Beatrice von Tresckow opens the doors to her
design studio to A. Burchardt and reveals her own extraordinary life story
BIRD OF PARADISE
© A. Burchardt
We are sitting among clothes racks laden with jackets, dresses, shawls and shoes, all of which radiate the same exuberance as the woman who designed them. I have long tried to put my finger on a word to describe Beatrice von Tresckow, as a person and as a creator of extraordinary clothes for women. Unfortunately, the most appropriate one I could find was one I repeatedly heard from my fellow fashion editors – in Germany – lebensbejahend. Loosely translated it means life-affirming, although I would tend to put Beatrice’s work down to an energy generated by a never-ceasing creativity bubbling away under a seemingly calm and relaxed exterior. But there is nothing ordinary about her.
The name von Tresckow for a start originates from a German family with an illustrious military tradition which, throughout history, had provided the Prussian army with 21 generals. Her great-uncle Henning von Tresckow, who was recently played by Kenneth Branagh in the filmValkyrie, was a fierce opponent of Hitler’s war and worked for years to remove the dictator from power. As a result the family was arrested and persecuted by the regime and it came as no surprise that its next generation looked to a future in other countries.
Beatrice’s father worked for the World Bank as an advisor to develop agriculture in Third World countries. During one such assignment in India Beatrice was born. Then came a time in Kenya. As her father had to be close to the projects he was involved with they lived far away from the cities which could have offered a child proper schooling.
‘We lived so far out, practically in the bush,’ she remembers, ‘and my mother took on the task of educating me at home. Every now and then she would send me to Germany to boost my language skills.
‘The longest period of my youth was spent in Afghanistan,’ Beatrice says with a hint of nostalgia. ‘We lived in Kabul.’ Have you read The Kite Runner, I ask.
‘I have,’ she says, ‘we lived there at about the same time. But of course, just like Khaled Hosseini, we were the privileged class. The general population was desperately poor.’ So nothing much has changed?
‘Not really. I remember my father always being asked for this grant or that by Afghan farmers from the mountains, but often they secretly really wanted to divert the funds to growing their poppy fields for the drug market which was so much more profitable.’
While we talk Beatrice is sitting in a carved armchair in a brilliant turquoise silk jacket which sets of her considerable suntan, probably acquired on her twice yearly trips to India to visit her longstanding working partners, an Indian couple who have practically become family.
Your clothes are brimming with the strongest, hottest colours. What was the biggest influence on you? I ask. They are not exactly the thing for the ‘beige brigade’, as I call them.
‘Some find so much colour a little overwhelming,’ she laughs. ‘Without any doubt I was most influenced by Afghanistan which has an incredibly culture of colourful designs.’
We reflect on the fact that in news reports we see nothing but an empty, sandy landscape littered with stones. I bring up the point that it is hard to see what everyone is fighting over in this harsh, dry vastness.
‘In the summer season it is very dry and desolate,’ Beatrice tells me, ‘but there are many areas where it is lush and green in the wetter seasons, and very beautiful.’
We wonder if anyone will ever manage to overpower the Afghans. With people who possess almost nothing, there is not much to lose except the ground they stand on. It is a strange thing to hear a German, who has lived among so many cultures of the world, speak with such affection about one of the thorniest issues for the West.
‘When I got older, I began dreaming of going to boarding school. My sister, who was eight years older than myself was already away in boarding school. I thought it would be great to live with lots of friends. So my parents brought me to England and we trundled from one end of the country to the other, visiting schools. We came across an outward-bound school in Devon. As I had experience of living in remote areas I said this is where I want to stay – and my parents said yes. In reality it was the best school for me. I love sport to this day. The school had a truly inspirational art teacher and that’s when it all suddenly began to happen.’
Beatrice began her art studies with a foundation year at Plymouth College of Art. Everything she had seen in Afghanistan poured out. During her childhood she had absorbed a veritable library of pattern, colours and ormanent, so it is no surprise that she went on to Winchester School of Art to study textile design. By the end of her studies her father’s work had taken him to Lesotholand, so Beatrice applied and got a job in neighbouring South Africa as an assistant buyer with Marks&Spencer.
