Chapters In My Life: Amanda Wakeley
Chapters In My Life: Amanda Wakeley

Chapters In My Life: Amanda Wakeley

British fashion designer Amanda Wakeley is known for designing red carpet gowns and dressing some of the world’s most photographed women, including Princess Diana, Kate Middleton and Meghan Markle. But she is also known for cultivating her own dressed-down ‘clean glam’ look she believes can empower any woman. Following the post-pandemic closure of her business last year, Amanda has found new outlets for her creativity and is also about to explore Antarctica. Here, we sat down with her to discuss the key moments in her life…
Photography: KATE MARTIN

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Chapter One:

Growing Up

“My childhood years are a happy blur, to be honest. I grew up in the countryside in Cheshire within a happy, functional family. My mother was a physio but she gave up work to be a full-time mum – she was amazing and still is to this day, age 89. She still mothers me! My father was a surgeon. I have two older brothers who were both away at school from the age of seven, so I was an only child during term time for quite a few years, which was lovely in a way. 

“I got to realise the power of clothes very early on – I used to love making clothes and dressing up. Luckily, I had very tolerant parents who didn’t mind me delving into the dressing-up boxes and chopping up my two very glamorous grandmothers’ cast-offs and putting them back together. The whole design and customisation and dress-making side of things started pretty early for me. 

“At 12, I went to Cheltenham Ladies’ College. I didn’t really love boarding school but that wasn’t because of the school; I just missed my parents, our pets, my pony. But, looking back, it was a very good experience for me in terms of becoming independent, being super disciplined and knowing that, at the end of the day, the buck stops with you and you just have to get on with it.

“In fact, I really do believe that Cheltenham brought out the best in everyone – whether you were artistic, linguistic or scientific. The art department was second to none and my artistic side was really nurtured, and I’ll be for ever grateful for having not only my eyes opened but my senses too. I was so inspired by my art teachers, be it sculpture, drawing or painting, and I loved studying history of art with teachers who had a complete and utter passion for it and brilliant knowledge.”

Chapter Two:

Moving To The US

“I left school at 18 and moved to America. I realised that further studies weren’t my thing and I just wanted to get out into the world, be a grown-up and be independent. Uni wasn’t taken for granted back then as a rite of passage, but I guess I went to the uni of life. Initially, I moved to Florida – it’s such a Brit thing to do, moving to an English-speaking country in the sun! I fell into modelling there and that took me to New York where I ended up for a couple of years, doing a bit of modelling but also working in and around the fashion industry for an incredible designer and retailer called Henry Lehr. His collections really influenced me and still do. He had one line called Surplus which was brilliant – he and his team would come over to the UK to go through all the army shops and were doing wonderful Japanese-style combat pants and shirts, and all those oversized pieces from the 80s. They then evolved the concept into a sand-washed silk that was all garment dyed – so you got these gorgeous, super-soft army surplus-inspired shirts, parkas and combat pants. They’d recolour the collection every season – every piece just felt delicious to the hand, looked fantastic on the body, and it was a great way of dressing. Gosh, I wish I still had some of those pieces now!

“The early to mid-80s was a phenomenally exciting time to be in the garment district in New York. Henry Lehr had buyers coming from all over the world and, though I started off working for them as a model, I didn’t keep my mouth shut. Being English, I was considered quite quaint and they were always asking for my opinion and how I was putting on the clothes. So that is how I ended up doing some of the sales, which I loved. In fact, as a teenager in Cheshire I had worked in a men’s designer clothing boutique during the holidays, and I just loved the whole process of finding out what people needed and then finding the right thing for their look. Nothing has changed!”


I realised the POWER OF CLOTHES very early on – I used to love MAKING CLOTHES and DRESSING UP.

Chapter Three:

The Creation Of Amanda Wakeley

“I loved New York. The club scene was so inspiring – there was a downtown one in particular, called Area, which was pure theatre as well as great DJ sets. Living and breathing that was an incredible experience. However, a husband brought me back to the UK! I did get married quite young and it took me a long while to settle back here. I had got used to New York where everything was fast moving and positive, everything got done so quickly and seamlessly, nothing was a problem. Moving back was an eye opener for me but I soon saw that the pace of London was actually a kinder one to live at.

“I had always made clothes for myself from a young age because the high street wasn’t what it is now. I did a lot of walking around second-hand shops, buying things and customising them, as well as making clothes for myself and my friends. I used to get stopped in places like Browns on South Molton Street and asked where I had got my black floor-length duster coat from. This happened quite a few times. I soon realised there was a gap in the market for the kind of clothing being designed by the Ralphs, the Donnas and Calvins which were all on the cusp of coming to the UK – that lovely, clean yet glamorous aesthetic that I loved and had evolved in my own way. That is what inspired me to do a little collection of my favourite pieces and sell them to friends and friends of friends to order. I quickly realised there was a demand for it and that I needed to start properly, which I did in 1990. I wish I could say I had a massive business plan, but I did what I did because I had a passion for beautiful things. I got a loan of £20k from my father and I had to be very, very careful with that, hence the whole made-to-order approach of the business to start with, so there was no huge capital outlay.”

Chapter Four:

The Diana Moment

“I had a teeny design studio in Ifield Road in Chelsea. In fact, it was a little flat, not an official studio, but it had a lovely feel to it and that is where my customers came. I first met Princess Diana in 1992. I was introduced to her by Anna Harvey who was the deputy editor at British Vogue and Diana’s stylist. She used to visit me in my design studio and the first outfit I made for her was a beautifully cut midnight-blue crepe skirt suit. It was double breasted and, as I’ve never been a huge fan of buttons, it had invisible ones with a hand-made seed pearl tassel as the fastener. She was great fun to dress and I made so many dresses for her; she was very easy and enjoyed my style. I wouldn’t say we were good friends but, whenever we met, be it at the gym or at appointments, she was incredibly warm and friendly – there were never any airs and graces.”

