Gill Harvey – a loving tribute by her husband, Adam Sweeting
They say you don’t know what you’ve got till it’s gone, but everyone who knew Gill Harvey was in no doubt that she was a special person and a unique talent. Her visual flair shone through everything she did, whether it was the flowing contours and scintillating beading of her bridal gowns, or the playful and inventive window displays she devised for the Eliza Jane Howell shop in Connaught Street. The way she dressed herself was never pretentious but always casually dazzling.
She also had a remarkable gift for making time expand, always going the extra mile (or spending most of an afternoon) to make sure her customers received the absolutely perfect dress for their special day. Gill wore many hats, and she juggled them expertly. She could be designer, therapist and hostess with the mostest, always ready to calm the nerves of skittish brides or their fretful mothers with practical advice or a timely glass of prosecco. As veterans of the bridal trade know, the customer is not always right, but Gill made sure they always thought they were.
I first got to know Gill when we happened to live in the same block of flats off the Grays Inn Road. She was studying at Central St Martins and I was trying to be a music journalist, and she regularly hosted riotous parties with a colourful cast of fellow-students. The first time I actually met her was when a British Telecom telephone engineer, who was trying to repair my phone, cut hers off by mistake. At the time she’d been talking to her mother, who was on a cruise ship in mid-ocean, and an indignant Gill came storming up the stairs to complain.
Despite this unpromising beginning, we got along remarkably well for the next 40-odd years. After she’d endured a nightmare Masters degree course at the Royal College of Art, where she succeeded with flying colours even though her head of department took a sadistic delight in not acknowledging Gill’s very special set of skills, she began to carve out her career with labels including Medici, Medici Sport and Gina. Her expertise in creating Italian knitwear began to turn heads, and she was offered a job, more than once, with the prestigious Italian brand Missoni. But another of her traits was loyalty, and she chose to stick with her then-business partner Irving Goodman at Medici, driving the company forward with her energy and creativity.
It wasn’t nearly enough for her though, and it wasn’t until she launched Eliza Jane Howell that Gill really began to come into her own. She loved it because she finally felt she was expressing her true creative self, and her partnership with Andrea Cutts proved to be an inspired meeting of minds and a formidable combination of talents. In 2022, EJH’s Perfect 10 collection celebrated a wonderful decade in which Gill established herself as one of the most glittering names in bridal wear. Her success with an increasingly enthusiastic army of customers, from brides and mothers of-the-bride to celebs like Shirlie Kemp, Shirley Bassey, her friend and Hollywood icon Sharon Stone, the soprano Angela Gheorghiu and Strictly Come Dancing stars Shirley Ballas and Oti Mabuse, left her in serious danger of becoming a household name.
But she had multiple strings to her bow. If she’d decided to become a journalist, she’d have done it far better than me, and her gift for writing colourful promotional blurbs for her own creations was both hilarious and hugely impressive. She was a formidable natural athlete, and she ran marathons to raise piles of cash for the Hearing Dogs charity. On a working trip to Hong Kong, in between visits to factories on the Chinese mainland, she managed to prepare by fitting in 25-mile runs on the hotel running machine.
Her only problem was, as Joe Walsh sang, “burning the candle at both ends, twice the light in half the time.” She seemed to work about 37 hours a day, but she could always find time to remember birthdays and anniversaries and buy perfectly-selected gifts. When her mother was ill she made regular visits to Wales and even staged fashion shows at the care home, turning the staff into catwalk models. Yet she could always manage to come home and fling together a sensational risotto, a tuna and bean salad or a fabulous apple tart. Our fridge always carried a supply of her splendid home-made marmalade.
There was an agonising irony in the fact that Gill won Bridal Buyer’s British Design Talent Award in September 2022, just a few days after her death. I went up to Harrogate for the ceremony, not knowing that Gill was going to win, though Andrea was in no doubt whatsoever that the prize had Gill’s name on it. She was absolutely right, and as Andrea dragged me up to the stage with her to pick up the award it was amazing to feel the waves of warmth in the room towards Gill. And it wasn’t just sympathy for her horribly premature demise, but an acknowledgement that this was a much-deserved accolade for a true star and a fashion innovator. Gill had a favourite quote from Audrey Hepburn – “Life is a party. Dress for it.” It’s not a bad motto to live by.
