Vintage News | Inside the rarefied world of haute couture shopping

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Helen Wilson, wearing one of her Dolce & Gabbana ready-to-wear dresses (Picture: Philip Sinden).



"This," says Helen Wilson, deftly navigating a pair of crimson lace Dolce & Gabbana ankle boots past a leaf blower and through her sodden shrubbery, "could be very alienating, so we try not to rub people’s noses in it." The ‘this’ to which she refers is, well, where to start? Her clothes, perhaps, which are haute couture or, as Dolce & Gabbana, from whom she orders most of her favourite pieces, call them, Alta Moda.

Couture, alta moda… It amounts to the same thing: made-to-measure one-offs that are mainly produced by hand and cost tens, sometimes hundreds of thousands of pounds. Wilson travels to Dolce & Gabbana's Alta Moda shows twice a year, always with her husband Ian in tow (it is the husbands rather than wives who tend to be entourage at couture shows, although Dolce recently launched Alta Sartoria for men, which shows the day after Alta Moda).

So far her Dolce habit has taken them to Venice, Capri and Portofino. They tend to make a four-day trip out of it, staying in five-star hotels and filling the lacunae between sightseeing and Alta Moda shows with shopping in the Dolce & Gabbana boutiques that magically pop up in whichever resort the shows are.

At the Alta Moda shows, and parties, the other guests tend to be billionaires. "We’ve made friends with a few of them," says Wilson. "Although some are more friendly than others." I’m going to stick my neck out and say none are as amiable as the Wilsons, whom I first noticed at an Alta Moda show in Venice two years ago; partly because they were so approachable (most couture clients are cagey around journalists), but mainly because it’s not often you hear Lancashire vowels in the front row of the clients’ section.

Theirs may have been the first. The Wilsons live in the Ribble Valley, tucked into a verdant fold of Lancashire, dotted with converted barns and Friesian cows. Part of Helen’s charm is that she knows how fortunate she is. In the 1980s her father, a skilled knitter, was made redundant and, taking Norman Tebbit’s on-your-bike advice to heart, moved his family from Oxford to Germany.

There he found a job working for Falke, the hosiery company, where Wilson subsequently got an apprenticeship. After that she came to the UK to work at Fort Vale, the engineering company that makes precision steel valves for containers – not very couture. But at least she met Ian (he is the managing director there). They’ve been together 16 years. "Marrying the boss – it’s the biggest cliché in the book, isn’t it?" she says sheepishly. She was 29, a fluent German speaker. He was 25 years her senior.

The first time he took her shopping was to the Trafford Centre in Manchester. "He bought me a couple of dresses from Oasis and one from Miss Selfridge or Warehouse and he thought we were done for the year. In fairness, I don’t think either of us thought I would ever be shopping in Dolce & Gabbana, let alone for their couture."

Her first step up was to Karen Millen, then Patrizia Pepe. "It’s been a gentle education. Ian jokes that if he met me now, he couldn’t afford me." She still nips into Zara or Topshop, partly because that’s where her friends shop and she doesn’t want to come over too Marie Antoinette. "The quality’s obviously not brilliant, but the design there is great. Really, there’s no excuse for anyone not to dress well these days."

Because she travels with Ian for his work, she no longer has a paid job. Instead her husband gives her a clothing allowance. "It sounds very old-fashioned. I know some people would say, 'She’s just a kept woman,' but I like to think I help Ian. I don’t think, for instance, that he’s ever had to pack a suitcase since we married."

Her Alta Moda obsession is more stressful than it sounds. Shopping at couture altitudes is a highly competitive sport. Multiple outfit changes are required – for beach, pool, lunch, dinner… Last July things in the pop-up store in Portofino, were, as Wilson puts it, "a bit crackers", even at 1am. Luckily, a Dolce insider sent her photographs of the 200 metallic dresses that had been specially designed for the gold-themed party that closed the weekend. Before she left home, Wilson had already marked her quarry.

She and Ian flew out early so that she could secure the gold dress in her size – plus a few other cotton sundresses (at about £800 each) – and then concentrate on having a good time. And Dolce & Gabbana are as skilled at hosting lavish parties as they are at designing lavish clothes, which means Wilson can dress up more than she might at home with their friends in Lancashire. "It’s not that I dress down at home, because I don’t. My friends love seeing what I’m wearing. I think they get a vicarious kick out of it. It’s always, 'Ah, what have you got on now?' But you don’t want to be obnoxious."

Nor should sales staff be obnoxious – if they know what’s good for them. "I learnt a lot from Pretty Woman," she says. "If the shop assistants are snooty I don’t buy." The Dolce & Gabbana staff are extremely solicitous. That may be because she is an excellent customer – she mainly shops at their two London boutiques, but "also in Milan… and, come to think of it, I pop into a Dolce boutique wherever I am in the world".

It was Alex, the sales advisor who works in the Dolce & Gabbana London boutiques where Wilson perpetrates most of her financial damage, who first asked if she’d be interested in seeing an Alta Moda show. That was quite a moment. Couture shows are closed events. You can’t just turn up hoping to buy a ticket. Tickets are not for sale – at least not in the conventional sense.

