The NS Interview: Betty Jackson, designer

“Ageing women get axed from TV, so where’s your role model?”

Is it more important that clothes be wearable or that they be art?
The two are equally important. There's a bit that makes your heart beat faster and it inspires the rest. Fashion should delight and be magical, but we all wear clothes and you've got to feel comfortable.

That's why tie-ups with designer and high-street brands are so brilliant, because it does the translation. It's a challenge for a designer.

Does Britain have a distinctive style?
Creatively we are streets ahead of anybody else.

But people say the British are less stylish than other Europeans.
I'm not sure that's true. When the French embraced punk, they cleaned it up and made it into that rock-chick thing, when the whole point about punk was that it was quite ugly and aggressive. We're much braver than most places, especially the youth on the street. They pick up a look and they run with it to the extreme. That's what's so energising about this country.

What impact is celebrity culture having on the fashion industry?
I find it quite distressing that you have to see somebody well known in a frock before you consider buying it. I understand about people who look great in things - they're quite inspirational - but it should be kept in its place. I never understood wanting to look like your favourite celebrity. It is important to realise your own personality and potential.

You designed new robes for the judiciary.
The poisoned chalice! The lord chief justice at the time, Lord Phillips, wanted something much easier, more modern. The get-up they had was ridiculous. We just made things simpler, and got a lot of flak for it. "How dare she?! Who does she think she is!" I thought they looked great.
I got some nice emails as well as some hate-mail but generally people were very upset that we'd meddled with tradition.

The media often focus on what female politicians wear. Is that fair?
If you're doing any sort of public job, people are going to look at you. A lot of British women who are thrown into the spotlight don't grasp the importance of it. Whatever you think, there is a feel-good factor involved.

Is it easier for men?
I am surprised that we're not as critical of men - there are some disasters around.

You were on the advisory panel about models' health a few years ago. Do you see that size-zero culture changing?
I hope it is. The fashion industry is an easy target because it's so visible. In fact, we found that sportswomen and dancers were far more badly treated and far more susceptible to eating disorders. I'm not suggesting that it's not a problem; if these people are ill they need help, and the inquiry aired those issues publicly. Whether it will be lost and forgotten in five years, I don't know. Lots of models look extraordinarily undernourished, but it's the way they're made. There's nothing you can do - they're just aliens.

Do you think the fashion industry gets an unfair amount of criticism?
I do. Personally, I still think clothes look better on tall, slim, young women. I know a lot of 50-, 60- and 70-year-olds who also look great, but they're not trying to sell a product.

What about ageism?
Women suffer unnecessarily. Why is it that male presenters of Newsnight can be old and ugly and female presenters have to be rather stupid-looking? Ageing women journalists get axed from TV, so where's your role model?

How has the recession affected the fashion industry?
A recession actually makes creativity. It concentrates the mind. People buy less in a recession but they don't stop, and I think they buy more carefully. There'll be a fallout but that's not a bad thing. There's too much stuff in the world. We're adding to this mountain of stock.

In a different life what would you have done?
I would have been a sculptor, which is probably the same thing, isn't it?

Was there a plan?
No, it just happened. When we came along, there was no infrastructure at all and no clue as to what to do next. There were traditional British fashion houses - dinosaurs - but there was no London Fashion Week, there was no anything. We had to do it ourselves and we learned by mistakes. We did what we wanted, because we were independent and we're still independent. I've been in this privileged position for the past 30 years.

Do you vote?
Yes.

Are we all doomed?
The media don't want to report good news but you can't think like that, because you have to go on and create the next thing. I don't believe we are. The coalition might be, but anyway . . .

Defining Moments

1949 Born in Bacup, Lancashire
1971 Graduates as student of Zandra Rhodes from Birmingham College of Art and Design
1981 Launches her first solo collection
1985 Named British Designer of the Year
1992 Designs costumes for Eddy and Patsy in BBC1's hit sitcom Absolutely Fabulous
2000 Commissioned by Marks & Spencer to design its Autograph collection