Barry is the Head Pattern Cutter at TOAST. Each morning he comes in whistling, a wide smile on his face and a spring in his step. He began his career in 1960, having left school at the age of 14. His original plan was to become a postman but he failed the exam. Instead, his kindly mother (a skilled wedding dress seamstress) made inquiries and before long found him a position at a tailors producing clothes for Wallis Fashion House on Sidney Street, Whitechapel.
He was given the most menial of tasks: carrying bundles of cut fabric to and fro between factories (and picking up what he had dropped on his way back). But he was plucky and, so it turned out, a fast learner. By working a six-day week and staying late, he quickly acquired the basics of machining, pressing and sewing.
After one year he left the tailors to become a Sample Cutter at Wallis Fashion House itself. Any free time he found was spent watching Francois (the exuberant Head Pattern Cutter). To Barry, the way Francois worked was fascinating. There was an ease and grace to his movements, an almost sculptor-like skill in his cutting of two-dimensional patterns and their magical transformation into subtly, accurately varied three-dimensional shapes. It didn’t take long for Francois to notice this young, determined man at his side and before long Barry became his pupil.
In 1965 Francois was headhunted by Christian Dior. When he left he took his protégé with him. The Dior offices were in a beautiful building on Conduit Street. Glamorous women would wander in looking for bespoke pieces. It was a wonderful place to work. In 1969, however, Barry’s time there came to an abrupt end. The management asked him if he would take over from Francois – betray the man who had taught him all he knew. Barry couldn’t do it. So he resigned, never telling Francois why.
Barry’s next position was as a pattern cutter for a shop called ‘O’. His clients were very high-end, from Cabinet ministers’ wives through to royalty. He would often visit Kensington Palace to fit dresses for Princess Margaret. On one occasion he began to unzip the Princess’s dress: as he did so the designer almost fainted with horror. Princess Margaret, on the other hand, was perfectly content and from that day forth Barry was always allowed to unzip her.
Although Barry enjoyed working with individual clients he began to miss the energy and spirit of the tailoring trade from which he’d come. In 1972 a small start-up company approached Barry to cut their coats and jackets. The new company was Stephen Marks Ltd, later to become French Connection.
Barry went on to work for French Connection and Nicole Farhi for forty years. He ended up with a team of twenty-nine pattern cutters and travelled the world to oversee sampling in India, Italy, Hong Kong and Portugal whilst setting up multiple pattern rooms along the way. He tried to retire at 65, but — happily for us — failed. He joined TOAST last year and as well as nurturing our own pattern room he has generously handed down as much knowledge as he can. After all, as Barry likes to say, “It’s not work if you love what you do.”
Words by Emily Mears
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