Chapter Five:

Wakeley Women

“I have dressed some incredible women through the ages: Diana, Scarlett Johansson, Angelina Jolie, Beyoncé, Helen Mirren, Catherine Zeta Jones... It was wonderful to see so many of the big actresses choosing to wear my clothes on the red carpet, but this was often done via a stylist rather than one on one. However, it’s also wonderful to see a woman in the store who is a bit lost about her style and then comes out of the fitting room walking a bit taller, shoulders back, with a bit of extra confidence. So you have the two – incredibly iconic women like Diana and the Hollywood stars all the way through to one of us who is just looking to evolve her style and use clothes I have designed to empower her. It doesn’t have to be a sharp-shouldered suit to empower you either; it’s all about feeling good in that moment.”

Chapter Six:

Creation Of Signature Wakeley Wardrobe

“I have always felt very, very passionate about signature staples that should just slot into most of our wardrobes. Of course, if you are a fashionista and your whole life is about getting dressed, it’s different. But 99.9% of women actually want to look great, know their own style and get on with their lives. So I perfected the perfect pant, for example – the wide leg, the flare, the peg. Finding perfect pants is like finding perfect jeans, the perfect lipstick or nail polish. They are all quite hard to find, so once you’ve found them it’s really bloody annoying when they discontinue them. Other signature items include the perfect blazer in the perfect shape for you, whether it’s a boyfriend or a lovely nipped-in blazer in a beautiful cloth that holds its shape with a little bit of give but without being thick with lycra; the perfect white shirt that has been exquisitely designed; the perfect black rollneck cashmere sweater – those are your friends in your wardrobe. Fashion has a horrible way of saying, ‘That is so last season so it’s not relevant’, but that is absolute rubbish and never more so than now. That is why I came up with the phrase Signature Wakeley Wardrobe, because I didn’t want those items to be relegated just because they were designed last year, or indeed three years ago.”


I've always felt very passionate about SIGNATURE STAPLES that should just slot into OUR WARDROBES.

Chapter Seven:

Life Outdoors, Wellness & Nature

“I’ve always been passionate about health and wellbeing. My shop in Albermarle Street in Mayfair had a couple of floors with a drawing room upstairs and, once a month, I’d invite our VIPs and get an expert in for a one-to-one conversation with me about mindful meditation, gut health, nutrition and so on. I kept it very salon-like, with me sitting at the front with my guest, but I always said it was for everyone in the room and the talks developed into a lovely forum where my customers made new friends, met up with them and also learnt something. Women are incredibly inquisitive, and I wanted to foster that. 

“I’ve also always really enjoyed being fit, but fit to do the sport I love rather than what I call Pilates body fit. My partner and I are very keen ski tourers, and I also love sailing and slalom water-skiing but I have to say my need for speed has decreased as the ribs have got cracked over the years. I’ve had my fair share of breakages so I’m more cautious now because I hate not being able to do anything physical for several months. I love exercising outdoors and I’m lucky that we live between town and the New Forest. We also have a home in Verbier in Switzerland and that’s always an adventure because we spend our time up on the glacier touring and exploring with a guide surrounded by a lot of snow and ice.”

Chapter Eight:

Moment Of Reflection

“My business closed last year and, for the first time in 30 years, I am no longer in an office or a studio, and I have time for myself. This is a gift. I had never taken a sabbatical or extended leave because fashion is a hamster wheel and relentless. I didn’t realise how much it had taken out of me. As much as I loved fashion, and still do, Covid changed the world and our thoughts on consumption and sustainability. I’ve had this moment of quiet to reflect and think, okay I’ve been through 30 years of an incredible journey building a brand, really understanding what women want and why they wanted it, understanding cut and building up a library of knowledge, then taking a step back and instead of automatically thinking I could start the whole thing again, I thought maybe not. I definitely didn’t want to stop, but the gift of that pause has been amazing. 

“So I decided to put my toe back in the water with my podcast, StyleDNA. I love podcasts, I love being in on someone’s conversation because you really get to know them. It feels like a lovely way of sharing knowledge and entertaining people at the same time. I’ve been lucky to get a wide range of well-known and interesting guests like Sophie Ellis-Bextor, Trinny Woodall, Grace Dent, Adjoa Andoh and James Blunt. We talk about their best and worst fashion moments as I try to uncover their style DNA. I’ve also been writing more recently. All through lockdown I took over ownership of our bi-weekly newsletters because I wanted them to be personal and I realised then how much I love writing and the power of the written word. And now I’m doing pieces for the Daily Mail fairly regularly.”

The Next Chapter

“My partner and I are off to Antarctica with a group of friends to go ski touring later this month, so right now I am trying to up the cardio as the air is thinner there. But it will be what it will be – you can only go as fast as you can. We will be away for the best part of three weeks. We fly to Buenos Aires and will spend a couple of days there. Then we go to Ushuaia on the Tierra del Fuego archipelago, the southernmost tip of South America. We’ll spend some time on the glacier there to acclimatise, then we are on the ship for about ten days before we reach Antarctica. I am a little nervous, but it will be so exciting being in that part of the world seeing nature at its rawest, while also being active and exploring virtually untouched terrain. 

“As for work, I’m having some interesting conversations about collaborations and licences. It feels right to be able to share my knowledge and the power of the brand without having my own business and the relentless pressure of the fashion calendar.”

Amanda Wakeley: StyleDNA is available on all major podcast platforms.

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