Jacques Azagury has worked in fashion for more than 30 years. — dressing stars from actresses Helen Mirren and Elizabeth McGovern, to his late friend, Princess Diana.
He has watched the fashion industry evolve and seen recycled looks appear on catwalks. And yet, unlike so many designers of his generation, Azagury has never tired of his job.
“I have always stayed excited by what I do,” he says. “Throughout my career, I found that every time I have started to feel tired, something would pick me up and excite me. It could be a new design I have created, or a customer I have dressed.”
We meet at his atelier in the heart of London’s Knightsbridge, which has been visited by society ladies since it opened in 1987. It’s a far cry from his early childhood in Casablanca, or his teenage years in the East End of London. In the corner, hangs a frame with photographs of Princess Diana wearing three Azagury designs, signed by the late Princess herself. It reads: “Dearest Jacques, Lots of love from Diana x.”
Women in the Jewish community have long trusted him to dress them for simchas: “Women I have dressed as batmitzvah girls, I now dress as brides. I dress mothers for their children’s bar or batmitzvahs, and then for their children’s weddings. I have dressed three generations of women. There’s something very special about that.”
Azagury, who’s wearing a tailored brown blazer, a black t-shirt, trousers and practical but stylish Church’s boots, adds: “Women like wearing Azagury because they know they won’t turn up at a party and find another woman wearing the same dress. We always ask where the dress is going, when it is being worn and who is going to wear it, to make sure”.
This is all the more important as I’m here to discuss Azagury’s first bridal collection, which launched in January with six wedding dresses, retailing from £6,900.
“So many of my clients have asked for wedding dresses in the past,” he says. “I have made them on occasion when a client has insisted, but there was just more and more demand so I decided to launch a collection.”
With long-trains, structured necklines and fitted bodices, Azagury brides are classic ones, true to the designer’s aesthetic.
He prefers brides in white dresses, although he has previously designed for brides who wish to wear dresses in “bottle-green or red”.
When I show Azagury photographs of leggy brides in sheer dresses that show their thighs and chest area, he recoils: “The ‘naked-look’ is very dated now. Fashion has moved back to modesty dressing. Sleeves are longer and neck-lines are higher-up. I think ‘see-through’ looks end up looking like an ordinary white evening dress, rather than a wedding dress. Most brides in my experience, prefer a classic look.”
“There is something so romantic about a wedding dress. It’s something you can keep forever, show your children and their children.
“You can turn them it a shorter white summer dress, but it’s a family piece. Most people keep them as they are.”
What about brides like the Duchesses of Cambridge and Sussex who changed out of their main wedding gown, into a less-formal look post-ceremony?
“This is a bride’s one wedding day — at least hopefully it is,” he says. “And given the cost they would have spent on a wedding dress, why not wear it the whole night?”
Ahead of her wedding to Prince Harry, Azagury took part in a challenge to design Meghan Markle’s wedding dress. He imagined she would wear a dress decorated with 3D flowers with a white and silver fabric.
By his own admission, he was off-the-mark: “I think she dressed for the public. She wanted to be seen as the ‘simple princess’, and so the dress was very simple. Very simple.”
He understands the pressures of royal dressing. Having made a series of dresses for Princess Diana after being introduced to her by the former Deputy Editor of Vogue, Anna Harvey, at the launch of his New Romantics collection in 1987, he talks about how conscious she was of public perception, through her outfits.
He gives an example, reflecting on the beaded bodice and belted red dress he designed for her three months before her tragic death in 1997.
“When I designed the long red dress for Princess Diana to wear at the Red Cross ball, we talked about creating a modest neckline for when she would be photographed making a speech face-on. But the back of the dress had a V-cut drape, for the party-feel after the event.”
When Azagury first met the late princess, he remembers looking at her “open-mouthed and not saying much.
“Then we started talking and she was looking at my blue dress. Later I got a call for the Palace asking if Diana could visit the atelier. That’s how it all started.”
He never gets tired of talking about the princess. “It’s a way of making sure we won’t forget her,” he smiles, warmly recalling her atelier, visits and his own trips to Kensington Palace for fittings, less than a 10-minute drive away from his flagship shop. “She was always interested in what everyone had to say. She would ask about my life, she would talk to the girls in the atelier and tell them she liked their nail varnish.” At the Palace he met her sons. “They were her big love.”