Dolce & Gabbana is particularly sensitive about keeping its top line exclusive: social media is carefully monitored, only a handful of journalists attend and probably no more than 100 clients, who are well looked after once admitted to the fold. At one of the dinners in Portofino last summer, waiters dressed (for no immediately obvious reason) in 18th-century frock coats and served up jewelled handbags to all the guests as a final course.

On these trips Wilson is tended to by Alex, but has also got to know the formidably aristocratic and stylish Coco Brandolini, who acts as an unexpectedly warm and funny emissary between the designers and the clients. "What I really like about Stefano and Domenico is that they foster this family atmosphere," says Wilson. "Where else would you get the designers putting on a pink wig and dancing with the clients to Volare?"

On that first Alta Moda trip to Venice in July 2013, Wilson ordered a plain black fitted dress, in wool with jewelled buttons and a sweetheart neckline – classic Dolce & Gabbana. There was no wavering. Alta Moda clients are busy reserving the styles they like over the phone while the show is still happening. There is only one of each, so those who dither may find themselves having to settle for a modified version in a different colour.

Even so, at about £30,000 for a plain wool dress, how could she be confident that she was making the right choice? "First of all, that one is never going to go out of style," she says, so sensibly no-nonsense she almost sounds frugal. "Secondly… you just know. It’s like when you finally find the wedding dress. You put it on and it’s… ooh."

Some might point out that, while undeniably elegant, that black dress is not a million miles from ready-to-wear versions from the same designers. "Only to the naked eye. Inside, the construction is amazing," she says, stroking the silk-satin corsetry, the micro hand stitching and the detachable satin padding. It is true, the interior of an Alta Moda dress resembles that of a jewellery box. Alta Moda is delivered in a satin bag with the client’s initials embroidered on the pocket.

If there is anything wrong with the fit, or if madame’s vital statistics fluctuate at any point, Dolce & Gabbana will painstakingly remodel it. "It is," says Wilson, ruefully, "quite hard to go back once you start buying couture." The following season Wilson ordered a similar style in Wedgwood-blue wool. In Capri she opted for a more playful, striped dress with a full skirt. At the most recent Alta Moda show in Portofino, she ordered two dresses – she was still waiting for one to arrive when I visited her.

Confirmation of her status as VVIP customer arrived when Dolce & Gabbana made her a wooden mannequin with her measurements. It resides in the Milan workrooms alongside those of other regular Alta Moda clients, such as Monica Bellucci, and means she no longer has to fly in for fittings – unless those measurements change. They will not. The contents of Wilson’s fridges are as minimalist as the counters in her glossy black Italian kitchen.

Once she takes ownership of the clothes, they’re stored in hand-built cupboards along with her Dolce, Alaïa, Roksanda, McQueen and Stella McCartney ready-to-wear and about 150 pairs of shoes ("Ian thinks it’s more, but I’ve just got rid of 70 pairs"). She wears everything she buys, including all the Dolce & Gabbana jewellery. Nothing is bought purely as an investment (wise move, since few fashion purchases hold, let alone increase, their value).

Nor is she a collector in the traditional sense. She does not stalk the auctions for "important" pieces or those previously owned by the famous. When she tires of an outfit, she sells it or gives it to friends. When I ask her how much she spends a year, she becomes uncharacteristically coy, but then so do most women when pressed on this point. "What I will say is I frequently over-run my budget," she concedes. I wouldn’t be surprised if it doesn’t run at about £250,000 – more if you factor in jewellery. Over the years she must have totted up over a million.

The Wilsons’ house is not an ostentatious one – they’ve turned what might have been a three-bedroom converted barn into a one-bedroom (with walk-in dressing rooms). Ian has grown-up children from a previous marriage. There are Audis in the drive, a gym, a guest cottage – their biggest indulgence, says Helen, is travel and her clothes. She begins every day with a 90- minute blast on the static bike in their home gym, overlooking the cows (her husband prefers a 15-minute cycle ride to Fort Vale). Arguably, she could get through her average day in leggings and wellies.

She is not average. When the Wilsons go walking in the Lake District (her other favourite pastime aside from shopping), she packs Louboutins for evening. "The hotel staff love to see what I’ve changed into for dinner." She says she adores clothes. "I’ve always been mad about them. The way I dress now is the way I dreamed I’d dress when I was a child."

Her passion is contagious – as is her appreciation of the work that goes into her clothes. "I’d have loved to work in fashion," she says. "As it is, the closest I got was Falke." Like other couture clients, who probably number less than a thousand worldwide (most of them Russians, Americans, or from various Stans or the Middle and Far East) she views couture as a craft that deserves to be cherished. For her the process of commissioning a dress and meeting the seamstresses who make it is akin to commissioning a piece of art.

Is she not deterred by the cost, the time it takes to fly to Paris or Milan for fittings, or the fact that dress codes almost everywhere are so casual? That attitude, she believes, is all wrong. For Wilson, few places are too casual not to make a heroic effort. "I’ve never seen the point of saving things for best," she reflects. "My husband works very hard for his money. Why shouldn’t he enjoy seeing me look nice?"

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