In 1971, the end of our college life at Leicester was near and we had to apply ourselves to some serious work if we wanted to make it as professional graphic designers. There was the Dip AD [ Diploma in Art and Design ] show to prepare work for, an individual exhibition of our work , and the prospect of actually looking for a job. This was very daunting, there was work but there was also a lot of competition especially for illustrators who could not really expect to get a wage paying job and would more likely be freelance. I did not feel ready and applied to the faculty for an extra year to do a masters course , Jerzy Karo the head of Graphic design accepted me and I was relieved to have another year.
We spent the year building our portfolios and some of the students went on trips to London looking for employment , some actually got jobs especially in advertising agencies. After the Dip Ad show which most of us passed, we all moved down to London. Even though I had planned to come back to Leicester I moved down too with Mick Partlett to find some kind of summer job. For the first time in my life I did not want to do any drawing for a while. I made one last trip to Leicester market where I found a gorgeous 1940’s dress. It was crepe de chine, fitted with a kind of peplum and small sleeves, the background was white with lovely abstract swirly designs on it. Great for summer. I left it on my desk with some stuff I was taking away with me and went to lunch, when I came back the dress was gone. There were some cleaners around and I thought they might have thrown it away, but a search of the bins found nothing.
Mick had already found a job with a design studio called Tempo Arts in Farringdon near Fleet Street so we arranged to live with another couple in a dingy house in Wood Green , now I had to look for a temporary job. I looked around Wood Green, a dreary place where there was absolutely nothing going on, and then took myself off to Oxford Street because I had never been there before. I badly needed some shoes or preferably boots and I started looking around all the shoe shops. The most main stream ones were Lennards, Stead and Simpson, Lilly and Skinner and Dolcis. There were trendy ones a lot more expensive such as Ravels. I came across a Sacha shoe shop which I had never seen before , I think it was only a London store then. They had the highest heels and platforms around by far , just what I wanted. I went into one of their tiny shops opposite John Lewis department store and asked for a job, I started the next day.
There were always three assistants and the manager was at the till, the shop was so small it was always cramped with customers and littered with shoes and boxes. We sold a small selection of boots , clogs and sandals. There was a much larger branch of Sacha just down the road and if we ran out of stock or sizes we could just run down there to replenish. Strangely enough their shop always seemed empty although they had had the full range of Sacha footwear. This is where I got the nickname ‘ Kasia from Sacha’. I also found out our shop was the smallest and busiest on Oxford Street. The interior of Sacha was remarkably similar to the John Fluevog shop in Toronto. John Fluevog is a fantastic Canadian shoe designer whose iconic ‘Munster’ shoe has been re released for his fortieth year designing shoes. These remind me very much of the Sacha shoes of the 70’s.
We all wore boots throughout the English summer of course and the Sacha boots as well as being the highest heeled were also the tightest. We had a terrible time zipping them up on all but the skinniest of legs. Once we got them zipped up we told customers to keep them on as long as they could so they would stretch. sometimes we had to resort to the ‘stretching’ machine out the back in the stockroom i.e. two girls pulling either side of the unzipped boot leg with all their might, buy hey, it worked. I had difficulty zipping up mine too and went around with numb legs for a while.
The best selling boots by far were the white leather platforms,girls loved to wear them with hot pants or miniskirts. There was also a pair of wooden clogs which everybody wanted. They were expensive being hand carved I suppose, and had a suede upper tacked onto the wood with studs. I liked them and tried them on but they felt very unsteady having no flexibility. There was a terrible design fault in them though, ladies were always bringing them back because the tacks had fallen out, sometimes not long after they had left the shop. I examined one of the clogs and found that the tacks really were just thumb tacks or drawing pins and could not possibly stay in the wood. I asked the manager to get a hammer so we could secure them a bit better but they still kept coming back and we always had to replace them. This got tiresome after a while so I started to sneakily tip customers off not to buy them, only the nice ones of course.
The soaring boots began to create a problem too, this was with the shanks breaking. The shank was the metal backbone of the shoe or boot and they could not take the strain of the high heels and would just snap in half. This was quite comical and could be seen everywhere and not only on Sacha boots. The sure sign was people walking along with the heels of their footwear flopping around because they had lost all stability. They could not be mended when this happened so we had to replace them. It happened to mine and it was very uncomfortable.
Our manager was a nice enough chap, an aging mod [early 30’s]. he was very smart in his three piece suit with flared trousers and perfectly coifed hair. He sat at the cash till near the window looking out onto the street, or stood at the door smoking cigarettes and ogling and chatting up all the passing girls. Sometimes he would disappear into neighbouring shops, they all seemed to have some kind of rapport up and down Oxford Street. We persuaded him to get a turntable and some records, all we had was radio one and it was driving us nuts especially three big hits that were played over and over again that summer. The worst one was called ‘Chirpy Chirpy Cheep Cheep’, by Middle of the road which seemed to be played every five minutes. The other two offenders were Clive Dunn’s ‘Grandad’. and ‘Knock three times’ by Dawn. There was some great music in the 70’s but also some really bad stuff and when you have to listen to it all day it grinds you down. So we bought some vinyl, some Rod Stewart and even a bit of Tamla Motown and some summery Mungo Jerry.
