In a few days, I’ll have been married for six months — so we’ll drain a few bottles of red, my new husband and i, say: all right so far, darling? Not too bad, is it? And while he’s hunting for stray cigarettes down the back of the sofa, I’ll be secretly raising a glass to a woman called Suzannah, because without her, I just might not have made it down the aisle at all.
Suzannah Crabb (pictured) is a dress designer; a British girl who did her time on the high street — Whistles, Karen Millen, Marks — before launching her own label from a little shop in Belsize Park. I first arrived at the shop on a wet October day, wearing an anorak, a bobble hat and what must have looked like a very odd expression for a bride-to-be. It was two months till D-day and the whole wedding thing was giving me hives. I was embarrassed about needing a white dress and embarrassed about being so embarrassed. I’d landed up there, because I’d bought online from Suzannah before — a lovely silk tea dress with a friendly swish. It was on my side, that dress, so when i found myself engaged, I made a beeline for Belsize Park.
So there I stood, feeling more six than 36, looking at my shoes … but one of the nice things about Suzannah’s shop is that it’s impossible to stay anxious in it for long. The dresses simply won’t allow it. It’s a warm place, glamorous without being intimidating; a touch of burlesque, a breath of vintage; fur stoles; pillbox hats, long coloured feathers — and they’re proper characters, those dresses. There are some inspired by the Thirties, some by the Forties; Fifties skirts with kick and flair; knowing little pop couture numbers in dove grey, pink, vibrant green. And they surround you in that glamorous room, like women at a cocktail party.
In your average high-street shop, the clothes yell like children: each hectic little pair of hot-pants is desperate to show off. In Suzannah’s place, each blouse or dress takes its time to speak. But they spoke with one voice that morning: ‘take off that disgusting anorak, stop chewing your thumb, and have some pride in yourself, honey. You’re a grown woman getting married! Calm down, then we’ll talk.’
Then Suzannah herself appeared, the hostess of this party — gamine, blonde, smiling. Now I don’t much believe much in fate, but wasn’t it a bit spooky that Suzannah herself turned out to be getting hitched the week before me? And that there was her ‘Astor’ dress on the bridal rail, gleaming at me like a headless goddess, a lighthouse in this alarming sea. And that Suzannah turned out to be some sort of fashion saint. She found me the perfect shoes (rose-gold sandals by Rupert Sanderson), and recommended her own wonderful make-up artist and stylist (Nadira Persaud, www.nadiramakeup.com). When I had suffocating palpitations at the sight of a traditional veil, she found me a perfect hat, with just a hint of a veil (Edwina Ibbotson).
Here’s what a doll Suzannah is. Two days before her own wedding, she was on her knees stitching the hem of my Astor’s customised train — a puddle of clotted cream-coloured Italian silk – determined to get it just right. And she’d managed, somehow, to prepare both the dress and me. For the first time, I could meet my own eye in her floor-length mirror, ready for the runway.
I left through the shop for the last time, with the dress over my arm and new thoughts unfolding in my head: perhaps fashion isn’t just for airheads; perhaps a cut, a cloth, can change as well as reflect your state of mind. And sometimes, a dress isn’t just a dress — it’s a decision too.
The funny thing is, since meeting her, I’ve found there’s something of a secret Suzannah society amongst women in the know. Not long after my first fitting, my best friend’s sister sidled up to me: ‘I gather you’ve found Suzannah! I’m just off there tonight.’ The next day, an email from a cousin: ‘Ah! Suzannah! what a perfect choice.’ How on earth did she did know? Even in the Daily Mail, of all places, Suzannah is described as a secret. Liz Jones calls her: ‘a woman’s secret weapon. She is not a household name, nor a Parisienne diva. She makes clothes that are almost couture, and they are all produced in Britain.’
Denise van Outen is a regular customer, and so is Pippa Middleton. We share a dress, Pippa and I — a lovely pea-green version of my wedding Astor — though of course my bottom looks a lot better in it than hers.
There’s something about Suzannah that reminds me of Vivienne Westwood. She’s more vintage than punk, but there’s a Britishness about both designers — a sense of humour and a talent for playing with history. More than that: the clothes feel like they’re for women. Suzannah designs with her customers in mind: she’s for them, not for the industry insiders. Which is why, however famous she gets — and she deserves it all — Suzannah will always feels like a secret.