French couturier who helped fashion Princess Diana into one of the world's most glamorous women
Published 03/10/2010 | 05:00
Catherine Walker, who died on September 23, aged 65, became one of Britain's leading couture fashion designers and dressed many of the world's most beautiful women, notably Princess Diana.
Having first worked with her shortly after her wedding to Prince Charles in 1981, Walker went on to create more than 1,000 outfits for Diana, defining the elegant, understated look that propelled the princess on to the front pages of the world's press for nearly two decades.
Her close friendship with the most photographed woman in the world was founded on total loyalty and absolute discretion. Although she was often pressed by gossip columnists to talk about her most famous client, Walker never exploited her inside knowledge or passed on tittle-tattle.
On the few occasions that she admitted journalists to her design studio in Chelsea, they would find framed photographs of Diana turned to the wall.
Such was her dislike of publicity and innate Gallic reserve that the French-born Walker appointed a public relations adviser to keep her name out of the papers during the media frenzy surrounding the young Diana Spencer.
Her achievement was to create a sophisticated and refined image for a young, attractive princess, while keeping her look firmly in the royal tradition.
In 1997, the princess was buried in a black dress designed by Walker that she had bought shortly before her death. Statuesque and softly spoken, Catherine Walker also designed dresses and ball gowns for other high-profile fashionable women such as Shakira Caine, Darcey Bussell, Joely Richardson and Queen Noor of Jordan. Her client list reportedly ran to 2,000 names.
She was born Catherine Marguerite Marie-Therese Baheux at a small village in the Pas-de-Calais on June 27, 1945, her parents divorcing when she was only a little girl. She was embarrassed by her height, and because she was thin her mother fed her white rice to fatten her up. Her stepfather worked in the wool industry, and fabrics were part of her upbringing.
Walker studied aesthetics and philosophy at the universities of Lille and Aix-en-Provence. She learned English in London while living in a flat above a butcher's shop in Earls Court, and her PhD led to posts in the French Institute and the French Embassy. She moved to England permanently in 1970 after meeting a British solicitor, John Walker. In 1975 he died suddenly in an accident at the age of 32, leaving her to bring up their two young daughters alone.
She started studying fashion at night school the following year, selling clothes from a basket "like a gypsy" on the King's Road in Chelsea during the day, which she had made on an electric sewing machine bought after winning a bet with her mother-in-law that she could not stop smoking.
Progress was a matter of trial and error; she began by making sailor dresses for her small daughters. Even before she had obtained any formal qualifications, word of her talents spread, and she began to acquire a fashionable clientele by word of mouth.
Later in 1976 she set up her own business in a quiet residential street, under the nondescript title the Chelsea Design Company. At this stage she chose anonymity because, as she pointed out, "in France you would be laughed at if you opened a shop and put your name on the door as a couturier, unless you had the obvious skill to back it up". Only in 1994 did she diffidently rebrand her two shops and fashion label with the name Catherine Walker & Co.
Unusually for a fashion designer, Walker -- who also designed a wedding dress for Lady Helen Taylor -- kept out of the limelight during her career, seldom giving interviews and choosing not to show her collections on the catwalk. A no-nonsense attitude and disregard for fickle fashion trends kept her at the forefront of her trade.
"Fashion is fast-moving," she conceded, "but also very uniform for the short time when a trend is 'in'."
She sought to design clothes "which give poise to women without being too rigid and which are poetic without being overworked".
Her designs spoke for themselves, with her being named Designer of the Year for Couture at the British Fashion Awards in 1990 and Designer of the Year for Glamour the following year.
Reclusive and hard-working, Walker underwent surgery for breast cancer in 1995, describing it as "just a hiccup".
"I told my staff three things: one, I'm going to fight it; two, I'm going to beat it; and three, it's going to be business as usual."
She went on a special diet, avoided too much "silly" television, bought a motorbike to relieve stress and embarked on long walks. She also became a founding sponsor of the charity Breast Cancer Haven. Catherine Walker married, secondly, Said Ismael, an Iranian-born lecturer at the Chelsea School of Art, who also became her business partner. Her daughters by her first husband survive her.