For the first time since college I started to wear some new clothes, nothing spectacular I could not afford it. I finally bought some satin hot pants for two quid from a stall in Wood Green and wore them with black tights and my Black leather Sacha boots from my commission sales. On Oxford Street a lot of the shops sold ‘Loons’. These were brushed cotton or denim unisex trousers in many different colours, very tight down to the knee and then various sizes of flares. I was not a big fan of flares but Loons had a more moderate one, the quality of the cotton was not bad either and they were only couple of quid. With a plain scoop necked T-shirt and a big belt it was not a bad look. The trick was to wear them so that they completely covered the boot, this gave the most amazingly long legged look . The downside was the trousers always slipped down a bit and dragged along the pavement becoming tatty and frayed, and worse than that they soaked up all the rain and muck like litmus paper , a common sight at that time.
My dress that had disappeared in Leicester made a surprise appearance one day. I was standing around chatting on a lovely sunny afternoon when in walked the dress being worn by a girl who was in my year at Leicester. She was surprised and pleased to see me but before she could say anything I blurted out ” My dress, you took my dress !” she was mortified and turned bright red and explained that she thought it was discarded in a pile of rubbish. Of course sI could see she was telling the truth and forgave her, still, it was a lovely dress.
I soon began to realize there was something else going on in our shop. I was serving a customer one day when two very young girls wearing sunglasses and big hats walked in carrying a huge roll of very expensive looking carpet under their arms. They calmly and quickly took it up to the second floor stock room and left. We were to see them many more times with goods, more carpets, prams and pushchairs stuffed with appliances. Soon we could hardly move in the stockrooms, this was obviously part of a shoplifting ring and they were probably stealing from John Lewis right across the road or Debenhams, another department store. The manager was very nervous and kept watch outside the store whilst the goods were stashed. It all went a bit sour on him though, he ‘ordered ‘ a long leather coat and they got a fabulous one for him. However he found out they had ‘ acquired ‘ it from a shop only two doors away from us so he could never wear it to work, he was so angry.
I used to go to John Lewis or Debenhams if I had time for lunch. It was in one of these shops I bought a beautiful Ossie Clark dress in a summer sale for five pounds. I believe it was an Ossie Clark for Radley, I have no idea why it was so cheap I could not believe my luck. It was dusky pink moss crepe goddess dress and a very small size ten. I wore it only once at a party and I contemplated raising the hem to mid calf to get more wear out of it but I could not bring myself to do it. Moss crepe is a notoriously difficult fabric to work with , it frays easily and the hemming would be prone to being uneven because of the drape of the fabric. I kept it for a few years just to look at it but I do not have it now , another dress I should have kept .
I found out that Libertys was just around the corner too so I would spend an occasional lunchtime there absorbing all the fabric designs and colours, imagining what I would make if I could afford to buy the fabric. I did buy some fabric in a sale from John Lewis, I still had my pattern I had made at college and I found a lovely Art Deco fabric in peachy and brown zig zag patterns. The girl we lived with had a sewing machine I was finally able to borrow and I made a lovely dress modified with trendier cap sleeves. The same fabric showed up in Georgina Worsley’s dress in an episode of the old ‘Upstairs Downstairs’ series and I still get a kick out of seeing it in reruns now and again.
I was walking back to the shop after lunch one day when I noticed something moving on the ground. There was a long grey meandering shape almost like a rope being dragged along where the the pavement met the wall. I stopped to take a closer look and was horrified to see it was a long trail of hundreds of grey mice running nose to tail as far as the eye could see, I was fascinated and repulsed at the same time. As I followed , some of them broke away from the line and poured into the open doors of the shops, and when I got to Sacha sure enough a stream of them ran through our door. The shop was busy and the mice ran against the wall and headed straight for the stockroom . When I reached the stockroom they were no where to be seen, luckily nobody noticed. We knew there were mice there was evidence everywhere and we had laid down poison, we had even found a nest in an old shoebox so we had always been wary when opening a box of shoes. Most of the girls brought their own lunches because sometimes we were too busy for a lunch hour , but now we stopped. Nobody wanted to eat anything from anywhere on Oxford Street either. We joked that Sacha and maybe the the whole street was held together by mice and now we saw them all the time. Often we saw lines of them streaming passed the shop and we tried to stop them coming in by guarding the door broom in hand. Luckily the customers and passers by were totally oblivious.
Not long after, in late summer I became quite ill with one of those bugs that just hit you out of the blue. I was serving a customer one minute and then could not complete the sale because I was suddenly sick and giddy . I think it was a norovirus because I have just suffered a similar episode this new year. Those days we just called them bugs. I seriously thought it was something to do with the mice poison. For a week I lay in bed hallucinating, I was convinced everybody I ever knew came to visit me, even the girl with the dress. I swore she had brought it back to me, but Mick assured me she had not. I left Sacha after that, I was feeling very run down and it was time to think of going back to Leicester to start the masters course. I started having second thoughts however , all my friends and Mick were established in London now and I felt at home there too. Then one day Mick told me they needed an on staff illustrator at Tempo Arts and wondered if I would be interested. A wage paying job for an illustrator was not to be sniffed at and was a great start so I decided to stay. I wrote a letter to Jerzy and started my life as a professional illustrator in London and could not wait to start drawing again.