For more than 20 years, Rachel Riley has been creating childrenswear that has caught the eye of even the most esteemed young shoppers. Danielle Wilkins meets the designer
“When my three children were young, I wanted clothes that were cute and stylish but also allowed them to run around and do the things children like to do. Everything I found was either too formal or not particularly well made, and I wanted items that would last, in the hope all three of them would be able to wear them at some point.
“I love that quote from Vivienne Westwood – you know, ‘buy less; choose well’,” smiles Rachel. “It’s all about longevity for me.”
We’re sat around the corner from the designer’s flagship store on Marylebone High Street, drinking citron pressés in the sunshine. Rachel looks immaculate as always, dressed in her signature forties-style dress and oversized sunglasses, her hair neatly tied back into a bun.
The London-born designer – a former model who met her husband, Daniel Jouanneau, a French photographer, when she was working in Paris – was already making clothes for her three children, Felix, Alfie and Rose, and her friends’ children, when she realised that she wanted to start her self-titled business back in 1994.
“We were living in France at the time and the location of our house used to be an area that used very traditional sewing methods – unfortunately not much sewing happens there anymore,” she says. “Everything was made to order. We had two local ladies who would make our leather slippers using a method that had been passed down through generations. When they told me they were going to retire, I offered – on the spur of the moment – to buy their machinery. We still have two seamstresses who work there, and that’s where we continue to make all our samples.”
The family relocated to London in 1998, and now with bricks-and-mortar stores in both Marylebone and Knightsbridge, Rachel has become famed for her traditional children’s tailoring. The collections feature everything from old-fashioned hand smocking and delicate embroidery to colourful, vintage-inspired prints. But with new ranges coming out four times a year, where does she get her inspiration?
“I’ve been collecting prints and fabrics ever since I was a teenager,” she recalls. “I have a huge archive of vintage prints – I used to go to jumble sales to find interesting textiles and bits of fabric, and even now, if I’m somewhere in the world that might have a market or something going on, I’ll try to go along.
“I also like to look through books,” she adds. “People don’t really look through books these days, but I love seeing how children’s clothes have been made over the last 100 years.”
The designer also admits that watching how the royal family have dressed their children over the decades has been a huge inspiration. So much so, when she first heard we would be expecting a new royal baby in December 2012, Rachel reacted quickly, and began working on a 30-piece collection to tie in with the birth.
“I designed the Heritage Collection in time for the new-season shows in the January – we wanted to get it in stores for June, when Prince George was due, and we did,” she recalls.
The range, which gets added to every year, was based around classic baby layette, with a prince and princess theme.
“It was a great innovation for our business and has remained popular ever since,” says Rachel. “Many of the big department stores – Harrods, Selfridges, Saks – they picked up the Heritage Collection at that time because it tied in nicely with the royal news.”
Little did she know, not long after that, Rachel would reap the benefits of a royal endorsement herself. When Prince George was spotted in her sailboat-print smocked dungarees back in April 2014, on his first public engagement with the Duke and Duchess of Cambridge in New Zealand, the designer says she was unprepared for the frenzy that followed: “The reaction was incredible,” she smiles. “I knew he had some of our clothes, but I had no idea if he would ever wear them in public. I’ve seen a lot of press over the years – we’ve had a lot of celebrity customers – but this really pushed us into the international spotlight. The media’s response to anything Prince George has worn has been wonderful.”
Young George followed up with a few different Rachel Riley outfits during that official tour of New Zealand and Australia, and the following year he was spotted in what Rachel describes as “probably one of our most formal outfits” for Princess Charlotte’s christening – the little red cotton shorts and embroidered smocked shirt. The Duke and Duchess also chose the designer for the first official photos of him with his baby sister.
Since then, Rachel’s designs have continued to catapult the brand into the limelight. But she reveals that for her, designing children’s clothes is about more than just “putting something out there”.
“What I love is creating matching pieces – I used to love matching my kids, people thought they looked really endearing,” she laughs. “But it’s important to me that our prints are uplifting and can be mixed and matched. Our map print, for example, is something I love to put on little boys’ shirts, but I equally love putting it on our girls’ dresses. Clothing is meant to make you feel happy and empowered,” she says.
“I once had a four-year-old girl in our store who was trying on our jellyfish print swimsuit. She was marching around, feeling completely and utterly proud because it reminded her of the time she had conquered her fear and had touched a jellyfish. It was more than just a swimsuit to her,” she smiles. And in that moment it becomes clear that, to Rachel, each and every little customer is a prince or princess in their own right.
This autumn, the designer reveals she is keen to expand even more internationally, with her focus right now being on next year’s collections, and samples for an affordable and accessible home range later this year. “It’s actually a really fun collaboration,” she explains, “bedding for babies, toddlers, children, teens and adults. The teen one was really fun for me, having had teens of my own! I did some quite daring things,” she laughs.
Daring or not, Rachel’s spirit and passion is infectious. And for a designer who first built her business around her family – a business that is true to her own personal style and the beauty of traditional craftsmanship – the future is looking very rosy indeed.