Long before she was a judge on the Great British Sewing Bee, and long before she was part of the punk design collective Swanky Modes, Esme Young was interested in clothes. As a child growing up in Bedfordshire she looked up to her mother – a “free spirit” who looked “fabulous in anything” – and her wardrobe full of Jaeger dresses; as a teenager she was rifling through the wardrobe, looking for vintage pieces to steal, cut up and repurpose into new items – a challenge she now sets for contestants on the Sewing Bee. Her mother quickly put a lock on her wardrobe. At school, Young and her friends would rebel against their uniforms by letting the hems of their skirts fall down, leaving their ties undone and wearing one sock down and one sock up.
“Everyone expresses who they are by what they wear,” Young, 73, tells me. “Even men in suits.” We meet in mid-May in a small park in the City of London, round the corner from the Peabody Estate where Young has lived for more than 40 years. Though the sun is shining, it has recently rained – we have perched on the only two dry benches we could find, beneath a tree that drops large white blossoms on our heads as we chat. She is wearing a blue and navy camo-esque floral print dress that she picked up in Gap about a decade ago; she has lengthened it and paired it with a camouflage jacket she found in a military surplus shop.
We are here to discuss Behind the Seams, her thrillingly colourful memoir. It takes in her creative childhood, her time as a fashion designer with Swanky Modes, and her decades of work as a costume designer, making items including Renée Zellweger’s memorably cringe-inducing bunny outfit in Bridget Jones: “She kept telling me to make it tighter (she wanted to look bigger than she was for the character) and by the end, she couldn’t sit down in it.” There’s a long list of celebrity cameos, as Young crosses paths with Madness, the fashion photographer Helmut Newton, the Sex Pistols, Vivienne Westwood, Grace Jones, David Bowie and Jarvis Cocker. That’s before we get to the Sewing Bee years, which have made Young – with her severe grey bob, diminutive stature and cheeky sense of humour – a familiar face on TV screens.
Young made her first item of clothing, a gathered skirt, aged seven. This was the same year that she learned to read, and had partial deafness diagnosed (she had a severe case of “glue ear”, and had her tonsils and adenoids removed to rectify it). As a small child she was often painting, drawing and crafting in a world of her own, which she describes as “a very beautiful place to be”. She still finds sewing immersive today. “You’re solving problems. You’re being creative, you’re feeling the fabric, you’re making decisions.” But she now realises that her retreat into a creative mental space was at least in part due to the isolating effects of her deafness. “They told my Dad: ‘She’s a little bit thick.’ He went: ‘No she’s not! She’s dreamy.’”
Young writes and speaks warmly about both of her parents, and all of her four siblings, but admits that her relationship with her glamorous, independent, practical joke-loving mother was not always easy. “She had a difficult childhood,” Young tells me. “She had postnatal depression as well. But she… she didn’t really like me. That’s what I felt.” When Young would dress up in her colourful, self-made outfits – she recalls one that was made from a child’s patchwork dressing gown – her mother would refuse to walk down the street with her. “She was embarrassed by me.” It was towards the end of her mother’s life that the pair became, she explains, “much closer”.
Young’s teenage years are full of midnight feasts, Radio Caroline, and reading banned books by the likes of James Baldwin. After school she began to pursue a career in art, first at Cambridge Art College then Saint Martin’s, in London. “I started partying when I went to art college in 1965,” she writes, “and I didn’t really slow down until the mid-1980s.” There was the 1966 Christmas party at Cambridge that served as one of the first gigs of the newly-formed Pink Floyd, whose members were former students of the college (it was called The Art School Psychedelic Freak Out and tickets cost seven shillings and sixpence); the night in the 1970s “when the Sex Pistols turned up without incident (unusually)”; the time Young sat and watched Notting Hill Carnival through the open window of a friend’s flat, perched on the sill with David Bowie.
But between the parties there was the work. After art school Young and three friends – Willie Walters, Mel Langer and later Judy Dewsbery – formed Swanky Modes, an ironically-named, affordable but daring fashion label with its own small premises in Camden. (Jarvis Cocker would later write a song named after the shop: “This shop called Swanky Modes/Just off the top of the Camden Road”.) “It was very unusual for four women – and still is, actually – to have no men involved.” Is she proud of that? “Definitely. Absolutely. It was great. We didn’t have egos. We collaborated. Maybe that’s to do with being a woman, as well. Whereas men maybe want to be in charge…” She gives me a knowing, twinkling smile. “Do you think…?”
One of their first designs – transparent rain macs – was photographed by Newton for Nova magazine, with the models wearing nothing underneath, in the early 1970s. Their innovative bodycon Lycra dresses were influential in the late Seventies, and in 1978 Grace Jones wore one of their designs: a black Lycra dress adorned with padlocks and chains, for a photoshoot. (The accompanying magazine article preserves her reaction: “Then she sees the dress – a tight Lycra creation, taut as a drum. She screams. She loves it. Once inside she undulates across the studio floor like a panther.”)
Young dove into a creative world in London with a lot of ideas but very little money. “We were part of a very vibrant and creative community,” she says. “We knew artists and we knew musicians.” Friends helped Swanky Modes put on their fashion shows for free. “It was amazing. I did find it special. We couldn’t have done it without people doing it for nothing.” She recognises how different the London of her youth is to the London of today. “I think it’s so difficult now for creative young people in London. We squatted, we could afford to have a shop, there was a real creative community. Now, it’s not the same at all.”
After a period in which Young was officially homeless – squatting and staying with friends – she applied to the Peabody Estate, the housing association, which was at the time housing single creative people. She has lived in the same flat since 1983, and has tenure for the rest of her life, which she calls a “lifesaver”. Today, she decorates the flat with her collection of animal skulls that she finds on trips to Greece. “I’ve got some backbones as well, I’ve got a snake’s bones – I really wish I’d found its head, but I didn’t. My brother found this cat skull in his garden. I’d love a cat’s skull.” I ask why, sounding rather more alarmed that I intended. She replies, as if it were obvious: ”I love cats.” She shows me a photo of a boar’s skull that sits on a shelf in her home, with red feathers sticking out of its eye.
After Swanky Modes closed in the early Nineties, Young transitioned into costume design. As well as Bridget Jones, she has made clothes for The Beach, 28 Days Later and Never Let Me Go. She now teaches at Central Saint Martins and works with one of her former students, the designer Ashish, on his collections. She was nearly 70 when she was approached to be a judge on the Sewing Bee.
While the first few series focused on technical ability, Young’s appointment resulted in a shift towards creativity, personality and style. “For me, that’s important – it isn’t just about sewing. It’s people expressing themselves and being creative.” She has become firm friends with her co-judge Patrick Grant – he is as tall as she is short, and together the two make a pleasing double act – and former host, the comedian Joe Lycett.
I tell Young that, reading her memoir, I was struck by her fearlessness – a quality that has stayed with her, and which she attributes to living in the moment. “I’ve never thought about the future really – which is probably not a good thing – so I haven’t got a pension or any of that stuff,” she says. “As a young person, I felt that anything’s possible. Now I’m older, I think – whatever! Go for it! What have I got to lose?”
This article was originally published on 7 June 2022. Esme Young is speaking at the Cambridge Literary Festival on 19 November, sharing the story of her creatively adventurous life.