Photograph: Founder Cornelia James at work
The image many people have of the Queen is of a white-gloved hand waving from the window of a big car – it’s nice to know that the white glove is probably one of ours
We make gloves for all occasions and for all people, from Rihanna to the Queen. It’s an unusual English mix of style and fashion, all crafted here in Sussex.
My mother escaped from Vienna in 1939 with only a suitcase full of leather
She used this leather to make a collection of gloves, and Vogue christened her “the colour queen of England” for the range of brightly coloured gloves she designed. These proved very popular in drab 1940s Britain. Norman Hartnell, who was the-then Princess Elizabeth’s couturier, heard of her, took her up, and became her mentor. Her big break came when he was commissioned to make the princess’s wedding dress in 1947, and my mother was asked to make several pairs of ‘going-away’ gloves for her. We’ve been making the Queen’s gloves ever since.
I’m often asked how many pairs of gloves the Queen orders
She will order a dozen or two pairs at one time, but it could be another year or so before she places another order.
Once, we had a terrible panic because the Queen hadn’t received her order before her visit to Korea in 2004. We found some emergency pairs for her, but we couldn’t find a courier to take them: it was the day of the London Marathon and all the streets were closed.
So, my husband got on his motorbike and took them up himself. They cleared a path in the crowds along the Mall so he could get through, but the policeman on the gates of Buckingham Palace thought his leg was being pulled when my husband told him he was there to deliver the Queen’s gloves. We were lucky though. I think my husband Andrew only managed to persuade the PC to open the gates because he was also a motor biker, and they discussed the relative merits of a BMW versus a Ducati!
My mother blamed Jean Shrimpton for the glove trade’s demise
In the 1950s and early 1960s gloves were an essential for every woman, so we were at full tilt keeping up with demand. However the supermodel caused a worldwide stir when she appeared at the 1965 Melbourne Cup without gloves. Women stopped wearing them and gloves sales were badly hit.
We had to diversify and started a collection of silk scarves and other accessories which we sold through stores and boutiques in the UK.
I knew that we had to focus on making gloves once again
When the fashion circus turned full cycle in the 1990s, we saw the opportunity to concentrate on gloves once more. Gloves have always been our heritage, it’s where our heart lies, and what we do best.
My mother and father ran the business together – as do my husband and I today
They were a good partnership. Her creative vision coupled with his financial acumen – he was a chartered accountant. Their personalities were very different, yet complementary. My father was a quintessential Victorian Englishman, very reserved yet charming, while my mother was this energetic, effervescent, strong-willed Viennese woman.
When my father died, my husband, who had been a banker in the City, volunteered to help us out for a few months. Thirty years on and he’s still working here. He’s pretty much CEO and MD all in one. He’s also very useful at mending the odd machine! I’d be lost without him –although it hasn’t always been plain sailing. Fortunately, he has an excellent sense of humour and an endless supply of patience.
Every day we set out to be the very best at what we do
In 1979, Cornelia James was granted a Royal Warrant to her Majesty the Queen. A Royal Warrant is an acknowledgement that you are the best at what you do. It cannot be bought at any price, and we take pride in this.
Our resolve is to never compromise on quality and style. We work with the finest fabrics and we employ skilled machinists. It’s not dissimilar to a Michelin-starred restaurant – to create the great dishes you need to have the best ingredients and expert chefs.
People are much more interested in craftsmanship today
We have many customers in Japan and the US, and increasingly now China. They all love our story – a heritage brand whose gloves are designed in a flint barn in rural Sussex.
You have to be slightly bonkers to run your own business
Sometimes, I ask myself, “why the hell am I doing this?” But you need to have passion for what you do. If you have that and courage, you will succeed – plus of course an endless supply of good humour.
Genevieve James runs the glove making company founded by her mother Cornelia James.