BIGGERWOMENhave a new role model — Detective Inspector Viv Deering, from the Channel Four hit series No Offence, played by the actress Joanna Scanlon. She oozes confidence, and never ever lets her ample curves hold her back.
Off screen, Scanlon’s even more glamorous than Deering. And who helps her look magnificent? A Jewish stylist and shop owner from north London, Leanda Walters, who has made it her life’s work to style larger ladies.
Scanlon has become a close friend. They were pictured together on the red carpet at the premiere of
Bridget Jones’s Baby, for which Joanna wore a beautiful red coat, chosen by Leanda. “She doesn’t move without me when it comes to clothes,” says Walters. “I am her go-to stylist for an important occasion or an interview.”
Other famous clients include Kate Bush, who as a former dancer “is deeply unhappy about her size,” and Dawn French. “She wears our stuff the whole time and wore one of our print coats to Geri Halliwell’s wedding. Like many larger women, she fluctuates in weight.”
Lady Helen Wogan, the widow of Terry, is another regular. “She used to come in all the time with her husband. He was the most lovely man — exactly the same as on TV. We were so sad when he passed away. He always came in with Helen and would sit and chat to everyone. Sometimes he came in alone to buy her a present. I believe we dressed Helen for his memorial service.”
The idea for Walters’ business came in her thirties when she was invited to her cousin’s wedding. “It was a big do, she was younger than me, and I was still single,” she recalls. “So my grandma gave my mother £1000 - a huge amount in those days — so I wouldn’t look nebbuch. Mum took me to Harvey Nichols to buy some designer outfits. I was a size 14-16, chubby, but pretty with long hair down my back. Excited, we went up to the sales assistant and asked if there was a plus size department. She looked me up and down and then there was a telling silence. ‘Madam,’ she eventually said, witheringly. ‘This is a fashion store!’ I was mortified. Big fat tears burnt down my cheeks and I just stood there sobbing, in the middle of the shop.”
That was Leanda’s “sod it” moment, when she decided to create her own clothes shop for larger women, so they wouldn’t experience the same humiliation. It would be another 15 years before she achieved her dream but, today, Beige, the store she founded with her partner Jonathan Friedman in 2002, is a tremendous success, with three London shops, a growing online presence, and many celebrities among its clientele.
Leanda, 59, grew up in Edgware, and has a family background in the fashion industry. She describes herself as a “cultural Jew who will stand up to be counted.” She was at Orange Hill School, where she met Friedman (he was her brother’s best friend, they only fell in love sixteen years ago). She trained as a fashion buyer at Harrods, but later, having discovered she was dyslexic took A levels and did a degree in psychotherapy, working as a counsellor and a charity fundraiser.
When she and Friedman became a couple she convinced him of her clothes shop idea and they became business partners as well as setting up home together in Whetstone.
She’s passionate about the business. “I’ve always struggled with my weight and, as a young woman, I was always on fad diets or diet pills. Imagine working in fashion, which is all about being thin, and being fat. I couldn’t buy anything I sold. And when I worked in the business world, I had to look elegant and sophisticated, but there was nowhere to buy anything decent. I was earning good money, I liked nice things. I wanted cashmere and silk, not acrylic and polyester. There was — and still is really — a massive gap in the market for beautiful clothes in plus sizes for women who are affluent and don’t want to go to Evans.”
She says mainstream designers often design for androgynous figures and aren’t interested in plussize fashion. “It costs more to manufacture, requires more fabric and technical skills for a different cut. It’s not a just a matter of grading up skinny girl clothes. Most designers just don’t want to go there.”
Her target customer is affluent, aged 40 plus, and will buy labels including Basler, Marina Rinaldi, Yoek, NYDJ jeans, and the shop’s own line, in sizes 16 to 30. Each branch has a specialism, with the City branch focusing on business suiting, while Temple Fortune has trendier and more “blingy” outfits plus some higher necklines for frummer customers.
“My girl is sophisticated, worldly and travelled but, while she may be extremely confident from an intellectual point of view, she often lacks confidence in her look,” says Leanda. “That’s where my counselling training comes in. I call myself a ‘therapeutic stylist,’ listening to and helping women as well as dressing them. I understand the issues larger women face — I know their thighs will rub together, so they won’t want to wear a dress in summer. I know that if they’ve put on weight they will feel they don’t deserve new clothes. I know my customers may be scared or reticent to try something new, or that they may have health issues that have led to their weight gain. I — and the staff I train — are sensitive to that.”
Leanda, a size 20 herself, says she isn’t promoting obesity as a lifestyle choice. ‘Yes, I’m overweight, but I’ve come to terms with my size. Of course, if I could wake up a size 14 tomorrow, it would be great. I know it would be better for my health if I lost weight. But why shouldn’t I and other large woman still be able to look good?
“Why shouldn’t a size 16 solicitor be able to buy a nice suit, or a size 20 woman be able to get outfits for a cruise?
“I feel privileged I can earn my living doing this. So many of our customers walk out in happy tears, looking 10 inches taller and a thousand times more confident.”
Why can’t we larger woman look good?
Dawn French (right) sports a striking coat at Geri Halliwell’s wedding.
Leanda (below) with Joanna Scanlon in red.