‘It was the time of Apartheid. That was a such a shock for me. But the job was a bit of a treadmill, clocking in, clocking out. Quite soon I felt totally stifled so I began designing bits and pieces. I advertised for women who could knit. I would design some basic patterns and let them use their own sense of colour. It created something totally original.’
Shortly after that the oil company Shell built a skyscraper right in the centre of Cape Town. They ran a competition for young designers to exhibit in their prestigious foyer. For the opening all of South Africa’s high society was invited. Beatrice won the competition with her knitwear designs. Here a chance meeting change the course of her life. Among the guests was a couple belonging to an old established South African dynasty who had made millions in diamonds.
‘This was my golden opportunity,’ she remembers, still with amazement. ‘It was a once in a lifetime chance. The lady suddenly said to her husband, ‘Darling, I want to go into business with this girl,’ and he said, ‘of course, Darling, how much do you need?’
‘Of course then I had to confess to Marks & Spencer that I had done all this designing on the side. I had to hand in my notice. They were quite good about it. I even invited them to come and see my work.’
Together the two women decided that Cape Town premises were too expensive for the production of Beatrice’s designs. They moved to a place called East London. There they found many women who could neither read nor write, but who could knit beautifully. Again Beatrice designed basic motifs and let the women bring in their own colour tradition.
‘I had three hundred women knitting, most of them by hand. They had a great sense of colour,’ Beatrice says with real admiration. ‘After a while the work force grew and the new workers’ unions began to make trouble for us. It was also a heavy load on me as the sole creative force in the business.’
By that time she had met a young man. ‘Also,’ she smiles, ‘Alex, the love of my life was calling for me to return to Europe.’ She sold the business and came to Cheltenham where Alex’s parents had settled. He was equally used to living in many countries. He was in the SAS. Soon they moved to Italy. In Capri Alex realised that the life of a housewife was not exactly right for Beatrice, so he let her off the leash to create a small boutique. When he left the army their next stop was Oman.
‘No knitting in Oman,’ Beatrice says,’ it’s too hot. But the people there are mad about velvet. The rich women wear caftans made from the finest silk velvet, great big flowing robes perfect for fine embroidery. The best velvet came from Switzerland and cost an absolute fortune.’ She pauses for a moment. ‘And there Frederike and Max, my two children arrived. It made for a busy life.’
After settling back into England she began working again and the rest is history. There can’t be a single woman in Cheltenham who doesn’t know Beatrice’s eccentric shop front on the lower Bath Road where it splits towards the Town Hall. For a long time she had her design studio above the shop. As it was getting very tight for space she took on her current shop in Montpellier with its bright turquoise frontage. She herself spends a lot of time travelling with her fashion shows all over Germany in the most spectacular chateaux settings. Her fashion shows at the major horse racing events are legend, both in England and Germany. She has a shop in London’s fashionable Notting Hill and goes to India twice a year where she has worked with a couple who look after the embroidery and anything which has to be produced there. Each region has its own speciality; some stitch the fabulous birds, others sublime flower designs. During these trips she buys her materials and decides which embroideries will be suitable for the coming seasons. She has also branched out into China for her luscious velvets and in Shanghai she has factory space for some of her production.
All her designs have a luminosity about them, strongly reminiscent of the finest Afghan robes with intricate ornaments, but they have a European twist to them. Even the most highly decorated item is absolutely wearable on an everyday basis. We in the West pay little, much too little attention to how a jacket looks from the back. But rear views do not go unnoticed in Beatrice’s work. Not only should one make a great entrance at a party – the exit, when all eyes follow you, is just as important, so she pays special attention to the back of her designs, as well as to the hems, the lapels and especially the cuffs of her jackets, many of which are richly ornamented.
Once again she is the only creative engine in the whole business, but this gives her flexibility, especially in the current economic climate. As I leave I noticed her busy notice boards crowded with everything from clients’ letters to photographs of her children and an amusing fax from her husband in Afghan dress, sporting a beard and looking like a local. And of, course mountains of stunning material samples, all of which seem to sum up Beatrice’s attitude to life – bright, colourful, positive and sunny. And who couldn’t feel that when they put on one of her creations? I for one think that it is completely impossible to feel unhappy in them.