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Celebrating the Kindertransport refugee who dressed Britain's Jewish brides

Nettie Spiegel became a top bridal designer after arriving in Britain with just a suitcase

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Ask anyone in the street if they’ve heard of Neymar, and they’ll assume you’re referring to a famous Brazilian footballer.

But for a significant number of Jewish women that moniker belongs primarily to a much-loved and never forgotten fashion designer, Nettie (Natalie) Spiegel, whose couture label Neymar dressed generations of Jewish brides, and is celebrated in the Museum of London Dockland’s new Exhibition, Fashion City, How Jewish Londoners Shaped Global Style.

The exhibition, which opens today, features one of Neymar’s exquisitely beaded wedding dresses, which can still command upwards of £3,000 on vintage fashion sites.

But the true value of the dress lies in what it symbolises: the story of the penniless Jewish refugee who came to London and not only made a success of her life in her adopted homeland, but who also shaped the British fashion industry.

This year marks what would have been Nettie’s centenary (she died in 2005, aged 82) .
The youngest child of a middle-class German Jewish family, she was born in Berlin in 1923.

Following a raid on the family home, her father’s arrest and the horrors of Kristallnacht, Nettie’s parents decided to send her to safety to London. On March 3, 1939, aged just 15, she waved goodbye at Berlin Station and boarded the Kindertransport. She never saw her parents again.

The exhibition’s lead curator, Dr Lucie Whitmore, who has extensively researched Nettie’s life and career, says that upon arrival in London, Nettie moved in with the Duval family in Stamford Hill. “In return for providing her with a home, they asked if she’d do childcare for them,” Whitmore recounts.

“But within weeks of arriving, Nettie — who had taken some fashion drawing classes in Berlin — had decided to pursue her dream of working in the fashion industry.”

Legend has it that she walked up and down Great Portland Street with her sketches until she found someone who’d employ her. After securing a job as a machinist, she took evening classes in dressmaking at the Regent Street Polytechnic.

“When she told the Duvals she now couldn’t do the childcare, they asked for half her wages in rent,” says Whitmore. “But when the Duvals moved away from London in September 1939, they left an envelope for her. It contained all the money she’d paid them.

A note explained that they’d never wanted payment, but were worried somebody so young wouldn’t know how to look after her money. They’d saved it for her so she could support herself. Despite the trauma she went through, there are many instances of such kindness in Nettie’s life — kindnesses she made sure to return.”

Nettie found a mentor in bespoke designer Raie Sclare, who helped her to set up her own business with husband Jakob “Jack” Spiegel, a fellow refugee who she’d known in Berlin — they’d gone to dancing classes together and they married in 1943. She named her label Neymar because it combined her first name with her maiden name, Margolies.

The Spiegels established a couture showroom, first in their home in Stamford Hill and then on Berkeley Street, Mayfair, in the heart of London’s couture neighbourhood.

This is where Nettie designed high-end occasion wear for the singers and actresses of the day, including Fenella Fielding and Renée Houston. In 1949, she also made costumes for Cecil Landau’s musical Sauce Tartare starring a young Audrey Hepburn.

“Nettie’s success allowed her and Jack to move into an apartment on Park Lane, which they shared with two poodles named Tina and Belvedere,” says Whitmore.

"She was known for her exquisite beading and embellishments. In a newspaper clipping from 1957, there’s a story about a wedding dress she’d made with 25 yards of satin, so heavily beaded with seed pearls and crystal dewdrops that the dress weighed over a stone. The bride, Adrienne Fine, had to wear six petticoats to support its weight.

“But not only was Nettie an incredibly gifted designer, she also had a wonderful ability to connect with her customers and her community. She said that 80 per cent of her business was weddings and bar or bat mitzvahs.”

Netty closed the Neymar business after Jack died in the mid 1980s, although she continued to make dresses on an ad hoc basis for customers. She dedicated the remainder of her life to trying to find out what had happened to her family and commemorating them.

“Other than her brother, Herman, who was already in London, everybody else in Nettie’s family was killed in the Holocaust,” says Whitmore.

“She discovered that both of her parents had been murdered in Auschwitz, and that one of her sisters, her husband and all their children were murdered in Poland, where they had fled. She never found out the exact circumstances of their death.

“On the Yad Vashem Shoah Index, you’ll see that Nettie has filled out forms for everyone in her family, adding photographs. Her friends say she was passionate about making sure everybody was remembered, and filled out at least 20 of these forms.”

Caroline Esdaile remembers Nettie, who was a close friend of her parents after meeting them at Marble Arch Synagogue, as part of her family. “She instantly engaged with you,” she recalls.

“She was full of enthusiasm, always glamorously dressed, and when you went to her beautiful home, she was very warm and hospitable. She designed the dress I wore to my son’s bar mitzvah— I still have the top that went with it, and I won’t part with it.

“Nettie was a real force for good, loved by the community. Judaism was extremely important to her, and she was a regular attendee at Marble Arch. On November 23, 2013, Rabbi Lord Sacks inaugurated the bridal room in her name.”

It’s Sara Raiher’s 1972 wedding dress that is now displayed in the Museum of London’s exhibition, and which she has donated to their archives. “My late mother-in-law was a regular customer, buying Neymar evening dresses for all her Jewish charity functions,” she remembers. “When we got engaged, she said you absolutely have to go to Nettie. I didn’t look anywhere else.

“I was 23 then and it was a wonderful experience. Nettie intuitively knew what would suit me, how to express my personality. The dress was so beautiful and a perfect fit, with exquisite embroidery.

“My late mother didn’t see it until my wedding day because, having had polio as a child, she’d managed to break her femur, so couldn’t come to any fittings. When I put it on that morning, it was an incredibly emotional moment.”

Sara’s dress is the last item in the exhibition, partly because it’s traditional for fashion shows to end with a wedding dress.

“But,” says Whitmore, “we also wanted to end the exhibition with living memories of present-day Jewish Londoners. Together with the dress, we have a filmed interview with Sara and Caroline, in which they talk about why it matters that we remember Nettie.

“Nettie’s dress bookends the exhibition. The first exhibit is a suitcase that was carried by a child on the Kindertransport, just like the one Nettie would have carried. The story of London fashion is a story about migration and opportunities.

"And that’s Nettie’s story. She came to this country with one small suitcase and she left a tangible legacy.”

Fashion City is at the Museum of London, Docklands from October 13 to April 14, 2024

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