A Stitch in Time

    23 June 2012

    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.’

    The author at the altar, wearing her ‘Astor’ dress
    The author at the altar, wearing her ‘Astor’ dress

    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, 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.