no such thing as ready-to-wear, and so you took your Vogue pattern to the dressmaker and got her to run up a little Dior number. I was one of the Mary Quant girls.”
Sensing a business opportunity, Britton opened her first boutique in 1967.
“I paid £4 a week rent for a space with red flock wallpaper and blacked-out windows, and I stocked Ossie Clark and Mary Quant.”
These were exciting times: youth culture was revolutionising the socio-political landscape and Barnsley was a wealthy mining town with a healthy economy; and while the miners’ wives didn’t frequent Britton’s shop (their money was spent at the market and their husbands’ in the pubs), the market traders’ wives and landladies certainly did.
“The big boys weren’t doing fashion then so every town had a department store, who sold to your twin set and pearls brigade, and an independent boutique like Pollyanna. Back then about 90% of my customers were local. But little by little they built the M1 motorway and Barnsley went on the skids with the mining crisis — it destroyed the town. As such, less of our client base came from Barnsley but people who did have money to spend used the motorway to travel to us. It was also at this time that I decided (consciously or unconsciously, I don’t know) that I wasn’t going to stock what people could buy in every other store in every other city. I had to to do it differently.”
By the mid 1990s, when Pollyanna was at its peak, only 3% of Pollyanna’s client base came from Barnsley.
“My shops have been a barometer of social change in Barnsley, but we stayed here because it was situated conveniently close to the M1, Leeds and Manchester.”
And Barnsley is, after all, home.
“What I love about Barnsley is that I can walk down the hill to M&S and there isn’t a girl in there who wouldn’t ask how I was and stop for a chat. There is still very much a sense of community here. I love Barnsley.”
And it’s obvious that Barnsley has a lot of love for Britton who was made a Freeman of the Town in 2000; as well as being awarded Doctorates from Hallam and Huddersfield universities, and being proclaimed Yorkshire Woman of the Year in 1998.
“I suppose I’ve been lucky because I’ve worked in an industry that has allowed me to make a reputation for myself and develop my own style. I think that the biggest mistake that most women make is not developing their own style and being comfortable in their own skin. I remember once going to a formal dinner wearing an silk taffeta, ankle-length skirt and a cashmere sweater; and somebody in a strapless sequinned dress said to me, ‘God, I wish I had the guts to wear that kind of thing’. I felt good that night because I wasn’t competing with everybody else, and I was just me. The problem is that most women, when they have to go to an event that needs them to dress up, forget themselves. Weddings are a good example: how many times have you seen the Mother of the Bride looking an absolute dog because she’s wearing something that she normally wouldn’t wear and is not comfortable in?”
With that, Dickie Bird, the retired English international cricket umpire and local hero, wanders in and looks incredulously at Britton: there is none of his favourite ham, from the café menu, left.
A disgruntled Bird wanders off threatening to be back tomorrow: “I’m only interested in the ham.”
“You know, I have got the best clients in the world,” says Britton aware that it is the café regulars who help weave the warm reality of Barnsley into the very fabric of her creative venture. “In the main, the people that come here are free-thinking people. Aren’t they wonderful?”