It’s less than a month until our next fair! For our September edition of The Vintage Collections at Clerkenwell Vintage Fashion Fair, we’ve launched a suitably stylish campaign. It only seemed appropriate to dress our model in a classic London designer for this campaign as we’ll be getting warmed up for London Fashion Week at the next fair. The stunning 1970s purple maxi dress with bell sleeves and jewel detailing is by none other than the brilliant Jean Varon.
John Bates, the Northumberland-born designer who founded the Jean Varon label in 1959, has sadly become quite an over-looked name in fashion history but his clothes still remain collectors’ items for those in the know.
In the 1960s the label became known for futuristic designs including the use of PVC and metallic fabrics and is one of those names listed in the infamous debate ‘who invented the miniskirt?’ In the 1970s he was part of the change in trend towards floaty, feminine designs and eveningwear with empire necklines were a signature. The label filed for bankruptcy in 1980, and although continued for a few years after under the leadership of designer Tom Bowker, it never returned to its former glory and pioneering reputation.
Bates was entirely self-taught and learned the fashion ropes under Gerard Pipart at Herbert Sidon. At the time he founded his own label, Paris was still considered the epicentre of fashion and held prestige, so rather than call the brand John Bates he named it Jean (French for John) Varon (a French surname that would have him listed as the only ‘V’ entry in the rag trade book). Despite his faux-French marketing technique, all Jean Varon garments were made in England.
One of the first people to notice Bates’ talent was Vogue Young Ideas Editor Marit Allen, who was also one of the first to get behind Ossie Clark. Allen wore a Jean Varon silver mini dress and cream coat with a wide silver collar for her wedding in 1966.
Commercial success came for Jean Varon in 1965 when Bates designed a number of costumes for Diana Rigg for her role in The Avengers. Her sexy skin-tight catsuits were infamous and widely sought after in the shops, both Jean Varon originals and high street imitations.
The label was also one of the first to introduce the concept of ‘underwear as outerwear’ with his use of mesh, cut-out panelling and backless eveningwear. One of his most notorious creations was the ‘bikini dress’ which attached the top and bottom halves together with transparent netting, a truly unique concept at the time.
Since closing the doors on his label, Bates has kept a low profile and despite working at a time when British fashion really came in to its own and produced many names now infamous with the era (Mary Quant, Ossie Clark, Celia Birtwell, Barbara Hulanicki), has become highly underrated. He was a real visionary. In hindsight, it looks like his designs were right on trend for their time but he was in fact one of the first talents creating these looks which pushed the industry further.
Bates currently lives in Wales and works as a design consultant and artist.
The Jean Varon dress used in our Vintage Collections fair campaign was sourced from regular trader Miniola Vintage.
For lots more designer vintage, join us at Clerkenwell Vintage Fashion Fair on Sunday 13th September from 11am until 5pm at The Old Finsbury Town Hall, Rosebery Avenue, London, EC1R 4RP. Click here to buy tickets.