Jane Lewis: 'I am not running the world, I just have a clothing business'
The Duchess of Cambridge, Miriam Clegg and Samantha Cameron are fans of Jane Lewis and her Goat label. Rosamund Urwin meets the designer behind fashion's cross-party secret.
Jane Lewis is defrosting her bottom on the radiator. The designer behind the Goat fashion label has just returned from the school run. "Do I look like Rudolph?" she asks. I doubt she ever did. Lewis is queen pristine: hair in a neat bun, perfect manicure, mascara that (unlike mine) isn't making a bid for freedom down her cheeks. She's as immaculate as the living room in her lavish, high-ceilinged home in London's Lancaster Gate, where everything has its place, from the carefully curated coffee-table books to the vases of freshly cut white tulips.
Though the 40-year-old insists she's 'not OCD' and that her three children - aged 10, seven and four - have taught her to relax, she's clearly a fan of order and control. It's evident in the house, the tidy work station, the ultra-groomed look. (And possibly in her pathological hatred of cheese: "It literally makes my hair stand on end. I hate dairy.")
Lewis founded Goat in 2001, naming it in honour of the cashmere that was its initial focus. Even after 14 years, the label is still regarded as one of fashion's little secrets. That hasn't stopped it winning famous fans: Victoria Beckham was an early adopter (shortening and tightening the fit, naturally), the Duchess of Cambridge loves its coats and bold block-colour dresses, and Lana del Rey picked its Orion cornflower shift for her National Anthem video.
It also unites political parties of different hues: Sam Cam is a fan, and Miriam González Durántez recently wore Goat for a Red magazine shoot. Other devotees include Alexa Chung, Laura Bailey, Emilia Fox, Gwyneth Paltrow and Keira Knightley, as well as fashion editors at Vogue and Harpers Bazaar.
Lewis says they've never chased coverage. "We'll never seek patronage or court publicity," she says. "That's unusual now - there's a lot of showmanship around. But I like the fact we are discreet. If someone wants to find us, they will. It's a much greater compliment if you're chosen."
She believes there's 'something very alluring' about this. "When something is more elusive and under-the-radar, it's like unveiling a secret, or joining a club, or having a trick up your sleeve."
These aren't clothes that hog the limelight, either. Lewis calls them 'modern classics' and 'wardrobe solutions': "In the theatre of fashion the very decorative statement piece is something only a very small number of people can buy, or have the lifestyle that requires it." Instead, her motto is 'style over fashion': "Style transcends fashion. It doesn't define you. There's no boundary to style."
The ever-accelerating churn of fashion trends has put designers under increasing pressure, she adds. "We're producing four collections a year now. It's an ever-revolving door. You are on a constant treadmill with deadlines, and you cannot get off."
Most of her customers, are working professionals: "In finance, or art dealers, PRs, news presenters. This person has a full life. She may be buying our clothes for work, and to wear straight on to dinner."
Customers range in age from 'their twenties through to seventies'. Lewis is proud of that upper-limit, because she feels fashion has long under-addressed the needs of older women. "To think of an older demographic as unstylish is a misperception. They are also the people who are actually buying things, who have the means and lifestyle to support a working wardrobe. My mother is incredibly stylish. If she were buying a dress, she'd make it her own."
The family home when Lewis was growing up was in Hampstead. She's the youngest of four children. From her description - 'a really lovely upbringing, a very happy family' - it might be easy to assume that theirs was a gilded existence, but her family have suffered more than their fair share of horrors.
Her mother, Hannah, is a Holocaust survivor. She was just a child in 1943, when she was marched into a Nazi death camp in the then occupied Poland. Later, Hannah's mother was rounded up with other villagers by the German police and shot dead. Hannah was freed in 1945, pulled out of a trench by a Russian soldier, hungry and dirty. "She's a magnificent lady. She's had a life that I couldn't imagine, and she's turned terrible circumstances and adversity into a very productive..." she tails off. "She's a very loving, giving person." Then in 1991 Lewis's sister Catherine, a teacher, died of leukaemia aged 27. Perhaps such heartbreak is what made Lewis tough. She seems unfazed by anything. She's built a business in an ultra-competitive industry, one she fell into by accident. "It was not" - she places a heavy emphasis on the last word - "a planned career path."
Lewis studied art history at Oxford Brookes with a view to becoming a dealer and interned at auctioneer Spink. But then she was introduced to Elspeth Gibson, the designer of ornate gowns, and was offered a job as her assistant. "Elspeth was very generous in letting me access all areas: I got to see 360 degrees of fashion, from the drawing board to suppliers, to all the problems in fashion because there are so many links in the chain."
Working there, Lewis spotted a gap in the market. "We were making clothes for affluent women for events. I thought: 'What does this woman wear during the day?' I realised there was a niche for everyday clothes."
After a couple of years Lewis decided to 'have a go on my own'. She had no formal training. "I can't sew a button on to this day. I can't sew a label. My mother says that her mother was a very good seamstress, but that hasn't been passed down through the genes. But I do understand the mechanics of clothing... and I've learned from the people in the field: the yard suppliers, the pattern cutters, manufacturers - I've had an education within it."
Goat now has 14 staff, many of whom are mothers. "I think women with children are incredibly efficient. They're multi-taskers like none other." How does she balance motherhood and running a business? "It's a juggle. But I don't do it alone - I have a fantastic nanny and lots of help. I couldn't do this job without that."
She points out that being your own boss can give you far more flexibility. "I see my kids in their plays, I read to them. I'm still their Mum." Then she checks herself. "And I'm not running the world; I just have a clothing label."