My first fashion job was selling alpaca jumpers flown in from Peru. Then I discovered my boss had been stuffing them with cocaine, tells TANYA SARNE
I was an unemployed single mother, with my 40th birthday fast approaching, when I launched my fashion label, Ghost.
It was 1984, an era when working women had to multi-task. Clothes needed to be practical, suitable for running for a bus, doing the school run, washing up or going to a meeting.
But in order to compete with men in the boardroom, women were dressing in uncomfortable structured suits.
What I wanted was the opposite of power dressing; clothes that expressed women’s femininity, but which could also be thrown into the washing machine and tumble-dried, and which didn’t need ironing.
Ghost would go on to have a retail turnover of almost £20 million, with stockists worldwide.
Fashion designer Tanya Sarne (left) with global supermodel Naomi Campbell at a warehouse party in New York
Receiving her OBE from the Queen in 2011. I’m told Jennifer Saunders based Edina – the chaotic, drug-abusing PR – on an amalgamation of characters, including Lynne Franks and me
Some aspects of my life would be immortalised in the TV sitcom Absolutely Fabulous.
I’m told Jennifer Saunders based Edina – the chaotic, drug-abusing PR – on an amalgamation of characters, including Lynne Franks and me. I’m not sure whether to be flattered or outraged!
Running a fashion label had never been part of my plan. When I was 19, the Sixties were swinging – and I was offered an acting job by Franco Cancellieri, an Italian film producer I’d met in a club in Kensington.
He told me he was making a film with the Italian heart-throb Rossano Brazzi, star of South Pacific. Would I like to come to Rome for a screen test?
So off I went to Italy. The first day was spent sightseeing and meeting Rossano, who invited me to dinner with him and his wife.
When I arrived at his apartment, we had drinks in the living room, after which he told me it was time to meet his wife.
He led me into a bedroom, where, propped up on an array of white satin cushions on the biggest bed I had ever seen, was a very large woman with white hair piled high on her head, surrounded by several white poodles.
At this point, an extremely unattractive young man entered the room. Rossano turned to me and asked politely if I would please make love with the young man in front of them.
He explained that it was their pre-dinner entertainment and would give them great pleasure. I backed hastily out of the room.
I returned to London, out of love with the idea of being an actress.
Back at home with my parents, I took the modelling course and signed up with an agency.
I was too ‘well endowed on top’ to be a good clothes hanger, so the only work I could get was modelling underwear and fur.
The photographers generally expected sexual favours; one well-known one chased me all round his studio.
I soon decided that modelling wasn’t for me, either. One of my next jobs was as a go-go dancer in a coffee bar.
Some of the other dancers went out with the customers, but I never did. I had plenty of offers, including from a TV comedy writer who wanted me to beat him, a musician who wanted to beat me up, and a film director who wanted a threesome.
I was getting really fed up with being propositioned. Luckily, there were some exceptions.
I remember walking in Leicester Square one evening sandwiched between two young actors I had met, Michael Caine and Terence Stamp, who shared a flat.
They were far too busy arguing about which of them would become the more famous to be interested in me.
These two were enjoying the London party scene with other young actors, among them Tony Booth, who was about to hit stardom in the sitcom Till Death Us Do Part. Tony swept me off my feet and we had a three-month affair.
It was a bolt from the blue. ‘Hey, Tarn, we’re getting married tomorrow morning. Chelsea Old Town Hall at 11.30’ (at her wedding to Mike Sarne in 1969)
He was 13 years older than me and had already been married once – he would go on to marry four times in all.
Many years later I was introduced to Cherie Blair – the most famous of his eight daughters – at a cocktail party.
I mentioned that I had known her father, and she replied ‘You and a hundred others’, before turning away.
Towards the end of my gap year, I met an actor named Ian who was the first considerate and kind lover I had known and who redeemed, to some extent, my low opinion of men.
But there would be many more heartbreaks and disappointments before I finally met my lovely Andrew, the man I love and adore who has been my sanity and stability for decades.
It was a bolt from the blue. ‘Hey, Tarn, we’re getting married tomorrow morning. Chelsea Old Town Hall at 11.30.’
I looked at my boyfriend Michael, stunned. ‘We’re what?’
‘Getting married. It’s my birthday present to you. Oh, and in the afternoon we’re flying to Los Angeles. 20th Century Fox has given me the green light.’
I stared at him, lost for words. His sheer cheek was outrageous. The next day was my 24th birthday, and his gift to me was – himself.
He had simply assumed I was going to say yes without even consulting me, leaving me no time to invite my friends and no chance to get a wedding dress.
But I loved him, and the prospect of the Hollywood adventure was too good to pass up.
I’d known Michael Sarne for four years. Before we met, he’d been a pop star, Mike Sarne, briefly famous for several hit songs, including Come Outside, recorded with actress Wendy Richard. He’d now set his sights on becoming a film director.
Los Angeles was not what I expected. I thought it would be glamorous, warm and full of sunshine. Instead, it was dark, cold and often raining heavily.
And while I was happy that Michael was enjoying the trappings of success, it was a shock to find that suddenly I was a nobody. Our neighbours ranked among Hollywood’s finest.
Next door to us lived Sybil Burton [Richard’s ex-wife]. Larry Hagman, yet to become J. R. Ewing in Dallas, lived a few houses away.
With supermodels at a fashion show in New York in 1995 (centre, in black). Los Angeles was not what I expected. I thought it would be glamorous, warm and full of sunshine
An old family friend lent me £1,000 to start the business – which would grow to become a global brand
Occasionally, Michael would come home with new friends. One of these was the then 32-year-old Jack Nicholson. Like almost everyone else my husband brought back, he took no notice of me.
