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Jeff Banks Interview

Hannah Merrick meets the man with 50 years of fashion under his belt at the new look Debenhams

Written by . Published on September 23rd 2011.

Jeff Banks Interview

WHEN I over hear Jeff Banks say “I took a lady friend to The Ivy” I cross my fingers in the hope he’s not another arrogant Simon Cowell type. Turns out he’s a gent, in spite of the cigarette stink.

Jeff Banks – global fashion designer, co-founder of Warehouse and creator and presenter of television show turned event, the Clothes Show Live at Birmingham’s NEC. He oozes with confidence, but then again I would too if I looked that good after almost five decades of global success.

“Fashion today is about the floor space. If you haven’t got the floor space, you’re finished” says Banks

My research must be wrong, there’s no way he’s pushing 70. “It’ll be 50 years in 2014,” he says - I’m not wrong and I’m stunned. He’s the botoxed face of Cliff Richard and the assurance and speaking voice of Rod Stewart.

The 50 years Banks is referring to is his self-titled Jeff Banks line of men’s work wear that has appeared in over 22 department stores including Harrods and Harvey Nichols.

But it’s his reputation at Debenhams he’s best known for where he’s making a special appearance today.

“I’m doing the People’s Catwalk. Mark the manager asked if I would do the opening of the new extension they’ve got for young men’s wear, so I’m cutting the ribbon.” Ah, to be a celeb.

Jeff Banks cuts the ribbon at Debenhams in the Trafford CentreJeff Banks cuts the ribbon at Debenhams in the Trafford Centre

Having studied textiles at college and unable to get a job, Banks left with a cunning plan.

 “A lot of college mates of mine were in the fashion department, so I thought if I get them to make some clothes, I could put them in the shop and the shop would pay the rent for my office upstairs.” A business-minded college graduate with an eye for fashion, surely this strategy went to plan?

“We sold out on the first day.” Thought so.

“Wow, you must have promoted that really well?” I ask.

“A couple of girls that were just starting their own little PR business managed to get the best press coverage for us. They were fantastic. They got John Lennon and George Harrison to come to the opening. Terrance Stamp and Jean Shrimpton…” The list goes on like a celebrity shopping list.

“And did they buy anything?” I ask.

“Yeah, Glenda Jackson. Everybody bought stuff and cleared us out. Six months work was turned into money in one day. Luckily the following morning, a lady who was the head of Mary Quant’s design department turned up at the door looking for a job and said, “Well if you can design, I can make anything that you can draw.” So within a week we had our own work room,” says Banks, reflective of his speedy start.

Born in Ebbw Vale, South Wales, his heritage accent has been replaced with a London twang, but I’m not surprised considering his rising success began there, where it continues to grow in his humble Soho home and office of just 20 people.

Of course, this isn’t the only team working for him.

“Overall, I’ve got 400 concessions in Debenhams. I suppose there are about ten people working in each department so there are about 4000 people here, and then there’s all the other things I do in Japan and China. It’s global,” explains Banks.

And while other global fashion icons such as Christian Dior and Karl Lagerfeld design luxury for the female form, it’s hard to believe Banks has resisted this urge.

“I was originally known as a women’s wear designer. When I did Warehouse, I had twelve Warehouse men’s shops but the other 60 were all women’s wear. I was British Designer of the Year twice for women’s wear but I somehow got slued into just men’s wear. I’ve been talking to Debenhams for some time about doing women’s wear for them, but nothing’s come of it yet,” says Banks, wondering.

50 years of Jeff Banks50 years of Jeff Banks

At this point a jobsworth armed with clipboard knocks on the door asking us to wrap up our five-minute conversation. I’m chatting with one of the UK’s biggest fashion designers. Not a chance.

And he’s not just a global fashion designer but a veteran of the industry, able to educate me with industry tips and techniques by the spoon full.

“If you have to push something, it never works, if it happens naturally, it does.”

Super relaxed, he leans back in his chair at this point.

“If they say to me at Debenhams, ‘right we want to do it and we’re going to make it work and everyone’s behind it,’ then it will happen. If I try to make it happen, it’s like pushing water uphill.

“Fashion today is about the floor space. If you haven’t got the floor space, you’re finished” says Banks in a firm manner.

He’s the Co-founder of Birmingham’s The Clothes Show and the 1979 and 1981 British Designer of the Year. Choosing the highlight of his career must be like finding a needle in a haystack.

“Thoughts?” I ask.

“That’s difficult. I suppose getting a CBE - that was a goody,” Banks says as if he won a fiver on a scratch card.

“I suppose the launch of The Clothes Show - that was big and I suppose opening Warehouse. It wasn’t a big event at the time; nobody knew how big it was going to grow.”

“But did you know how big it was going to grow?” I ask.

“No. Or how influential really. At the time nobody used to design their own collection and put it in their own retail shops. Everybody does it now, so in fact the whole industry almost got spawned from that one store. Warehouse in its day was one of a kind. That was quite groundbreaking.”

Time may be drawing to an end but Banks’ knowledge for fashion–forward cities isn’t.

“New York is very eclectic, followed closely by London and then I suppose number three’s Japan. France is very conservative and Italy is very narrow in what it does - it’s very classic. Everybody thinks Italy is very trendy, but it’s not.”

You heard it from the horse’s mouth. British is best and Banks certainly is the best of British. Jeff Banks, it’s been a pleasure.

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AnonymousOctober 10th 2011.

Jeff Banks. Nice Suits.

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