Halfpenny London is a label that has carved a distinct path – luxurious and vintage inspired, but with a thoroughly modern twist. Absolutely Weddings meets Kate Halfpenny, a designer who believes in creating gowns that make all brides feel red-carpet glamorous
Words Libby Norman
Kate Halfpenny has the kind of contact book that screams Cool Britannia. She has styled everyone from the Kaiser Chiefs and Mick Hucknall to Rihanna and Shirley Bassey. She counts among her friends people she has dressed down the years – from Kate Moss to Emilia Fox to Erin O’Connor. “I consider myself very lucky to have worked with these incredible women”, says Kate. But despite the starry associates, her approach is anything but starry. She’s built her label around creating gowns and separates that work for real women – although her design aesthetic is always firmly within the film-star glamour zone.
Kate grew up in Derbyshire, and with a mother and grandmother who both earned their living in the garment industry. Her mother worked for a firm that supplied lingerie to Marks & Spencer and also designed knitwear. Her grandmother was a professional machinist. “It was granny who first taught me to sow on an old Singer. It’s totally in my DNA.” That skill sharing is still happening between the generations – her mother sometimes helps out with really special embroidery for Halfpenny London bespoke gowns.
She studied fashion at Huddersfield University, choosing alternative bridalwear for her degree show. “This was the late 1990s and I created separates for the show – so I’ve been making them from the start. There was a day-to-night idea, so the collection included big skirts that could be removed to reveal a cocktail gown underneath.”
Then Kate interned at Vivienne Westwood, a great experience but not where she saw her future career. She says she soon worked out that she wanted lead role, not chorus. She went on to study an MA in textiles at Central Saint Martins part-time, also working as a freelance stylist and costume designer. Over the years, shaping the public style of a whole host of stars honed her skills creating high-impact glamour. Meanwhile, the MA had extended Kate’s already vast knowledge of the possibilities of fabrics. Both elements can be seen as defining characteristics of the Halfpenny London signature.
“In 2010 it was Kate Halfpenny backstage, painstakingly sewing big flowerheads onto Rihanna before the singer wowed the MTV Awards stage”
She had accumulated a collection of vintage gowns for inspiration over the years and continued designing a few bridal pieces as special commissions each year. Then one of Kate’s designs, a belt, was featured in Vogue and on the back of that she was encouraged to develop a website by her client and now friend Emilia Fox. “Remember, this was 2005, so early years of websites and there was no social media,” says Kate. She had made two out of three of Fox’s wedding gowns and the actor offered to model the Halfpenny collections for the website. She did this for the first three collections – about as glowing a testimonial as you can get. They remain firm friends and Fox was one of the bridesmaids at Kate’s wedding in 2012. The other bridesmaid was Erin O’Connor.
Halfpenny London didn’t mushroom overnight – Kate describes it as an organic process. As with all designers, word of mouth counts for a lot. When you have a stellar track record styling public figures, it also helps. For instance, in 2010 it was Kate who designed the gown and then worked backstage painstakingly sewing big flowerheads onto Rihanna before the singer wowed the MTV Awards stage in that white corset with flower-basket skirt.
The Halfpenny London flagship opened in Bloomsbury in 2013. Under the store is the workshop, with another manufacturing base in Bow, East London. Designed and made here is crucial to the Halfpenny approach. Kate says: “Growing up in Derbyshire made me passionate about that. Watching factories close and all that machinery packed up and shipped abroad had a huge impact.” A strong British identity and aesthetic also means something to Halfpenny London’s stockists worldwide, which now span Europe, the US and as far afield as Japan. “They consider us a very London look,” says Kate. “I’ve heard us described as ‘coolmantic’.”
This may be a cool and romantic London look, but it’s also high glamour. Each collection’s vintage-inspired pieces can be interchanged to create something very individual. The possibilities of many of them – corsets, coats, overtops, slips, skirts – are heaven for brides who are not a standard size. Kate is resolute in her determination that the dress works for the bride, rather than the bride having to work out to fit into the dress. This means larger sample sizes (Kate points out she’s a plus size herself). The collections are also brilliant for anyone, of any size, who just wants a knockout bridal outfit that blends modern cool with vintage glamour.
Brides-to-be who visit her store are encouraged to try on, experiment and find the look that works for them. “Buying a wedding gown is an emotional investment,” says Kate. “It’s how a dress makes you feel when you put it on that should be the decider.” Here, the process of fittings is essential. “That’s a huge part of what we offer. Everything goes into ensuring the outfit fits and flatters – is perfect,” says Kate. Alongside the collections, Kate also undertakes custom commissions – bespoke gowns built round one bride or red-carpet goer (occasion pieces remain a key part of her work with celebrity clients).
“Buying a wedding gown is an emotional investment – it’s how a dress makes you feel when you put it on that should be the decider”
Halfpenny London’s Black Edit collection launched late in 2017, using key silhouettes in the bridal collections and turning them to black – perfect for red-carpet occasions or brides who don’t do pale. Now there’s also an exclusive ten-piece capsule bridal collection for Net-a-Porter, chic white pieces that get the label out there to a global audience, also placing it alongside the likes of Rime Arodaky, Gucci and Prada.
Dressing high-profile brides certainly spreads the world. Recently it was Made in Chelsea’s Millie Mackintosh, who wore a bespoke French lace, organza and spotted tulle gown with ‘double bubble’ removable sleeves. Kate says: “The gown was designed with an overskirt that could be removed to reveal a fitted stretch dress.” Of course, a designer can’t help but feel she’s done her job very well if the bride loves her gown in its entirety far too much to take the overskirt off. “She said she couldn’t bear to. She did take the sleeves off to transform the gown though,” adds Kate.
Halfpenny London’s newest collection is inspired by her family’s recent move from London to the Kent coast – city to country is a change they already love. Fabrics remain as luxe as ever, although silhouettes are even stronger for 2019. Kate says designing is always an instinctive process, led by the fabrics she finds and the design possibilities they present, but it always comes back to real brides and how the final design will make them feel. “We want all the brides who wear Halfpenny London to feel incredible, and to look incredible.”