The show goes on just as Gill wanted and her legacy continues in the capable hands of Andrea, Gill’s protégé designer Catherine Fisher, and the rest of her team.
Renowned designer Gill Harvey has brought together her years of experience to create the Gill Harvey Collection.
The success of her bridal collection Eliza Jane Howell has inspired Gill to change the look of her occasion wear collection and design a much needed alternative to the traditional mother of the bride formula. The Gill Harvey Collection, the winner of the Best Occasion Wear Collection 2019 creates stylish and glamourous event dresses for women who want to stand out from the crowd.
Tell us about The Gill Harvey Collection, when it launched, how it came to be?
It was seven years ago that Andrea Cutts and I started working together. We had known each other for many years and I had always admired Andrea’s individual style and marketing skills. It was at this point that we created the ‘Eliza Jane Howell’ Bridal Brand and reinvented the ‘Gill Harvey’ occasion wear collection. We both felt that Bridal gowns had become an old fashioned cliche and the mother of the bride collections available were not catering to today’s modern woman.
Who is your customer?
We are aiming to dress today’s modern mother of the bride who is more fashion aware than her mother. This is a stylish woman who has developed her own personal image and does not want to look like she is wearing ‘fancy dress’ to her daughter’s wedding.
Where does your inspiration come from for this collection?
We aim to make stunning, hand made gowns often with intricate hand beading and embellishments. Our newest colour combos have been inspired by the beautiful wild peacocks of India.
How did it feel to win at this year’s bridal buyer awards? What does it mean to you to win?
We were thrilled and shocked at winning the award. When you do not expect to win an award and then do win, the feeling is amazing. Thank you Bridal Buyer. The reaction from the industry has been so wonderful. We have enjoyed every moment.
Do you have a stand out favourite piece from the most recent collection?
I love the new ‘Peacock inspired’ pieces.
What trends do you see becoming popular in mother of the bride/occasion wear fashion?
I found the recent ‘Dior’ exhibition at the V&A in London a fabulous source of inspiration. I can see a move towards longer, softer skirted gowns with glamorous, hand beaded embellishments – just a touch of vintage dressing.
What are your key considerations when designing for the Gill Harvey Collection?
I could easily be a mother of the bride these days and would not want to dive out of my fashion comfort zone for a wedding. Women of my age have grown up with fashion and we want to look like the best version of ourselves on our daughter’s wedding day.
Are you able to personalise the designs to suit customers’ specific needs?
Absolutely. From our Connaught Street Boutique, I often create Bespoke gowns for lour loyal clientele. As every beaded gown is totally hand made, I am able to tweak the dress to suit the customer. This includes special colours, adding longer sleeves or changing a neckline shape – whatever the customer requires! And the stockists of our Gill Harvey beaded dresses are able to offer this service too. We can do whatever it takes to make our dresses fit any shape
How has your background influenced your approach to creating occasion wear?
I grew up watching repeats of old black and white movies. The costumes designed by the great Edith Head epitomised Hollywood’s Golden Era. I was constantly inspired by the gowns worn by the actresses Grace Kelly, Audrey Hepburn, Marilyn Monroe to name but a few. Also, my mother loved glamorous clothes and her wardrobe of stunning cocktail and evening gowns still inspires me today.
What would you say has been your career highlight so far?
Winning this award and starting to dress some Hollywood royalty next season.
Is there much cross over between your two labels?
Definitely. The mother and daughter often shop together for each others gowns. I have to appeal to both age groups and their sense of style. I try to design gowns in both the ‘Eliza Jane Howell’ and ‘Gill Harvey’ collections that can compliment each other.
What can we expect from the Gill Harvey Collection and Eliza Jane Howell over the next year?
I am about to start the 2021 collections and I am excited. There will be more colours added and even more glamour on show. Otherwise my lips are sealed until the collections launch!