“london has it all, but it can’t have it all” — harold tillman, fashion entrepreneurBack
There are many ways to define what Leeds is, and one thing Leeds is, is a yard off Briggate.
The yards are one thing that have remained part of Leeds from the very start. As buildings have come and gone, factories have opened and closed, populations have moved and changed, the pattern of thin strips of land either side of Briggate has stayed the same since Maurice Paynel planned the street and its agricultural plots in the thirteenth century.
Whether you’re in the Victoria Quarter, Whitelock’s, Queens Court, Trinity Leeds, Thornton’s Arcade or however many others, you’re in a yard off Briggate, and you can be nowhere but Leeds.
Lambert’s Yard, in the crowded warren of nightlife between Lower Briggate and Call Lane, has remained resistant to the rejuvenations of the yards around it. While Queens Court opened up to everybody, the padlock stayed on the gate to Lambert’s Yard, and the city centre’s oldest timber-framed building – two centuries older than the mock-Tudor impostors on Merrion Street – stayed hidden.
You’ll see more of it soon. In an upper floor space overlooking the yard and the ancient house, fashion and retail entrepreneur Harold Tillman CBE looks from a window into the space, now partially open to the public as part of the courtyard at Rare. “It’s part of the character,” he says.
The character of Lambert’s Yard the yard gives an immediate foundation to Lambert’s Yard, the fashion incubator, that will open here in November. The white-washed walls and stripped floorboards were prepared by the pop-up gallery and shop that was here earlier in the year, while design concepts tacked to the walls show how the space will be filled.
For now the space is filled by Tillman, tall and immaculate, as sturdy as the great iron and wood dumb-waiter at the far end of the room, dressed with characteristic taste and care in a blue pinstriped three-piece suit. It’s the kind of elegant dress that doesn’t need an elaborate description; the suit and the tie are both blue, and they’re harmonious, and you don’t need to know the details. Although that has never stopped people asking.
“I was in a club in Manchester in the late sixties, having gone over for the evening from Leeds because we had our factories here,” he says. “Someone came over to me and said, ‘Excuse me, George Best is sitting over there’ – I knew who he was, we were the same age, about 19 or 20 – ‘He likes your jacket’ – I was wearing a velvet jacket. ‘Where did you get it?’
“So I said, you can tell him it’s my own, meaning, it was from my company. But this guy went back and said, ‘George, he says it’s his own jacket.’ So George came over to me and said, ‘I wasn’t joking with you – I know it’s your jacket, but where did you get it?’”
What happened next was the fashion industry’s first celebrity endorsement – well, what actually happened next was “a very late night spent drinking together – we got on exceptionally well” – but after that came the two boutiques, George Best Edwardia, and a range of shirts bearing Best’s name that allowed kids to mimic their hero’s fashion sense in the days before replica football kits.
“They were the sort of shirt that he would go out and be seen wearing in a nightclub, but they were smaller versions of them. Unbelievable,” says Harold, clapping his hands together. “The sales were incredible. We only had one factory making shirts in the south of England, so I had to take a plane to Hong Kong – taking three days to get there – to find a factory and start making shirts, thousands and tens of thousands of shirts, under the label George Best.”
Tens of thousands of shirts won’t bloom every time somebody compliments a jacket, but feedback – and criticism – is what every fashion designer needs, and what Lambert’s Yard aims to provide. Young, Leeds-based designers will be supported and given a platform alongside established independent brands, in what Harold describes as, “A brilliant opportunity, with a certain edginess – it’s a gallery with inspiration.
“This space can be your advertising, your exposure, your way of allowing the consumer to see what you do right up front, rather than having to sell to a retailer when you’re mixing in with hundreds of other brands.
“It’s good to test the market and get a reaction, and you’ll be getting a reaction very quickly here. There might just be something that doesn’t quite touch the right nerve – you like it, but when somebody says that really, that’s just a bit too wide” – and here Harold indicates my own jacket collar – “or they can’t wear it because of one detail… you get that immediate feeling for what you need to modify. Or that it’s right, and you’re off.”
Finding the alignment between his own taste and the public’s was crucial when Harold Tillman rose to prominence in British fashion at the end of the sixties.
“I started because I was 19 years old, and knew what I wanted to wear, which became the core of what I designed to sell. The timing was perfection, because there wasn’t very much competition and suddenly here was this guy doing what young people wanted. The only young people that we’d seen wearing these styles were the Rolling Stones or The Beatles or whoever else and now – oh wow, I can have that.
“The shops around Carnaby Street and King’s Road flourished very quickly, and eventually my retail base of customers was all over the country. Leeds was always very prominent for fashion boutiques.”
In the late-sixties fashion-boom Leeds was also prominent in manufacturing, and the city has always been prominent in Harold’s life.
“We couldn’t meet demand, and we ended up taking our company on the stock exchange and buying a big manufactory business in Leeds, called Harrison-Gloucester, that had seven factories; one in Horsforth and others around the centre. There were so many factories in those days, companies like Benjamin Simon, Sumries, all virtually in Leeds city centre.
“All but for one month I would have been born here. My father met my mum during the war, in London actually – he must have been out of the army for a couple of weeks and he met my mother. They married and moved up here, and my dad worked at Burton’s. They set up home here, and I was conceived here, but my mother had this hankering to go back to her family roots in London. Dad was not averse to moving and he started a small workshop making clothing; he brought some of his tailoring friends from Leeds and they built up a sizeable factory.”
Although Harold Tillman’s name has been made in retail, it’s clear that manufacturing and making – and its heritage in places like Leeds – is as important to Harold as the sales ringing through tills.
“When people want to work in fashion, they tend to think that by getting a job in a fashion shop, they’re in fashion,” he says.
“I’d like to feel that I’m part of a regeneration, and that an incubator like Lambert’s Yard can be part of a regeneration, of getting people to understand and have a passion for making things. Being part of the origins, being part of the design element, being able to see the product they created sold.
“Ultimately I’d like to think that the curriculum at some of the schools could be integrated so it’s to do with creatives – it doesn’t always have to be clothing creatives, but Leeds has that heritage, of being renowned for manufacturing.
“Lambert’s Yard is a brilliant opportunity. The property developer is a believer, and the Centre for Fashion Enterprise in London is bringing some skill set, to teach, to guide. My role as ambassador is to use my years of experience, and I think to bring some heart into this. We’re giving designers an opportunity, in a very commercial area – we are very close to Trinity here – and it’s just what I think is lacking in this area, and possibly in other parts of the north as well.”
The commercial environment and the historic environment meshes together in Trinity, where corridors and shop fronts still respect old burgage plot lines; heritage will be even more visible when Lambert’s Yard opens, and Harold hopes that by building on its own traditions, Leeds can make a new name for itself in fashion as an exemplar of quality and skill.
“I studied at London College of Fashion, and people tend to gravitate to London when they want to be in fashion. London has got it all, but it can’t have it all.
“Leeds is regenerating continually, and it can’t all be about getting to London. Manchester is starting to grow, and again it’s manufacturing based – I was with somebody recently who has almost 1,000 people working in and around Manchester making clothes for them.
“What I’d like to see is quality, and skill, and things made in England – and made in Leeds – that’s the beauty. It means a lot in the world. ‘From the Studio at Lambert’s Yard, Leeds’ – there are plenty of connotations and ways you can adapt that theme.
“Everybody is sooner or later going to go to London for something. And why not? But what we want to see is London coming up here to see what Lambert’s Yard is offering.”
Originally published in The City Talking: Leeds, issue 17