DMU alumna Hilary Radley’s bold and distinctive styling earned her the title “Queen of Coats” in the 1990s.
She was named Designer of the Decade for the 1990's by Elle Canada, was handed the Woolmark's Design Excellence Award three times and was named Best Designer and Best Outerwear Designer at the Fashion Export Awards in 2004.
As hundreds of our alumni gather for DMU's first Home Coming this weekend, Hilary, 71, talks about her life…
Hilary at Leicester Polytechnic, now DMU, in 1967
An independent woman
I was in New York at a conference titled ‘Women in the World’ where the most amazing women gave voice to today’s most important issues - gender inequality, sexual abuse and misogyny in politics and the work place.
One of the speakers was the Chair and CEO of Pepsi Cola, Indra Nooyi.
Listening to her talk, not about how important her job was, but about how she felt real pain thinking of the time not spent with her children, made me realize how women, regardless of the importance of their support network, have a really difficult time juggling career and family.
I understand why so many women choose to stay at home - that’s difficult too! I did not choose that route.
I knew, very early on, that I wanted to be an independent person, especially a financially independent person! This probably came from seeing my mother struggle after my father’s sudden death when I was 11 years old.
Despite this terrible loss, I felt I was lucky, because I always knew what I wanted to do: to become an artist. It helped that my parents had been told that I should go to art school.
Hilary's graduation photo at Leicester Poly in 1969
My time at DMU – ‘a special place’
We lived in Sheffield in the North of England. And so, at 16 years old, I went to Sheffield Art School, which in the 1960s was a hotbed of rebellion! I adored it!
Unfortunately in my first year, my mother was taken ill with cancer and died leaving my older sister (who had just married) and myself parentless. I had to pass instantly into adulthood.
As you can imagine I was angry at the world for having lost my wonderful mother; who, it seemed to me, had drawn the short end of the stick, for some inexplicable reason.
The kindness of my sister and her husband and of various mentors helped to get me to a special place, Leicester Polytechnic.
At the time it was considered to be the preeminent textile and fashion college in the UK, enjoying a worldwide reputation in the knitting field.
It was there that, over a period of three years, I learned all the basics of design in woven textiles, knitted textiles and fashion design.
The student union provided us with lots of fun. I remember seeing Jimi Hendrix and the Rolling Stones and I met lots of overseas students.
Little did I realise that a chance meeting with one of these, Michael Shainhouse, would change my life.
Hilary modelling one of her designs
My big break
After graduation, I worked in the costume department of Yorkshire TV.
Then, just as I was finishing a year teaching in a small art college, while walking on Brompton Road in Knightsbridge, who did I spot but Michael Shainhouse, visiting from Toronto, where his family owned National Knitting Mills.
By the third drink, I was seriously interested in taking up his offer of a design job in Canada.
I had always wanted to explore the world so, three months later, I boarded the last sailing of the Empress of Canada from Liverpool - much to my sister’s consternation - and disembarked one week later in Montreal (wearing leather hot pants and over-the-knee boots).
I then boarded the bus to Toronto knowing only one soul in the immense country of Canada.
Thankfully Michael met me at the bus station.
Why I love to travel
I started my job, found a flat, roommates, made friends, travelled across Canada and went to New York for work - all the while believing that I would eventually return to the UK.
Then I got a job offer from a company manager I met in New York which involved travelling to the Far East. How could I refuse?
I travelled to Japan, Korea, Taiwan and Hong Kong designing knitwear, negotiating prices on contracts and buying textiles. During the 1970s women buyers were scarce in the Far East.
It proved to be a very exciting time which cemented my lifetime love of travel.
It came to an end, as all things do, when I accepted an offer to create a knitwear collection under my own name and was given carte blanche to do so. I was 29.
My fashion label
It’s then that I truly began to come into my own. I learned to be disciplined and passionate about design and single-minded about my label.
The line proved to be very successful, over two seasons. But because of overwhelming production demands from Marks & Spencer, my manufacturer felt obliged to drop my line! Shattering? Yes, but guess what…?
I took a break from fashion and fortunately, on the bright side, a serious love interest caused me to move to New York where I found myself working with my then husband in furniture and interior design.
Many weekends were spent in Stowe, Vermont, where I renewed my love of nature (the colours of which had always impacted upon my designs) and of sports.
Most importantly it led me to understand the importance of leading a balanced life.
Buying a house was a life-changing decision
Stowe became so central to my well being that, after my divorce, I decided to take the $15,000 settlement and put it as a down payment on my first house.
It was a life changing decision, because it grounded me and forced me to seriously contemplate my future and to wise up about business.
On my own once more, I had to make a living and accepted to design coats, freelance, for a friend I had worked with in the Orient. He was the grandson of the founder of the oldest coat company in Canada.
This proved a real challenge and completely different from designing knitwear, which involved creating the colours, yarns, fabrics and then styles vertically
But it all made sense: coats in Canada!
It’s at Shiff’s wonderful factory on Bellechasse that I learned the total processes that went into making a woven coat. It proved very exciting. And soon the label “HR for Shiff" came into being.
The fashion business is tough
I went through three manufacturers before deciding to open my own design studio. I knew that I was best at design; and that I didn’t want to be involved in the responsibility of financing or of manufacturing. I knew my limitations.
During that time my son was born and inspired my best design: “Happy Coats”.
I had the best support from my nanny, Pauline, who was with me for 25 years. She was like my wife!
Meanwhile I decided that my new business model would be to license my name, to source and design the fabrics, to provide a first sample and production pattern to the manufacturer and to promote the collection.
With the responsibilities for financing, manufacturing and marketing being in the hands of the manufacturer I was paid a royalty on sales instead of a share in a partnership over which I had no control.
Having taken this decision I went straight to Utex, a most successful second generation manufacturer, who immediately bought into my plan and licensed the Hilary Radley brand for coats.
We opened showrooms across Canada and on Seventh Avenue in New York; and my coats became best sellers at Saks, Bloomingdale’s, Neiman Marcus, Nordstrom’s, Holt Renfrew the Bay and so many independents.
For the last twenty years, I have also had licenses in optics and handbags.
How privileged I feel to have seen over four million of my coats shipped throughout North America, the UK, Switzerland and Ireland!
Hilary recently with her husband Jean
I am proud of what I have done
Although I did not go out and feed the world, I feel most proud of having employed, over the years, hundreds of people, not only in Canada, but in many countries around the world such as Peru, China, India, Vietnam and Poland.
I am also proud of my invaluable design studio team (which I called my family). At one time this family comprised seven nationalities, but language was never a problem because we communicated through our individual talent and created a product of truly loving design.
Is there a message to all this?
Find your passion, grow it and stick with it.
And remember, hope is an awakening dream.
Hilary, 71, recently sold her business and lives with her lawyer husband, Jean, in Canada. She has one grown-up son Zac, a software engineer on the west coast who she calls ‘the best design I ever created’.
Hilary spends time with family and friends between her homes in Canada, Vermont and New York, where she carries on with charitable activities, plays tennis, skis, gardens and paints.
Posted on Friday 5th April 2019