That was then. Now, Charles is one of London fashion’s few survivors of that era, celebrating 40 years in business and still looking forward to doing her next collection.
"Every season there’s a new bit of fun — new fabrics, new technology. It’s a complete addiction for me. No other industry or trade has new material every six months," said Charles during an anniversary party at the Victoria & Albert museum in November. "It’s so nice. I’ve never understood why people retire and give it up. It’s no tougher than any other business and it’s much more fun."
In the U.S., Caroline Charles sells at Neiman Marcus, Wilkes Bashford and Harari in Los Angeles. Her company’s annual sales are approximately $16 million, the bulk of which — like those of so many British designers — are in Japan through a licensing deal with Itochu. The Charles collection now spans everything from ready-to-wear to bridal to home furnishings.
"If you go to Japan, you’ll find there are three English designers consumers immediately think of: Alexander McQueen, Paul Smith and Caroline Charles," said Nicholas Coleridge, chairman of the British Fashion Council, who presented the designer with a lifetime achievement award at her anniversary party.
Coleridge called her career sensational. "For a British designer to last 40 years successfully is almost unique. And she was ahead of her time. Twenty-five years before Versace and Tommy Hilfiger were dressing the music industry, Caroline was making jackets for Ringo Starr and Mick Jagger."
Charles broke into the industry picking up pins and dressing models for Norman Norell, and later got a job as a saleswoman for Mary Quant at her Knightsbridge store. She designed in her spare time, and eventually, in typical London designer style, turned her apartment into a design studio. She was selling to private clients, and to Harrods and partying like mad at Annabel’s, the Saddle Room and Ad Lib.