He will never forget the moment he heard of her fatal car crash. “I had come back from a rave club in Clerkenwell at around 5.30am. I got a call, and had to be told what had happened five times before it sunk in.”
He says Diana valued fashion, compared to today’s throw-away attitude towards clothes.
“She wore the blue velvet dress I made for her twice in public, in Australia and Italy,” he says, noting that the Duchess of Cambridge also started to rewear outfits in public.
“There has been a move back to niche, well-made clothing. People are becoming more aware of issues around sustainable fashion — and rightly so.
“They understand that it is better to have three or four well-made pieces that you can accessorise in different ways, rather than lots of clothes that you will throw away.”
Born into a traditional Jewish family in Casablanca, Azagury moved to the UK when he was six-years-old, with his parents and four siblings in the 1960s. Moving to London’s East End, was “hard” for his mother Alice, but he says as children they learnt to adapt quickly. “You notice that the weather is very different, but you just get on with it.
“I was always working. I had a Saturday job so I could be independent, I would work in grocery stores for pocket money. I have just always loved working.” His photographer father David Marcel, was also a creative influence.
At his state schools in Spitalfields and Stepney, he was always interested in fashion.“I don’t know why, but I would sit at the back of the class sketching ideas. I was not interested in subjects like geography.”
Instead, he preferred to visit the shmutter factory across the road from his home as a child, and make pieces of clothing from the leftover fabric he was given.
He trained at the London College of Fashion and St Martin’s School of Art, selling shirts as a student, then launched his career as a dress designer. “One really did not need the funding that is needed today for start-ups, so in that respect I was very lucky. I could take it at my own pace.” His brother Joseph Azagury is a successful show designer.
“My parents never told us we ‘could not’ do anything. Maybe that is why we weren’t as rebellious as other young people. If I wanted to be a designer, actor, dancer or a poet —my parents would say I could.”
“We didn’t have a religious upbringing. I went to cheder in the East End, we kept Passover and Yom Kippur. We were clearly Jewish and had a big family, but we were never forced to do anything.”
He didn’t have a barmitzvah at 13. But when he was in his early 30s, his sister got married at Holland Park synagogue. “During the ceremony they called me up, told me to read something, and that was it. I was barmitzvahed.”
Now living in central London, Azagury spends his free time travelling, attending events and going to the theatre. He’s been with his partner, David Harrod, for 26 years, but keeps the relationship private.
He loves travelling but it doesn’t show in his work. “ I am not inspired by my travels to India or Nepal. I’m not inspired by ethnicity. I’m inspired by fabrics. I love new fabrics and the technology with which they are made.
“Years ago, a ballgown would be so heavy. Now, I can create ballgowns with volume, that are so light to touch.” He picks up the hem of one such lightweight, but full-skirted, purple ballgown. “I love the modernity, I love the colours.”
Azagury has no plans to change his classic aesthetic or design a high-street line, although he has been approached to do so: “Most women know how they want to look and they know which designer to choose for that look. If they want a tweed suit, they got to Chanel. If they want an evening ballgown, they come to me.”
And will modern women continue to wear such romantic gowns? “Fashion is always recycled. Right now, femininity is coming back.”
Whilst clearly a creative, Azagury is also practical. He has even started to stock lines by other designers in his store, at a more modest price. One bejewelled pink dress I pull out, has a £390.00 label — a very reasonable price-tag for a high-end shop.
“It works well,” he says. “Mothers come in, and buy something custom-made for themselves, and then buy something for their daughters at a quarter of the price.”
He describes Britain’s decision to leave the EU as a “disaster” for the fashion industry, saying the uncertainty around the outcome of Brexit has slowed down business drastically.
“Customers are spending less. When they used to buy five or six dresses at a time just because they liked them, they now buy dresses for specific occasions.
“If we now order fabrics from Europe, they take two days to come. Years ago, we would pay customs and duty tax and the fabric would take a long time to arrive. We could go back to that.”
I ask how he would like to be remembered as a designer. He takes a minute, and says: “My passion has always been dressing my customers. The happiness they feel when they have a design they love, makes me happy.”
Jacques Azagury ready-made wedding dresses range from £6,900-£9,500.
Azagury Designs, 50 Knightsbridge, SW1X 7JN