British designer behind south of France fashion empire
Beverly Smart moved from London to Lagrasse 31 years ago but it was her need to make money that started a successful business, she tells The Connexion
Beverly Smart, 59, is a British dressmaker and designer who, for some years, has been wooing France with her original creations, which she makes herself in her workshop and sells in the adjoining boutique situated in the heart of the beautiful village of Lagrasse, Aude.
For several years she has held an annual fashion show in the village, using local women as her models, an event which has become a top annual attraction.
What is it like working in fashion in style-conscious France?
I moved out here 31 years ago when I was 28 because I was very stressed with a job I had in London in menswear.
I saw a photo of Lagrasse and knew that was where I wanted to go.
I had always worked around fashion in Britain, but I had only ever made clothes for myself. I am 6’2” and I could never find anything that fitted me. My mother, who is a trained dressmaker, had taught me to sew.
When I arrived here I found out it was pretty difficult to make a living because Aude is one of the poorest departments in France.
People began asking me where I bought my clothes, because they liked what I was wearing and at a point when I was in pretty dire straits financially I decided to pick up all the bits of fabric I had lying around and make something to sell.
A friend offered me her shop for free for a couple of months and that is how it started and I found that people did want to buy what I made.
Are you totally self-taught?
I do not have any formal training but because I run my own business and because couture is well supported in France I have been able to do training courses with the Chambre de Métiers, which has been immensely helpful.
Now I have enough clients who like what I do and who come back.
How would you describe your style?
I suppose, contemporary classics.
I have several French clients who call my clothes marriage-marché – when you have a dress like that you can put on your stilettos and accessories and do your hair and go to a wedding or put on a pair of flip flops and go to the market.
My designs are very pared down. I use plain fabrics. I don’t like frills and fussy bits. I have a fluid style. I am also a huge fan of jewellery, so you can dress up the clothes as you want.
Fashion should be fun but, sadly, it is often quite stressful.
Was it daunting to launch yourself in a country that is so well known for its fashion?
You would think so, but at the time I was so desperate to earn money I did not worry about that, I just had to get started.
The French do have a whole culture about clothing that we just do not have in Britain.
The first thing a French client does when she sees a garment she likes is to turn it inside out to look at the quality of the sewing. It is the only nationality I know that does that.
However, my clothes are very well made and when I am making them I do almost want you to be able to wear them inside out.
The average price is €200 and if you pay that it has got to be well made in beautiful fabric.
My core clientele come back and, 10 years later, they are wearing the same dress and they have washed it and washed it and it has not faded and that is down to the fabrics I buy.
I think the French dress more conservatively than the British and that has had an effect on my style. I feel I have taken both cultures and used the best of both worlds.
How do you go about designing your clothes?
All my ideas come when I am making. I am also a huge knitter so it is also then that I get inspiration.
I would not know where to start with actually having to sit down and draw a collection as some designers do.
I love to use the innate qualities of fabric and cut a lot on the bias and when you do that you do not need darts.
I use gravity and all those forces and when you put it on a person it all comes together.
So you are a bit like a sculptor working with fabric?
That sounds a bit grandiose but I guess you are right. The fabric comes first and after I have chosen the fabric the ideas start to come.
Do you make every single article of clothing you sell in your shop?
I do everything. I probably sell between 350 and 400 garments a year.
That might sound impressive to someone who does not sew, but I have been doing this for a very long time and I will be working on several different items at a time.
What is a typical day like for you?
There are in-season days in the summer when I do more selling and out-season days in the winter when I do more sewing but they all follow a similar pattern. I open my shop at 10h30.
Three years ago the Mairie offered me premises in the old Trésor Public, which was a Maison de Maître, so there is a beautiful entrance, a courtyard and different rooms for selling and making.
Once I have set up and done my figures from the day before I go into my workshop and pick up what I was doing the day before. At the moment I am working on filling gaps in my basics collection.
Then clients will pop in, and have a look round. Sometimes we chat and they go, sometimes we chat and they buy. I explain that all my jewellery is handmade and comes from South Africa.
Every year I go there to make sure it is all really fairtrade.
They are made by township women, mostly from South Africa but also from other African countries.
I also have to do marketing and spend more time at my computer than I would like.
I try to do a blog every couple of weeks.
I spend seven hours a day at my premises and a lot of time goes on talking to clients or dealing with admin – but, from November onwards, there are hardly any clients and I can hunker down and concentrate on making.
Who are your clients?
Half are French and half are mixed English-speaking, other Europeans and a few from South America.
They are mostly women 45 years old and upwards and they often need to look good for work.
I think the French come because what I do offer is a bit different and suits many different sizes.
People always used to take the mickey out of me because I am tall so I know what it feels like when you are not the classic, tiny figure often catered for in French boutiques.
Are you happiest when you are creating?
I love what I do and it is a real joy.
I feel very fortunate to have found Lagrasse and turned what was a lovely hobby into a way I earn my living.
There is not a day goes by when I do not thank my lucky stars I saw that photo.
I love living in France and coming here was the best thing I ever did. I think it is a privilege to be taken into a community in another country and to be appreciated.