Marsha Swanzy on running her own Whitchurch clothing boutique
PUBLISHED: 16:36 27 May 2015 | UPDATED: 16:36 27 May 2015
Marsha Swanzy has had job offers from Vivien Westwood and Liberty & Co, but she shunned them all to run her own clothing boutique in Whitchurch… Jane Gazzard went to meet her to find out if she made the right choice
A bell sounds above the door whenever a customer comes in to Velvet Rose, Marsha Swanzy’s vintage clothing and furniture shop in Whitchurch. The gentle tinkle can just be heard above the whirr of her sewing machine. She takes her foot off the pedal and jumps up from her chair. “I’ll just go and say hello,” she announces as she disappears into the ‘front of house’, where her collection of clothing and glittering accessories pay homage to an age gone by.
“Feel free to browse,” she tells her customer cheerfully. “If you need any help, just give me a call, I’ll be out the back.” She flashes a dazzling smile and immediately puts the client at ease.
“I never put pressure on anyone to buy, even if they do spend two hours browsing and buy nothing. Sometimes customers need to go away and think about my work before coming back for a second look. It’s like Marmite – you either love it or hate it.”
An honest admission from this fashion designer and trained tailor whose talent lies in creating new from old. “Walking into my shop is a bit like having a rummage around your granny’s attic!” she laughs with infectious enthusiasm. “While I do stock some vintage clothing, my passion lies in updating old garments or giving contemporary styles a vintage feel,” adds Marsha, who has been sewing for as long as she can remember.
“I was my height, 5ft 9in, at age 11 and couldn’t find clothes to fit me so my mum taught me to sew. I started to make my own garments and soon began to get a name for being a bit eccentric. I’m not dictated by fashion and usually go to antique markets for inspiration – I’d say my style is eclectic and quintessentially British.”
A career in fashion design, however, hadn’t always been on the cards for Marsha, who’s originally from Oxford.
“I failed my A-level in fashion design,” she admits, “but I was still accepted on to an art foundation course at Oxford Brookes University, although my desire to push the boundaries landed me in a whole heap of trouble there. I caused a real stir with my interpretation of a project called Decay. I stretched latex on to the uni’s iron railings, then attached rabbits’ heads, coke cans and home-made body parts. I was accused of practicing witchcraft and was arrested, but let off with a caution.”
As they say, any publicity is good publicity and it was this kind of reaction that got Marsha noticed. “Amazingly I was later offered a place at the University of Westminster in London to study fashion,” a three-year degree course that culminated in a First with Hons. “From failing my fashion design A-level to achieving a First was a dream come true, but I owed a lot to some amazing tutors who really inspired me – designer John Galliano and former fashion director of The Telegraph, Hilary Alexander OBE.” But it was international fashion show producer John Walford who took Marsha under his wing.
“I was lucky,” she says. “He liked my work and four months before I graduated, he arranged an interview for me with Vivienne Westwood.” Marsha was offered the job as junior designer but decided not to take it up, “as the cost of living in London on a starting salary would have been prohibitive”, she adds. And although Liberty & Co wanted to buy all the patterns for Marsha’s Irish linen tea towel shirts, and she was offered a job in New York designing sunglasses and accessories, she turned them down. “I wanted to use the tailoring skills I’d acquired at college and the upholstery techniques I’d learnt doing work experience for an interior design company.”
Marsha did, however, jump at the chance to work for Lucille and Richard Lewin, founders of the fashion chain Whistles.
“The Lewins were lovely and I worked for them for about seven years,” she says. So Marsha fast became a trusted member of the Whistles team and was popular with the rich and famous.
“Celebrities loved Whistles clothes and I was like a personal shopper to the stars as they came in with their clothes budgets for various TV programmes they were working on. I had my favourites though,” she reveals. “Richard Branson’s wife, Joan, was a great customer and lovely with it, as was Rowan Atkinson’s ex-wife Sunetra. And some of the men who came in to buy for their wives and girlfriends were charming – such as actor Ben Kingsley, the members of Coldplay and Chef Raymond Blanc - although I did have to kick him out for smoking in the shop!”
The whole time Marsha was busy dressing the rich and famous, she was equally industrious creating her own collection of skirts. “My big break came when Whistles launched my collection under my own label, Marsha Swanzy, and they were very well received,” not least by actress Helena Bonham-Carter.
“I was ecstatic when the manager of the Hampstead branch rang to tell me she’d bought some of my clothes, and it was just the push I needed to go it alone. So I took the huge leap of faith, left Whistles and went to work in a friend’s boutique where I could sell my collection of customised denim skirts, and reversible skirts made from vintage tea towels and tablecloths.”
Marsha’s business really started to snowball when she and partner David moved to Whitchurch 11 years ago. “We came here on the basis that there were nine pubs! At the time, I had a workshop on an old fish farm near Newbury, but I needed the footfall to make the business profitable, so I rented this shop in Whitchurch where I’ve been now for nearly five years.
“I needed a name for the shop and it seemed obvious – in the early days, I used to sew a velvet rose on every garment or piece of Edwardian or Victorian furniture I restored. So that’s how the name came about.”
Marsha’s distinct style is not everyone’s cup of tea…“My skirts are quite crazy,” she explains, “so I tend to sell to women who are independent and perhaps a bit eccentric, women who want to look different but classic too. I do think, though, that customers are sometimes scared to try my skirts on, because they’re not sure how to wear them. The trick, however, is to make the skirt the statement with simple boots and a plain top.
“I often say that my clients become my victims – once they’re hooked, they’ll keep coming back for more!”
Marsha’s Hampshire Favourites
• The Bell in Whitchurch – it’s a ‘proper’ local pub
• Whitchurch’s silk mill – I’m a huge supporter
• Winchester – I spend a lot of time walking around the city and pubs. The Black Boy and The Wykeham Arms, with their collections of wonderful paraphernalia, are inspirations for me
• The White Hart Hotel in Whitchurch – they’re great supporters of my work and I’ve renovated some of their bedrooms
• Walks around Stockbridge and Mottisfont Abbey
• The New Forest – I have fond memories of childhood holidays spent there
• The farmers’ market in Winchester. There’s a lady there who sells amazing smoked trout
• The fresh eggs from a smallholding in Tufton. There’s an honesty box for you to leave payment
• The blackberry and sloe picking around Whitchurch, especially on the walk to Bere Hill via • The Hangings Car Fest in Laverstoke – I wouldn’t miss it for the world
• Rockus music festival at Longmeadow Arena, Whitchurch – I’m a massive music fan
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