We’d been in Hollywood for about four weeks when Michael told me that his friend Roman Polanski was going to work on a movie in Europe, and had asked if we would go and stay with his pregnant wife, Sharon Tate, while he was away.
Michael thought it was a great idea, but I flatly refused. As Michael protested that it would be good for me to have company, I yelled that I was not going to stay in the house of some film star I had never met.
On August 9, 1969, we woke to the news that everyone in the Tate household – five people, and Sharon’s unborn baby – had been murdered at her house.
We were stunned. And we couldn’t help thinking it could have been us. It would later emerge that the horrific killings had been perpetrated by the Charles Manson cult.
Two of the victims, Roman’s friend Wojciech Frykowski, a writer, and his girlfriend, coffee heiress Abigail Folger, had gone to stay with Sharon at Roman’s request after we had turned him down. The Hollywood dream had become a nightmare.
I might never have got into fashion if it hadn’t been for a man I bumped into in the street in 1975.
I had newly returned to London with my two children, Claudia, then aged five, and William, then three, from Brazil, where Michael was making another movie.
Things were not good between my husband and me, and our money was running out. I needed a job – and fast.
I was near desperation when I ran into Paul, a man I had briefly met in Brazil. He was walking past me in the street and we stopped to say hello.
I told him I was looking for work, and he said he was importing alpaca jumpers from Peru. If I could sell them, I had a job.
Does one really have choices in life? I jumped at Paul’s offer and started spending long hours on the phone to shops whose details I found in the backs of magazines.
I sold a lot of jumpers, and Paul was delighted. He told me about a trade fair in Paris that he thought might be good for sales, so I booked a stand and sold thousands more.
Within months, I was making Paul a small fortune and at the same time expanding my contact list of buyers and retailers.
Michael finally returned from Brazil three months after me and the children. I had no idea who he had been living with there and neither did I care; the deep love between us had somehow evaporated.
At the same time, the alpaca sales were slowing down and Paul and I eventually parted company.
I later heard on the grapevine that he had imported cocaine in the jumpers and ended up in prison. But maybe this was just a rumour.
I’d decided that the only way forward was to take control and have my own business. I didn’t know how, but the idea of doing something in the fashion world had been in my mind for some time.
A very charming, sociable, rather portly accountant – let’s call him Harry – who was head of a successful commercial fashion company, had started making advances towards me in Paris. I’d initially rebuffed him, but now we started having fun together.
He knew a great deal about running a fashion business. I asked him a lot of questions and learned about things like production and pricing. He also took me to the New York trade fair and introduced me to all kinds of people.
An old family friend lent me £1,000 to start the business, which I took to the NatWest bank to see if they would match it with a loan for the same amount.
After looking me up and down, the manager said: ‘You’re a woman. What do you know about business?’
I refrained from spitting in his eye and went over the road to Barclays, where they agreed to lend me the money. I was ready to go.
But meanwhile the situation at home was fast deteriorating. Michael’s father had died, and he was inconsolable. Harry, my portly accountant, wouldn’t let me go, despite the fact I didn’t want to continue our affair.
One night as I left work he was waiting for me in his car. I could see Michael in the distance and, not wanting a confrontation, I jumped in Harry’s car and tried to hide.
Kate Moss in a Ghost design at a fashion show in 1994. As 1991 drew to a close, Ghost was taking off in a big way, Tanya Sarne says
When I returned home a little later, Michael called me into the bedroom we still shared and hit me across the face, breaking my nose.
My daughter walked in to see blood everywhere. Michael later explained that he had seen me get into Harry’s car and thought we were about to get intimate.
This event was the final straw, the absolute end of my marriage.
I asked the lodger who lived with us to leave and moved into his bedroom. Michael became increasingly abusive, throwing hot tea at me and cutting the wires for the phone.
He had never previously been violent – it wasn’t like him at all – but his father’s death had affected him deeply.
As 1991 drew to a close, Ghost was taking off in a big way. I was invited to a New Year’s Eve party at a recording studio in the Oxfordshire countryside.
I checked in to a nearby hotel with my dog Woofy, who couldn’t be left at home alone.
Once I’d put on a lovely Ghost dress and done my hair and make-up, I sprinkled a little glitter on Woofy’s fur, tied a big red bow tie around his neck and off we went.
The hostess wasn’t too pleased about me arriving with a dog, but Woofy very considerately went and hid himself in a corner out of everyone’s way and went to sleep.
All went well until an extremely drunk woman fell on top of him, and Woofy retaliated with a nip.
He didn’t hurt her, but we were asked to leave. I was leaning over a trembling Woofy, stroking him, when a voice behind me asked: ‘Are you all right? Can I help in any way?’
A little jolt of lightning went through me. I knew that voice – warm and melodic and unforgettable. I turned to see a man I had met with a group of friends two months earlier.
And now here he was again. His name was Andrew McGibbon, and he was (I’d later discover) Morrissey’s former drummer and now a writer and comedian.
Andrew got me a drink and reassured me that the poor dog was perfectly within his rights to be aggrieved at a drunk woman toppling on to him.
He made me laugh, and when he offered to see me back to my hotel, I happily accepted. We talked all night. I must have fallen asleep, and when I woke up, he was gone. But I knew something extraordinary had begun between us.
That extraordinary thing is still going on to this day, more than 30 years later. I have the most wonderful husband to share everything with.
And Michael is now an old friend who I enjoy meeting with one or other – or sometimes several – of our children and grandchildren.
If I have a wish, it is to grow old gracefully. To hell with the aches and pains. I am determined to keep smiling, no matter what.
Free Spirit, by Tanya Sarne, is published by Mitchell Beazley on April 6 at £20. To pre-order a copy for £18, go to mailshop.co.uk/books or call 020 3176 2937 before April 8. Free UK delivery on web orders over £20.
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