Rebecca completed her Diploma in the summer of 1973 with a successful graduate show, which her tutors dubbed ‘commercial’ in a way that meant that she would never make the grade as a top-flight fashion designer. In fact Rebecca had no delusions about her ability and had already decided that she wanted to have her own shop. She had heard through the fashion grapevine about a couple of pioneering women retailers who had started up. A Yorkshire woman had opened an independent called Pollyanna in, surprisingly, Barnsley and was really making a name, as was Joan Burstein with Browns in South Molton Street,
London. Rebecca made browsing trips to these and other small boutiques that were starting to spring up.
Her parents were supportive of her plan but concerned that she should get some retail and business experience under her belt before setting up her own venture. It was with this advice in mind that Rebecca approached some of the London department stores for a job as a trainee manager. She was accepted by Liberty, which had a reputation for stocking an eclectic and exotic mix of merchandise as well as for their in-house print designs.
Rebecca and her mother, Mary made a trip down to London to find a suitable place to rent eventually finding a one bed-roomed flat in the Shepherds Bush area that was clean and bright and, most importantly, affordable. Rebecca was very excited about having her own space after sharing for so long in Manchester. The flat was furnished, though sparsely, so Rebecca set about buying some bits and pieces to make her own mark. She used her design skills to produce some bold abstracts that she had inexpensively framed. She hung these pictures on a newly painted deep cerise wall, which added a dash of bravura to the otherwise white space that she preferred. She bought a whole bolt of natural calico from the Shepherds Bush market and made long curtains that swept the floor, hooking them back to the window frame with some cheap rope tiebacks. A couple of Indian printed cotton throws in shades of pink and lilac added some pizzazz to the sofa and arm chair and she invested in some large white plates, simple modern cutlery and wine glasses from Habitat.
Life at Liberty was completely absorbing. The store management had established an excellent training programme to give their trainees a rounded understanding of the business. Rebecca moved frequently between departments learning the ropes. Although fashion was her primary interest she was fascinated by everything from the exotic jewellery department to the priceless antique rugs and furniture.
Rebecca spent time in the scarf department learning dozens of ways to tie a square or rectangle of material to create different looks. She learnt about shoes, lingerie, bags, fabrics, everything from incredibly experienced and passionate sales assistants some of whom had worked for Liberty for many years. She grew to understand the importance of attention to detail and customer service. How to display goods to attract the customer, folding, wrapping, hanging, draping, dressing a mannequin, shop window design and dressing. She learnt about shop layout and display and the rudiments of buying and merchandising the stock. Rebecca lived and breathed it!
Soon after Rebecca had settled into life in London she received a letter from Suzanne forwarded by her parents from home. They were actually only living fifteen minutes away from each other she discovered. Rebecca immediately sent her new address to Suzanne and gave her a work phone number to call. They must meet up immediately! The next Saturday they did. Suzanne had called Rebecca at work and invited her over to her place in Earls Court for supper.
‘I’m learning Mediterranean cooking at night school’ she told Rebecca ‘and sometimes it’s even edible!’
‘Well that’s one step further than I’ve got so yours it is’ countered Rebecca, ‘I’ll bring some wine.’
Rebecca wasn’t working on Saturday so she spent a leisurely day shopping for some wine and a little present for Suzanne’s new place. She decided to walk over to Kensington High Street and have a browse around; she could always get something for Annie at Habitat. First off Rebecca headed for Biba, a fashion Mecca; a visit to which, obviously, counted as research for her own future shop Rebecca justified. She soon found that she was not the only young woman to have headed there. Biba was packed with shoppers plundering the piles of tees and print dresses, boots and shoes, cardigans and coats all in the sumptuous tones of old sepia photographs or rich fruit compote colours dusted with age. Everything looked antique and modern all at once.
The shop fittings were as unusual as the clothes; Egyptian columns, marble floors, stained glass and wood panels formed the backdrop. Clothes were draped casually on old hat-stands and lamp-bases topped by fringed shades. There were areas of floor cushions where shoppers could sit and hangout with their friends. Biba was truly a shopping ‘experience’ a lesson that Rebecca understood, and never forgot.
Having sated her fashion appetite in Biba, Rebecca continued browsing along the street with her eyes seeking out unusual shop windows and displays. She found a wine merchant and bought a decent bottle of Sauvignon Blanc and one of Burgundy, fairly confident of her purchases as her father had imparted some of his knowledge. Habitat was her next and final stop. She browsed the kitchen and dining displays until her eye settled on a deep red earthenware platter. Perfect, she thought, remembering that red was Annie’s favourite colour. She bought the dish, some wrapping paper and a card and turned for home. She would have plenty of time to have a bath and get ready.
Rebecca rang the bell for flat 9, clearly labelled Suzanne Harrison in black typeface, and stood back waiting expectantly. She heard steps thundering down the stairs and across the hall. Suzanne flung the door open and Rebecca propelled herself into Suzanne’s waiting bear hug. Cries of:
‘Becca’ accompanied their meeting along with excited platitudes:
‘It’s so good to see you’ and
‘How are you’ failing to capture the pleasure of the meeting that was told by the tearful smiles. Rebecca cooed enthusiastically at Suzanne’s neat and cosy flat and presented her house-warming gift with the certainty that she had chosen well for her friend. While Suzanne unwrapped Rebecca indicated the wine and asked,
‘I bought one of each; shall I shove the white in the fridge? I did chill it for a couple of hours this afternoon so it’s not bad.’
‘Great thanks Becca. There’s a bottle in there already cold, pour some for us; glasses are here on the table’. Rebecca obediently splashed the chilled wine into the long stemmed glasses set on the small dining table,
‘Are these Habitat’, she asked, ‘they look like the ones I just bought,’
‘Um, yes’ responded Suzanne, tearing off the last piece of wrapping and revealing the red platter that clearly fitted perfectly with her decor, ‘Oh wow! Its fab thank you Becca, it’s a lovely colour and goes with everything I’ve picked. You’re so clever.’ She hugged her friend again then raised her glass of wine,
‘To us, and to absent friends’, Rebecca echoed the sentiment and they chinked their glasses together and drank.
They had a brilliant evening eating Suzanne’s not half bad dinner, drinking wine, laughing a lot and exchanging a non-stop stream of information about their lives since they’d most recently seen each other. The last time they remembered had been on the desperately sad occasion of Caitlin’s mother’s memorial in London. They had all attended wearing dark clothes and sad expressions. All of them wondered what it would feel like to be Caitlin and ached for their friend’s pain.
‘Have you heard from her?’ Suzanne asked Rebecca, filling the silence that had descended momentarily.
‘No, nothing; I wrote to her a couple of times and didn’t hear anything back. I don’t even know where she went after. I sent the letters to the New York address thinking that they would have left London’ she tailed off, ‘Did you hear?’
Suzanne shook her head sadly. After a moment she brightened and said,
‘I just heard from Penny though. She’s in love! We may be meeting at a wedding soon! Let me show you her letter.’ Rebecca read Penny’s letter, breaking off now and then to smile at Suzanne and examine a phrase aloud or offer an opinion on their friend’s news. Finally, folding the letter and handing it back to Suzanne, Rebecca smiled
‘I do believe you’re right Annie, we may indeed be going to a wedding!’