x Abu Dhabi, UAEMonday 24 July 2017

Wearing designer clothes 'her own way'

Retail therapy One of the original supermodels, the half-American, half Japanese Marie Helvin, 56, talks about her life as a fashion icon.

From an early age, I knew that if you wanted something, it was up to you to get it yourself. I was brought up to take care of things. I always treasured my designer clothes and appreciated the presents that I was given by designers. I was given plenty of things I never wore, particularly by Yves Saint Laurent and Thierry Mugler.

I started modelling when I was so young. I wouldn't have dreamt of actually wearing what I wore on the catwalk at home or out with my friends. David Bailey wanted to buy me a wardrobe of Chanel but it was against my idea of what fashion was. It was way too bourgeois for my taste. I was a bit of a hippy. The most I've ever spent on clothing was £1,500 (Dh8,155) for a Donna Karan coat back in the mid-Eighties, similar to the one Glenn Close wore in that movie Jagged Edge. It was big, white, soft and just so Eighties. I took the shoulder pads out ages ago.

Another time, I was filming for the BBC's Holiday programme in Jaipur and on a day off, all caught up in the moment, spent £5,000 (Dh27,170) on a Golconda diamond bracelet with an emerald in it. I also bought some bridal earrings, which I still wear twice a year to really dressy events. I'm glad I bought them at an age where I can appreciate them. I've accumulated so many clothes over the years and through my profession that I am having a sale in June 2009 with the auction house, Sotheby's, in London. It will include unworn Manolo Blahnik shoes, Chanel handbags that Karl Lagerfeld used to give me after each show and 20 pieces of Hervé Léger. The hemlines are far too short. I think when you get to a certain age, particularly over 50, you shouldn't compete with younger girls - though that's not to say I don't do glamour.

My favourite piece of clothing is a Vivienne Westwood mid-length pencil skirt which is five years old and that I've worn so much the seams are starting to split. I also have four Hermès Kelly bags, which I use all the time. My own sense of style has changed over the decades. Never in my wildest dreams would I have thought finding a beautiful, white shirt would make me so happy. These days, I like to wear clothes in my own way.

White shirts have become a trademark. I wear them unbuttoned or tied rather than tucked in. I have them made for me at Dunhill, the tailors in Savile Row in London. They are the only item of bespoke clothing they make for women. They take three fittings to get it right and what you end up with is a work of art. I discovered bespoke in the 1980s. I went through a period of only wanting to wear white linen slouch suits.

One of my favourite designers is Ralph Lauren. I still wear some of the first pieces I ever bought from his Safari collection 20 years ago. I bought virtually the entire range. I recently met Tom Ford at the opening of Stella McCartney's shop in London and he came over and asked me where my dress was from. Very quietly I whispered it was Ralph Lauren - vintage. I'm not the sort to impulse-buy. In the past year I've taught myself to use a computer, which has been life-changing. Now I buy all my skincare and beauty products online. But clothing sizes differ so much from brand to brand. Unless I could be really sure of the size, I'd go to a shop and try something on. I used to get my trousers from Gucci when Tom Ford was there. Now it's Joseph or Theory, but sizings seem to change all the time.

I like shopping best in America. I love shopping in big American malls. There is still a fantasy attached to shopping. In Hawaii, there is a huge Neiman Marcus, which has Prada and Gucci along with American designers I've never heard of. I also like Nordstrom and Macy's. When I go home to Hawaii I always buy weird stuff. I come back with 50 T-shirts from Gap. In Los Angeles, I get three for $10 (Dh37). America is where you find good T-shirts. I wear T-shirts to bed and around the house as well as under things.

I rarely shop in boutiques in Europe. I find I can't relax. In the US I feel very anonymous. I can wander around a mall and have a pizza. I can also drive my car because of valet parking which is the norm. Shopping in London and Paris has become way too serious and stressful. In the old days, designer boutiques really spoilt customers. Joan Burstein at Browns in London was always nice. There was a mini fridge and endless coffee or glasses of chilled water when you shopped there.

I heard a story recently, which is typical of the attitude of some European boutique staff. A British broadcaster, Vanessa Feltz, was complaining that she had pushed open the door of one London designer boutique only to be told by several sales girls running from all corners of the store, that there was nothing in her size. She'd not even got so much as a nostril inside. I went into a boutique recently in London and the sales staff instantly recognised me and were calling me by my name as if they personally knew me. I felt most uncomfortable, and I wasn't looking my best.

All I kept thinking about was how they would go home and tell their friends, "Guess who I saw today with her hair in bunches, wearing jeans and old trainers? Marie Helvin! You know that model? And you'll never guess what she bought?" * Julia Robson